John 13 presents two challenges. First, the preacher must decide whether the disciples are a special class unto themselves, or if they are examples for all Christians, or both. Second, the preacher must say something constructive about love (Jesus “loved them to the end,” v. 1), a difficult task when the ears of our age have been dulled to divine love by cheap and tawdry substitutes.
Deciding what to do with the disciples depends in large part on prior confessional decisions. In churches with episcopal structures (e.g., Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican bodies) the disciples are the first bishops and priests, and thus what Jesus says to and does with them may not be of direct exemplary relevance for all Christians. (For instance, when Jesus gives Peter the keys to the kingdom in Matthew 16, however one might interpret the passage as regards Protestant-Catholic issues, does that mean that every Christian has the keys to the kingdom and the power to bind and loose?). In churches with presbyterian or congregational governance, the disciples in the Gospels are generally seen as representative of all believers.
For Catholics, Orthodox, and Anglicans, John 13 is read as the institution of the priesthood. In John 13, Jesus washing the disciples’ feet has sacerdotal significance. In vv. 3-8 we read:
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, “Unless (ἐὰν μὴ) I do not wash you, you have no part in me.”
Jesus’ reply to Peter, “What I am doing you do not know now, but afterward you will understand,” suggests that more is going on with the passage than mere moral exemplarism, for the ritual can only be understood “afterward.” After what? His glorification (cf. 13:1-2 as well as 12:16: “At first the disciples did not understand these things; but when Jesus had been glorified, then they recalled that it was precisely these things that had been written about him and these things they had done to him”).
In an essay, Fr. Jerome Neyrey suggests that this scene was a “status transformation ritual.” That Peter can have no part in Jesus (13:8b) unless he submits to the ritual reveals its gravity. Neyrey observes that the word “unless” (ἐὰν μὴ) in John often indicates real transformation:
3:3 Unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.
3:5 Unless one is born of water and the spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.
6:53 Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.
8:24 Unless you believe that ‘I AM,’ you will die in your sins.
12:24 Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone.
13:8 Unless I wash you, you have no part in me.
15:4 As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.
In John 13 we find parallels to Leviticus 16, the Day of Atonement ritual. Lev 16:23-24 reads, “Then Aaron shall come into the tent of meeting, and shall put off the linen garments which he put on when he went into the holy place, and shall leave them there; and he shall bathe his body in water in a holy place, and put on his garments, and come forth, and offer his burnt offering and the burnt offering of the people, and make atonement for himself and for the people.” Observe the pattern: The high priest undresses, bathes, dresses, and offers sacrifice. In John 13, Jesus undresses (v. 4), washes the disciples’ feet (v. 5-11), dresses (v. 12), and will soon offer himself in sacrifice. Whereas in Leviticus the high priest washes all of himself, in John, Jesus washes the feet of the disciples. Jesus is sharing his high priesthood with the disciples; he must wash them — ordain them as priests — lest they have “no part” in his priesthood.
Indeed, washing seems part of priestly ordination elsewhere in the OT. In the midst of the “consecration” (Lev 8:10) of Aaron and his sons, Moses “washed them with water” (Lev 8:6). We also see Aaron and his sons being washed in Exodus 40:
Then you shall bring Aaron and his sons to the door of the tent of meeting, and shall wash them with water. (v. 12)And he set the laver between the tent of meeting and the altar, and put water in it for washing, with which Moses and Aaron and his sons washed their hands and their feet; when they went into the tent of meeting, and when they approached the altar, they washed; as the LORD commanded Moses. (vv. 30-32)
Furthermore, the mention of a “part” (μέρος) in John 13:8 recalls the Levites having their portion (μερίς) in the LORD (Num 18:20 and Deut 10:9 LXX).
Since, therefore, in Catholic thinking Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet on Holy Thursday signals the ritual of priestly ordination, and since in Catholic tradition priests are males, the footwashing ritual in the liturgy for Holy Thursday is restricted to males (the text reads viri selecti — “chosen males,” vir meaning male, not homo, which means human).
This teaching is difficult in our radically egalitarian age, but it is authoritative. In Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, Pope John Paul II wrote:
Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.
The reasons given in OS come directly from a 1975 letter of Pope Paul VI to Dr. F.D. Coggan, then Archbishop of Canterbury:
“She [the Church] holds that it is not admissible to ordain women to the priesthood, for very fundamental reasons. These reasons include: the example recorded in the Sacred Scriptures of Christ choosing his Apostles only from among men; the constant practice of the Church, which has imitated Christ in choosing only men; and her living teaching authority which has consistently held that the exclusion of women from the priesthood is in accordance with God’s plan for his Church.”
