There are certain things we know deeply, risk our lives upon, but can never adequately explain to ourselves or others. This is particularly true of the death of Jesus and how that death washes us clean of sin, opens the gates of heaven for us and teaches how to give our own deaths away as he did.
That Jesus’ death does these things is a core truth that underlies most everything within our Christian faith. We celebrate it in the liturgy. We define it in dogmas. We depict it in icons. We risk our lives upon its truth. But only at some gut level do we inchoately grasp its meaning. We have certain words for its substance, but we do not have a full vocabulary to describe it, and we will never fully find one since the redemptive value of Jesus’ death is, in its depth, a mystery beyond normal understanding. But the theological, catechetical, spiritual and human task is still to search for that vocabulary. We can understand only partially what Jesus’ death means, but that partial understanding is badly needed.
How do we enter that understanding? How can we begin to unfurl the mystery of Jesus’ death in a way that we can explicitly grasp more of its meaning? The Gospels, of course, are our best entry, particularly the Passion narratives. These narratives are not intended as a literal recording of Jesus’ death. Rather they tell us how those around Jesus, that first Christian community, experienced his death and its aftermath. With this in mind and for the purposes of this short article, I would like to focus on two passages given in the Gospels wherein the Evangelists describe the effects of Jesus’ death.
‘Torn in Two’
The first of passage is found in Mt 27:51-53, where we are told that at the exact moment of Jesus’ death “the veil of the sanctuary was torn in two, from top to bottom, the earth quaked, the rocks split, the tombs opened and the bodies of many holy people rose from the dead.” What happens here?
My imagination has always been able to picture this moment. What comes automatically to mind is an image of it growing dark in the middle of the day and then, at the second of Jesus’ death, as if by lightning, the temple veil is ripped from top to bottom while everyone looks on stunned, convinced now, too late, that the person they have just mocked and crucified is the Christ. But, spontaneous imagination aside, what is really meant by that phrase?
Biblical scholars tell us that the veil of the sanctuary was precisely a veil, a curtain, which hid from the ordinary worshipper the “holy of holies.” It shielded persons from seeing into the holiest part of the temple where, in a manner too awesome for normal sight, God was understood to dwell. Thus, when Matthew says that at the moment of Jesus’ death the temple veil was ripped apart from top to bottom, the point he is making is not that God shredded what was most precious to those who crucified Jesus to show them how wrong they were. Instead, the point is rather a positive one.
The temple veil was, as just mentioned, a curtain that physically separated the people from that part of the temple that was considered “the holy of holies” and that was always beyond the sight of the ordinary people. Only the priests, to perform sacred ritual, ever went behind the curtain and saw what was there. What Matthew tells us, then, is that the death of Jesus took away the veil that prevents us, the ordinary people, from seeing into the true “holy of holies,” that is, the inner heart of God. In Jesus’ death we get to see right into the heart of God. There is no longer a veil between us and God’s heart. We can now see what God really looks like.
To understand the richness of this image, it can be helpful to compare it to a parallel image in the Jewish Scriptures, namely, that of the rainbow. Scripture tells us that God is “light”; but, paradoxically, we cannot see light. We see by light, but we cannot see light itself, except in one instance, the rainbow. When light is shone into a prism, the prism refracts that light, literally breaking it up so that we can see its inside. And the result is stunning. We see that the inside of light is spectacularly beautiful, seven magnificent colors (the basis of all color). In a rainbow, in a manner of speaking, we physically see the inside of God and we see that God’s inside is spectacularly beautiful.
The death of Jesus, how he died in love, forgiving his executioners, forgiving all the ignorance and malice that brought about his death while he remained faithful to truth and love in the face of their opposites, is a prism that refracts God’s moral interior; it breaks open God’s heart and tears away the veil that prevents us from seeing inside God’s heart. It is a moral rainbow. And what we see there, like the colors in a physical rainbow, is spectacularly beautiful. The moral heart of God also breaks down into spectacularly beautiful colors (the basis of all morality): unconditional love and its various manifestations. The death of Jesus is the ultimate icon of the Trinity and the ultimate revelation of God.
And what does it reveal? It reveals how we are washed clean by Jesus’ blood. By dying as he did, Jesus did not pay off some debt to God that humanity incurred through original sin and that we personally incur through our personal sins. God does not keep a scorecard and does not need a bank balance. Rather Jesus’ death washes us clean by revealing the heart of a God whose love is faithful enough to not let us die, to open our graves and empty our cemeteries, even when in ignorance or malice we go on killing God and each other. The death of Jesus reveals a God who sheds his own blood to cover up all the blood we are shedding in our ignorance, jealousy and sin. As our creedal formulae and icons so beautifully depict it, in Jesus’ death we are being washed clean by the blood of the lamb. Among other things, this is a moral metaphor that we can spend our lifetime contemplating.
