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The Fruitfulness of Christ's Redemptive Death

General Audience — December 14, 1988

The evangelist Mark writes that when Jesus died, the centurion who stood facing him, on seeing that he thus breathed his last, said, "Truly this man was the Son of God" (Mk 14:39). This implies that in that moment the Roman centurion had a clear intuition about the reality of Christ, an initial perception of the fundamental truth of faith.

The centurion had heard the reproaches and insults addressed to Jesus by his enemies. In particular, they derided Jesus about the title Son of God claimed by him who could not now come down from the cross, nor do anything to save himself.

Looking at the crucified, perhaps earlier during his agony but more intensely and searchingly at the moment of his death, (and perhaps, who knows, their eyes may have met), he felt that Jesus was right. Yes, Jesus is a man, and in fact he died; but in him there is more than a man. He is a man who, as he himself said, is truly the Son of God. That manner of suffering and dying, that yielding up of his spirit into the hands of the Father, the evident sacrifice of himself for a supreme cause to which he had dedicated his whole life, exercised a mysterious power on that soldier. Perhaps the centurion had arrived at Calvary after a long military and spiritual adventure, as a certain writer has imagined, and who in a certain sense can represent every pagan in search of some evidence and revelation of God.

The fact is remarkable, also because at that time the disciples were bewildered and shaken in their faith (cf. Mk 14:50; Jn 16:32). The centurion, on the contrary, at that very hour, heads the line of pagans who, very soon, will seek to be admitted among the disciples of that man in whom, especially after his resurrection, they will acknowledge the Son of God, as attested to by the Acts of the Apostles.

The centurion of Calvary did not wait for the resurrection. That death, those words and that look of the dying man sufficed to lead him to his act of faith. How can we fail to see in this the fruit of an impulse of divine grace, obtained by that soldier from Christ the Savior through his sacrifice?

On his part, the centurion had placed the indispensable condition to receive the gift of faith: objectivity, which is the primary form of sincerity. He looked, he saw and he believed in the reality of the facts, and for this he was granted the gift of faith. He did not speculate on the advantages of siding with the Sanhedrin, nor did he let himself be intimidated like Pilate (cf. Jn 19:8). He looked at the persons and the facts, and he was present as an impartial witness at Jesus' death. He was therefore struck by the force of the truth and believed. Nor did he hesitate to proclaim that that man was the Son of God. It was the first sign of redemption accomplished.

Another sign is recorded by John when he writes: "One of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water" (Jn 19:34).

Jesus was already dead. He died before the two criminals who had been crucified with him. This is a proof of the intensity of his sufferings.

The thrust of the spear, therefore, was not a new suffering inflicted on Jesus. It served rather as a sign of the total gift which he had made of himself. It was a sign marked in his very flesh by the piercing of his side. It may be said that with the opening of his heart, it was a symbolic representation of that love through which Jesus had given everything and would continue to give everything to humanity.

From that opening of his heart there flow blood and water. It is a fact that can be explained physiologically. However, the evangelist mentions it for its symbolic value. It is a sign and announcement of the fruitfulness of the sacrifice. So great is the importance attributed to it by the evangelist that, immediately after narrating the episode, he adds: "He who saw it has borne witness, and his testimony is true; he knows that he is speaking the truth, so that you also may believe" (Jn 19:35). He appealed to direct observation, made by himself to emphasize that it is a fact full of great significance concerning the motives and effects of Christ's sacrifice.

Indeed the evangelist perceived in the event the fulfillment of two prophecies. The first concerns the paschal lamb of the Jews, of which "not a bone shall be broken" (Ex 12:46; Num 9:12; cf. Ps 34:21). For the evangelist, Christ crucified is therefore the paschal lamb and the "lamb bled dry," as St. Catherine of Siena says. Jesus is the lamb of the new covenant, prefigured in the pasch of the old law, and the effective sign of the new liberation not only of Israel but of all humanity from the slavery of sin.

John's other biblical citation is an obscure text attributed to the prophet Zechariah who says: "They shall look on him whom they have pierced" (Zech 12:10). The prophecy concerns the liberation of Jerusalem and Judah by a king, for whose coming the nation acknowledges its guilt and mourns over him whom it has pierced as one mourns the loss of an only son. The evangelist applies this text to Jesus pierced and crucified, now contemplated with love. The hostile glances of his enemies were followed by the loving gaze of those converted. This possible interpretation helps us to understand the theological-prophetical perspective in which the evangelist considered the history which he saw developing from the open heart of Jesus.

The symbolic meaning of the blood and water has been given various interpretations.

In John's Gospel it is possible to note a relationship between the water that flows from the pierced side and Jesus' invitation on the Feast of Tabernacles: "If any one 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'" (Jn 7:37-38; cf. 4:10-14; Rev 22:1). The evangelist then makes clear that Jesus was speaking of the Spirit which those who believed in him were to receive (cf. Jn 7:39).

Some have interpreted the blood as the symbol of the forgiveness of sins through the sacrifice of expiation, and the water as the symbol of purification. Others relate the blood and water to the Eucharist and Baptism.

The evangelist has not provided sufficient grounds for precise interpretations. However, we seem to have an indication from the text on the pierced side from which flow blood and water, namely, the outpouring of grace flowing from the sacrifice, as John himself, from the very beginning of his Gospel, says of the Word Incarnate: "From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace" (Jn 1:16).

We wish to conclude by observing that the testimony of the beloved disciple acquires its full meaning if we recall that this disciple had rested his head on Jesus' breast during the Last Supper. Now he beheld this breast torn open. Hence he felt the need to emphasize the symbol of infinite charity which he had discovered in that heart. He invited the readers of his Gospel and all Christians to contemplate that heart "that had so loved men" as to give himself in sacrifice for them.