Adapted from a homily given to seminarians at the Pontifical North American College, Vatican City State (April 2018)

The 13th Chapter of the Evangelist John’s Gospel is a curious thing. For a moment, let’s remind ourselves of some of the rules of the road in order to understand what it is that Saint John the Beloved is doing in his presentation of the Lord Jesus’ Gospel. The divisions that I am making comes from many Catholic biblical scholars of many different perspectives. I am well aware that the Evangelist most likely did not have these hard and fast distinctions in his mind when he wrote his Gospel! 

Saint John’s Gospel begins with his Prologue, which, as many of us know, is used as “The Last Gospel” at Holy Mass in the Extraordinary Form. “In the beginning was the Word…” puts Saint John’s readers into an understanding that the Son of God, our Lord Jesus, is truly from all eternity, coming out of the love that is the Most Blessed Trinity. The Gospel of John ends with an Epilogue, which tells us plainly “There are also many other things that Jesus did, but if these were to be described individually, I do not think the whole world would contain the books that would be written.” But, let’s focus in on the center section of John’s Gospel.

Some scripture scholars break Saint John’s Gospel into two parts: Chapter 1-11 is called the Book of Signs and Chapter 12-22 is called the Book of Glory. In John’s Gospel, we have a very particular phrase for what are called miracles in the other Gospels. In John, we call them “signs.” For the sake of simplicity of explanation, all I will say is that each sign, each act that Jesus performs in this first part of John’s Gospels, gets bigger and bigger, each one pointing to the reality that is right in front of the people of Jesus’ day- namely that this Man is the Messiah. From the wedding feast at Cana in John 2 to the healings that our Lord performs, to our Lord’s greatest sign of his Divinity prior to his own Resurrection, the raising of the three-day-dead Lazarus from the dead in John 11, each of these signs make those who experience them (and us who read and pray about them, too!) to have to make a choice — either this man, Jesus, is Lord and God, or he is something else, very, very different. The Book of Glory, the remaining 12 chapters of the Johannine Gospel, presents to us a sophisticated Passion narrative, beautifully culminating with the Lord’s resurrection. 

However, we might want to look at today’s reading, this 13th chapter, as a separate book. I have heard this 13th chapter, one in which the Lord Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, as a separate entity altogether. I have heard it described as the Book of Humiliation. I first heard this phrase used many years ago when I was a seminarian taking a class at the Gregorian University on Saint Augustine’s Sermons on the Gospel of John and it has always stuck with me throughout my priesthood, teaching me a powerful lesson — namely, that after the signs, before the glory, comes the humiliation. 

In imitation of the Lord Jesus, the God who humbles himself to share in our humanity, we priests and future priests, need to recognize that, in our vocations to service of God and his Holy People, we have to have the signs. We journey, in discernment, through the signs, the call, that we have received in our priestly vocations. We struggle to understand who we are as men, as Christians, and through our yes to the call, in the yes from our bishops to begin formation, through our yes to learn to become a man fully integrated in all four pillars of formation, human, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral, we come from all the signs that we and the Church, as expressed through our formators, are receiving, to the presumption of permanence in our vocations, that this is truly what the Lord wants from our life. We recall that it is a “double discernment,” our own discernment to the call to service as a priest, but also the Church’s discernment of our own call to priesthood.

Having come to the presumption of permanence in our vocation, we, by being open, attentive, reasonable, and loving in our seminary formation, no doubt will have to have our own “Book of Humiliation.” We are broken, humbled in little ways and in great, not out of spite or hatred, but by the Lord so that he can show us our weakness, so that we, in our poverty, can have our feet washed, to go from the “son of perdition” into the arms of the Son of Man. Each of our “books of humility” are different; each of us have our own unique “thorns in our flesh” which we must endure, but, if we are able at the end to present a man, broken, yes, but healed in Christ, to the Church, at our petition for Holy Orders, we can be move to not our, but the Lord Jesus’ “Book of Glory,” a vocation discerned wisely and well, a priestly life lived through Christ, and with Him, and in Him for service of God’s Church. Recall, though, that throughout the Book of Glory that the Lord is writing in our lives, we will always have the Book of Humiliation being written in our daily struggles. The signs lead to the humility, which leads, not to our own glory, but that of the Lord Jesus and his work for the salvation of God’s Holy People.