“A servant of God cannot know how much patience and humility he has within himself as long as he is content. When the time comes, however, when those who should make him content do the opposite, he has as much patience and humility as he has at that time and no more” (Francis of Assisi Admonition 13).
This admonition of St. Francis reflects on Matthew 5.9, but it could just as well be a reflection on our gospel for this Sunday. Like the first century followers of Jesus (despite the impression you might have had from Hollywood movies), we in the United States are rarely asked literally to die for our friends or our community. The Johannine literature recognizes that and offers an interpretation of a daily death for our friends, long before the desert and monastic traditions developed their own understandings and practices.
Though the Farewell Discourse (John 13-17) is complex and repetitious, its goal is clear: to show how Jesus provides the foundation for the new community. The foot-washing as prophetic action provides the paradigmatic for the discourse. Jesus lays aside his garment for the menial task of washing his followers’ feet, as he will soon lay aside his life (13:4; cf. 10:17 in the Good Shepherd discourse). The double washings discussed of feet (13: 6, 8) and entire body (13: 9-10) refer to the cleansing of sin by baptism (the entire body) and the future need for the daily self-sacrifice required in community, as provided for by the actions of Jesus. Illustration completed, Jesus then takes back up his garment/life (13:12; 10:17) to speak to the disciples in the narrative as a prefiguring of the resurrection; to the Johannine community near the end of the first century, he speaks as he always addressed them, as the resurrected Lord present with them who enables love of one another.
The work of patience and humility, or better, the spiritual character that makes them possible, is a daily conversion of laying aside the false self or the “old self” (see Eph 4.22-24), that seeks happiness in success, esteem, money, power, and other temporary satisfactions of infantile needs. What Francis points us to, however, is the blessedness of those moments when the false self raises its head and we fail, those God-given glimpses into how much we still need to release to make room for God. As Thomas Keating reminds us, ”Nothing is more helpful to reduce pride than the actual experience of self-knowledge. If we are discouraged by it, we have misunderstood its meaning” (Invitation to Love).
Pamela Hedrick teaches Sacred Scripture for Saint Joseph’s College Online.