Hebrews 4:14-16 + 5:7-9
Mysteries, my brothers and sisters, surround us on this Friday we call Good. Let us look at just one of them in this homily. Let us try to penetrate ever so slightly the mystery contained in the remarkable sentence near the end of the long Gospel we have just heard.
“When the soldiers came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead one of them pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out.”
My brothers and sisters, blood and water flow from the pierced side of Jesus as he hangs dead on the cross. And immediately, immediately, the Gospel writer adds a parenthetical phrase, indicating by this how important he believed this seemingly random incident really was. He makes it clear that this story comes from an eyewitness account – someone testifies, proclaims unequivocally that this action took place. “He who saw this has testified so that you may also believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.”
How can blood and water flowing from the opened side of Jesus have such great significance for our faith? Some commentators will say it is because it proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus truly died. He did not feign death, but truly suffered the end of mortal life and shared completely in the curse of Adam.
St John himself seems to link it with the fact that like the Paschal lamb, no bone of Jesus’ body was broken, and so Jesus is the new Passover sacrifice – dying for the life of the people.
These two understandings, that Jesus truly died and he did it as the Paschal Lamb are valid and show the way we can delve into a mystery of Jesus’ life and death.
When dealing with mystery we are not dealing with a logical process that allows only black or white, either/or. We are rather dealing with a gemstone, a diamond, for example, that has many facets, that shows a different face depending on how you look at it.
So let us look at a few facets of this mystery of the opened side of Jesus. For we, my brothers and sisters, are inserted into a long tradition that has pondered this text and this event.
A first facet. Our forebears loved to contrast this opened side of Jesus with the image of the opened side of Adam. God cast a deep sleep on Adam and opened his side, took out a rib, and formed Eve to be the companion, the other half of Adam. So did Jesus sleep the sleep of death on the Cross and from his total sacrifice the Church was born. For the Church, the mystery of you and me linked together as the people of God, is formed from the foundational sacraments of the water of baptism and the blood of the Eucharist.
The quotation from the prophet Zechariah that St John indicates can help us see other facets of the mystery of the opened side.
“And I will pour out a spirit of compassion and supplication on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that, when they look on the one whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child.”
Seeing the one we have pierced, the one whose side has been opened, we are filled with wonder and love at the gift of God, a gift that draws us together as one and gives us hope that in the midst of death there is life.
But there is yet another facet to be seen in the mystery of the opened side. The prophet continues: “On that day a fountain shall be opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity.”
Remember that earlier passage in John’s Gospel: “Out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water. Now he said this of the Spirit.” This is the fountain spoken of by the prophet. A fountain springing from the opened side of Jesus on the cross that cleanses us of our sin and forms us into the new people of God by the power of the Spirit. The opened side becomes the font we will bless at the Paschal Vigil and cry out:
Springs of water, bless the Lord; give him glory and praise forever.
What is said of the opened side can also be understood for all the wounds of Christ. Remember, our Paschal Candle will be adorned with five incense sticks as symbols of these wounds. Thus the wounds of Christ become facets of our entry into the heart of the diamond that is the mystery of salvation. They are the doors to the kingdom. They are the cleft of the rock in which we are hidden with each other to experience the presence of the Living God. Is this not what we sang at Vespers every weekday in Lent?
Through you, O Virgin Mary, we drink from the wellsprings of salvation, from the wounds of Christ.