St Cyril of Alexandria on John 13:1-15 for Holy Thursday, Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper
xiii. 1 Now before the feast of the passover, Jesus knowing that His hour was come that He should depart out of this world unto the Father, having loved His own which were in this world, He loved them unto the end.
The meaning contained in the words before us seems |172 to most men somewhat obscure and not very capable of exact explanation, nor indeed to possess (as any one might suppose) any simple signification. For what can be the reason why the inspired Evangelist at this point notifies to us particularly, and (so to speak) as a necessary sequence of things, that: Before the feast of the passover, knowing that His hour was come that He should depart out of this world unto the Father, Christ acted as He did? And again, what is the meaning of: Having loved His own that were in the world, He loved them unto the end?Allowing therefore that the uncertainty involved in this passage is by no means slight, I suppose it to imply something of this sort, namely, that the Saviour, before enduring His suffering for our salvation, although aware (says the Evangelist) that the time of His translation to heaven was now close even at the doors, gave a proof of the absolute perfection of His love for His own that were in this world. And if there is any necessity for conceiving a wider meaning for the passage, I will only repeat once more what I was saying just now. To Christ our Saviour peculiarly belong as His own possessions all things made by Him, all intellectual and reasonable creatures, the powers above, and thrones, and principalities, and all things akin to these, in so far as regards the fact of their having been made [by Him]; and again, to Him peculiarly belong also the rational beings on earth, inasmuch as He is Lord of all, even though some refuse to adore Him as Creator. He loved therefore His own that were in the world. For not of angels doth He take hold, according to the voice of Paul; nor was it for the sake of the angelic nature, that, being in the form of God the Father, He counted it not a prize to he on an equality with God: but rather for the sake of us who are in the world, He the Lord of all has emptied Himself and assumed the form of a servant, called thereto by His love for us. Having therefore loved His own which were in this world, He loved them unto the end, although indeed before the feast, even before the passover, He knew that His hour was come that|173 He should depart out of this world unto the Father. For it would have been the manner of one who loved them, but not unto the end, to have become man, and then to have been unwilling to meet danger for the life of all; but He did love unto the end, not shrinking from suffering even this, although knowing beforehand that He would so suffer. For the Saviour’s suffering was not by Him unforeseen. While therefore, says the Evangelist, He might have escaped the rude insolence of the Jews and the unholiness of those who were meditating His Crucifixion, He gave a proof of the absolute perfection of His love towards His own which were in the world; for He did not shrink in the least from being offered up for the life of all mankind. For that herein especially we may see the most perfect measure of love, I will bring forward our Lord Jesus Christ Himself as witness, in saying to His holy disciples: This is My commandment, that ye love one another, even as I have loved you. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. And for another reason the holy Evangelists always set themselves purposely to shew that our Lord Jesus the Christ foreknew the time of His suffering, namely, lest any of those who are wont to be heterodox should disparage His Divine glory by saying that Christ was overpowered through weakness on His part, and that it was against His will that He fell into the snares of the Jews and endured that death which was so very aweful. Therefore the language of the holy men is in accordance with the Divine system and profitable for our instruction.
2, 3, 4, 5 And during supper, the devil having already put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s [son], to betray Him, [Jesus,] knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He came forth from God, and goeth unto God, riseth from supper, and layeth aside His garments; and He took a towel, and girded Himself. Then He poureth water into the basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith He was girded.
