“Having loved those who were his own in the world, he loved them to the end.” (John 13:1) Later, after this meal, in his Farewell Discourse, Jesus will say to his disciples, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) This Gospel is talking about what is to happen tomorrow, on Good Friday; it speaks of Jesus’ ignominious end, and it casts it as an act of love. Near the beginning of John’s Gospel, we are told: “Yes, God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) When we look on the crucifix, what we should see there is LOVE, God’s love for the world — writ large in red ink, as one person put it. This Jesus says to us: “When you have lifted up the Son of Man (as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness (John 3:14)), then you will know that I am he” (John 8:28) — ‘that whoever believes in him may have eternal life,’ as St John puts it. (John 3:15) This Jesus goes to the cross that we may live; this is what makes it an act of Love.

“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32); It is his love, the love of God for us in Christ, that draws us, calling us to be his disciple (Mark 10:21), to join with those others who likewise follow the Christ, to build his Church. God’s love for the world is calling us out of the world to be his People, that we may live. (C.f.: Exodus 6:7) Immediately following tonight’s Gospel story, Jesus will say to us: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35) We, his disciples, are to love as greatly as he did. So he says to us, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34-35; Luke 9:23-24) In calling us to love as greatly as he did, he means for us to follow him … all the way to Calvary, there to lay down our life for those whom he loves in the world. It is love such as this that marks us as his disciples.

So, what are we to make of this call to take up our cross and love as Christ loved us? Generally speaking, we are not called to be martyrs, to actually lay down our lives, though some of us may be. So what does it mean ‘to take up our cross’? This Jesus says to us tonight: “You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am.” (John 13:13) Being the good teacher that he is, tonight he shows us how we might take up our cross to follow him, he gives us ‘an example that we might do just as he has done.’ (John 13:15) Elsewhere St Paul says to us, “Consider the example that Jesus, the Christ, has set before us. Let his mindset become your motivation. Though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.!” (Philippians 2:5-8) Here, of course, Paul speaks of the example Jesus left us on Calvary. But as we listen to tonight’s story, we can, if we will, begin to see the correspondence between the two by putting them alongside one another. For they both cover the same territory: they both speak of how to love greatly.

We are told: ‘Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him.’ (John 13:3-5) In his getting up from Table where he was the host, taking off his fine attire and dressing as a servant, we have Christ not clinging to his rights and privileges as their ‘Lord and Teacher’; instead he deliberately puts on the garb of a servant. Then he proceeds to do not just as servants do, but he was humbler yet: he began to wash their feet.

For the Jews of his day, washing feet was work fit only for the lowliest of the most menial of slaves. Jewish slave would not even do such work, for it was beneath the dignity of any Jew, slave or free, to wash the feet of another Jew. This was work only for wholly-despised Gentile slaves. In this little example we can ‘see and understand’ (Mark 4:11-12) that in the Mystery of the Incarnation it is the way of humility that lets God come among us and permits Christ to be with us still. (Matthew 18:20; Luke 22:27) Jesus’ radical embrace of humility totally embarrassed his disciples; why is he doing this? They sit there in a beleaguered silence … till he comes to Peter, who filled with indignation blurts out bluntly: “Are YOU going to wash MY feet?” (John 13:6) What Jesus was doing is totally unacceptable. The utter depths of his self-abasement, however, has to be seen as the measure of his love for them: there is nothing he will not do for them — just as his going to the shameful death of a criminal on a cross takes this to even greater depths; there really is nothing he will not do for them! Both of these examples illustrate what Scriptures means when it says: ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his Son.’

So, for us who are called to take up our cross, it does not mean that we have to literally take up a cross and let ourselves be crucified. Rather, both these examples embrace humility as the vehicle to express our love, as opposed to just giving what favours we may be able to bestow out of the excesses of our richness. (C.f.: Luke 22:25-27; 12:20) The love we are to bear one another resides not in the things we can give, but in the gift of our very self. (C.f.: Matthew 5:46-47) So, in his call to us, he says: “Go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21) In following him, we are to have nothing to give except ourselves (Luke 10:3-4); in taking up our cross to follow him, we have to find a way to love just as greatly, to truly love, without letting our own foolish pride get in the way, so that we do truly say to the other: “There is nothing I will not do for you!” For us monks, St Benedict spells out what we have to do rather well: “Let them strive to be the first to honour one another. They should bear each other’s weaknesses of both body and character with the utmost patience. They must compete with one another in obedience. No one should pursue what he judges advantageous to himself, but rather what benefits others. They must show selfless love to the brothers.” (Rule of St Benedict 72:4-8) This is how we are called to take up our cross; and, it’s not a bad guide for anyone else. Here tonight, Jesus puts before us an example of humble service as the way to follow him all the way to Calvary. That he did it himself, robs us of any objections that we might raise to following him. (C.f.: Luke 22:25-27; Mark 10:22) This evening Christ says to us but more in what he does than by words (c.f.: Rule of St Benedict 2:4-8): “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another”; or as he put it tonight, “I have given you an example that you may copy what I have done to you.” (John 13:15) We are called to love that much! (John 3:16)

By Dom Steele Hartmann OCSO