by Fr. Chrysostom Baer, O.Praem., Prior
A long time ago while studying in Rome, Fr. Victor and I went during Easter break to visit our Norbertine canonesses in the small town of Toro in Spain. Since we arrived on the Saturday before Palm Sunday but couldn’t get a bus until Monday, we spent Palm Sunday in Madrid. We began the day with Mass, of course, but ended the day with a singularly Spanish experience: a bullfight—certainly not an activity appealing to most Americans, but when in Spain…
In the first stages of a bullfight, the bull is jabbed by various sharp implements in its shoulder hump behind its head. This begins the blood flow from the animal, and is intended to weaken and slow him down. The final outcome is predictable.
Attending a bullfight on Palm Sunday may not be as bizarre as it first seems. Here, at the beginning of the week, we have a gripping reminder of what must have happened so many times in the Old Testament. The opening lines of Leviticus specify a bull as a holocaust offering to God in atonement for sins. The bull was led into the temple precincts, and its throat was slit just north of the altar of holocausts. Blood flowed down off the bull and was washed away by a natural spring.
But the bull could only foreshadow the sacrifice of Jesus Christ which we commemorate today. It had no true power to make atonement. “For it is impossible that the blood of bulls…should take away sins,” says St. Paul. What therefore the bullfight harkened back to, pointed forward to the end of the week, a numbing and bloody sacrifice.
With much greater edification, once in Toro we also participated in the very Spanish Holy Week processions. Late at night, in palpable darkness, lines of men from confraternities of penitents, with ancient robes and conical hats, wended their way through the stone streets, carrying torches. All was in silence except for the occasional piercing trumpet and booming drum. And at the end of the procession came a float with a statue of Jesus scourged at the pillar. There is no liturgy, no moving hymns, no readings or preaching, just the quiet, and the crushing thoughts of guilt and repentance, and a Savior bloodied for sacrifice.
The scourging that our Blessed Lord endured at the hands of the Romans started by tenderizing the flesh of His back, but it endured so long that the skin tore off in patches, and so an enormous quantity of blood was shed. When we suddenly lose such a large amount, around a fifth of our total blood volume, we enter a state called hypovolemic shock. The skin becomes clammy, breathing is rapid, the body is greatly weakened. And mentally we undergo anxiety and confusion.
What these last symptoms would have meant in our Savior Jesus Christ, true God and true man, is a deep mystery. In any of us, if our sense faculties are greatly shocked like this, our minds do not function. But Christ maintained perfect clarity in His vision of the eternal Father, and—as Pius XII teaches—in that vision He saw every member of the Mystical Body and embraced us all with redeeming love. Moreover, His intellect still had unimpaired use of the endless knowledge that was infused there at His conception. And yet at the same time He felt dazed; He held the vision of God and experienced the disconnect caused by this shock. We’ll never know what that was like, not even a little. It is a mystery of our Lord’s sacred humanity for us to love and admire and adore.
In this mysterious frame of mind, Christ beheld His own precious blood. He saw it spray away from His flesh; He tasted it in His mouth; He heard it drip down and soak the earth. And He knew that every single drop of it was Himself, God most high, poured out in atonement, for “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” One drop was enough to satisfy sin, but to show His love every drop was needed.
We began Lent, as we always do, by hearing the words of Pope St. Clement I: “Let us fix our attention on the blood of Christ and recognize how precious it is to God His Father, since it was shed for our salvation and brought grace and repentance to all the world.” Now at the end of Lent we commemorate its power as we sing of our Lord’s death on the altar of the cross.
The law of Moses clearly says, “Since the life of a living body is in its blood, I [the Lord] have made you put it on the altar, so that atonement may thereby be made for your own lives, because it is the blood, as the seat of life, that makes atonement.” We usually think of living water as flowing water, but another, hidden meaning here is that there is blood in the water, since life is in the blood. And so, just as the blood of bulls washed away by the flowing spring in the Jewish sacrifice prophesied our Lord’s saving death, so also “On the last and greatest day of the feast [of tabernacles], Jesus stood up and exclaimed, ‘Let anyone who thirsts come to Me and drink. Whoever believes in Me, as scripture says: “Rivers of living water will flow from within him.”’ He said this in reference to the Spirit that those who came to believe in Him were to receive.” This St. John himself explained when he wrote, “So there are three that testify, the Spirit, the water, and the blood, and these three are of one accord.” These are the three witnesses who testified as we just heard in the Passion narrative: “When Jesus had taken the wine, He said, ‘It is finished.’ And bowing His head, He handed over the Spirit…One soldier thrust his lance into His side, and immediately blood and water flowed out. An eyewitness has testified, and his testimony is true; he knows that he is speaking the truth, so that you also may come to believe.”
The blood of Christ, therefore, is at work in the soul of every believer, in every heart where the Spirit dwells. It is the price of our salvation, it is the stream of mercy, it is the pledge of our salvation. At the tribunal of divine justice, it testifies not to our guilt but to our innocence. St. Leo the Great tells us that “The sacred blood of Christ has quenched the flaming sword that barred access to the tree of life.” Heaven is opened; we are saved.
“Therefore, brethren,” says St. Paul, “since through the blood of Jesus we have confidence of entrance into the sanctuary by the new and living way He opened for us through the veil, that is, His flesh…let us approach with a sincere heart and in absolute trust, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience.” Many, many are those who came here to wash their souls in the blood of Christ through a good confession; their hearts are sprinkled clean. And now all of us with a sincere heart must approach God with absolute, unswerving confidence; His love for us has put Him in shock, dazed and breathless at how much He wants us to love Him return.
We are all of us here this morning to celebrate the rising of our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead. This is not a metaphorical event, a wish of believers transposed onto reality, but the real reunion of His human soul returning from Limbo with His human body lying in the Holy Sepulcher. It is into this historical event that we are incorporated, that we partake and claim as our own identity, through holy baptism.
Rising from the dead is an experience not just of Christ on Easter morning, nor of mankind as a whole on the Last Day, but of everyone who, like the women in the Gospel, departs from the tomb, the place needed on account of sin’s just punishment; departs from the death of sin through the mercy and forgiveness of Christ; departs quickly because we should never delay our conversion or dawdle in our iniquity.
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