Chapter 13 opens with the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. As we have already touched on, John’s gospel is a departure from the synoptic gospels where the Passion is concerned. We are in the scene of the last supper, but there is no blessing of bread and wine, no initiation of the Eucharist.
Although the sequence of the Passion has opened, it is not until Chapter 18 that Jesus arrives in the garden to experience His betrayal. Jesus spends this and the next four chapters teaching. He is preparing the disciples, telling them what to expect when He leaves and giving them tools to cope with what will come. He is grooming them to endure hardship that they might persevere in carrying out God’s plan once He has departed.
The disciple’s time with Jesus grows short. In less than twelve hours, they will be separated from Him, never able to directly seek His bodily presence and comfort again. They don’t know what is to come. Despite the warnings, they don’t understand how important it is to savor the next few hours, this last teaching they are about to receive.
We, however, have the advantage of hindsight. We can intensify our watching and consider the teaching in reference to the outcome. We have entered into the scene of every chapter as we journeyed with Jesus up to this point. We should now be prepared to cling especially close to Jesus throughout His Passion. Our efforts to enter and experience these last few precious hours of His earthly life should redouble.
Perhaps you have had your feet washed as part of a Holy Thursday service in your parish. If not, you have seen it done. Think back on that. Can you see the priest on his knees, washing the feet of the twelve people selected for the honor? Can you project that into this scene so that you see Jesus, not the priest, performing this act?
At the last party you attended, were there appetizers? Was your favorite dip there? Can you place yourself back in that scene, reaching over to place a piece of bread or a chip in that dip? Can you look up and see Jesus reaching for the same bowl. Can you look into His eyes across the table as He looks into yours?
Can you place yourself around a dinner table with friends and families at a holiday celebration, listening to the conversation? Can you look across the table and picture Jesus there, somehow speaking words of importance directly to you while also saying these words with the same individual importance to everyone else seated at the table?
John Chapter 13, Verse 34:
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”
The word love is hard to write about. It’s mysterious and elusive. If this reflection is six or seven pages long, how could I possibly express what love is or explain how to live out the instruction that Jesus gives here? Are there enough words in the language to adequately convey what it means to love one another?
When I went to the Index of Subjects for Francis of Assisi: Early Documents to look up the word love, I found four full columns of references. When I looked at the sub headings, none of them seemed to be exactly what I was looking for. “Brother” was maybe the closest thing I could find. I paged through those references but I didn’t find anything that overtly described Francis as being motivated by love of brother as he went about living out his religion.
I then went to the Index of Scripture. There are two direct references to this verse, both about the same. The one from chapter eighty seven of A Mirror of Perfection reads like this:
And, since I cannot speak much because of weakness and the pain of my illness, I am showing my will and intention to all my brothers, present and future. As a sign of my remembrance, blessing, and testament, may they always love one another as I have loved and love them; may they always love and observe our Lady Poverty; and may they always remain faithful and subject to the prelates and all clerics of holy Mother Church.
Francis is exhorting his followers to love one another as his earthly death nears. He imitates Christ in this, using the exact words Christ did in this gospel. Just as with his letter to Leo, he emphasizes Lady Poverty as the key to everything. The theme of obedience to the Church is also present.
All good and consistent stuff, but it’s not a great story about Francis somehow demonstrating unequivocally his love for his brothers and others in a grand act that is a clear magnification of this verse.
I tried a bunch of other words, but no matter which words I searched on and no matter which stories I recalled, I really did not feel like there was a definitive text to place in front of you as a dramatic demonstration of Francis’ living out this command from Jesus.
So I had to think differently and pray deeper. This verse was attracting me, but I wasn’t quite getting it. What it had to say to me was obscured, never quite in focus. I continued to look and read and pray. Sometimes that’s the way it works. I have to be patient until I finally get out of my own way.
I have a copy of the SFO Rule which is not the same as the little red book that the fraternity supplies. It’s called Hidden Power III: From Gospel to Life and it includes not only the language of the Rule, but commentary as well. In the commentary about Chapter Two, Article Four, I read this:
Paragraph #4 summarizes the heart of the rule: The very core of gospel life is intimate union with Christ, or in the words of St. Paul, “the life I live now is not my own; Christ is living in me” (Gal 3:20). And so, the Secular Franciscan, alive with the spirit of St. Francis, knows and experiences the Lord Jesus intensely, binding one’s own person with the person of Christ.
I then reread the verse, but this time, instead of focusing on the words “Love one another,” I found myself drawn to the words, “As I have loved you.”
