One of the soldiers pierced his side with a lance.
For the Roman soldier, this was a final indignity carried out on the corpse of an executed criminal. For the Jewish authorities, it was a necessary preparation for the coming solemn feast, which was both Sabbath and Passover. For St. John, for us, for the eyes of faith, it was a supreme moment of revelation. As so often in St. John’s Gospel, there is a strain of intense irony here. In the eyes of the soldier, Jesus is now simply an irrelevance, a problem done away with, a dead object to be disposed of. But in truth, he is the Word through whom all things were made. He is the only-begotten Son, whom God gave, because he loved the world so much. In the eyes of the Jews, he is an obstacle to their perfect celebration of the Sabbath, in obedience to God’s law. But in truth, if only they knew, God has here brought to completion all his work; he has here fulfilled all Old Testament law and prophecy, and now he is resting in the sleep of death.
St. John cites for us two Old Testament texts, which support his understanding of what he saw (cf. Apoc 22:8 etc.). First, from Exodus (12:46, LXX), where Moses instructs the Israelites not to break any bone of the paschal lamb. The blood of this lamb was the sign for the destroying Angel to pass over the chosen people; their passport, therefore, to life, and to freedom from slavery, and to a new covenant with God. There is also an allusion here to Psalm 33, or 34, where the just one, God’s Servant is said to be rescued from all his trials; The Lord takes care of him amid all his afflictions, so that not a bone of his will be broken. Then from the Prophet Zechariah, they will look on the one whom they have pierced (12:10). The context of this verse is important, for Zechariah is speaking, albeit quite obscurely, about how on the Day of the Lord God will come to save his people. On that Day, according to the Prophet, a fountain will open up to purify them from sin (13:1), and then God will pour out upon them a spirit of mercy and of supplication.
What John saw, and what he reports to us, was a stream of blood and water pouring out from the heart of the dead Jesus. What he understood was that the death of Jesus is for us the source of life. Earlier in this Gospel Jesus had cried out in the Temple: Let anyone who is thirsty come to me! Let anyone who believes in me come and drink, As scripture says, From his heart shall flow streams of living water (7:37; cf. Ezk 47:1, Zech 14:8; Is 44:3; 55:1 etc.).
The water and blood flowing from Jesus’s side are not merely a sign: they are full of divine power. Power to wash away sins, to redeem, to cleanse, to forgive, to bring about a new birth, to heal, to make us children of God; to sanctify; to divinise. In this blood and water we are also certainly meant to see the sacraments of Baptism and of the Holy Eucharist, whose ever fertile source is Christ’s death. In Baptism we bathe in this saving stream. In the Holy Eucharist, and Holy Communion, we approach so close as to drink directly from the wound in the side of Jesus.
The Feast of the Sacred Heart celebrates the love of Jesus, and also the suffering of Jesus because of sin: both aspects together. Recently the whole world, with the exception of course of the monks of Pluscarden, watched the Royal Wedding. I’m led to understand that the preacher there eloquently celebrated the power of love. That is very good: we want to do that too, especially today. Some critics though have noted that he neglected to specify the sort of love that is so positive, beautiful, ennobling, humanising. But as St. Augustine observed: everyone loves. What matters then is what they love. And unfortunately, as St. Augustine also observed, but the Royal preacher failed to mention: everyone is also affected by the power of sin. So merely human love tends to be filled with all sorts of impurities, or to be easily corrupted, or perverted, or misdirected. But the love of Jesus Christ has none of those disadvantages. Christ’s love is divine as well as human: unconditional, faithful to the end, sacrificial. It is also creative: because in so far as we open ourselves up to it - in so far as we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit pouring from Christ’s wounded side - we can be conformed to it, transformed by it, made able to participate in it, to reflect it, to pass it on. Such love is worth living for, and worth dying for. But such love will certainly not make our lives comfortable, or outwardly successful, nor will it make us universally admired. For the love of Jesus in us must be utterly unselfish; it must drive us towards a deep hatred of sin and of all evil; and it must open us to being hurt.
Sin hurt Jesus, and it will hurt also those who belong to Him. If we would be radically conformed to the Heart of Jesus, it would seem to be indispensable that we should suffer along with Him. No trace of sin separated the Immaculate Heart of Mary from the Heart of Jesus; but hers could not have been perfectly one with his, had it not also been encircled with thorns; had it not also be pierced through by a sword (Lk 2:35). So if God should ever visit us with suffering, faith tells us that he may be conferring on us thereby a great blessing, or giving us a great opportunity, and a great privilege, and putting into our hands great power.
Today, I suppose at this very moment, at St. Cecilia’s Abbey on the Isle of Wight a young Benedictine nun is making her Solemn Profession. She does so on the Patronal Feast of her Monastery, which is called “Pax Cordis Iesu”. It’s a great consolation for us to know that young people are still making this choice, which we say is entirely rational, and prudent, and fruitful, and blessed; but also which would be inconceivable apart from the fire of the Holy Spirit, and apart from the love of Christ urging it on (2 Cor 5:14). So we’re reminded today that our own monastic life here at Pluscarden is rooted in the love of Jesus Christ; responding to that, directed towards it, sustained by it, and ever renouncing all other things for its sake. Natural human love is indeed good, as the preacher rightly said, and beautiful, and desirable. But divine love, the love of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, is bigger, and better; more powerful, more fruitful, and ultimately more satisfying; and of itself, it opens us up to eternal life with God in heaven.