During Evening Prayer this past Friday (from the Liturgy of the Hours), the Short Responsory began with a text taken from the Book of Revelation: “Christ loved us and has washed away our sins with his blood.” It stopped me in my tracks for some reason and left me pondering on the power of what they meant. Christ has loved us, every single one; he has loved every “me”, and continues in that love at all times. He has proved his love by dying for us while we were still sinners. Indeed, his warm, copious and crimson love expressed itself appositely in the form of his blood; and that blood penetrates to our deepest selves where our sins are lodged. It then gets inside, beneath and around them and washes them away by transforming them into love. His love frees us from sin. His love replaces our sin.
In the bible, blood symbolises both life and cleansing. Now clearly, it is not material blood which cleanses the spiritual reality of sin. One spiritual reality can only be cleansed by another. But that spiritual reality can be represented by a material reality, be a symbol of it and, in the case of Christ’s blood, be a sacrament of it. And what is that spiritual reality? It is the Holy Spirit himself of Jesus the Son and of the Father. Jesus gives us the Spirit through the shedding of his blood, that is, through the giving up of his life. In drinking from the consecrated chalice, we can see the link between Christ’s blood, the eternal life of the Spirit and our being cleansed from sin. In the sacraments of baptism and confession, we drink no blood of Christ, yet it is in virtue of that same blood that the Spirit cleanses us from original sin and personal sin in these very sacraments.
Not long after pondering on these things, it was time to pray the Rosary, and being Friday, it was the five sorrowful mysteries. I felt the Spirit invite me to carry those earlier thoughts, which were still in my heart, into the Rosary. This evening, I’d like to share with you some of the other thoughts that came to me as I walked through the five mysteries of the Passion with Jesus, Our Lady always at hand both to prompt the Lord to give me his grace and to prompt me to ask for and be open to it.
During his agony in the garden of Gethsemane, the chief goal of Jesus was to pray to Abba, his Father, about his will that Jesus should proceed in the Father’s chosen way of saving us. We have all had the experience of mulling over important decisions that need to be taken. As the time draws nearer to taking the decision, it comes down to “will I do it or not?” After all the soul-searching and weighing up of the pros and cons, there still remains right up to the moment of decision itself a slight hesitancy or uncertainty. This only disappears once the decision is taken.
Jesus’ human will was no different to ours in this process of struggling to come to his final decision to embrace the Father’s will for him (and, indeed, Jesus’ own divine will). Yes, he knew he had become man for this purpose; yes, he knew from his early years that his destiny was the Father’s house; yes, he had predicted repeatedly to his Apostles that he would suffer, die and rise again. However, he had yet fully to work out that decision in his free human will, to purify it you could say, until it would fully embrace and conform to the Father’s decree.
And we see this in the Gospel accounts of the agony. Jesus needed the support of his three closest disciples, although they fell asleep and let him down. He supplicated his Father three times, and most probably prostrate on the ground. Then there was the telling sign of his sweating blood, a very rare condition known as hematohidrosis, which occurs when someone is suffering extreme levels of stress. So, although the Son of God, Jesus truly endured in the depths of his humanity this mammoth battle between his human will and the divine will. The blood he shed in sweating was as if the external sign of the final purification and conformation of his human will to the will of the Father, the fruit of his prayer.
He went through that bloody purification of the human will to teach us a lesson: that by his precious blood we are given the means, the Holy Spirit, to purify our wills, too, to conform to the will of the Father. We must freely choose to work with him, of course. Christ’s agony in the garden tells us that the Spirit of Jesus is given to us to purify us of self-will, of fickle will, of abandoning our wills to our instincts, of Frederick Nietzsche’s “will to power”, so as to replace it with Christ’s “will to humility”, to obedience and acceptance of the Father’s will. Christ’s sweat of blood redeems our wills for God and teaches us that we too must be willing to do battle, in the strength of his blood, to submit our wills to the will of God. Our battle cry in the titan struggle between self-will and God-will has to be, “not mine, but thy will be done.” Christ’s agony teaches us also to be more aware and less blasé when we are praying the Our Father: thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. The earth in question is my earth, my humanity. My obedience to the Father’s will done in heaven brings heaven that little bit more onto the earth.