I then realized why I wasn’t finding a nice, neat example of this verse in the events of Francis’ life. The reason was Francis embodied the words of the commentary in totality. Christ lived in Francis. Francis experienced Jesus in a particularly intense way. Francis succeeded in binding his own person to the person of Christ. Or, in the words of the verse, Francis “loved his brothers as Jesus loved Francis.”
This love is an undercurrent to Francis’ entire story. It is not obvious because in a certain way it is assumed and understood. It dawned on me that loving one another is not a matter of an isolated act to be picked out and separated from the rest. Instead, it’s a matter of living a life correctly on the largest possible scale. Duh!
The only proper citation I can make for you from the charism of Francis to demonstrate his obedience to the command “love one another” is to place the entirety of his post conversion life in front of you. I would have to copy and requote the whole work Francis of Assisi: Early Documents in order to properly demonstrate how well Francis lived out this instruction.
Take a moment to think of your favorite episode from Francis’ life and ask yourself, “Did this demonstrate Francis’ love for his brothers and sisters, and even more, for the entirety of the human family?” Think of another event. And another. Is there any event you can call to mind where this isn’t the case?
This is the measure of what Francis accomplished in his life. It’s why eight hundred years after his death we are still deeply attracted to him and willing to make a profession to an order that he founded. It’s what makes him worthy of having a Pope select Francis for his name.
Article Four of the Rule reads like this in its entirety:
The rule and life of the Secular Franciscan is this: to observe and follow the example of St. Francis of Assisi, who made Christ the inspiration and center of his life with God and people.
Christ, the gift of the Father’s love, is the way to him, the truth into which the Holy Spirit leads us, and the life which he has come to give abundantly.
Secular Franciscans should devote themselves especially to careful reading of the gospel, going from gospel to life and life to gospel.
This article is quoted in the introduction to this series as the inspiration for this chapter-by-chapter journey through the gospel of John. We set out to do precisely what the third sentence of this article tells us to do. We are reading the gospel carefully, and attempting to move back and forth between gospel and life and life and gospel in such a way that we become better Franciscans and better people in the process.
I have to admit that in all the times I read this article of the Rule, I never focused on anything but the last sentence. That sentence defined for me what my responsibility was as a Franciscan.
Now I must confess that I am seeing the other sentences of this article for the first time, and that this is unfortunate. I am not saying the last sentence is not crucial, just that it is not everything and that I need to pay attention to the full article. Perhaps the second sentence will be a focus next chapter, since Jesus says the words way, truth and life in combination there. But for this chapter, it is the first sentence that calls to me.
Read again these words: “Francis made Christ the inspiration and center of his life with God and people.”
Juxtapose them against the words from the verse: “As I have loved you.”
Is the connection between them clear? If not, spend extra time with them. Say one out loud, then the other. Live with them. Immerse yourself in them. Linger over them patiently, as long as it takes.
Jesus is exhorting and instructing the disciples to specifically use His life as (not an, but the) example in understanding how to love one another. Loving one another is not something you decide how to do for yourself. Jesus, via the example of the entirety of His life, has taught us what this Love looks like. It’s not for us to reinvent. It’s for us to learn and absorb and ultimately to imitate.
It’s why the gospels are so utterly important to being Franciscan. We have to know Jesus intimately in order to be able to “love one another” as completely and perfectly as possible.
No one learned and absorbed and imitated better than Francis. This is why no one loved his brothers and sisters as Jesus loved them better than Francis.
Why did Francis make Christ the inspiration and center of his life? Or, in the words of the commentary, why did Francis bind himself so tightly to Christ? Why should Secular Franciscans seek to “experience the Lord Jesus intensely?” Why do we go “from gospel to life and life to gospel?
Because Jesus told us to in order that we might know how to “love one another as He loves us,” that’s why!
So, I still can’t help myself. I still feel the need to pull some event from Francis’ life to discuss as part of this chapter. What shall I choose? Since John Chapter 13 opens with Jesus washing the feet of the disciples, how about something inspired by that?
This passage comes from The First Life of St. Francis by Thomas Celano, Chapter Seven:
Then the holy lover of profound humility moved to the lepers and stayed with them. For God’s sake he served all of them with great love. He washed all the filth from them, and even cleaned out the pus of their sores, just as he said in his Testament: “When I was in sin, it seemed too bitter for me to see lepers, and the Lord led me among them and I showed mercy to them.”