In OS, John Paul also quotes an address of Paul VI from 1977: “The real reason is that, in giving the Church her fundamental constitution, her theological anthropology — thereafter always followed by the Church’s Tradition — Christ established things in this way.” For further reading, many would recommend Sister Sara Butler’s The Catholic Priesthood and Women: A Guide to the Teaching of the Church.
This is a countercultural teaching today. Indeed, Jesus’ action was countercultural in the ancient world as well. John Paul writes in OS that the CDF document “Declaration Inter Insigniores on the question of the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood” (October 15, 1976): AAS 69 (1977), 98-116, p. 100, “shows clearly that Christ’s way of acting did not proceed from sociological or cultural motives peculiar to his time.” Indeed, the current pope, Benedict XVI, then Joseph Ratzinger, has written:
At first sight it seems that the demands of radical feminism in favor of a total equality between man and woman are extremely noble and, at any rate, perfectly reasonable. It also seems logical that the demand that women be allowed to enter all professions, excluding none, should transform itself within the Church into a demand for access also to the priesthood. To many, this demand for the ordination of women, this possibility of having Catholic priestesses, appears not only justified but obvious: a simple and inevitable adaptation of the Church to a new social situation that has come into being.
In reality this kind of “emancipation” of woman is in no way new. One forgets that in the ancient world all the religions also had priestesses. All except one: the Jewish. Christianity, here too following the “scandalous” original example of Jesus, opens a new situation to women; it accords them a position that represents a novelty with respect to Judaism. But of the latter he preserves the exclusively male priesthood. Evidently, Christian intuition understood that the question was not secondary, that to defend Scripture (which in neither the Old nor the New Testament knows women priests) signified once more to defend the human person, especially those of the female sex.
The teaching is clear and historic. What then is the Catholic homilist to do?
Obviously one strategy is to ignore the issue. But to do so would be to miss an opportunity to teach upon one of the most misunderstood but crucial aspects of Catholic faith, the priesthood and, more broadly, Catholic ecclesiology. Indeed, the idea of a visible Church with a given structure willed by Christ cuts directly against contemporary Moral Therapeutic Deism, the de facto spirituality (one can’t call it a religion) of most American Christians. Thus, we have here an opportunity.
Now, much of what Catholicism (or Christian faith more broadly) has to say is perceived as a resounding “No!” But any “no” is a reflex of saying “yes” to something good, true, and beautiful about God, man, and nature, whether a matter of reason or revelation. If the world perceives a “no,” it’s because the world’s loves are so very disordered that it says “yes” to darkness and death, seeking the water of life without knowing it’s ingesting poison instead. Thus, the homilist does well to present teaching about the priesthood positively, to present the priesthood as a great gift. More broadly, the homilist could easily discuss how the Catholic concept of a visible Church structured by apostolic succession on earth but also participating in the Risen Christ in heaven, who is the Church (cf. Ephesians and the concept of Christus Totus delineated in the Catechism in par. 795).
It’s also perhaps important to point out that talk of the Catholic “hierarchy” is ultimately inadequate, whether with reference to priests or bishops or both. For exercising one’s ministry as a priest or a bishop isn’t a matter of raw power, as if a priest or bishop were merely a prince or potentate. No, serving as a priest or bishop involves serving after the manner of Jesus Christ who “emptied himself and took on the form of a slave” (Phil 2), the same Christ who taught his first priests and bishops, the Twelve, that “whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:43-44), the same Christ who in washing the disciples’ feet as an “example” to them directly linked priestly and episcopal service with humility. And so there is no real tension between reading John 13 as the institution of the priesthood and reading it as a story concerning the example of serving one another in humility and love.
As regards the issue of the status of women in the Church, one would do well to draw on John Paul’s Mulieris Dignitatem as well as what he has to say in OS about the wondrous gifts and roles of women in the Church and society. To wit:
Therefore the Church gives thanks for each and every woman: for mothers, for sisters, for wives; for women consecrated to God in virginity; for women dedicated to the many human beings who await the gratuitous love of another person; for women who watch over the human persons in the family, which is the fundamental sign of the human community; for women who work professionally, and who at times are burdened by a great social responsibility; for “perfect” women and for “weak” women – for all women as they have come forth from the heart of God in all the beauty and richness of their femininity; as they have been embraced by his eternal love; as, together with men, they are pilgrims on this earth, which is the temporal “homeland” of all people and is transformed sometimes into a “valley of tears”; as they assume, together with men, a common responsibility for the destiny of humanity according to daily necessities and according to that definitive destiny which the human family has in God himself, in the bosom of the ineffable Trinity.