The second sorrowful mystery places us in a torture chamber, or maybe better, a torture theatre, for Jesus was probably scourged to entertain the mob. We can have no exact knowledge of how Jesus was flogged. We know that the Romans did not limit the strokes to 40 as the Jews did. Pilate had Jesus flogged with the intention of letting him go, and only recanted when he got scared of being reported to Caesar for letting go a self-proclaimed King of the Jews. Sources from the times simply state that Roman flagellation was gruesome and, for that very reason, it is almost never described or depicted in detail. Medical opinions suggest that the whips used on Jesus, (there were probably two men, one on either side of him, lashing out the strokes) would not only have remained on the skin surface but would also have cut into the skin. He would literally have had his flesh torn off. This in turn would have caused profuse arterial bleeding.
Thinking again of the words of Revelation, that Christ loved us and washed away our sins with his blood, the scourging at the pillar presents us with that blood pouring from his entire body. That blood was not needed to purify his body, but ours, as individuals, as a race and, yes, sadly as his mystical Body, the Church. The scourging at the pillar therefore stands as if to provoke us into the purification of our bodies from all sin. To be graphic for a moment, Christ’s torture theatre is the price of our pornography theatres, the theatres of humiliating and degrading treatment of the human body through violence and every other form of disrespect for the body which is perversely sold to us as entertainment. He allowed his own bloodied body to be disrespected so that ours might be restored to the dignity and holiness for which God created it.
The third sorrowful mystery is another theatre of horror. Thorny plants abound in Palestine. Made into a kind of mock crown, they would have been pressed into his scalp. Since the head is one of the most vascular areas of the body, the bleeding would again have been profuse. We also know that he was blindfolded, struck on the head with a reed, slapped in the face and spat upon. All this was great sadistic fun for the Roman soldiers. It was also a mockery of Christ’s kingship, not so much of the Jews, but of the truth. For when asked whether he was a king by Pilate, Jesus answered yes, saying that it was for this that he had been born, to bear witness to the truth. Pilate’s cynical response, “Truth? What is that?” is echoed in the soldiers’ sadistic mockery and is, sadly, deafeningly re-echoed today.
Once again, the words of Revelation: “Christ has loved us and washed away our sins with his blood.” What sins are washed away by the blood pouring from our Saviour’s head? The sins of the mind, sins of the memory and imagination, the sins of conscience when we tell it to lie to us about what’s truly right and wrong and manipulate and twist it, like the thorns, to suit our own will. Then there are the sins against the truth of Christ. Sins which result from ignoring the truth, denying the truth, attacking the truth, faking the truth. How many man-made ideologies have obscured the truth of Christ! How many heresies, that is, being selective with Christ’s truth, and how much apostasy, that is, wholesale abandonment of Christ, the truth, to live some seductive illusion, i.e. lie!
Christ’s truth is like his blood, because his truth cleanses our minds and gives clarity and light to see. The truth gives life and makes free, so that we understand with the mind of Christ, remember as Christ remembers, imagine as Christ imagines and make judgments of conscience as Christ would make them. Christ himself is the truth, so when the Church teaches the doctrine of salvation, she is teaching Christ to those who will listen. The rejection of the Church’s teaching on matters of faith and morality is to reject Christ himself, for it is only by the Spirit of Christ and at the command of Christ that the Church teaches what is necessary for salvation.
In our weakness and blindness, of course, we can at times simply be unable to perceive that truth. Our personal sin and the free for all atmosphere around us at this time in our history and society can make it difficult to see the splendour of the faith and true morality. Christ’s reaction to all this is both one of immense understanding and compassion, and the Church’s should be no less so. He shed that blood from his head to forgive the thorns of our sins of the head, to lead us out of obscurity by the light of his truth. But all of this requires that we must want to be enlightened and not prefer the darkness because our deeds are evil. It is not logical, to put it mildly, to measure Christ’s truth, or cut it to suit ourselves, merely according to human thinking. On the contrary, whatever we hear, read or think has to, in the end, be measured against Christ. And what doesn’t fit with Christ has to be let go. His blood purifies us from the manifold sins of the head.
The fourth sorrowful mystery takes us to the Via Crucis, with its mixture of bitter-sweet encounters, falls, humiliations, gratuitous violence and supreme consummation on the Cross. We can only imagine how much blood the Lord shed on this gruesome pilgrimage. Pious tradition tells us that Veronica wiped his face, leaving an imprint or outline on her cloth, probably made of blood. Even the streets of Jerusalem would now have traces of that precious blood.
