The Vine Dresser and the Fig Tree, by James Tissot (1)

171. The Piercing of Jesus’ Side

31 Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. 32 Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. 33 But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. 34 Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. [John 19:31-34, NRSV]

Longinus pierces the side of Jesus with the Holy LanceFresco by Fra Angelico (1395–1455)

When the youth leaders at the Blessed Sacrament Church at BDC, Kuching called, they spelt out clearly what they wanted: “Please give us a talk on the piercing of Jesus’ side by the centurion.”

So we went to speak with the group, which in the mean time had grown into a bigger crowd that included all who were interested in the topic and could come that Friday evening, the first Friday of the Chinese Lunar New Year festive season.

Amongst other issues, we wanted to attend to a few questions which are commonly asked.

1. Who was it that pierced Jesus’ side?

Saint John’s Gospel narrates that it was “one of the soldiers” who pierced Jesus’ side, not the centurion who had charge of that group of soldiers. From scriptural evidence, then, the organisers of the seminar were mistaken.

And yet, the organizers were half right, in that there are all kinds of legends and “traditions” concerning the one who pierced Jesus’ side. One of those legends tells of a centurion who did the piercing. Identified as Longinus, this nameless soldier was inflated into a centurion in a legend that grew and stretched. One strand of the legend speaks of the centurion being quite blind at the time. On piercing Jesus’ side, blood and water poured out and fell upon his eyes. Thereupon he was instantly healed and he converted. Even though later identified as Longinus, one would do well to remember that the name is probably derived from a latinised Greek term lonche meaning lance. So now, from legend, the one who pierced Jesus’ side is Saint Longinus whose symbol is the holy lance, venerated in the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church and some other Christian communions. There is a statue of St Longinus in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome by Bernini. Icons of the same St. Longinus are common in the Eastern Orthodox Church as well.

2. What Scriptures say about the purpose(s) of all this?

Of greater significance than legends of dubious values, is perhaps the question concerning what John is saying about the significance of Jesus’ side being pierced.

In the pericope of John 19:31-37, the Evangelist lists three reasons.

  • First, when “one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water” and that he “who saw it has borne witness”, the purpose is to stress the point that “his testimony is true,” and that “he knows that he tells the truth,” so that “you also may believe” (verses 34-35).
  • Second, the Evangelist wants to stress the point that “these things took place that the scripture might be fulfilled, ‘Not a bone of him shall be broken’” (verse 36).
  • Third, he further stresses the point that another scripture also says, “They shall look on him whom they have pierced” (verse 37). This, of course, is in line with the Johannine theology which teaches that the hour of Jesus’ crucifixion is also his hour of glory: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32).

3. Why did blood and water flow out of Jesus’ pierced side?

This “why” question pertains to science and must be answered scientifically.

A person flogged would go into hypovolemic or commonly called hemorrhagic shock on account of low blood volume in the body. This results in the heart pumping faster than normal. Thus weakened, the victim may collapse or faint, which explains why Jesus repeatedly collapsed under the weight of the cross he was forced to carry to Calvary, necessitating the conscription of Simon of Cyrene to help him. His kidneys would shut down to prevent further fluid loss and the victim would experience extreme thirst – hence Jesus saying he thirst on the cross.

Rapid heartbeat caused by hypovolemic shock also causes fluid to gather in the sack around the heart (called pericardial effusion ) and around the lungs (called pleural effusion). This explains why, after Jesus died and a Roman soldier thrust a spear through his side, piercing both the lungs and the heart, blood and water came from his side just as John recorded in his Gospel (John 19:34).

4. What does the Church teach today concerning “blood and water” flowing out of Jesus’ pierced side?

As early as the second century, the Christian community had developed the theological implications of the “blood and water” in relation to the origin and the growth of the Church. The logic in the symbolisms used is not at all difficult to comprehend: just as “water” symbolises entrance into the Church through baptism, “blood” symbolises the strength of life, given through the Eucharist. And so, as the Second Vatican Council stated, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church reaffirmed:

  • The “origin and growth of the Church are symbolised by the blood and water which flowed from the open side of the crucified Jesus” [LG, 3; CCC, 766].

Concerning its origin, the Church is born primarily of Christ’s total self-giving (“shedding blood”) for our salvation fulfilled on the cross. Death by crucifixion as the most fundamental event in the life of Jesus, and thus the most fundamental symbol of the Christian faith, was already anticipated in the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, where the Lord proclaimed “my body given up” and “my blood shed”. When we factor into our understanding the fact that the element of sacrifice, self-giving, and self-emptying (kenosis) bears such a heavy load in the Lord’s own consciousness of what he was doing for the salvation of humankind, our faith, our theological and spiritual understanding of the Lord’s command to “do this in memory of me” must in substance pertain to making sacrifices symbolized by blood-shedding. Then, we can make better sense of Saint John’s Gospel (John 13) when, instead of the institution narratives rendered by the earlier Synoptic Gospels (Matt. 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:15-20) and St Paul in The First Letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 11:23-26), it narrates the Lord Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.

  • Leadership, the Lord stresses at the foot-washing, is inauthentic, unless it is humble and other-centred service.
  • Christian leadership cannot be other than servant-leadership.
  • “Do this in memory of me” may mean different things to different people but, to the Lord Jesus, Saint John insists, it means first and foremost humble service in full cognizance of what the Lord did, how he did it, why he did it, and for whom did he do it.

“The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church,” according to Tertullian, a prominent theologian of the late second and early third centuries. Today, we remember that many Christians, some popes included, have said that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of faith”.  All one needs to do is to google the Ugandan Martyrs to see the resounding echo of the truth of that statement.

Concerning growth, through baptism we incorporate more people into the Body of Christ.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5).

The symbolism of water signifies the Holy Spirit’s action in Baptismto be baptised is to undergo Pentecost. The Holy Spirit is the living water welling up from Christ crucified (CCC, 694).

We shall keep in mind, as symbols for reflection towards Christian living, the two images of Jesus “shedding blood” and “washing feet”, as we turn to the next post on the centurion standing at the foot of the cross.

Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, March 2017. All rights reserved.

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