The Saviour strives to eradicate utterly from our thoughts |174 the vice of pride, as the basest of all human failings, and worthy of universal and utter abomination. For He knows that nothing so commonly injures the soul of man as this most loathsome and detestible passion, to which even the Lord of all Himself stands in just opposition, after the manner of an open foe; for the Lord resisteth the proud, according to the voice of Solomon. The holy disciples therefore especially stood in need of a sober and submissive temper, and of a mind that reckoned empty honour as no high ambition. For they possessed in no slight degree the germs of this sad infirmity, and would have easily glided down into subjection to it, if they had not received great help. For it is always against those who occupy an illustrious position that the malignant monster vainglory directs its attacks. Think then, what position can be more brilliant than that of the holy Apostles? or what more attractive of attention than their friendship with God? A man who is of little account in life would not be likely to experience this passion: for it always avoids one who possesses nothing that others can envy and nothing that is inaccessible to those whose lot is of no consequence in the world; for how could such a one possibly exhibit vainglory on any subject whatever? But pride is a feeling dear to a man when he is in an enviable position, and when for this reason he thinks himself better than his neighbour; foolishly supposing that he differs very greatly from the rest of mankind, as having achieved some special and surpassing degree of excellence, or as having followed a path of policy unfamiliar to and untrodden by the rest of the world. Since therefore it has come to be regularly characteristic of all who hold brilliant positions to be liable to attacks of the infirmity of pride, it was surely needful for the holy Apostles to find in Christ a Pattern of a modest temper; so that, having the Lord of all as their model and standard, they themselves also might mould their own hearts according to the Divine will. In no other way therefore (as it seems) could He rid them from the infirmity, except by teaching them clearly that each one should regard himself as inferior |175 in honour to the rest, even so far as to feel bound to undertake the part of a servant, without shrinking from discharging even the lowest of menial offices; [and this He taught them] by both washing the feet of the brethren and girding on a towel in order to perform the act. For consider what utterly menial behaviour it is, I mean according to the world’s way of thinking and outward practice. Therefore Christ has become a Pattern of a modest and unassuming temper to all living men, for we must not suppose the teaching was meant for the disciples alone. Accordingly the inspired Paul also, taking Christ as a standard, exhorts to this end, saying: Let each one of you have this mind in himself, which was also in Christ Jesus. And again: In lowliness of mind each counting other better than himself. For in a lowly temper there is established a settled habit of love and of yielding to the will of others. Moreover, in order to highly exalt the significance of what was done, and to prevent us from supposing that Christ’s action was a commonplace one, the inspired Evangelist again cannot help being astounded at the thought of the glory and the power that were in Christ, and His supremacy over all; as he shows by saying: Knowing that the Father had committed all things into His hands. For although, he says, Christ was not ignorant that He possessed authority over all, and that He came forth from God, that is, was begotten of the Essence of God the Father, and goeth unto God, that is, returns again to the heavens, there sitting as we know by the side of His own Father; yet so excessive was the humiliation He underwent that He even girded Himself with a towel and washed the feet of His disciples. As therefore we have in this act of Christ a very excellent pattern of affectionate care, and a most conspicuous standard for our love for each other to imitate, let us be modest in mind, beloved, and let us consider that, whatever may be our own goodness, our brethren have attained to greater excellences than those to be found in ourselves. For that we may both think and be willing to think in this way, is the wish of Him Who is our great Pattern. |176
6, 7 So He cometh to Simon Peter, and he saith unto Him, Lord, dost Thou wash my feet? Jesus answered and said unto him, What I do thou knowest not now, but thou shalt understand hereafter. Peter saith unto Him, Thou shalt never wash my feet.
The fiery and impulsive character of Peter, always far more eager than the other disciples to display devotion, can be observed, one might almost say, throughout all the records that are written of him. And so it happens that on this occasion also, following the bent of his peculiar character and usual tone of mind, he thrusts aside the lesson of extreme humility and love, the record of which has been preserved in this passage,—-remembering on the one hand who he is himself by nature, and on the other hand Who He is that is bringing the bason to him, and shrinking not from fulfilling the duty of a menial servant. For he is dismayed not a little at the action, which is in a manner hard of acceptance to faith, even though it happened to be seen by many eyes. For who is there who would not have shuddered at learning that He Who with the Father is Lord of all had shown His devotion to the service of His own disciples to be so intensely compassionate, that the very thing that seems to be the work of the lowest grade among servants, He willingly and of deliberate intention performed, to furnish a pattern and type of modesty in temper? Therefore the inspired disciple is dismayed and distressed at the circumstance, and makes the refusal as a natural result of his accustomed and habitual devotion. Moreover, not yet understanding the cause of the action, he supposes that the Lord is doing it with no special motive, and thinking only of the refreshment of their bodies; for that is the sole object of washing the feet, and not a little does it relieve their condition after walking. On this account he insists even very earnestly, saying: Lord, dost Thou wash my feet? For surely, he says, surely this ought to be done by us who are by nature in the condition of “servants,” not by Thee, the “Lord” of all. Christ however defers for a |177 while the explanation of the event; yet, to make him account its cause more weighty, He tells Peter that he should understand what the action meant hereafter, meaning of course at the time when He should give a fuller explanation of it.
