Jesus’ words at the last supper are important because they occur so near the end of his life, a privileged place. Here Jesus addresses one of the hardest things in any relationship—saying a final good-bye. To help retreatants appreciate this gospel section (John 14-17), I’ve asked them, “if you knew you were going to die tomorrow, what would you want to tell your loved ones?” Given the narrow time frame, they focus on what’s really important, and forget their petty concerns. Like the goodbye calls on September 11, the content is nothing but love.
Likewise, Jesus’ final discourse contains precious gold. Rarely does he mention sin. (So too, if we were telling our children, spouses, relatives or friends goodbye, it’s doubtful that we would catalogue their failures.) Instead, he speaks of a flow of love that began in creation, and that must wash even protesting Peter. “Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me” (John 13:8). The stream image continues in the words of the Mass where the presider addresses God as “the fountain of all holiness.”
What we may need most in grief is presence. A woman dealing with multiple losses said appreciatively of her counselor: “I told her this was a 4-Kleenex day!”
That is our first, feeling response. Those who share it with us perform an important work of mercy. But at another level, human beings strive for understanding. Our urge to make meaning underlies the natural question, “why?” When we face distress, we seek other people of faith standing in a tradition to help us ground our sorrow within the meaning of Christ’s suffering.
That was exactly the frame of reference used by a woman visiting her brother Frank in the burn unit of a hospital. A nurse asked if she’d seen Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion.” “Why would I need to see that?” she replied. “If I wanted to see the passion, all I’d need to do is watch you change Frank’s dressings.”
Healthy people reject a God who would cause pain. But they are drawn to one who suffers it with them.
In Luke’s account (22:48) of the betrayal, Jesus seems startled when Judas approaches him in the garden. “Judas, do you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?” he asks. The symbol of love twisted to betrayal mirrors the deepest human sorrow. We are hurt the most by those we love; the others we don’t care that much about.
Yet even before Judas’ lips have lifted from Jesus’ cheek, before the kiss has dried, comes forgiveness. Within Jesus is a deep pool of compassion, also experienced by the woman taken in adultery, the paralytic lowered through the roof and the man born blind. How hard it must be for Judas to expect revulsion and find instead unrelenting love. How hard it is for us, expecting retribution, to discover instead the infinite well of mercy.
As if Judas’ betrayal weren’t enough, Jesus must also endure Peter’s too. After Peter’s triple denial, one line is heart-breaking: “The Lord turned around and looked straight at Peter…” (22:61). What hurt that look must contain; it prompts Peter to “weep bitterly.”
But another emotion is there as well, a hope that prompts Peter to repent. He and Judas do the same thing, but respond differently. When Jesus asks “Do you love me?” three times, and Peter answers yes, the slate is wiped clean. He is completely forgiven.
The message this gospel contains is that there is nothing Jesus cannot forgive. We live out the rest of our lives within that look, knowing that it falls not only on us but on our most despised enemy. No matter what any of us have done, we simply cannot move outside the circle of God’s compassion.