Holy Thursday in Times of coronavirus

This year, on most of the planet, Easter takes place in peculiar circumstances. I don’t know what celebrations will be expected within the different existing churches, nor the festivities planned by the Catholic church. But what may be an object of opportune meditation for everyone in the situation of the Wuhan virus global outbreak, is the evening mass gospel reading of Holy Thursday. For once, a liturgical reading is matching the news on a global scale. I couldn’t avoid reading, beforehand, the thirteenth chapter of the gospel according to John that all practising Christians in the world are going to hear on this Thursday evening. I wanted to add my own translation from the original text, and following, some of my personal comments. As I explained in my own introduction to Julian’s translation, I favour literal translation, sometimes anti-grammar translation, for meditative reasons.


1. Before Passover celebration, Jesus knowing that his hour came for moving from this world to the father, having loved his own people in the world, he loved them until the end. 2. And a dinner taking place, the slanderer [1] having already thrown to Judas of Simon Iscariot’s heart to [2] hand him over, 3. Jesus knowing that the father had given everything into his hands, and that he came out from a god [3] and he goes to the god [3], 4. he gets up from the dinner and putting down his clothes and taking a towel, he bound himself [with it]: 5. then he throws water to the basin, and he started washing the students’ feet [4] and to wipe them dry with the towel he was bound with.

6. Then he arrives at Simon Peter. He tells him: 「Lord, you, you wash my feet?」 7. Jesus answers and says to him: 「What I’m doing you don’t know now, you will come to know later on.」 8. Peter tells him: 「You won’t wash my feet forever [5]」. Jesus answers him: 「If I don’t wash you, you don’t have side with me.」 9. Simon Peter tells him: 「Lord, not only my feet but also the hands and the head.」

10. Jesus tells him: 「The one who has taken a bath has no need to wash if not the feet, but he is completely clean [6]: and you are clean [6], but not everyone.」 11. He knew indeed the one who was going to hand him over: because of this he said 「not everyone [of you] are clean.」 12. When he had washed their feet and had taken his clothes and reclined, he told them again: 「Do you [guys] understand what I have done to you? 13. You [guys] call me teacher [4] and lord, and you say well, I am indeed. 14. If I, the teacher and the lord, have washed your feet, you also owe to wash each other’s feet: 15. for I gave you [guys] an example so that, as I did for you, so you do.」


[1] The slanderer is τοῦ διαβόλου, usually translated by Christians with words like the devil and the connotations known for the concept linked to the word. The noun διάβολος comes from the prefix διά ‘through’ and the verb βάλλω ‘I throw’. The διάβολος is the one who ‘throws something through’ someone, as to disrupt someone’s walk, by bringing in an obstacle. Socially, this equates to the act of shaming someone by ‘throwing’ at the person some illegitimate accusations. The devil is not someone who brings in temptation, but someone who illegitimately accuses people. Society and religion themselves, as in the case of false accusations against Jesus, are a constant διάβολος.

[2] Literal translation for ἵνα with παραδοῖ: ‘the idea of’ handing him over.

[3] There is no article before θεοῦ but there is one for τὸν θεὸν. I chose to translate the first with the English indefinite article, since it’s the closest idea in classical translation, and the second one with a definite article. I acknowledge that my choice is also driven by the will of getting rid of conventional Christian translations which insist on writing God with a capital G and with no article. Grammatically, I see no reason for doing so.

[4] Μαθητῶν, genitive plural of μαθητής. A μαθητής is technically, ‘the one who studies’. In good English, this is a student. Christian tradition popularised the word disciple – from Latin equivalent discipulus – as some sacred form of believer who studied and then helps to spread the doctrine of Jesus. The original concept is much closer to prosaic reality. The noun μαθητής is even used in modern Greek for any type of school student, pupil or learner. And this was the case in the times of Jesus. This is the same issue with διδάσκαλος, conventionally translated as ‘master’. This ‘master’ concept can be understood only as a schoolmaster. Διδάσκαλος merely means ‘a teacher’. Basic and simple.

[5] The phrase εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα literally means ‘for the age’. This has to be compared with biblical Hebrew’s use of לְעולָם ‘for the world’ in the same connotation of eternity, a period of time that encompasses the known world or this human age.