And this point again, taken in connection with the others, will profit us not a little. For notice how, when the occasion calls for action, He defers His discourse; and again, when the occasion calls for discourse, He postpones action: for He was ever wont to assign all things to their fit and proper seasons. When therefore Peter made a sign of dissent, and plainly asserted that Christ should never wash his feet, the Saviour at once lays clearly before him the loss he would suffer in consequence, saying as follows:
Jesus answered him, If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with Me.
Inasmuch therefore as He had come to what manifestly and obviously is the central point of the incident before us, He says: “If thou shouldst refuse to receive this strange and novel lesson of humility, thou wouldst find no part or lot with Me.” And since oftentimes our Lord Jesus the Christ, taking small matters as the suggestive occasions of His discourses, makes His exposition of general application; and, drawing out to a wide range the lessons arising out of a single event or the words spoken solely with regard to some individual circumstance, introduces into the discussion of the matters in hand a rich abundance of profitable illustrations: we shall suppose that in this also He meant to say that unless through His grace a man washes away from himself the defilement of sin and error, he will have no share in the life that proceeds from Him, and will remain without a taste of the kingdom of heaven. For the uncleansed may not enter the mansions above, but only they who have their conscience cleansed by love to Christ, and have been sanctified in the Spirit by Holy Baptism. |178
9 Simon Peter saith unto Him, Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head.
He who lately exhibited to us so strongly his opposition to what Christ was doing, and who expressly refused to allow the washing of his feet, now offers not them only, but also hands and head as well. For if, says he, my refusal to assent to Thy wish and Thy deliberate purpose, in the matter of washing my feet, is to be followed by my falling away from my fellowship with Thee, and by my being excluded from the blessings for which I hope; then I will offer Thee my other members also, rather than incur so very frightful a loss. Certainly therefore pious devotion was the motive of the former refusal: it was the behaviour of one who feared to submit to the action because there seemed to be something about it which he could not bring himself to tolerate, and not at all the conduct of one who set himself in opposition to his master’s injunctions. For bearing in mind, as I said, both the dignity of the Saviour and the utter unworthiness of his own nature, he at first refused; but on learning the jeopardy in which he had thus put himself, immediately he hastens to change his will so as to conform to the good pleasure of his Master.
