In early times, the daily Chapter was a traditional feature of the monastic timetable. The monks left church at the end of the office of Prime and processed to a room near by, where a portion, or "chapter," of the Rule was read and the abbot commented upon it. It was also the natural occasion for announcements to be made affecting the life of the community and for a blessing to be given upon the day's work. Soon the room itself came to be called "the Chapter Room, or House" or simply "Chapter." Even today some form of this practice exists in many monasteries, including our own. Each month this page will feature a chapter talk given to the Community, as well as news and features. We hope you will visit us regularly.

 
 
 

Aqua lateris Christi, lava me

Water from the side of Christ, wash me

“The soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who had been crucified with [Jesus]; but when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs.  But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear and at once there came out blood and water.  He who saw it has borne witness … that you may also believe.  For these things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled, ‘Not a bone of him shall be broken.’  And again another Scripture says, ‘They shall look on him whom they have pierced.’”  (Jn 19:30-37)

            What has happened here and what does it signify?  There is more than one level, the material and historical on the one hand and the theological and mystical, or level of faith, on the other.  John presents both in his twofold capacity of ocular witness and seer.  The verb of ‘seeing’ or ‘looking’ is applied to each level, to the former to report facts, to the latter to lead the hearer into their inner meaning.

            It is well known that the Roman soldiers took it upon themselves to ensure that all three of the crucified men were dead, so as to avoid offending the Jews by leaving the bodies of the dead to hang overnight on the Sabbath.  They smashed the legs of the two thieves with an iron mallet called a crurifragium, ensuring a rapid and painful death (cf Brant Pitre).  One of the soldiers, traditionally Longinus, made certain that Jesus was dead by piercing him through the heart with a long spear.  “At once”, says John, “there came out blood and water.”

            Still on the physical level, one writer has commented, with regard to the water: “The human heart is enclosed in a conical sac of liquid … called the pericardium.  This serous membrane which surrounds the heart is, in a sense, the heart’s last protection.  When the soldier took that spear and plunged it into the side of Christ” he pierced his pericardium.  “Along with the last drop of blood of the Sacred Heart came its support, that clear liquid from the pericardium.”  It was “the definitive sign of death … there is nothing more to give.  The water and the blood now announce together ‘all is given.’”  (Anima Christi: Sr M Francis)  It is an expression, in the first place, of totality.

            The second level goes further; these physical facts are not the end, but have a mystical meaning.  Scriptural texts afford the clues, which the Fathers often take up in their exegesis of John 19.  The evangelist himself puts them on the trail by citing Exodus 12:46 on the stipulation not to break the bones of the Passover lamb and, at the other end of the Old Testament, Zech 12:10: “When they look on him whom they have pierced.”  That remarkable text continues: “they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child and weep bitterly for him as one weeps over a first-born”: a prefiguration of Christ the only-begotten Son of the Father and only son of Mary.  Furthermore, “on that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness” (13:1).  Already, here, we understand the purpose of this stream of water from the opened side of Christ.  From this death, life is born.

            There is, on this new level, a rich patristic typology.  Origen compares Christ to the rock which sustained the people of Israel in the wilderness, after Moses had struck it at the Lord’s command.  Christ, too, had to be struck on the cross.  As a result, “he brought forth the streams of the New Testament.”  If this had not been so, says Origen, we should all have “suffered thirst for the word of God.”  Thus Christ sustains the new people of Israel by his word in its journey to the Promised Land.

            In a rather picturesque image, St Augustine likens Christ to the ark (of Noah).  In the version of the Vulgate he uses, the verb aperuit rather than percussit is employed.  The soldier, he says, opened his side, as if it were a gate or a door.  From this aperture, the sacraments of the Church were to flow, symbolised by the blood and water.  This, says Augustine, was prefigured when “Noah was commanded to make a door in the side of the ark, by which the animals which were not to perish in the deluge entered.”  These animals, he affirms, are the type of the members of the Church.

            We come closer to what is in John’s mind with the image of the Temple.  Here we return to scriptural typology, notably in Ez 47: “He brought me back to the door of the temple and water was issuing from below the threshold of the temple toward the east.”  It is a directed stream which becomes an impassable river, making stagnant water fresh and everything live where it goes.  “All kinds of trees grow on its banks, bearing fresh fruit for food and leaves for healing.” Zechariah takes up the same theme: “on that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem” in the direction of the “eastern and western seas” (14:8).  The Temple is an image Jesus uses of himself and must have these prophets in mind (Jn:19, 21): “Destroy this temple and I will raise it up in three days … he spoke of the temple of his body.”  Strike this temple, make an opening in its side and a life giving stream will proceed for the redeemed.

