He said to them, "But now, let him who has a purse take it, and likewise a bag. And let him who has no sword sell his mantle and buy one. For I tell you that this scripture must be fulfilled in me, 'And he was reckoned with transgressors'; for what is written about me has its fulfilment." And they said, "Look, Lord, here are two swords." And he said to them, "It is enough." (Luke 22:36-38)
I often find it easy to identify with Peter and the other Apostles when they are slow to catch on to what their Master is saying. In the passage above, from Luke’s account of the Last Supper, there’s an almost comical quality to their too literal understanding of Christ’s sword imagery. I picture Jesus shaking his head, with just a hint of a wry smile, as he says “It is enough.” And yet this is a very serious moment, the Lord’s last instructions to his closest associates before he goes out to meet a horrifying death. And later that same evening, Peter uses one of those two swords to mutilate a man in the gang that has come to arrest Jesus; nobody smiles at that.
|Giotto's Christ Washing the Disciples' Feet|
In the passage below from John’s Gospel, one of the readings at this evening’s Mass of the Lord’s Supper, we see something very similar:
Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, rose from supper, laid aside his garments, and girded himself with a towel. Then he poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which he was girded. He came to Simon Peter; and Peter said to him, "Lord, do you wash my feet?" Jesus answered him, "What I am doing you do not know now, but afterward you will understand." Peter said to him, "You shall never wash my feet." Jesus answered him, "If I do not wash you, you have no part in me." Simon Peter said to him, "Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!" Jesus said to him, "He who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but he is clean all over; and you are clean, but not every one of you." (John 13:3-10)
When he takes on the servile task of washing the Apostles’ feet, Jesus doesn’t simply speak but acts out his message, in the manner of an Old Testament prophet, that the purpose of the Apostles’ office is to serve, and not to exalt themselves. After Jesus notes that Peter does not understand what his Lord is doing, Peter confirms it with a curious mixture of pride and humility: he is indignant that his Master should lower himself in this way. Jesus tells him, in effect, that this is the price of discipleship, and then Peter, thinking that now he gets it, goes to the opposite extreme: in that case, wash everything! As in the passage from Luke, Christ seems, in effect, to shake his head patiently and move on.
There are many other examples like these in the Gospels: Peter and the other Apostles just don’t understand; then when they think they’ve finally got it, they still don’t understand. And yet, these are the men Jesus has chosen to carry on his mission. This tells us something about what it is to be human: none of us can figure it all out on our own. We need the Power of the Father, the Saving Grace of Christ, and the Guidance of the Holy Spirit. When we see the same Peter acting with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the Acts of the Apostles, we see a more consistent and confident Apostle, much more worthy to be the Rock on which Christ builds his Church.
The washing of the feet also points to the much greater events that are about to unfold. Christ’s death on the Cross, a servile and degrading form of execution (Roman citizens, such as St. Paul, underwent the more dignified penalty of beheading with a sword), was the ultimate act of Service, because it was all for us:
Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8)
Who can blame Peter for finding that hard to accept? But he eventually does, through God’s Grace. I pray that I also, in the commemoration of Christ’s Passion and glory of his Resurrection, find the grace to understand, and to accept His service to me.