But look again closely, and accept what was done as a pattern for our profit. For in spite of having said: Thou shalt never wash my feet, he in a moment changes from his purpose thus expressed, not allowing it to be the uppermost thought in his mind that he ought to appear truthful in the eyes of men by adhering to his own words, but rather [influenced by the warning] that he would find a greater and more grievous loss to be the necessary consequence of holding to what he had said. Therefore every one ought to guard against using rash and hasty words, and no one ought in a spirit of violent energy to hastily urge a course of action, which on account of its very recklessness may be afterwards bitterly regretted. But if anything should ever happen to be said by any one in |179 such a way that by persistence in adhering to it something of great value and importance would suffer harm, let the speaker in such a case learn from the words before us that it is very much better for him not to preserve consistency, and not to vainly carry out an intention merely because he has once given expression to it, but rather to use all his efforts to do what will really be profitable to him. For every one, I imagine, will allow that it is safer to incur an indictment for inconsistency in our words, than to suffer a loss of indispensable blessings. And let swearing be altogether absent from our conversation; for words are often spoken on the spur of the moment and without deliberate intention, and our plans are necessarily liable to occasional change and chance. For surely it may be called a worthy and in very truth an enviable possession, to have a discreet tongue, that very rarely lapses into unbefitting language. And since even the Divine Scripture itself has shown to us that the matter is one for violent and tedious struggling—-for, as it is written, the tongue can no man tame,—-let us keep the utterance of our words free from oaths. For then, if circumstances compel us to refrain from carrying out something we have said, the blame will be less, and our error will be liable to a less severe indictment. And readily will pardon be granted, I think, even by God Himself, for the thoughtless levity of language that is ever besetting us: for who can understand his errors? according to that which is written. Else surely man would utterly perish from the face of the earth, since most easily does language fall away into mistakes of all kinds; for it is a work of the greatest difficulty to keep our tongue under due restraint. |180
10, 11 Jesus saith to him, He that is bathed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit: and ye are clean, but not all. For He knew him that should betray Him; therefore said He, Ye are not all clean.
He draws His illustration from a common incident of ordinary human life, and opportunely contrives the rebuke to the traitor, teaching the man both to repent of his purpose and to change himself to a better mind. For even if Christ’s reproaches do not yet convict him of his meditated treachery, yet the saying must carry with it a stern significance. For in testifying to the perfect cleanness of some [but not all] of the disciples, He thereby makes the one who was not clean feel an uneasy suspicion, and points out the presence of a polluted one. For Christ graciously commends the cleanness of His other disciples, as shown by their willing joy in attending on Him continually, the hardship they underwent in following Him, their firmness in faith, and their fulness of love towards Him. On Judas, however, the reproach of his insatiable covetousness and the feebleness of his affection for our Lord Jesus the Christ are branding the ineffaceable stain, and steeping him in the pollution, of his incomparably hideous treachery. When therefore Christ says: Now ye are clean, but not all, though the language is obscure, yet it conveys a profitable rebuke to the traitor. For although He did not speak plainly, as we have just said, still in each man’s heart conscience was sitting in judgment, pricking the sinner to the heart, and bringing home to the guilty one the force of the words according to their necessary meaning.
And notice how fully the conduct of Christ is expressive of a certain set purpose and of God-befitting forbearance. For if He had said plainly who it was that would betray Him, He would have made the other disciples to be at enmity with the traitor. Judas might thence perhaps have suffered some fatal mischief, and |181 have undergone a premature penalty at the hands of one who was spurred on by pious zeal to prevent the murder of his Master by previously putting to death His would-be betrayer. Therefore, by merely giving an obscure hint, and then leaving the conviction to gnaw its way to the conscience, He proved incontestably the greatness of His inherent forbearance. For although He well, knew that Judas had no kindly feeling or wise consideration for His Master, but that he was full of the poison of devilish bitterness and even then devising the means whereby he might effect the betrayal, He honoured him in the same measure as the rest, and washed even his feet also, continually exhibiting the marks of His own love, and not letting loose His anger till He had tried every kind of remonstrance. For thou mayest perceive how this special characteristic also is peculiar to the Divine Nature. For although God knows what is about to happen, He brings His punishment prematurely on no man: but rather, after bearing with the guilty for the utmost length of needful time, when He sees them in no way profiting thereby, but rather remaining in their self-chosen evil ways, then at length He punishes them; showing it to be the actual result of their perverse folly, and not really an effect of His own counsel or of His will. For instance, Ezekiel on this account says: As I live, saith the Lord, I desire not the death of him that dieth, but rather that he should turn from his evil way and live. Therefore with long-suffering and forbearance our Lord Jesus the Christ still treats the traitor just as He does His other disciples, although the devil had already put into his heart to betray Him, (for this also the Evangelist was constrained to point out at the outset of the narrative;) and washes his feet, thus making his impious conduct absolutely inexcusable, so that his apostasy might be seen to be the fruit of the wickedness which was in him. |182
12, 13, 14, 15 So when He had washed the disciples’ feet, and taken His garments, and sat down again, He said unto them: Know ye what I have done to you? Ye call Me Lord, and Master: and ye say well; for so I am. If I then, the Lord and the Master, have washed your feet, ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that ye also should do as I have done to you.
