The Gift of Example
Dear friends, here and scattered in our network of grace: May the Lord give you peace!
Once, a few years ago, I presented an afternoon lecture in Portland, Oregon. The people had asked for some type of reflection on the simple phrase we recite every Sunday in the creed: “He came down from heaven and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became a human being.” In the course of the afternoon one of the participants in the back row, on the right, jumped up and said, “I got it,” and she told me this story. She was a nurse working at a local hospital.
“One day, his parents brought into my ward, their small son who had broken his right arm in multiple places. The emergency room had plastered the arm from the tip of the fingers to the shoulder blades, and he could hardly move it was so heavy. He had been in a bicycle accident and the rest of his body was lacerated all over. He would need to stay a week just to recover from the trauma. Day after day we placed his food tray in front of him—breakfast, lunch, dinner. He tried to eat with his left hand but couldn’t do it. Every time he raised the fork he hit the side of his cheek, not his mouth. “Danny,” I said, “eat; you need this to get well.” I cajoled, talked, explained, even helped him raise the fork in his left hand to his mouth; but it wouldn’t work. Finally, he just gave up.
“I got worried; he was getting no nourishment for his life. One night, the answer came to me in a dream. And the next morning I walked into his room and was met with Danny’s words: “What happened to you?” “I had an accident last night,” I said. “Wow, some accident,” he replied. “You have a cast on your right arm from your fingers to your shoulder.” “Yes,” I said, I am now just like you.” So, I sat down beside him, two friends fumbling as we tried to eat some breakfast. It was more difficult than I had imagined—I had never eaten food with my left hand, and as I struggled with him, Danny and I, over time, ate together. Following the example of someone just like himself, learning not by word but by example, sharing in the same spirit, we cried and laughed together, and Danny came back to life.
Today’s Gospel begins and ends with the same refrain: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” “He who obeys the commandments he has from me, is the one who loves me.” (Jn. 14.15, 21). Jesus has said these or similar words five times throughout this section of John’s Good News. They must be important. Two citations suffice: “I give you a new commandment. By your love for one another, such as my love has been for you, so must your love be for each other.” (13.34). “This is my commandment, love one another as I have loved you.” (15.12; cf. 15.17, 15.13-14).
Are these words really a commandment, a legal formula designed to bring us into line? Do they set a lofty ideal to which we give allegiance but is the norm so high that all we do is feel guilty that we cannot make it? Who loves as our Lord loves? Or, is the commandment so lofty and vague that we are left free to define and judge for ourselves what are the identifiable markers of another person’s Christian life? Let us remember that this whole section of John’s Gospel has been preceded by a really stunning example, one that we examined a few weeks ago. “Jesus—fully aware that he had come from God and was going to God, the Father who had handed everything over to him, rose from the meal and took off his cloak. He picked up a towel and tied it around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples feet and dry them with the towel he had around him.” (13.3-5). Our Lord’s words about obedience, commandments, mutual love, laying down one’s life, are not legal formulas but self-definitions of who he is for us. They have credibility and power, as with the nurse and little Danny, only because he has first shared the disciples struggles and within them performed God’s deeds. We are there with the disciples who have received his invitation to share his life with the wonderful words, “come and see” (Jn.1.39); together we have rejoiced at his super abundant responsiveness so that we might celebrate a feast of human love; (2.1-12); we know about his willing courtesy to meet with Nicodemus at night, so as to respect the poor man’s honor and allay his social fears (3.1-2); we eat with the disciples the food and friendship he provides for us as he takes what little is provided , gives thanks, and shares with the many (Jn. 6); we are moved at his weeping when his friends lose a loved one; we are wonder-struck when his power over death restores family members to each other (11.35, 43; 12.1); we see with the disciples his perseverance in his faithfulness to God’s liberality in the midst of those whose hearts and eyes are closed to the woman taken in adultery (Jn. 8,1-10, 31-59). A lofty commandment is here translated into daily, faithful, merciful , wondrous, forgiving, affirming actions for others. Taking our condition, its joys and its sorrows, upon himself, our Lord through his human journey injects into his disciple’s lives an invitation into God’s life by loving their neighbor; he shows us through companionship the great dignity , possibility, and challenge of being human for each other in the midst of a suffering world. Our Lord is the nurse of our souls.
Jesus performs actions filled with humility and charity that others can see with their eyes, that they can taste with their mouth and touch with their hands, actions that pass the “smell test,” actions that enflesh for others the service of one’s own life. He gives flesh to actions that refuse to narrow God’s grace to human standards of worth but instead use human freedom to expand another’s well being.
This living norm of example is a gift from God. And now, in the Gospel, we catch the disciples on the eve of the crucifixion walking only tentatively a path shaped by the passion story’s pandemic of this world’s fragilities and sins: severe disappointment at the way life has turend out, persecution of the innocent, dismissal of those without power, the loss of loved ones, death, anger, the futility of a life of isolation, abandonment by one’s friends, political and religious machinations, yelling crowds, fear of the future, the feeling of the absence of God. All of these signs of a pandemic of fragility and sin are present in the passion story. And how does Jesus deal with them? In this situation, if we follow our Lord’s example and choose to embrace the cross of our own history as he did and in our own small way (all of the disciples did not succeed) in the same way he did it —even with the destruction the world’s pandemics unleash — astounding things will happen: Our actions will be accompanied by a presence that unites us to a life more powerful than anything we can imagine (“my Father is greater than all…” 10.29, 14.28): An advocate will be with us always and defend us before the judgment seat of history; we will see in our neighbor the wounded risen Lord who is our companion as one who has life and we will have life; even more, in the midst of our imagined isolation, God will make of us a home and we will be always in the Father’s hands. And with our small actions accompanied by presence God will release the power that overcomes the world. “As I have done, so too you must do.” (Jn. 13.15)
Our nurse in Portland took on her patient’s suffering, accompanied it, and gave power by her healing touch. Our Lord, the Nurse-Practitioner, has taken on our struggles, given us a living example before the world, and now invites us to follow in his footsteps. Who could ask for a better path, a more worthwhile mission? “Love one another as I have loved you.” The Lord is risen, Alleluia.
Joseph P. Chinnici
Franciscan School of Theology at the University of San Diego
May 17, 2020