“I give you a new commandment, says the Lord: love one another.” John 13:34.
Jesus tells us: “This is how all will know you are my disciples, your love for one another.”
Today’s passage from Saint John’s gospel contains two neglected throw-away lines, and like water over pebbles, such details often go unnoticed because of the rapid streams or the cascade of fast-moving events.
First, the phrase, “My children, I will be with you only a little while longer,” has a clear sense of urgency.
If Saint Jerome, the all-important interpreter of scripture, is correct, calling the apostles and disciples “little children” comes with the fact that John’s gospel was completed in Ephesus (in present-day Turkey) and composed when John was 90 years old.
Everyone to the “beloved disciple” was younger at a time when the faith community experienced severe persecutions. Thus, John’s message is comforting and encouraging.
Another line worth noting is how this selection begins: “When Judas had left them.” The entire passage comes from Jesus’s “farewell discourses.” It describes the scene at the last supper, this banquet in which Jesus commands love among his followers and even toward enemies close by.
What does this moment mean for us? How might this scene influence others to love one another?
Long before Instagram, artists labored to bring this last supper scene to life. In those hidden places like the catacombs underneath ancient Rome, wall murals depict the communal celebration of the Lord’s supper.
So many years later, in 1495, Leonardo DaVinci’s “Il Cenacolo” towered above the walls of a convent dining room or refectory in Milan’s Santa Maria Delle Grazie. This painting has remained a masterwork, and we cannot think of the Last Supper without reference to this iconic painting. So much like DaVinci’s Mona Lisa, these are one-of-a-kind representations that have been etched into the collective Western mind.
I viewed the Last Supper in 1967, and at the time, it was off-setting and disappointing since the painting was in such bad condition. During World War II, the buildings nearby suffered from Allied bombings. Over the centuries, the refectory had been used as a stable and storage room or warehouse. The artwork which is not technically considered a fresco had accumulated years of dust and abuse. In attempting to construct openings for doors between the kitchen and the cafeteria, the lower portion of the masterpiece was altered and badly damaged. However, in the last decade, the painting has been restored to its unique brilliance.
Like water over a pebble, something more delicate requires mentioning. Namely, those eating together in the room possessed a higher bond in their day-to-day communal behavior as a religious community or family that must also be seen in their lives and work. In other words, this painting which had been duplicated for religious art and placed in the homes of millions, is a reminder of our community or family identity.
Without this bond of love toward one another or this witness and outreach to those in need, people searching for Christ may never see or hear him. Indeed, this table must be a “table of welcome” for all those who come to Christ.
By living this blessed life as Jesus envisioned it, people will stop in their tracks to listen and notice Christ in us. Such a scene of DaVinci’s last supper with its aura and lasting representation of Jesus is the human face of God among us.
Rosary Chapel, Santa Catalina School, Monterey, CA