He now clearly explains the object of what He has done, and says that this example of incomparable humility had been set forth for the sake of the benefit therefrom derived for us: and in making His reproof of pride unanswerable, He is constrained to put forward the conspicuous example of His Own Person. For in such an act anyone may behold the incomparable greatness of His humiliation. When anything is in itself considered most ignoble, or held to be quite undignified, in what manner could it possibly suffer degradation or pass to a stage of lower esteem? For anyone may see that in such a thing, if in nothing else, there is an original and natural baseness. But when we have been observing an object pre-eminent for its high position, our wonder is excited if we see it suddenly humiliated: for it has descended to a sphere not its own. Therefore it was that our Lord Jesus the Christ felt constrained, in giving the lesson of humility to His disciples, or rather through them to all that dwell on the earth, not merely to say: “As I washed your feet, so also ought ye to do,” but rather to bring into conspicuous prominence His peculiar claim to their obedience; and, while setting forth to their minds the glory that was His by natural right, by His action to put to shame the vain-glorious. For He says: Ye yourselves style Me Lord, and Master; and ye say well, for so I am. And observe how in the midst of His discourse He showed His watchful care for the edification of those who believe, and was not unaware of the evil-speaking of the unholy heretics. For after saying to His own disciples: Ye style Me Lord, and Master; then, lest any should suppose that |183 He is not by nature Lord or Master, but that He holds the title simply as a mark of honour from those who shall be devoted to Him, He has emphatically added, to dispel such suggestions, the words: And ye say well, for so I am. For Christ does not hold the title Lord as an empty name of honour, like we do ourselves when, although we remain by nature mere servants, we are decorated by favour of others with titles that surpass our nature and merit: but He is in His nature “Lord,” possessing authority over the universe as God; concerning Whom it is said somewhere by the voice of the Psalmist: For all things serve Thee. And He is by nature “Master“ [or "Teacher"] also, for all wisdom cometh from the Lord, and by Him cometh all understanding. For inasmuch as He is wisdom He makes all intelligent beings wise, and in every rational creature both in heaven and in earth He implants the intelligence that is fitting for it. For just as, being Himself in His nature Life, He vivifies all things capable of receiving life; so also, since He is Himself the wisdom of the Father, He bestows on all the gifts of wisdom, namely, knowledge and perception of all good things. By nature therefore the Son is Lord and Master of all things. “Since therefore,” [He seems to say,] “I, Who am such as this and so mighty in glory, have shown you that I shrink not from condescending to this ill-befitting humiliation, even to have washed your feet, how will ye any longer refuse to do the like for one another?” And hereby He teaches them not to be ever scornfully declaiming against the honour bestowed on others, but each one to think his fellow-servant to excel himself and in every possible respect to be superior. And very excellent this teaching is: for I do not think anyone can shew us anything to match a temper that is ever averse to arrogance; and nothing so severs brethren and friends as the unbridled passion for miserable and petty dignities. For somehow we are always grasping after what is greater, and the empty honours of life are ever persuading our easily-yielding |184 minds to vault up towards a more brilliant station. In order therefore that we may save ourselves from this disease, and obtain final relief from so loathsome a passion,—-for the passion for vain-glory is a mere fraud, and nothing less,—-let us engrave on our inmost hearts the memory of Christ the King of all men washing His disciples’ feet, to teach us also to wash one another’s feet. For by this means every tendency to arrogance will be kept in restraint, and every form of worldly vain-glory will depart from among us. For if He Who is by nature Lord acts the part of a servant, how shall one that is a servant refuse to undergo any of those things that are altogether proper for his condition, without suffering in consequence the worst possible penalty?