Q. When Jesus was dying on the cross, the Gospels state that a Roman soldier struck the side of Jesus with a lance and blood and water flowed from his side. What is the significance of that?
A. The passion account in John’s Gospel states, “But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs, but one soldier thrust his lance into his side, and immediately blood and water flowed out” (Jn 19:33-34).
Since we are talking about the Incarnate Son of God suffering and dying to redeem the world, the significance of blood and water flowing from his side is not limited to one meaning or interpretation. This outpouring of blood and water fulfills prophecies of old. The prophet Isaiah describes the enigmatic figure of the Suffering Servant, who will bring “justice” to the nations. Biblical justice is about restoring right relationships, which is the ultimate task of Jesus. Christ is the fulfillment of the Suffering Servant because he, through the paschal mystery, restores us in a right relationship to God. Isaiah writes that the Suffering Servant “was pierced for our sins, crushed for our iniquity. He bore the punishment that makes us whole, by his wounds we were healed” (Is 53:5). The wounds of Christ were directed to our healing, that is, our redemption.
The prophet Zechariah also prophecies about the piercing of Christ’s side. Jesus was, of course, of the lineage of King David, the one whose kingdom God promised would last forever. Zechariah connects the one whom the people will pierce to the house of David saying, “I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of compassion and supplication, so that, when they look on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him…” (Zec 12:10). There will be a blessing and cleansing that is poured out on God’s chosen people. Zechariah emphasizes this, stating, “there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem to cleanse them from sin and uncleanliness” (Zec 13:1).
Some might be tempted to think of this blood and water poured out as merely figurative language or an image of the outpouring of God’s love for us. However, from a physiological and medical perspective, the reality of blood and water pouring forth from the side of Christ due to a thrust of the lance is a real possibility. Books have been written by physicians about the physical death of Jesus, speculating about the medical condition of Christ throughout his passion. Surrounding our hearts is a membrane called the pericardium that encloses the pericardial cavity, which contains a pericardial fluid. One possibility is that the spear struck the Sacred Heart of Jesus and both blood and this pericardial fluid poured forth.
The theological and spiritual sense of the outpouring of blood and water is of the greatest significance. From the time of the early Church, the Church Fathers wrote about the water and blood as symbolizing the sacraments of Baptism and the Holy Eucharist, and this understanding continued throughout the history of the Church. The 13th Century Doctor of the Church St. Thomas Aquinas said that from the pierced side of Christ “flowed forth the sacraments of the Church, without which there is no entrance to the life which is the true life. That blood was shed for the remission of sins; that water it is that makes up the health-giving cup.”
The image of Divine Mercy (above) revealed to St. Faustina through a private revelation expounds on this outpouring of water and blood. In this image, Jesus is clothed in a white garment, his right hand held upright giving a blessing, and his left hand pointing toward the sacred wound in his side, from which flows two large rays, one red and one pale. From Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection, we receive his abundant mercy and love. We continue to receive that mercy and love through the sacraments of Baptism and the Holy Eucharist.
Jesus taught a prayer to St. Faustina to remember his wounded heart and the mercy that poured forth from it. We should pray it, too: “O Blood and Water, which gushed forth from the Heart of Jesus, as a fount of mercy for us, I trust in You.”
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