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 The Writer's Desk:  an NCR Web column
Each week, a member of the NCR staff offers a commentary on one or more topics in the news. It's our way of introducing you to some of the people carrying out the NCR mission of faith and justice based journalism.

April 6, 2004
Vol. 2, No. 2




Pat Marrin Gray water and an armload of soiled towels

By Pat Marrin, editor of Celebration

"One of you will betray me." John 13:21

It is well known and intriguing that John's Gospel, regarded by most scholars as the latest and most theologically sophisticated of the portraits of Jesus, does not include the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. What is most prominent in Jesus final legacy to his disciples is his washing of their feet, the dramatic sign of servant leadership.

We might imagine ourselves entering the upper room in search of the Last Supper, our expectation of the scene shaped by Leonardo da Vinci's famous painting. We scan the room to locate Jesus, the most prominent character, the focal point of the tableau, seated in the center of the twelve, a golden cup and plate before him containing the bread and wine. But he is missing. The servant we passed on the way in, carrying out a basin of gray water and an armload of soiled towels, was Jesus.

Imagine the scene again. You enter a hotel ballroom during a national meeting of Catholic bishops looking for the head of the conference, only to be told that the guy carrying the plastic bin full of dirty cups to the kitchen might be the one you are looking for.

Also by Pat Marrin
Apr. 5, 2004 Recovering Christianity's core drama
Feb. 6, 2004 When a local church is decapitated
Feb. 5, 2004 The Good News meets the daily news
Feb. 4, 2004 Jesus had a credibility problem
Feb. 3, 2004 The sacrament of touch
Dec. 5, 2003 We are expecting a baby
Dec. 3, 2003 Just one pope away from ...
Dec. 2, 2003 'Hope is the thing with feathers'
Dec. 1, 2003 Peace: the minimum requirement
Oct. 31, 2003 Freely chosen reality
Oct. 30, 2003 The burden of servant leadership
The imagery is provocative and significant if we are to translate Jesus' original gesture and instruction into contemporary terms. Servant leadership is inseparable from the breaking of the bread, both signs of the one who came not to be served but to serve and to give his life for others. The style of leadership modeled by the late Bishop Untener of Saginaw, Mich., is now inseparable from his memorable self-introduction at his installation almost 25 years earlier: "My name is Ken, and I will be your waiter."

Another provocative detail in John's account of the Last Supper in Chapter 13 is the parallel between Jesus' foot washing as the sign of servant leadership and the scene in Chapter 12, where Mary of Bethany washes and anoints Jesus' own feet. In search of the perfect gesture to establish the pre-eminence of self-emptying, heart-breaking love among his followers, Jesus lavishes on them the sign first lavished on him by a woman. Were there any women at the Last Supper? In John's Gospel, a woman has already decisively directed Jesus' farewell dinner. Women will be present to witness the reality of Jesus' death signified at the meal, and their eagerness to serve him will make them the first witnesses to his resurrection.

Who betrays Jesus? Judas is fingered in all four Gospel accounts as the perfidious failure, whose greed or disillusionment or misguided strategy to force Jesus' hand leads to the fulfillment of the Scriptures and the tragic events of that night. There will be failure enough to go around: Peter's cowardice, sword play in the garden, the abandonment of Jesus by all the others, except the women and the Beloved Disciple. Other betrayals and denials will follow. A church in love with money, seduced by power, refashioned with an all-male inner circle, blessing the just war and the inevitable disparities of wealth and privilege.

Which is why we mark Holy Week and allow the Gospel accounts of the breaking of the bread, the washing of the feet, to probe our hearts over and over again.

Pat Marrin's e-mail addres is Celebration, NCR's sister publication, is an ecumenical worship resource. For a preview, follow this link: Celebration.
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