The Via Crucis stands as a symbol of human life, the journey we all have to make between cradle and grave. Certainly, our journey of life may not compare in intensity and tragedy to the Via Crucis, but in life we all have our cross to carry, we all have our falls, we all receive help from Mary, a Simone of Cyrene and a Veronica, we all have our sufferings and humiliations and our time will come to die. The blood of the Via Crucis purifies our life’s journey if we live it in union with Jesus. Externally, it may not look like much, but internally, the blood of Christ purifies us increasingly as we come closer to mortal life’s end and to eternal life’s beginning.
Forgiveness was a major feature of Christ on the Cross: for those who crucified him and for the repentant thief. His blood can purify us, too, to forgive those who have done us harm during our lives as well as to ask whole-heartedly for forgiveness ourselves. Tenderness for those who loved him was also part of Christ’s final hour: for the Mother and for the Beloved Disciple. May our departure from this life also be purified to show tenderness and to be devoid of bitterness or resentment.
Finally, Jesus commends his soul into the Father’s hands which had given him this chalice to drink. We, too, will need the strength of the blood of Christ to thank God for our lives even as they fade from within us and we commend them confidently to Him, no matter what we have suffered or what has been done to us. The blood of Christ shed on the Via Crucis purifies the journey of our lives from sin.
The final reserves of Christ’s blood were saved for pouring out on the Cross, both before and especially after he died. This brings us to the fifth sorrowful mystery. To the bleeding already underway from everything he had endured up to this point, there are now added the streams of blood from his hands, feet and pierced side. The waters of the deluge cleansed the world of humanity which God had repented making. The deluge of the blood of Christ cleanses the world not of humanity but forhumanity. That deluge of his divine and human love cleansed the world of sin and death and restored all who believe in Jesus to a greater dignity and glory than our first parents could ever have imagined in Paradise.
By the blood of his Cross, the most brutal and shameful instrument of torture of his time, Jesus cleanses us of the first death, our final biological disintegration, but also of the second death, eternal death known as perdition, damnation or hell. The loud cry he gave as he died was his cry of victory over the gates of the underworld. It was the God-man’s cry of freedom for himself and for all who believe in him. It re-echoed as a cry of jubilation in heaven and as a cry of everlasting lamentation, disgrace and defeat in hell. We can still hear his cry, if we listen with contrite hearts.
From his wounded side flowed blood and water, the source of the sacramental life in the Church. In and through the sacraments we work our laborious way towards the final purification of our sins by his blood, either in this life or in purgatory. By the sacraments we can begin to sing the song of jubilation in heaven, and our ears can begin to hear Christ’s cry of eternal peace. There is no man or woman, however miserable, however lost, however broken or abused, however ashamed or hopeless, who does not have a place at the foot of the Cross, who may not stand under the loving and compassionate gaze of the Crucified. Every suffering face, every broken heart, every disease-ridden or sin-ridden body, every confused or darkened mind, every twisted conscience, every misery and calamity of each and every human person and of the entire human race, can and, yes, indeed must come before the blood-soaked wood of the Cross and the bloodless dead body of the One who hung upon it, and weep for him as for an only Son. For only from him pours forth the Spirit who will heal, cleanse, restore and glorify all and any person who comes to him. By his wounds we are healed; our were the sins he carried, the infirmities he bore. He alone is our ransom, he is our justification, our sanctification and our peace. Ave, O Crux! Ave, spes unica! Hail, o Cross! Hail, our only hope!
And so, purified in will by the blood of his agony; purified in body by the blood of his scourging; purified in mind by the blood of his crowning with thorns; purified in life by the blood of his Via Crucis; and purified of eternal loss by the blood of his crucifixion and death: these are but some of the gifts which his everlasting and most personal love is impatient to confer on each of us. And tell me: Where else can we receive them if not from the Crucified? What else is worth anything in comparison? Who else can even begin to offer us such hope? Why else would we love, hope and believe in any other? How else can humanity and human history be reconciled if not by Jesus the Christ the Son of the living God and the, oh so precious, blood of his holy Cross?