The wounded side of Christ

Finding of the Holy Cross

The wounds of Christ have fed a rich symbolism in the tradition of the Church; the five crosses inscribed on altars, the five grains of incense with which the Paschal candle is studded, and the Jerusalem cross, for example, draw their number from the five wounds of Christ. In Roman Catholicism, the wounds have constituted part of an extravagant system of devotions to various aspects of Christ’s human Body (the Sacred Heart, the Blood of Christ, etc.), and the stigmata have manifested themselves in those, beginning with St Francis, who have most fully identified themselves with the humility and poverty of Christ.

None of this is found in the restrained Prayer Book tradition. Even among the formularies of Holy Week there is little explicit mention of the wounds, though Eucharistic Prayer C contains the response ‘By his blood, he reconciled us. By his wounds we are healed’. The Hymnal, however, appropriately allows some scope for meditation upon the wounds.

First we may note that the human Body of Christ, though transformed after His resurrection, still bore its wounds – and not only that, but it was that very Body that ascended to heaven – as Charles Wesley wrote:

Hail the day that sees him rise
glorious to his native skies...
See! he lifts his hands above;
See! he shows the prints of love...[214]

– and will return, still bearing the scars:

Those dear tokens of his passion
     still his dazzling body bears,
cause of endless exultation
     to his ransomed worshipers;
with what rapture, with what rapture
     gaze we on those glorious scars!  [57]
     cf. Rv 1.7; Jn 19.37, Zc 12.10

Watts finds the entirety of God’s Name, grace, and attributes ‘drawn / in precious blood and crimson lines’, even more vividly than in all of Nature:

But in the grace that rescued man
     his brightest form of glory shines;
here, on the cross, ’tis fairest drawn
     in precious blood and crimson lines.

Here his whole Name appears complete;
     nor wit can guess, nor reason prove
which of the letters best is writ,
     the power, the wisdom, or the love.

Oh, the sweet wonders of that cross
     where Christ my Savior loved and died!
Her noblest life my spirit draws
     from his dear wounds and bleeding side. [434]

Of all Christ’s wounds, it is this side which has inspired perhaps the richest, most scriptural and sacramental sort of meditation. Most fundamentally, the water and blood that flowed from the pierced side have since the beginning been identified with the sacramental elements of Holy Baptism and the Holy Eucharist:

A Roman soldier drew a spear
to mix his blood with water clear.
That blood retains its living power;
the water cleanses to this hour. [161]

He endures the nails, the spitting,
     vinegar, and spear, and reed;
from that holy body broken
     blood and water forth proceed:
earth, and stars, and sky, and ocean,
     by that flood from stain are freed. [165]

At the Lamb’s high feast we sing
praise to our victorious King,
who hath washed us in the tide
flowing from his piercèd side;
praise we him, whose love divine
gives his sacred Blood for wine,
gives his Body for the feast,
Christ the victim, Christ the priest. [174]

The water and Christ’s Body have also been seen to be figured in the manna given in the wilderness [Ex 16; Jn 6] and the water that flowed forth from the rock at Horeb struck by Moses [Ex 17; Pss 78.16,20; 105.41; 114.8]:

Life-imparting heavenly Manna,
     smitten Rock with streaming side,
heaven and earth with loud hosanna
     worship thee, the Lamb who died.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
     Risen, ascended, glorified! [307]

O Food to pilgrims given,
O Bread of life from heaven,
     O Manna from on high!
We hunger; Lord, supply us,
nor thy delights deny us,
     whose hearts to thee draw nigh.

O stream of love past telling,
O purest fountain, welling
     from out the Savior’s side!
We faint with thirst; revive us,
of thine abundance give us,
     and all we need provide.

O Jesus, by thee bidden,
we here adore thee, hidden
     in forms of bread and wine.
Grant when the veil is riven,
we may behold, in heaven,
     thy countenance divine. [308]

And Christ’s Body, opened by the soldier’s spear, is not only the water-giving rock but also the ‘crag’ or ‘cleft’ in which the Psalmist hides [Pss 18.1; 31.3; 71.3]:

Rock of ages, cleft for me,
let me hide myself in thee;
let the water and the blood
from thy wounded side that flowed,
be of sin the double cure,
cleanse me from its guilt and power. [685]

St Augustine identifies the side not only as the source of the Sacraments, but also the very gate of Paradise which Christ opened on the cross (cf. His words to the repentant thief), figured in the door of the Ark, and the place from which a spouse (the Church) is made for the new Adam (Christ):

A suggestive word was made use of by the evangelist, in not saying pierced, or wounded His side, or anything else, but opened; that thereby, in a sense, the gate of life might be thrown open, from whence have flowed forth the sacraments of the Church, without which there is no entrance to the life which is the true life. That blood was shed for the remission of sins; that water it is that makes up the health-giving cup, and supplies at once the laver of baptism and water for drinking. This was announced beforehand, when Noah was commanded to make a door in the side of the ark, whereby the animals might enter which were not destined to perish in the flood, and by which the Church was prefigured. Because of this, the first woman was formed from the side of the man when asleep, and was called Life, and the mother of all living. Truly it pointed to a great good, prior to the great evil of the transgression (in the guise of one thus lying asleep). This second Adam bowed His head and fell asleep on the cross, that a spouse might be formed for Him from that which flowed from the sleeper’s side. O death, whereby the dead are raised anew to life! What can be purer than such blood? What more health-giving than such a wound?

Thinking this Eastertide of St Thomas and the other terrified disciples who beheld the Risen Christ firsthand, I wonder whether we could also see the wound in Christ’s side as somehow the gap between doubt and faith, fear and freedom, death and life, and see the invitation to see, to touch, as an invitation to enter and discover that even in that lacuna we reside in the bosom of the Lord. With those disciples, then – with St Mary, who bore the Body of Christ; with St Peter, who asked to be washed all over; with St John, who stood faithfully by the Cross; with St Thomas, who beheld Christ’s wounds – the faithful can pray the Anima Christi:

Soul of Christ, sanctify me
Body of Christ, save me
Blood of Christ, inebriate me
Water from the side of Christ, wash me
Passion of Christ, strengthen me
O good Jesus, hear me
Within Thy wounds hide me...