The Church gives thanks for all the manifestations of the feminine “genius” which have appeared in the course of history, in the midst of all peoples and nations; she gives thanks for all the charisms which the Holy Spirit distributes to women in the history of the People of God, for all the victories which she owes to their faith, hope and charity: she gives thanks for all the fruits of feminine holiness. (MD 31)
Now the above has obviously dealt with the passage in a Catholic perspective. What might a Protestant preacher do? Much will depend on one’s theology of ordination and ministry, but my suspicion is that there would be fruitful ways of using the above in service of expounding a Protestant theology of ministry and ecclesiology, sans a robust doctrine of a priesthood as such. In fact, many have argued that it is precisely the Catholic concept of priesthood and the Protestant lack of such a concept that makes women ministers wholly possible in Protestant bodies. For if Christian life and worship is about sacrifice, as the Catholic Mass is, as “the source and summit of the Christian life” is the Eucharist (CCC 1324), then, following Ratzinger above, the male priesthood in Catholicism issues forth from the male priesthood in Judaism. But if Christian life and worship concerns chiefly the proclamation of the Word, then it seems wholly appropriate that women serve as ministers.
The second problem concerns love. Here we cannot surrender the term, for elsewhere St. John teaches that God is love. Rather, we must redeem the term. What an opportunity to contrast Jesus’ model of love — the self-sacrificing, other-serving humility of the God incarnate in Jesus Christ — with the pallid reflections of divine love permeating the culture at present. One might discuss Augustine’s reflections on the ordo amores, the right and wrong ordering of our loves, how we are to love God, neighbor, and self(!) rightly. One might discuss the nature of God as love — not that God has love towards us, or feels love for us, but in his very essence is Love, and show how the Trinity and Incarnation provide a model for love among families and the human community. Contrast makes for effective pedagogy, and so showing how merely human thoughts on love reflect the reality divine love, even imperfectly, haltingly, could transform your hearer’s conception of love and help reorder their own loves more rightly.
[T]here is a need for an interior bond, a configuration to Christ, and at the same time there has to be a transcending of ourselves, a renunciation of what is simply our own, of the much-vaunted self-fulfilment. We need, I need, not to claim my life as my own, but to place it at the disposal of another – of Christ. I should be asking not what I stand to gain, but what I can give for him and so for others. Or to put it more specifically, this configuration to Christ, who came not to be served but to serve, who does not take, but rather gives – what form does it take in the often dramatic situation of the Church today? Recently a group of priests from a European country issued a summons to disobedience, and at the same time gave concrete examples of the forms this disobedience might take, even to the point of disregarding definitive decisions of the Church’s Magisterium, such as the question of women’s ordination, for which Blessed Pope John Paul II stated irrevocably that the Church has received no authority from the Lord. Is disobedience a path of renewal for the Church? We would like to believe that the authors of this summons are motivated by concern for the Church, that they are convinced that the slow pace of institutions has to be overcome by drastic measures, in order to open up new paths and to bring the Church up to date. But is disobedience really a way to do this? Do we sense here anything of that configuration to Christ which is the precondition for all true renewal, or do we merely sense a desperate push to do something to change the Church in accordance with one’s own preferences and ideas?
But let us not oversimplify matters. Surely Christ himself corrected human traditions which threatened to stifle the word and the will of God? Indeed he did, so as to rekindle obedience to the true will of God, to his ever enduring word. His concern was for true obedience, as opposed to human caprice. Nor must we forget: he was the Son, possessed of singular authority and responsibility to reveal the authentic will of God, so as to open up the path for God’s word to the world of the nations. And finally: he lived out his task with obedience and humility all the way to the Cross, and so gave credibility to his mission. Not my will, but thine be done: these words reveal to us the Son, in his humility and his divinity, and they show us the true path.
Dr. Leroy Huizenga is the Director of the Christian Leadership Center in Bismarck, North Dakota. He blogs at Mere Comments.