Saturday, April 4, 2015



It had been a while since I’d studied the footwashing passage in John 13 (the gospel passage assigned for mass on Holy Thursday), so I spent some time with it on Thursday. Here are a few thoughts based on page 376 of Francis Moloney’s The Gospel of John (Vol. 4 in the Sacra Pagina series).

At the last supper in the gospel of John, after washing his disciples’ feet Jesus says to them, “What I just did was to give you an example: as I have done, so you must do.”

Scholars have all sorts of theories as to the meaning of the command to wash one another’s feet, but in the context of this passage it’s clear that Jesus’ instruction is a call to his disciples to repeat in their lives what he has done for them. They are to repeat his example of the loving gift of self symbolized by the footwashing. Okay, so far that’s pretty obvious; but it gets interesting when you go a little deeper.

The original Greek word translated as “example,” hypodeigma, is associated with the theme of death. Ecclesiastes (Sirach) 44:16 for instance, reads,”Enoch walked with the Lord and was taken, that succeeding generations might learn from his example (hypodeigma).” 

Antiochus desecrating the temple
Another instance of the word is in IV Maccabees 17:23, where the pagan emperor is impressed by the bravery of the Jewish warriors: “For the tyrant Antiochus, looking to the virtue of their courage, and to their endurance in torture, proclaimed that endurance as an example (hypodeigma) to his soldiers.”

The clearest instance of death serving as an example, though, is in 2 Maccabees 6:27-28. The old man Eliazar refused the demand of the pagans who were trying to get him to eat pork in violation of the Mosaic Law. In refusing he said, “Therefore, by bravely giving up my life now, I will prove myself worthy of my old age, and I will leave to the young a noble example (hypodeigma) of how to die willingly and nobly for the revered and holy laws.”  

It seems that the gospel writer wants us to realize that Jesus by “giving us a hypodeigma” in the footwashing is not simply calling us to perform humble deeds of kindness but is challenging us to imitate His gift of self. Moloney quotes R. A. Culpepper: “Jesus’ death ... as it is here interpreted through the footwashing, is the norm of life and conduct for the believing community.”  (Emphases are mine.)

Hmm. Jesus’ death is “the norm of life and conduct!”

Moloney continues. “The command to lose oneself in loving self-gift unto death in imitation of the hypodeigma of Jesus has been ritualized in baptism. Though not ‘about baptism’ the [footwashing] passage presupposes the ritual within the life and practice of the Johannine community. The Johannine Christians are called to do as Jesus has done for them. Entrance into the Johannine community of disciples meant taking the risk of accepting the hypodeigma of Jesus, a commitment to love even if it lead to death.”

So, is this what I’ve signed up for as a follower of Jesus? it would seem so. Some would say that dying daily to yourself is a more difficult project than giving yourself one time as a martyr. In either case, Holy Week is the ideal time to reflect on Jesus’ example, his call for us to die to ourselves.


These were the thoughts I brought with me to this afternoon’s Good Friday Liturgy. I was aware that this morning a childhood friend of mine had buried his 34-year old son. Talk about confronting the overwhelming mystery! As we sang the hymns about the crucified Savior and venerated the cross, I was praying for my grieving friend and his family.

While we were singing one of my favorite hymns, “Jesus keep me near the cross,” it dawned on me that we were seeing and celebrating Christ's passion and death through the lens of the resurrection: we already know how it’s going to turn out.

Somehow all of the suffering of Good Friday, both Christ’s and our own, already has a meaning for us because of the coming victory of Easter Sunday.

Folks who know the phrase “Paschal Triduum” often think that it refers to Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Wrong! The Triduum is made up rather of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday.  We dare not cut Good Friday off from Easter, because the resurrection is what gives the suffering and death of Friday their meaning! We could never dare to separate our own suffering from Christ’s final victory over sin, suffering and death.

To put it slightly differently, celebrating the cross in the dimension of the Resurrection isn’t cheating, as if we’re trying to minimize or bypass the horrible suffering of Good Friday, but rather it is our way of acknowledging the inescapable truth that our lives have meaning only in the light of the entire Paschal Mystery: Christ’s suffering death and resurrection. It’s a bad idea to identify with the suffering Christ on the cross without having Easter somewhere in the back of your mind at the same time.


This morning at Vigils the psalms and readings celebrated this tension: it’s not Friday any more but it’s not yet Sunday, either. Therefore it's fair to say that Holy Saturday is the story of our lives! We live in this same tension between the already and the not yet. Sometimes one side of the tension is much more present than the other (I’m thinking of my friend burying his son yesterday), but we have to hold on to both of them as best we can.


Saint Augustine reminded us of the Christian's bottom line: "We are Easter People, and alleluia is our song!" 

Like Jesus himself we have to go through the mystery of suffering and dying, but thanks to his suffering and dying, ours are not absurd and senseless horrors: they have an ultimate significance and purpose. Their meaning is way too deep for us to grasp while we're on earth, so we have to rely on the gift of faith, the grace of Resurrection Faith. 

May this Easter feast and Easter season be filled with paschal joy for you, the kind of deep joy that comes from facing the the worst that Suffering and Death can do to us and coming out, with Jesus, victorious!

In conclusion, you may not be experiencing Easter in your life just now. For my grieving classmate it's certainly more like Good Friday; but that's okay - Jesus experienced Good Friday as well, remember. Yet at this special time of the year Christians around the world celebrate this central fact: We are Easter people by nature, and we pray for our brothers and sisters around the world who are suffering today. We pray that they will remember that if it's Friday for them right now, then Sunday is coming!

Have a Blessed Easter!


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