[6] The concept of καθαρὸς – and later in the verse καθαροί – might raise the most important question here. Conventional translations render it as ‘pure’. I chose the more straightforward and basic adjective clean. I admit that even in Classical Greek, the word may have had moral connotations, but I believe, considering the scene, that the translation should be kept as close as possible to the basic physical approach. The gospel gives an explanation in verse 11. There is no need to overact the symbol. What is at stake here, is not the evilness of Judas, but rather the fact that someone – among the students – might not be clean enough to take part in the dinner. His intention to hand over his master to the authorities of Jerusalem is the dirtiness that maculates him. But this dirtiness is relative to the dinner itself and the group. Everyone, when walking in the street, gets their feet dirtied by the soil and the city’s grease. But when joining a dinner, you are expected by the group of your table companions, to be cleansed from that dirt. It is a circumstantial moral obligation, not a universal rule. For everyone has to be soiled by outdoor’s dirt at some point in their life, but they conform to norms of the group they pretend to belong with. And as for Judas, he is the one who might bring the disaster in the group, not because of some mystical evil, but because he is not alined with the group, as if he was touched by some disease that he would spread among his table companions. The ones who don’t want to accept the cleaning ritual, are a potential danger. They cannot have side with Jesus. They couldn’t attend the dinner. For that specific reason, this chapter in John’s gospel has some strong echo with the sanitary crisis we are living on earth these last weeks, and with the way each of us consider adapting to their environment.

Jean-Sébastien Desnanot


「1. Πρὸ δὲ τῆς ἑορτῆς τοῦ Πάσχα εἰδὼς ὁ Ἰησοῦς ὅτι ἦλθεν αὐτοῦ ἡ ὥρα ἵνα μεταβῇ ἐκ τοῦ κόσμου τούτου πρὸς τὸν πατέρα ἀγαπήσας τοὺς ἰδίους τοὺς ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ εἰς τέλος ἠγάπησεν αὐτούς. 2. Καὶ δείπνου γινομένου, τοῦ διαβόλου ἤδη βεβληκότος εἰς τὴν καρδίαν ἵνα παραδοῖ αὐτὸν Ἰούδας Σίμωνος Ἰσκαριώτου, 3. εἰδὼς ὅτι πάντα ἔδωκεν αὐτῷ ὁ πατὴρ εἰς τὰς χεῖρας, καὶ ὅτι ἀπὸ θεοῦ ἐξῆλθεν καὶ πρὸς τὸν θεὸν ὑπάγει, 4. ἐγείρεται ἐκ τοῦ δείπνου καὶ τίθησιν τὰ ἱμάτια καὶ λαβὼν λέντιον διέζωσεν ἑαυτόν· 5. εἶτα βάλλει ὕδωρ εἰς τὸν νιπτῆρα, καὶ ἤρξατο νίπτειν τοὺς πόδας τῶν μαθητῶν καὶ ἐκμάσσειν τῷ λεντίῳ ᾧ ἦν διεζωσμένος.

6. Ἔρχεται οὖν πρὸς Σίμωνα Πέτρον. Λέγει αὐτῷ· Κύριε, σύ μου νίπτεις τοὺς πόδας; 7. Ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ· Ὃ ἐγὼ ποιῶ σὺ οὐκ οἶδας ἄρτι, γνώσῃ δὲ μετὰ ταῦτα. 8. Λέγει αὐτῷ Πέτρος· Οὐ μὴ νίψῃς μου τοὺς πόδας εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα. Ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς αὐτῷ· Ἐὰν μὴ νίψω σε, οὐκ ἔχεις μέρος μετ’ ἐμοῦ. 9. Λέγει αὐτῷ Σίμων Πέτρος· Κύριε, μὴ τοὺς πόδας μου μόνον ἀλλὰ καὶ τὰς χεῖρας καὶ τὴν κεφαλήν.

10. Λέγει αὐτῷ ὁ Ἰησοῦς· Ὁ λελουμένος οὐκ ἔχει χρείαν εἰ μὴ τοὺς πόδας νίψασθαι, ἀλλ’ ἔστιν καθαρὸς ὅλος· καὶ ὑμεῖς καθαροί ἐστε, ἀλλ’ οὐχὶ πάντες. 11. ᾜδει γὰρ τὸν παραδιδόντα αὐτόν· διὰ τοῦτο εἶπεν ὅτι Οὐχὶ πάντες καθαροί ἐστε. 12. Ὅτε οὖν ἔνιψεν τοὺς πόδας αὐτῶν καὶ ἔλαβεν τὰ ἱμάτια αὐτοῦ καὶ ἀνέπεσεν, πάλιν εἶπεν αὐτοῖς· Γινώσκετε τί πεποίηκα ὑμῖν; 13. Ὑμεῖς φωνεῖτέ με Ὁ διδάσκαλος καὶ Ὁ κύριος, καὶ καλῶς λέγετε, εἰμὶ γάρ. 14. Εἰ οὖν ἐγὼ ἔνιψα ὑμῶν τοὺς πόδας ὁ κύριος καὶ ὁ διδάσκαλος, καὶ ὑμεῖς ὀφείλετε ἀλλήλων νίπτειν τοὺς πόδας· 15. ὑπόδειγμα γὰρ ἔδωκα ὑμῖν ἵνα καθὼς ἐγὼ ἐποίησα ὑμῖν καὶ ὑμεῖς ποιῆτε.」

Illustration Credit: Jesus Mafa, The Washing of the Feet, 1973

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