Greetings from Florence, Italy, where my family is spending the Triduum following a visit to Rome. As I mentioned before, the highlight of the trip was my family meeting Pope Francis following his General Audience on Wednesday, April 6. We also attended the Palm Sunday Mass in a packed St. Peter’s Square, where (despite having general admission tickets) we were able to find seats in the second row under the large statue of St. Peter to the far left of the altar.
Over the course of a little more than two weeks in Rome, I had the opportunity to connect and reconnect with many friends and readers—people who live or work in Rome, numerous seminarians, and a few priests who are there for study. I spent time with some people, including Melinda Ribnek, who were also visiting the Eternal City at the same time. Perhaps most consequentially for the sake of Where Peter Is, I had the chance to meet with many journalists and Vatican officials during my time there.
I hope to delve more deeply into my trip—what I did, what I learned, and who I met—in the days and weeks to come. But today is Good Friday and I would like to help draw our focus on Christ’s sacrifice for us, his suffering and death on the Cross.
In my own prayer and reflection, I have been contemplating the wounds of Christ and the totality of his sacrifice for all of us. Specifically, I was contemplating the blood and water that flowed from Jesus’ side after a Roman soldier pierced him with a spear. St. John Paul II spoke about this image frequently, as it was central to his own prayer and devotional life. He spoke about the importance of this moment for all people in a 1988 catechesis on Christ’s redemptive death:
“One of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water” (Jn 19:34).
Jesus was already dead. He died before the two criminals who had been crucified with him. This is a proof of the intensity of his sufferings.
The thrust of the spear, therefore, was not a new suffering inflicted on Jesus. It served rather as a sign of the total gift which he had made of himself. It was a sign marked in his very flesh by the piercing of his side. It may be said that with the opening of his heart, it was a symbolic representation of that love through which Jesus had given everything and would continue to give everything to humanity.
From that opening of his heart there flow blood and water. It is a fact that can be explained physiologically. However, the evangelist mentions it for its symbolic value. It is a sign and announcement of the fruitfulness of the sacrifice. So great is the importance attributed to it by the evangelist that, immediately after narrating the episode, he adds: “He who saw it has borne witness, and his testimony is true; he knows that he is speaking the truth, so that you also may believe” (Jn 19:35). He appealed to direct observation, made by himself to emphasize that it is a fact full of great significance concerning the motives and effects of Christ’s sacrifice.
Here, John Paul draws attention to a crucial detail that we might easily ignore—that the blood and water signify how even when Jesus was already dead, he continued to pour himself out for us. Jesus suffered tremendously for humanity and died, but his death wasn’t the end of his total gift to the human race. In this visceral image of the blood and water we see both a foreshadowing of Christ’s Resurrection and of the way his sacrifice is much more than mere a historical event—it extends beyond that moment in history to each of us for all time.
Later in the address, John Paul notes that the Evangelist did not give “sufficient grounds for precise interpretations,” but does indicate that the flowing of blood and water represent “the outpouring of grace flowing from the sacrifice.”
During Lent 2007, Pope Benedict XVI reflected on the spiritual significance of the piercing of Jesus’ side and the purposefulness with which St. John the Evangelist includes this detail in his Gospel account. He said, “That gesture by an anonymous Roman soldier, destined to be lost in oblivion, remains impressed on the eyes and heart of the Apostle, who takes it up in his Gospel. How many conversions have come about down the centuries thanks to the eloquent message of love that the one who looks upon Jesus crucified receives!”
Of course, this image of water and blood flowing forth from Christ’s side was of particular significance to John Paul, as it is central to the Divine Mercy Devotion. At the time of this catechesis, it had been ten years since the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith lifted a 1959 Vatican ban on the devotion to Divine Mercy introduced by the Polish nun and visionary Sr. Faustina Kowalska.
A dozen years after this catechesis, in the Jubilee year 2000, John Paul canonized St. Faustina as the first saint of the new millenium and established Divine Mercy Sunday as a feast on the Roman liturgical calendar. In 2012, Pope Benedict explained how this image of blood and water is central to Divine Mercy, saying, “John Paul II chose to call this Sunday after Easter, Divine Mercy, with a very specific image: that of Jesus’ pierced side from which blood and water flowed, according to the account of an eyewitness, the Apostle John (cf. Jn 19:34-37). However Jesus is now risen and the paschal Sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist flow from him, who is alive: those who receive them with faith receive the gift of eternal life.”
The Divine Mercy image of Jesus shows two rays pouring forth from Christ’s heart: one pale and one red. In St. Faustina’s diary, she recounts the meaning of the two rays:
“When on one occasion my confessor told me to ask the Lord Jesus the meaning of the two rays in the image, I answered, ‘Very well, I will ask the Lord.’
During prayer I heard these words within me: ‘The two rays denote Blood and Water. The pale ray stands for the water that makes souls righteous. The red ray stands for the Blood which is the life of souls …
These two rays issued forth from the very depths of My tender mercy when my agonized Heart was opened by a lance on the Cross'” (p. 299).
Growth in the Christian spiritual life leads to an increase in charity and a greater understanding of the gratuitousness of God’s mercy. The Beloved Apostle, by including this detail of the pouring forth of blood and water from the side of Jesus, gives us an image that beautifully captures God’s love and forgiveness for us.
Pope Francis has also spoken about the blood and water flowing from the side of Jesus as a sign of his great mercy, tying this image to the mercy he poured out on the Samaritan woman he met at the well. In 2020, he said, “The promise of living water that Jesus made to the Samaritan woman becomes a reality in His Passion: from His pierced side ‘blood and water’ flowed (Jn 19: 34). Christ, the Lamb, immolated and risen, is the spring from which flows the Holy Spirit Who remits sins and regenerates to new life.”
Years earlier, in 2015, Francis spoke about how Jesus is the only one capable of quenching our thirst: “Our human existence is marked by boundless aspirations: we seek truth, we thirst for love, justice and freedom. These desires can only be partially satisfied, for from the depths of our being we are prompted to seek ‘something more,’ something capable of fully quenching our thirst. The response to these aspirations is given by God in Jesus Christ, in his paschal mystery. From the pierced side of Jesus there flowed blood and water.”
As we celebrate the Paschal Mystery, may we reflect on the blood and water that poured from Jesus’ side as a reminder that no obstacle, not even sin, suffering, or death, is too great for God’s triumph of love and tender mercy.
“Lord, Your love is seen clearly in the Sacrifice of Your Cross. You held nothing back from us as You poured out Your Mercy to the last drop on the Cross. Help me to see and understand this great mystery of sacrificial love. Fill me with gratitude for all that You have done and help me to imitate this total self-giving toward others. Oh blood and water, which gushed forth from the Heart of Jesus, as a font of Mercy for us, I trust in You.”
Diary of St. Faustina, p. 186-187
Main Image: By JuliansPublicUsername – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=115281116. Divine Mercy image: By Eugeniusz Kazimirowski (1873-1939) – http://www.cisza2.krakow.dominikanie.pl, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9049047
Discuss this article!
Keep the conversation going in our SmartCatholics Group! You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter.
Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.