Pauca Verba is Latin for A Few Words.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Holy Thursday: Jesus Forfeits Power

Ford Maddox Brown 1821-1893

Holy Thursday is many-themed: Jesus gives the gift of the Eucharist. Jesus gives the gift of the priesthood. Jesus gives the mandatum, the mandate to humble service.

But there is another theme I think goes un-noticed: that Jesus has forfeited all power in assuming the role of a slave. Though scholars say the custom of washing feet as a gesture of hospitality was not universally observed, here it seems that the servant who might have been there to welcome the guests, simply didn't show up. Or maybe the apostles forgot to arrange it.

At any rate, Jesus interrupts the meal to do the foot washing job, as if to say, "You know, if there wasn't anyone to do the foot washing when we came in tonight, by now I would have expected you'd have done it for each other. What don't you get, I've been talking about service for three years now." 

Ford Maddox Brown has painted the scene. Notice that Jesus is barefoot; only slaves went without shoes in the ancient world. And notice too that the artist has shown Jesus without his clothes, as he will appear when he dies the next day. "...and he got up from table, removed is outer garments and, taking a towel, wrapped it round his waist..." (John 13: 3,4)

Bottom line: Jesus forfeits all power; he's puts himself on the bottom rung of the ladder. The original sin is power: "No! You will not die! God knows in fact that the day you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods..."  (Genesis 3:4) Jesus will have none of it; only God has the power. 

Power is everywhere: in church, politics, business, schools, relationships and family. Of course, "the buck stops here" and someone has to be in charge to make things run smoothly, but we know when we've seen or heard power-abuse in ourselves or in others. And so much of what we experience as power could be made more palatable, less degrading, more helpful and productive if it was turned into service. 

So let's be done with loudness, threats, manipulation, curses, the silent treatment, blackmail, impressive displays, playing one-up and can-you-top-this, getting even and posturing. Jesus manages so well without power - it's his way.


  1. Father, I have enjoyed this Lenten preparation during these past weeks. A very blessed Easter to you! May the light of the Risen Lord shine warmly upon you.

  2. Footwashing was something wives did for their husbands, children for their parents, and disciples for their teachers. A level of intimacy is involved in these situations unlike when a slave or hired hand would do it. In Jesus' case, there is an obvious reversal of roles with his disciples. He exerts no power over them. But as with most of what Jesus has said and done, they will fully understand this event only after the cross and resurrection and the coming of the Spirit.

  3. Has there ever been a time when power didn't influence the events of history? It seems like there has never been a time without power struggles and abuse of power. Maybe you are envisioning Utopia. Jesus led by example, but he must have known what would become of us.

  4. Well, the Genesis story "Eat this fruit you'll be like gods" seems to suggest that power has been the spoiler from very early on in our human story. I'm not envisioning a utopia - only this moment and the example of Jesus. I can't be responsible for utopia - that's God's business - just today with its interactions, thoughts and choices. That "it's always been that way" means nothing to me.

  5. Sometimes we hold power over people with our words. We don't realize the importance of the power of speech, but we can hurt our family, our friends, our colleagues and even strangers with what we say. We can render others powerless with our tongues. Sometimes we should allow ourselves to just be silent, forfeiting our power as Jesus did. It is not a weakness to let someone else have the last word.

  6. Oddly enough these words are empowering. Knowing our inheritance, where it came from and listening and reflecting on thoughts from men and women like yourself, Fr. Stephen, empowers us to humility, stillness, service and love. It takes a very strong person to do all these things. I know quite a few but for myself have to work on it with every moment I'm given.