— Andrew McKearney’s final sermon in the series on the Wounds of Christ —
Revelation 1.4-8 and John 19.31-37
The last wound on Jesus’ body was made after he had died. Seeing that he was already dead, there was no need for the soldiers to break his legs to hasten his death but instead they pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out.
Why was this done? Most likely, to ensure that Christ was dead. The verb used here can describe either a prodding, to make sure that the victim really was dead, or a deep plunging, to finish him off – both are possible. But whichever it was, the purpose was the same – to ensure Jesus made no reaction and was really dead.
There has been an extraordinary amount written about this piercing with a spear and the flow of blood and water that then came out from the wound in Jesus’ side! Questions raised are: which side of the body was the spear thrust in? How deep did it go? What parts of the body were pierced? Is it really possible that blood and water came out?
All the people who write about this, however much they enjoy exploring these questions, are agreed on one thing – that John, in telling us about this in his Gospel, was not interested in these questions at all!
John had a theological or spiritual purpose, not a biological one!
So what was so important to John about this last wound of Jesus’?
Firstly it’s thought that he wanted people to be in no doubt that Jesus had died. In the history of the Church there had already been some who had felt that Jesus was so divine that he was not really human and therefore had not truly suffered a human death. And there had been others who had claimed that Jesus had never really died at all but in fact had recovered after his ordeal to get on with life again. John says an emphatic ‘No’ to both of these –John the Evangelist was doing a theological equivalent of John Cleese when he hit the parrot on the counter to make quite clear that the parrot really was dead – Jesus’ body was pierced with a spear and he was dead!
Then the Evangelist refers to the blood and water flowing from the wound in Christ’s side – these things had been written down so that, as he writes, we also may believe.
But what is it that John the Evangelist wants us to see here? The obvious connection, though this is strongly debated, is with Baptism and the Eucharist the two great sacraments at the heart of the church’s life to which the water and the blood may be pointing.
There are numerous pictures painted of the crucifixion where the artist has depicted blood flowing from Christ’s side and being collected in a chalice – it’s a bit crude, but it points us in the right direction. Roger’s window of the Flowering Tree expresses the same theology using the boughs of a tree to hold the figure of Christ on the cross, with the tree in blossom. New life flows from Christ’s death. This new life, John may be saying, is received in the sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist.
Christian devotion has reflected on this particular wound perhaps more than any of the other wounds. The blood and the water that flow from this wound have given rise to a number of prayers and hymns, the best known being the Anima Christi, so called after the two Latin words with which the prayer begins:
Soul of Christ, sanctify me,
body of Christ, save me,
blood of Christ, inebriate me,
water from the side of Christ, wash me.
Some of us may be more familiar with the hymn that we shall be singing that’s based on this prayer:
Soul of my Saviour, sanctify my breast,
body of Christ, be thou my saving guest,
blood of my Saviour, bathe me in thy tide,
wash me with water flowing from thy side.
It’s an anonymous C14th prayer that sums up medieval devotion to the wounds of Christ. Ignatius of Loyola placed it at the very beginning of his Spiritual Exercises such was its importance to him.
There are of course a number of similar prayers on the same theme and through them all runs the conviction that there is protection from any harmful forces for those who shelter in the wound in Christ’s side. The Anima Christi prayer puts it like this:
hide me within your wounds
and never let me be separated from you.
And the hymn version goes on to say:
Guard and defend me from the foe malign.
With these wounds, and with this wound in Christ’s side in particular, Christian devotion found a place for the believer to hide in for safety. So not only is new life received sacramentally in Baptism and the Eucharist, but also entered into mystically through this wound.
A further development is found in the prayer that is on the sheet that you have. The prayer does not refer to the blood or the water flowing from Christ’s side, but instead focuses on the spear. The spear is seen as opening up a passageway right through to Christ’s heart, and the person using the prayer is invited to pray that their heart might be united to Christ’s heart ‘by an indissoluble bond of love’. The soldier’s spear not only penetrates Christ’s heart but also, by invitation, might penetrate the heart of the person who uses this prayer.
There is a deep devotional intensity to this prayer and I value it very highly indeed. It was written by a Carthusian of Nuremberg, dating from about 1480 – and it’s with this prayer that I want to conclude these Lenten reflections on the wounds of Jesus:
O all-glorious and most amiable Jesus,
Creator of the mysterious and invisible world of grace,
guest of loving hearts, crucified example of souls
crushed under the weight of the cross,
in you are contained all the riches and all the gifts of heaven.
Jesus our King, Saviour of the faithful,
who willed that your holy side should be opened
by the point of a ruthless lance,
I humbly and fervently beseech you
to open the doors of your mercy to me
and allow me to enter through
the large wound of your most holy side
into your infinitely loving Heart,
so that my heart may be united to your Heart
by an indissoluble bond of love.
Wound my heart with your love;
let the soldier’s spear penetrate my breast.
May my heart be opened to you alone
and closed to the world and the devil.
Protect my heart,
and arm it against the assaults of its enemies
by the sign of your holy cross. Amen.