The first verse of the 13th chapter of the Gospel of John forms a solemn portico that introduces us to the mystery of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus, or, in the case of the fourth Gospel, to the mystery of his glorification: "Before the feast of the Passover, Jesus, knowing that his hour had come to pass from this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, loved them to the end.".
The evangelist emphasizes the love of Jesus for his own: he has loved them up to this point, and now he is about to "complete" this love. Following the usual division of the fourth Gospel into two parts (said summarily: "book of signs," chapters 1-12; and "book of glory," chapters 13-21), the verb "to love" (ἀγαπάω), which appears few times in the first part, is very abundant in the second. With this word, the evangelist wants to express the relationship between the Son and the Father, that of the Son with respect to his disciples and that of the disciples among themselves.
But the scarce use of that verb in the first part is compensated for in this first verse, since the past participle "having loved", which summarizes the manifestation of Jesus to the world as Messiah by means of his signs and words (chapters 1-12). That love will have a continuity in a maximum culmination, because now, "Jesus knowing that his hour had come to pass from this world to the Father."Jesus will give his own life for his own.
The expression "to the extreme" (εἰς τέλος) could be interpreted in two senses: one rather temporal-quantitative, "to the end." Thus it is said, for example, of Moses, when he finished writing the law "to the end" (ἕως εἰς τέλος, Dt 31:24), and another rather qualitative, "absolutely, altogether." It is possible that the evangelist wants to express both senses, which in fact complement or almost identify each other. On the one hand, the temporal fact of loving to the end is expressing that this surrender is voluntary, according to what Jesus says in the discourse of the "Good Shepherd." "For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life so that I may take it back. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own free will." (Jn 10:17). This union of Jesus to the will of his Father in heaven is often indicated in the Gospel by the expression that things are to come to pass "according to the Scriptures".
For example, while Jesus was with his disciples in Gethsemane, when they attacked the servant of the high priest, Jesus said: "Sheathe the sword: for all they that draw the sword shall die by the sword: thinkest thou that I cannot go to my Father? he would send me at once more than twelve legions of angels: how then shall the scriptures be fulfilled, which say that this must come to pass?" (Mt 26:51-54). Jesus' response to Peter in the fourth Gospel is along the same lines: "Put the sword in the scabbard. The cup my Father has given me, shall I not drink it?" (Jn 18:11).
Obedience and love merge, in such a way that the term τέλος acquires a maximum value in the heart of Jesus, because when that love reaches the end, in reality it is that it has reached perfection, the perfect ending. That end is death on the Cross, when Jesus says: "It is fulfilled." (τετέλεσται, verb of the same root as τέλος, Jn 21:30). It is the mode of "passing from this world to the Father", through the supreme love manifested in the gift of self unto death on the Cross.
The washing of the feet and the Eucharist
John does not recount the institution of the Eucharist (the four accounts are in the First Letter to the Corinthians and in the three synoptic Gospels) but the context in which chapters 13 to 17 take place is that of the Last Supper: so it is said in 13:2: "They were having dinner." Therefore, the expression "he loved them to the end" should also be understood in a liturgical-Eucharistic context. In fact, if we remove the subordinate sentences that are interspersed in the verse, the phrase remains as clear as that: "Before the feast of the Passover [...] he loved them to the end." The institution of the Eucharist will be "before" Easter, before the immolation of the lambs, it will be an "anticipation" of Christ's self-giving on the Cross.
Moreover, the account of the washing of the feet (13:4-12) is introduced by another solemn affirmation that expresses the culmination of the relationship of love and union of wills between Jesus and the Father: "Jesus, knowing that the Father had placed everything in his hands, that he came from God and returned to God, rises from the table, takes off his robe..." (13, 3-4). The union between the Son and the Father gives way to a material gesture. It is a sign that this gesture has a strong meaning: it is an expression of that love to the extreme, a love that purifies, that makes the one who receives it clean ("ye are clean", Jn 13:10) and which is sacramentally anticipated in the Eucharist that Jesus institutes at that supper. There is a new purity, superior to the merely ritual and external.
Teaching in the synagogue of Capernaum, Jesus will say: "He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood dwells in me and I in him." (Jn 6:56). Thus, in the words of Joseph Ratzinger in Jesus of NazarethJesus, "who is God and Man at the same time, makes us capable of God. What is essential is to be in his Body, to be penetrated by his presence". The ancient sacrifices looked to the future, they were sacramentum futuri. With the paschal mystery, sacramentally anticipated in the Eucharist, the hour of newness has arrived, and it could be said that "love to the extreme" has arrived. For this reason, St. John Paul II can say in his encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia: "A great mystery, a mystery of mercy, what more could Jesus do for us? Truly, in the Eucharist he shows us a love that goes 'to the end' (Jn 13:1), a love that knows no measure." (n. 11). And this love will be the model of conduct for the existence of the disciples: "You also ought to wash one another's feet: I have set you an example..." (Jn 13:14-15), so that the Christian, in some way, must be bread for others.
This relationship between "love to the end" and the Eucharist reveals another meaning of this expression: "forever" or "continually. The Eucharist is the love of Jesus for his own forever, without any solution of continuity, manifested in the celebration of the Eucharistic sacrament, which makes present the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross, and in his real presence in the tabernacles under the Eucharistic species. This sense also appears in the Old Testament, for example, in the testament of David to his son Solomon, in which he tells him that if he forsakes the Lord, the Lord will forsake him. "forever." (εἰς τέλος, 1Chr 28:9; cf. also Est 3:13g).
The love of Jesus is unconditional. For those "his own" who did not receive him, Jesus gives his life by coming to his house in the flesh (cf. Jn 1:11,14), by manifesting himself in signs and words (ch. 1-12) and then in a total and definitive way with the giving of his life on the Cross and with his sacramental presence among us, also giving an example of conduct: the disciple must maintain an attitude of selfless service to his brother, making himself bread for others.
Professor of Sacred Scripture