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Home > Fathers of the Church > Tractates on the Gospel of John (Augustine) > Tractate 56

Tractate 56 (John 13:6-10)

1. When the Lord was washing the disciples' feet, He comes to Simon Peter; and Peter says unto Him, Lord, dost Thou wash my feet? For who would not be filled with fear at having his feet washed by the Son of God? Although, therefore, it was a piece of the greatest audacity for the servant to contradict his Lord, the creature his God; yet Peter preferred doing this to the suffering of his feet to be washed by his Lord and God. Nor ought we to think that Peter was one among others who so expressed their fear and refusal, seeing that others before him had suffered it to be done to themselves with cheerfulness and equanimity. For it is easier so to understand the words of the Gospel, because that, after saying, He began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith He was girded, it is then added, Then comes He to Simon Peter, as if He had already washed the feet of some, and after them had now come to the first of them all. For who can fail to know that the most blessed Peter was the first of the apostles? But we are not so to understand it, that it was after some others that He came to him; but that He began with him. When, therefore, He began to wash the disciples' feet, He came to him with whom He began, namely, to Peter; and then Peter took fright at what any one of them might have been frightened, and said, Lord, dost Thou wash my feet? What is implied in this Thou? And what in my? These are subjects for thought rather than for speech; lest perchance any adequate conception the soul may have formed of such words may fail of explanation in the utterance.

2. But Jesus answered and said unto him, What I do you know not now, but you shall know hereafter. And not even yet, terrified as he was by the sublimity of the Lord's action, does he allow it to be done, while ignorant of its purpose; but is unwilling to see, unable to endure, that Christ should thus humble Himself to his very feet. You shall never, he says, wash my feet. What is this never [in æternum]? I will never endure, never suffer, never permit it: that is, a thing is not done in æternum which is never done. Then the Saviour, to terrify His reluctant patient with the danger of his own salvation, says, If I wash you not, you shall have no part with me. He speaks in this way, If I wash you not, when He was referring only to his feet; just as it is customary to say, You are trampling on me, when it is only the foot that is trampled on. And now the other, in a perturbation of love and fear, and more frightened at the thought that Christ should be withheld from him, than even to see Him humbled at his feet, exclaims, Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head. Since this, indeed, is Your threat, that my bodily members must be washed by You, not only do I no longer withhold the lowest, but I lay the foremost also at Your disposal. Deny me not having a part with You, and I deny You not any part of my body to be washed.

3. Jesus says to him, He that is washed needs not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit. Some one perhaps may be aroused at this, and say: Nay, but if he is every whit clean, what need has He even to wash his feet? But the Lord knew what He was saying, even though our weakness reach not into His secret purposes. Nevertheless, so far as He is pleased to instruct and teach us out of His law, up to the little measure of my apprehension, I would also, with His help, make some answer bearing on the depths of this question: and, first of all, I shall have no difficulty in showing that there is no self-contradiction in the manner of expression. For who may not say, as here, with the greatest propriety, He is all clean, except his feet?— although he would speak with greater elegance were he to say, He is all clean, save his feet; which is equivalent in meaning. Thus, then, does the Lord say, He needs not save to wash his feet, but is all clean. All, that is, except, or save his feet, which he still needs to wash.

4. But what is this? What does it mean? And what is there in it we need to examine? The Lord says, The Truth declares that even he who has been washed has need still to wash his feet. What, my brethren, what think you of it, save that in holy baptism a man has all of him washed, not all save his feet, but every whit; and yet, while thereafter living in this human state, he cannot fail to tread on the ground with his feet. And thus our human feelings themselves, which are inseparable from our mortal life on earth, are like feet wherewith we are brought into sensible contact with human affairs; and are so in such a way, that if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 1 John 1:8 And every day, therefore, is He who intercedes for us, Romans 8:34 washing our feet: and that we, too have daily need to be washing our feet, that is ordering aright the path of our spiritual footsteps, we acknowledge even in the Lord's prayer, when we say, Forgive us our debts as we also forgive our debtors. Matthew 6:12 For if, as it is written, we confess our sins, then verily is He, who washed His disciples' feet, faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness, 1 John 1:9 that is, even to our feet wherewith we walk on the earth.

5. Accordingly the Church, which Christ cleanses with the washing of water in the word, is without spot and wrinkle, Ephesians 5:26-27 not only in the case of those who are taken away immediately after the washing of regeneration from the contagious influence of this life, and tread not the earth so as to make necessary the washing of their feet, but in those also who have experienced such mercy from the Lord as to be enabled to quit this present life even with feet that have been washed. But although the Church be also clean in respect of those who tarry on earth, because they live righteously; yet have they need to be washing their feet, because they assuredly are not without sin. For this cause is it said in the Song of Songs, I have washed my feet; how shall I defile them? Song of Songs 5:3 For one so speaks when he is constrained to come to Christ, and in coming has to bring his feet into contact with the ground. But again, there is another question that arises. Is not Christ above? has He not ascended into heaven, and sits He not at the Father's right hand? Does not the apostle expressly declare, If you, then, be risen with Christ, set your thoughts on those things which are above, where Christ is sitting on the right hand of God. Seek the things which are above, not things which are on earth? Colossians 3:1-2 How is it, then, that to get to Christ we are compelled to tread the earth, since rather our hearts ought to be turned upwards toward the Lord, that we may be enabled to dwell in His presence? You see, brethren, the shortness of the time today curtails our consideration of this question. And if you perhaps fail in some measure to do so, yet I for my part see how much clearing up it requires. And therefore I beg of you to suffer it rather to be adjourned, than to be treated now in too negligent and restricted a manner; and your expectations will not be defrauded, but only deferred. For the Lord who thus makes us your debtors, will be present to enable us also to pay our debts.

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Source. Translated by John Gibb. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 7. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1888.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1701056.htm>.

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