April 6, 2012


Blood and water flowed out

A soldier thrust his lance into [Jesus’] side, and immediately blood and water flowed out” (Jn 19:34). We Catholics hear that reading each year on Good Friday when we hear the Passion according to St. John.

As an eyewitness to Jesus’ crucifixion, John probably added that detail to indicate that Jesus really died on the Cross. This was to combat Docetism, the heresy that asserted that Jesus only “appeared” in a human body and therefore only seemed to die. However, the Church from its earliest beginnings taught that the water and blood were real, and symbolized the sacraments of baptism and the holy Eucharist.

St. John Chrysostom (347-407) wrote, “The water was a symbol of baptism and the blood, of the holy Eucharist. From these two sacraments the Church is born. From baptism, the cleansing water that gives rebirth and renewal through the Holy Spirit, and from the holy Eucharist. Since the symbols of baptism and the Eucharist flowed from his side, it was from his side that Christ fashioned his Church.”

Blood has been closely associated with sacrifice from the days of the Old Testament. When God was preparing to kill the first-born of the Egyptians, he commanded the Israelites to “take a bunch of hyssop, and dipping it in the blood” of a lamb that has been slaughtered, “sprinkle the lintel and the two doorposts with this blood” (Ex 12:22).

As part of the ratification of the covenant between God and the Israelites, Moses took blood from sacrificed bulls “and sprinkled it on the people, saying, ‘This is the blood of the covenant which the Lord has enjoined upon you’ ” (Ex 24:8).

Chapter 17 of the Book of Leviticus begins with the Jewish teaching about “the sacredness of blood.” Verse 9 tells how “the priest shall splash the blood on the altar of the Lord at the entrance of the meeting tent” (Lv 17:9).

As part of the ordination to the priesthood of Aaron and his sons, described in Chapter 8 of the Book of Leviticus, Moses took some blood from a slaughtered ram and put it on the tip of their right ears, on the thumbs of their right hands, and on the big toes of their right feet (Lv 8:23-24). He splashed the rest of the blood on the sides of the altar.

The Letter to the Hebrews tells us, “According to the law almost everything is purified by blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Heb 9:22).

Thus, the early Christians recognized that Jesus, the “Lamb of God,” was sacrificed for us through the shedding of his blood. The Letter to the Hebrews says, “Christ entered into the sanctuary, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood. For if the blood of goats and bulls can sanctify those who are defiled so that their flesh is cleansed, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from dead works to worship the living God” (Heb 9:12-14).

According to John’s Gospel, it was John the Baptist who first recognized Jesus as “the Lamb of God” who would be sacrificed for us. In Chapter 1 of that Gospel, as Jesus was approaching to be baptized, John the Baptist proclaimed, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29).

Although blood was an important part of Jewish sacrifice, drinking blood was not. In fact, Jews had to be careful to drain the blood from animals before cooking. The Book of Leviticus told them, “You shall not partake of any blood, be it of bird or of animal. Every person who partakes of any blood shall be cut off from his people” (Lv 7:26-27).

This is one reason why the Jews were turned off when Jesus told them, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him” (Jn 6:54-56).

We drink Jesus’ blood when we receive Communion.

—John F. Fink

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