            The symbol of lamb is also connected in John’s mind with the temple.  Even at the start of his ministry, John views him as the lamb of sacrifice: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29).  Again, we are invited to look, just as the bystanders at the Crucifixion, the scene of Christ’s sacrifice, will look on the “pierced one”.  It is the very moment, it is said, when the Paschal lambs were being slaughtered in the Temple.  As we remarked, by the code of Exodus, none of the bones were to be broken; so it is with Jesus on the cross, and, as the lintels of the door were to be marked with blood to keep away destruction from the people of Israel, so the blood-stained cross is the sign of our salvation.

            There is a further very specific connection of the streams of blood and water with the Temple, pointed out by some authors.  Although we find the blood of the slain lambs in Exodus and the stream of water in Zechariah, only in John do we find both together.  “At the first Passover”, writes Tony Badillo, “the lambs were slain at home and eaten at home (Ex 12:1-8).  Since there was as yet no tabernacle or Temple, there was also no sacrificial altar”.  However in John’s and Jesus’ time, centuries later, there was a resplendent Temple in Jerusalem, where hundreds of lambs were slain.  The Temple faced east towards the Mount of Olives and the valley between the two hills was the Kidron valley or brook where Jesus would often pass with his disciples.  Since sacrifices were offered morning and evening daily, with more on high, holy days such as the Passover, the blood of the slain lambs, along with the cleansing water from the Temple sluices, would flow together from the Temple Mount into the Kidron Valley.  With this image in mind, it is not difficult to understand John’s inspired connection, when he saw the blood and water issuing from Christ’s side.  Here was the new paschal lamb and the new Temple.

            The water must have recalled to him, as well, many of Jesus’ sayings, such as His promise to the Samaritan woman and his proclamation in the Temple precincts themselves, on the Feast of Tabernacles (Jn 7:37-8): “If anyone thirst let him come to me and drink.  He who believes in me as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water’.  Now this he said about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were to receive.”  The water from Christ’s side, then, symbolises the Holy Spirit given in baptism, washing away our sins in the bath of regeneration.  This is Jacob of Sarug: “Christ came and opened up baptism by his Cross; [and] so that it should be a mother of life for the world in place of Eve, water and blood for the fashioning of spiritual infants flowed from it and baptism became the mother of life” (Homily on Three Baptisms).

            The water and the blood cannot be separated.  In 1John 5, the evangelist emphasises that Jesus Christ came “not with the water only, but with the water and blood”.  This is probably due to his wish to stress the reality of Christ’s Passion and death, against the Docetic heresy of the time.  We are regenerated by the water and nourished by the Blood and the Flesh.  It is a reminder that these streams belong to Christ’s bodily substance; they issue from within; literally from His human, physical Heart.

            In identifying the two streams with his substance, we are back in the Upper Room: Take, eat; Take, drink.  In both Cenacle and at Calvary, in serenity and in surrender to violence, he offers himself (active tense) and suffers (a verb passive in meaning) out of an immeasurable love for mankind.  From these two poles of violence and surrender, of offering and being offered, and from blood and water, the Church with her sacraments is born from Christ’s open side.  The Fathers see the ecclesia as the Bride formed from Christ’s rib, while he slept on the cross, as Eve was taken from Adam’s side, while he slept.  “Adam’s rib is his wife”, says St Ephraim, “and the blood of our Lord is his Church.  From Adam’s rib there is death, but from the Lord’s rib, life.”  Substance from substance.  The Church is inseparably joined to the One who gave her birth through the Holy Spirit and the spilling of his water and blood.  She is the enfleshment of Christ in time, animated by his Spirit; in her turn, she gives unceasingly of her own substance in the sacraments, for the life of her children.

            As we noted at the start, our theme could be expressed as totality of giving: applied to Christ at the piercing of his Heart; applied to his followers, in their whole hearted imitation of him.  Like Christ, we desire to offer all that we have and are; and in our surrender to God’s will for us, we are, in a sense, allowing ourselves to be offered.  Neither of these movements can be accomplished without a participation in Christ’s own charity.  Actively, there is a willed dying to self in everyday giving; and passively, we allow to be taken or drawn from us whatever gives life to others.  Thus, there is a sense in which, like our Lord, we too are privileged to give of our substance, when pierced by his love.  In Prov 3:9 we read: “Honour the Lord with your substance and with the first fruits of all your produce.”  The author of the ‘Epistle of Privy Counsel’ would have us understand this verse spiritually: “Make sure that you are worshipping God with your whole being, offering him simply and completely your whole self, all you are and what you are.”  And if to God, then needs must to the neighbour as well.  We are to offer our first fruits, that is, not only the gifts of nature and grace, “how” we are, but primarily our very existence, “that” we are.  If we truly give of our substance in this way for the praise of God and help of neighbour, we shall have given all.  It can only be done if we are joined to Christ’s own self-offering, which is a total offering symbolised by the streams of water and blood from his pierced side.  As the author of the book on the Anima Christi puts it: “By total giving our faltering goodness is reunited with the goodness of the Father and flows out in streams of living water”, streams of charity, joy, peace, compassion, faith, the gifts of the Holy Spirit.