Pauca Verba is Latin for A Few Words.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Water from the side of Christ, wash me


A pieta is an image of Jesus after being taken down from the cross and lying on the lap and in the arms of his grieving Mother, Mary. This pieta, which dates back to the Middle Ages, is found in The Cloisters Museum in New York City.

Immediately we are taken into the image by the wound in Jesus' right side. Saint John's Gospel (19:31-37) tells us:
As it was the day of Preparation for the Passover, in order that the bodies might not be left on the crosses over the Sabbath, for that Sabbath was an especially important one, the Jews asked Pilate to have the men's legs broken and the bodies removed. So the soldiers went and broke the legs of the first man and then of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus they say that he was dead already and they did not break his legs, but one of the soldiers thrust a lance into his side, and blood and water immediately flowed out. The man who saw it testifies to it - his testimony is true; he knows that he is telling the truth - to lead you also to believe. For this happened to fulfill what the scripture says:

"Not one of its bones shall be broken." Moreover, it says in another place.

"They will look at the man whom they pierced."

Crucifixion was an ordinary means of executing a criminal in ancient Rome. And when a man was crucified, a large amount of water accumulated around the man's heart, making his breathing increasingly difficult and otherwise stressing him. When the soldier put the lance into the side of Jesus, this bag of water was punctured and the water and blood poured out.

Of course, the image causes us to think of Baptism and Eucharist. But there is more. When we are conceived we spend the first nine months or so in our mother's watery womb. In order to be born, to exit the womb and enter outer life, we have to pass through the gush of water. Indeed, one of the indicators that we are on our way is that mother's water breaks. In the gush of water from Jesus' side, humanity is born again, born again to higher things, heavenly things, and the spiritual realities Christ opens to us. First among these realities is the awareness that in Christ, we now have an access to God's heart as never before - that God's heart has been effectively torn open to receive us and to flood us with his love and life. No other religion makes this kind of claim. How different from the ancient gods and goddesses who came to earth to tease, trick and provoke us.

The Anima Christi prayer now asks: that the water from Christ's side would wash me. Pope Paul VI said, "The sin of our time is that we have lost all sense of sin." Indeed, many people don't think of their own sins. We are quick to excuse ourselves. Watch any court room show and observe how no one accepts any responsibility for crimes or mistakes - each accusing the other of being a liar and even defending himself/herself against the judge's insights or application of the law.The realization of our own sin before God and the minimalizing of our failures in love is perhaps our greatest resistance. "I haven't killed anyone and my shoes are under my own bed," a man might tell the priest.

But truth be told, spiritually speaking, some people need a good scrubbing. The light goes out at night and we are left with our own last thoughts before we fall asleep. We know where the bones are buried, we say. There is the nagging feeling that won't leave us alone until we tell someone. A sorrowful soldier returns home and confesses what he has done in war. He has begun to heal.

No one is exempt. We all need to be washed. A priest friend says, "Where there are many words, sin cannot be avoided." And another saying goes: "When the devil goes to church, he sits in the choir loft."

Pope Pius XII said: "Never ask a man to choose between his church and his country; he will almost always choose his country." That's nationalism: an identification with one's country that precedes his affiliation with God. Yet no matter how closely we live, country first, when it comes to the nation's sin, we distance ourselves: the nation's abortions, wars which call dead children collateral damage, always funding for new armaments while school budgets are cut, the obstruction and self-interest of political parties, the national sins by which the children and the weakest are failed, the sins of our national system which promote vigorous competition rather than solidarity. It's said that if we ever visited a slaughter house we'd never eat meat again. Perhaps if we knew where our tax dollars went we'd be overwhelmed with grief. In truth, we are talking about so many billions or trillions of dollars that our own personal culpability may be very small, but it remains. In my thirty-three years of priesthood I have met only one priest who  understands this. When we walk on the beach - just walk on it - sand inevitably sticks to us. Maybe this is what the Orthodox Church has in mind when the prayer asks to be forgiven sins known and unknown

In a Benedictine Monastery, after night prayers, the monks or nuns make a silent procession, coming forward to have Holy Water sprinkled on them. They are thinking of their Baptism. They might also have in mind the gospel accounts in which  Jesus tells us to stay awake  or wake up, but spiritually: that we wake up to what God continues to do for us in each moment, that we wake up to gratitude and goodness, that we wake up to the opportunities presented to us for kindness and mercy,  that we might wake up to see others rightly - as God sees them.

And so, Water from the side of Christ, wash me, doesn't mean a tender washing of the face with a soft cloth - but more, Water from the side of Christ, stun me awake! Perhaps Mel Gibson's depiction in the film The Passion of the Christ shows it more dramatically and actually. When the lance is put in Jesus' side a tremendous gush of bloody water pours down on the soldier, stunning him, even to his losing balance.

Lastly, at the center of the Christian faith is the Incarnation: God has become one of us in Jesus Christ. God has a human body and face like our own. And so all things human take on a new importance. The distinctions between sacred things and secular things is done away with. Saint Benedict makes this very clear when in his rule for monks he says, the garden tools and kitchen utensils are to be shown the same care as the golden chalice on the altar.

And so, as water flows from the side of Christ, to say that the issues surrounding the water of this planet and that so many people don't have water, can't be disregarded or dismissed. "I'm not into justice issues" a church-goer claims. It is said that 1.1 billion people have no access to drinkable water. Many of the world's 24,000 children who die every hour, do so because of waterborne diseases.

There are numerous organizations which place their resources and energies in the service of improving and making more available, especially to children, the potable water we all need. They would be grateful for our support.


  1. Thank You. As usual, you make me think. And that's a good thing. "To Be Aware Is To Be Alive. Thank You.

  2. If we pray, fast and work to ensure that everyone has access to adequate safe water and sanitation, when we stand before the Lord Jesus, we will rejoice in hearing Jesus say to us:”I was thirsty and you gave me to drink…Amen I say to you, whatever you did for the least of these, my people, ,you did for me.”