Blood and Water
A second text within the Passion narratives sheds light more specifically on how Jesus’ death was experienced by his contemporaries as a cleansing, a blessing and a new empowerment to live.
The Gospel of John tells us that at the moment of Jesus’ death “blood and water” flowed from his dead body (Jn 19, 33-34). This image has several levels of meaning. First, the image is clearly one of birth; blood and water accompany a newborn out of the womb. Jesus’ death was experienced as giving birth to something in the world. What is being born? Cleansing and empowerment. That much is clear in the image.
What is blood? Blood is the life-principle inside us. We are alive so long as blood flows through us. What is water? Two things: Water quenches thirst and it washes us clean. When we combine these concepts, we get a sense of what John is trying to teach us. In the face of Jesus’ death, his initial disciples felt an outpouring of blood and water, that is, they felt a deeper and richer flow of life within themselves and a sense of being nurtured and cleansed in a new way. They felt something flow out from Jesus’ death that made them feel freer, less guilty and more open to life than ever before.
This might sound quasi-magical, but it is something very concrete. We have that same experience whenever someone we know dies with the same trust, forgiveness and graciousness that Jesus exhibited at his death. If someone were to ask me, “What have been the singularly most joy-filled occasions that you have been present to within the last 10 years?” my answer might seem curious. The most joy-filled occasions that I have been present to over the last decade have been a number of funerals of both women and men, who, in the way they died, figuratively set off a flow of blood and water from their caskets.
Here is one example. A couple of years ago, I went to visit a man who was already in palliative care, dying of cancer. He was a young man, still in his 50s, but he was dying well because he was dying the same way he had lived his life, without bitterness and without enemies. He spoke to me of the intense loneliness of dying and then added: “I’ve had a good life and I’ve no regrets. I don’t think I have an enemy, at least I don’t know of one. And I want to do this right. I want to die with a dignity that makes my wife and kids proud of me. I want to do this right for them and for everyone else.”
He died some days later, and his family and everyone else who knew him were deeply saddened. But inside that sadness there was also something else: an outflow of blood and water. After his funeral, as we walked out of church to a small reception, there was not one person who knew this man well, including his grieving wife and children, who, at a level deeper than the sadness of the moment, did not feel freer, less guilty and more open to life than ever before. He wanted to do his death right, and he did, and that reinforced everything good he had done in his life, so that what he wanted to leave us stayed with us, his love and the goodness of his life. They flowed from his casket, like blood and water.
How We Live and How We Die
Less happily, we sometimes experience the opposite; not every death is a gift to those who knew that person. All of us have also been to funerals where, because of the manner in which the person lived or died, we did not feel freedom and cleansing flowing from the casket but rather felt as if the very oxygen was being drawn out of the room. Instead of feeling freer, less guilty and more open to life, we felt guilty about the very act of breathing.
How we live and how we die leaves behind a spirit after we have gone, a happy blessing or some unhappy unfinished business. Our caskets will either emit a flow of life-giving and guilt-freeing blood and water or they will suck some of the oxygen from the rooms and the hearts of those who knew us.
Jesus, by the way he lived and by the way he died, set forth a flow of “water and blood” from his dead body. His death was experienced by his contemporaries as bringing them new life. And this is more than something we should admire. Rather, as the First Letter of Peter puts it, it is an example for us to imitate. To the degree that we die as Jesus did, without bitterness and without holding anyone hostage, our dead bodies too will give off, to all who knew us, a flow of blood and water. This is a moral metaphor that we can spend a lifetime contemplating.
And, admittedly, all of this is partially a mystery, Jesus’ death as well as our own. There is more here than can be grasped in purely human terms. In the end, we do not have the vocabulary to adequately express this. Dogmatic formulae and icons are perhaps still our richest avenues for understanding since they simply hold the mystery up for us to meditate upon. With this in mind, I leave you with a meditation from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., on death, Jesus’ death and our own, and the connection between the two:
When the signs of age begin to mark my body (and still more when they touch my mind); when the illness that is to diminish me or carry me off strikes from without or is born within me; when the painful moment comes in which I suddenly awaken to the fact I am losing hold of myself and am absolutely passive within the great unknown forces that have formed me; in all those dark moments, O God, grant that I may understand that it is you (provided only my faith is strong enough) who are painfully parting the fibres of my being in order to penetrate to the very marrow of my substance and bear me away within yourself.... Teach me to treat my death as an act of communion.