Just two weeks ago, on Passion (Palm) Sunday, we watched the movie The Passion of the Christ next door in the school auditorium. After that movie we had time for questions and answers and someone inquired about the peculiar scene towards the end, when one of the soldier takes his spear and pierces the side of Christ.
That scene, of course, is taken directly from the Gospel of St. John. In Chapter 19 of that Gospel, St. John describes how, before taking Christ down from the cross, “one soldier thrust his lance into his side, and immediately blood and water flowed out” (John 19:34).
The Fathers of the Church, and St. Thomas Aquinas after them, describe how that blood and water represent the sacramental life of the Church. The water is the symbol for the water of baptism, in which we are renewed and given new life in the Holy Spirit. The blood, of course, is the blood of Christ given to us in the Eucharist, the blood of the “new and everlasting covenant” in which we are sustained and nurtured in our Christian faith.
As we heard in the opening prayer for this Mass on the feast of Divine Mercy:
God of mercy, you wash away our sins in WATER, you give us new birth in the Spirit, and redeem us in the BLOOD of Christ. As we celebrate Christ’s resurrection increase our awareness of these blessings, and renew your gift of life within us.
Mel Gibson, in The Passion of the Christ, incorporates that full sacramental significance when he has the soldier standing directly beneath the body of Christ at the moment he pierces Him. That blood and water flow out directly towards the soldier, and in a mystical sense he becomes immersed in the sacramental life flowing from the crucified Christ.
That is a great image for the feast we celebrate today: the Feast of Divine Mercy. It was on February 22, 1931 that Jesus appeared to a simple, humble Polish nun named Sister Faustyna Kowalska. She would later become known as St. Faustyna. He was radiant, dressed all in white, and His right hand was raised in a blessing. With His other hand he indicated His side, where He was pierced by the soldier’s lance, and from that place there emanated two bright rays of light: one red, and the other pale blue. Again, that same significance of the water of baptism and the blood of the Eucharist.
Jesus told her that He wanted that image, and the devotion to His Divine Mercy, venerated throughout the universal Church; a very tall order indeed! Yet today, some 75 years later, that image and this feast are being celebrated in churches throughout the world.
One of the obvious aspects of that Divine Mercy image and the scene from St. John’s Gospel is that the mercy of God comes to us—the forgiveness, the grace, the ineffable love of God—comes to us directly from Christ, but that mercy comes to us through the Church. No one, not even the saints nor the mystics, no one has a direct and exclusive line to God.
We do not baptize ourselves into new life; we receive baptism as the gift of God through the Church. We do not get the Eucharist on EBay, or the Blessed Sacrament through a catalogue. We gather together here, as the People of God, and it is through the sacramental life of the Church, through the grace of Holy Orders, that the Body and Blood of Christ become truly present on this altar and we receive Christ Himself as the Bread of Life.
God has given us a share in His own life in the sacraments—especially in the Eucharist— but that life comes to us through the Church that He established. This can be a very difficult thing for many people to accept in our culture today.
Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee, in a lecture he gave back in January at the North American College in Rome, summed it up well when he said, “Folks have trouble with the Church.”
Think of your own conversations with people over the last year. How many times have you encountered those who have no problems with Christ or with the Bible, but who are nonetheless indifferent, or even hostile towards, the Church? Archbishop Dolan continues:
“They want the king without the kingdom, Christ without His Church and for us as Catholics it’s a package deal.”
You cannot have the Head without the Body, or the Groom without the Bride. Christ has forever united Himself to His Bride, the Church. They cannot be separated.
In our gospel today, Jesus appears to the disciples after the resurrection, and He says to them: “Peace be with you”. Of course, they are terrified! They think He is a ghost, so He reassures them by showing them His wounds. He shows them His hands and His side, that they can see it is the same Christ who was crucified for them. And He repeats that same assuring greeting:
Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.
The disciples are being given the very same mission as Christ had in the world. They are given the minsitry of forgiving sins and leading others to salvation and new life in God. Christ breathes on them, giving them the gift of the Holy Spirit, and He says:
Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.
Pope John Paul II calls this moment “one of the most awe-inspiring innovations in the Gospel” (Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, #29). It reveals that intimate link between Christ and His Church. The two cannot be separated.
The question we can ask ourselves on this Divine Mercy Sunday is: Where are we standing when it comes to Christ and His Church? Are we standing—like that soldier in The Passion of the Christ—in the stream of the sacramental life of the Church? Are we standing close enough to become immersed in the mercy of God?
Are we being renewed each day in the waters of baptism? All of us, by nature of our baptism, are called to holiness of life. That call must be answered on a daily basis, as we give ourselves over to Christ in all the aspects of our daily lives. Are we answering that call to holiness we received at baptism?
Are we immersed in the Eucharist? God gives us His own Divine life here in this Blessed Sacrament. The Church calls the Eucharist the “source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen Gentium, #11; Ecclesia de Eucharistia, #1). It is the source of our strength, the place where we are renewed, and the summit, the God-ward direction in which we are going. Are we becoming more and more immersed in that mystery of the Eucharist as we continue to follow Christ?
Today, on this Feast of Divine Mercy, we pray in the words taken from the Diary of St. Faustina:
O Blood and Water, which gushed forth from the Heart of Jesus as a fountain of mercy for us, I trust in you! (84)