This event occurs early in the chronology of Francis’ life. He renounces his father in front of the Bishop. He sets out from Assisi and is thrown in a snow filled ditch by bandits. He stops at a monastery and works as a scullion, but they seem to have not even fed him for his work, causing the Prior to later beg forgiveness from Francis. He then moves on to the scene described above, where he places himself in service of lepers and, in the words of Celano later in the chapter,
He began to despise himself more and more, until by the Redeemer’s mercy he attained to perfect conquest of himself.
We know that Francis was prone to (graced in?) taking the gospels literally. In the introduction we read from Chapter Nine of Celano how Francis heard the gospel and then acted on it immediately and definitively.
One day the gospel was being read in that church about how the Lord sent out his disciples to preach…………………. “This is what I want,” Francis said, “this is what I seek, this is what I desire with all my heart.” The holy father, overflowing with joy, hastened to implement the words of salvation, and did not delay before he devoutly began to put into effect what he heard…………… Straightaway he puts his shoes off from his feet, and the staff out of his hands, and, content with one tunic, exchanges his leather girdle for a small cord.
Francis surely knew the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. Was the decision to go to the lepers and serve them perhaps a similarly impulsive decision on his part? Was he reminded of this chapter of John at the opportune moment even though Celano doesn’t record it? Did he take the instruction of Jesus to “wash one another’s feet” literally, deciding to act on it immediately and in an expansive way, and was this the outcome?
There’s no way to know for sure. We can say that making this link would not be out of character for Francis. These days we typically use the word impulsive in a negative context, but with Francis, his impulsiveness is somehow holy and done for God’s sake. And, as Celano’s use of the word love in the passage asserts, that impulsiveness has love of brother at its core.
The actions of Francis with the lepers are an overwhelming and, for me at least, unimaginable act of love directed deliberately at the least fortunate of his fellow men.
Francis had to defeat his own personal fear, bitterness and sinfulness in order to do what he did. This is not something that anyone likely does on their own. It requires the assistance of “the Redeemer’s mercy.” To go from his initial loathing of lepers to having the ability to mercifully minister to them is a sign of profound conversion (or of “perfect conquest of self,” to use Celano’s words.)
Such complete conversion and conquest has to be associated with Jesus and grace and mercy. It has to be associated with someone who has made Jesus the inspiration and center of his life. With someone who has experienced Jesus intensely. With someone who bound his own person with the person of Christ.
Nothing else can explain it. That conversion has to be seen as an act by someone who decided that he would resolutely live the instruction of this gospel verse, that he would literally love others as Jesus would love them.
Jesus is moving towards the Cross, towards laying down his life in order to ensure the possibility of salvation for all of us. His embrace of the Cross is the greatest act of Love Creation has ever known. The most exact and perfect example of love we could ever encounter.
Jesus tells us in this verse, “As I have loved you, so must you love one another.”
Thus, we are instructed to enact the sacrifice of the Love of the Cross as well. It’s a hard act to follow.
Have I experienced enough conversion that I could do even what Francis did, that I could go from the loathing of lepers to the act of washing their sores? It was somehow at the same time a reckless and a loving thing to do. Many historians believe that Francis suffered from some form of leprosy at the time of his death. Francis, perhaps, imitated Jesus in some fashion even in the sacrifice of his life. At the very least, he loved his fellow man enough to risk it.
Another hard act to follow.
I know being a husband and a father in my secular life means I have limitations that Francis did not. I can’t be as completely impulsive as he was. But I still can’t help feeling there is a vast gulf between where I am and what is possible even with those limitations. Do I need to at least redefine what I understand to be reckless? Am I missing opportunities because in fear I define something as reckless when perhaps it is not?
I’d like to tell you that I’m willing. I’d like to tell you that I embrace all the opportunities and all the crosses that confront me. I’d like to tell you that I could cleanse the sores of a leper if given the chance, that I have embraced poverty fully and completely and that I am on the road to realizing whatever level of conversion and conquest my secular life allows me.
I’d like to tell you that I am mindful enough of what it means to be a Franciscan that I look at the opportunities to love my fellow man with the same courage as Francis. I’d like to tell you that when an idea to serve occurs to me, that I can be impulsive about it, that I can jump right into the service of God and love of fellow man as Francis did without being held back by fear or worldly concern.
But the truth is, my frailty governs and my conversion, I fear, has barely begun. The need for daily conquest, vigilance and diligence remains stark. Christ is not the inspiration and center of my life as He should be. I don’t experience Jesus as intensely as I ought. My person is not bound to His person nearly as tightly as it could be.
I am a long way from the abandonment, freedom and poverty that would allow me to love as He loved.
But there is always hope in Jesus. The place to start, I think, is by acknowledging my overwhelming need for the Redeemer’s strength, grace and assistance:
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner!