Dear brothers and sisters, the Gospel of John, as we have just heard, describes the crucifixion and death of Jesus and the two criminals crucified with him in explicit detail. It is a sorry and miserable story. To imagine the agony of those men is impossible for us. The only point of a torture like this was to strike dread in those who would even think of committing a crime whose punishment was so drastic. It has no redeeming value otherwise. Except that we know what happens next in the story. Jesus rises from this awful death to appear to his disciples and promise them, and us, the very same resurrection.
But, while we might see how Christ’s death was necessary, as he himself had said many times during his ministry, was it necessary that it be so bloody and gruesome? It is so repulsive that we want to avert our eyes, to skip straight to the resurrection without stopping to sit under the cross and to consider what was happening in that very moment.
Let’s do that for a few minutes. Let’s just sit with the dead body of Jesus, not trying to run from it or jump to the happy ending we all know so well. Let’s stay under the cross with Mary and ponder what this pitiful body means to us.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us, “The origin and growth of the Church are symbolized by the blood and water which flowed from the open side of the crucified Jesus….As Eve was formed from the sleeping Adam’s side, so the Church was born from the pierced heart of Christ hanging dead on the cross.” (766)
The pierced heart of Christ. Although it was no longer beating, no longer alive, the blood and water that flowed from it provided the Church with its foundational sacraments – water for baptism and blood for the Eucharist. Baptism brings us into the Church, makes us part of the body of Christ, and the Eucharist sustains and renews us throughout our lives.
Even before the resurrection, then, the body of Christ was already overflowing with graces. The Church was founded on this dead body. His wounds were not merely signs of torture and death, but of life and grace. They are portals through which we are all baptized, sustained, and made members of this same body, our Church.
Gertrude of Helfta, the thirteenth century Cistercian nun, also known as St. Gertrude the Great, had this vision. She was speaking to Jesus and doubting that the promises he had made to her could possibly come true. To demonstrate his pledge, Jesus opened up the wound in his side, and put her hand inside his body, on his heart. Then he closed the wound over her hand. Christ’s heart is accessible to her through the wound in his side. Because of the wound, she can touch his heart, feel his love for her as a physical thing, beating, in her hand.
In today’s reading, Hosea speaks of God’s love for us as that of a mother holding her infant. This is possibly the most intimate love we can know from one human to another. But even a mother and her infant are separated by their bodies. Christ offers us an even more intimate love by opening his body to us. He invites us to enter into him through the very wounds which killed him.
In the sixty-first sermon on the Song of Songs, Bernard of Clairvaux talks about the cleft in the rock in which the beloved hides. He says that the rock is Christ, and the clefts are the wounds on Christ’s body. “Whatever is lacking in my own resources,” he says, “I appropriate for myself from the heart of the Lord, which overflows with mercy. And there is no lack of clefts by which they are poured out. They pierced his hands and his feet, they gored his side with a lance, and through these fissures I can suck honey from the rock and oil from the flinty stone….The secret of his heart is laid open through the clefts of his body; that mighty mystery of loving is laid open, laid open, too, the tender mercies of our God.”
The Song of Songs pictures the face and body of the beloved as a lush landscape, with bushels of wheat, towers, and flocks of sheep. Bernard here pictures the body of Christ as it hangs on the cross as a landscape, too, inside which we live and move. It is rich with oil and honey. Christ’s body is transformed from a broken, dead object to a fruitful land. The body is dead, but a source of grace.
So we sit under the cross and watch. Jesus’ body still hangs there, but we have seen that even when he is not alive, Jesus is life-giving. Blood and water become the foundation of the Church. The wounds that were the cause of his death become portals through which we can see, touch and even enter into the divine love. His body is transformed into a lush landscape, stretching beneath our feet, inviting us to explore the clefts made by instruments of torture and death, but filled with mercy and love, to enter and to live and be sustained there.
And where is this fruitful land? It is all around us. It is this ground, on which the monastery of Gethsemani stands, on which we are standing right now. This land, on which so many have lived and died, is Christ’s body. And in this fruitful land, where is Christ’s heart to be found? Ephesians tells us that Christ can dwell in our hearts, through faith. We find Christ’s heart in our own hearts and the hearts of others. Christ’s heart is in our brothers, our neighbours, our family members, in the stranger sitting beside us. It is the tender love of God for us, poured into us and overflowing in the form of our love for others. We have only to reach to the person next to us to touch the living heart of Christ.