Between Heaven and Water

We have often listened to the account of Christ’s Passion. Essentially it is the account of an extremely tortured and violent death. News of deaths, and especially violent deaths, is something these days that never seems to be missing from the news. We have also heard over the last few years, that even more Coptic Christians are being executed this time on April 18 of this year (2021). News of this sort seems to be run of the mill these days, following one another with such rapidity that by the following evening we have forgotten those that were killed the day before. So, why then, after 2000 years, do we still remember Christ’s death as if it happened only yesterday?

It is this death, that changed the face of death forever; it gave new meaning to every human being’s death. Let us take a moment to reflect upon this. “But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs, but one soldier thrust his lance into his side, and immediately blood and water flowed out.” (John 19:33-34). John probably emphasises these verses to show the reality of Jesus’ death, against the Docetist heretics. The blood and water mentioned is also a distinctive reference to both the Eucharist and to Baptism.

At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, those who asked him under who’s authority had he expelled the merchants from the temple, Jesus replied: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up … But he was speaking about the temple of his body.” (John 2:19-21), John commented on that occasion, and now the evangelist himself attests to us that both water and blood flowed from the side of the temple which had now been “destroyed”. This is an evident reference to the prophecy of Ezekiel who spoke of the future temple of God, from the side of which gushes a trickle of water which at first became a stream, then a navigable river and around which all forms of life flourish (cf. Ezekiel 47:1 ff.). 

But we should try to better understand the source of these “rivers of living water” (John 7:38), and scrutinise the pierced heart of Christ. In Revelation the same disciple whom Jesus loved writes: “Then I saw standing in the midst of the throne and the four living creatures and the elders a Lamb [Christ] that seemed to have been slain.” (Revelation 5:6). Slain, but standing, that is, pierced, but risen and alive. There is now, within the Trinity and within the world, a human heart that beats, not only figuratively, but “real”. Indeed, if Christ has risen from the dead, his heart rose with him from dead; it lives, like the rest of his body, in a different sphere than before, real, even if it is mystical. If the Lamb lives in heaven “immolated, but upright”, then his heart would naturally also share the same sphere; it is a pierced heart, yet a heart that lives; eternally pierced, precisely because He is eternally alive. An expression has been generate into being to describe the pinnacle of evil and depravity that has accumulate within humanity: “heart of tenebrosity”. After the sacrifice of Christ, even deeper than the heart of tenebrosity, a heart of radiant light beats within the world. In fact, when Jesus ascended to heaven, he did not abandon the earth, just as when he became incarnate, he did not relinquish the Trinity. As the antiphon in the Liturgy of the Hours says, “the plan of the Father is now fulfilled in making Christ the heart of the world”. This would explain that immutable Christian optimism that made Julian of Norwich — medieval mystic— exclaim: “Sin is inevitable,” she said, “yet all will be well and all will be well and every kind of thing shall be well.”

The Carthusians had adopted the motto on their coat of arms which appears at the entrance to all of their monasteries, on their official documents and used on frequent occasions. In it the terrestrial globe is represented, surmounted by a cross, with the inscription around it: Stat crux dum volvitur orbis: The Cross is steady while the world turns. What exactly does the cross represent, by being this fixed point, a mast between the wobbling through space of the world? It is God’s definitive and irreversible “NO” to violence, injustice, hatred, lies, just about everything that we define as “evil”; and yet, at the same time it’s also the equally irreversible “yes” to love, to truth, toward all that is good. “No” to sin, “yes” to the sinner. Just as Jesus practiced throughout his short life on Earth and which he continues to definitively consecrate through his death. 

The reason for this distinction is quite clear: a sinner is a creature of God, sinners retain their dignity, in spite of all of their misguidedness. Sin is not; it is contrived, an appended reality, sin is the fruit of one’s own passions and “envy of the devil” (Wisdom 2:24). It is due to this reason why the Word, by becoming incarnate, took on all of humanity, except for their sins. The thief, to whom Jesus promises paradise as He was dying on the cross, is a living example of this. No one need despair; no one should have to say, as Cain did: “My punishment is too great to bear” (Genesis 4:13). 

The cross, therefore, does not “stand” against the world, but for the world: It gives meaning to all the suffering that has happened, that will occur in humanities history. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world —Jesus says to Nicodemus—, but that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:17). The cross is the living proclamation that the final victory does not belong to those who triumph over others, but to those who triumph over themselves; not to those who cause suffering, but to those who suffer. Dum volvitur orbis, while the world turns. 

Human history has taken many paths from one era to next: we talk about the stone age, bronze, iron age, the imperial age, the atomic age, the electronic age. But today we have something entirely new. The concept of transition is no longer deemed enough to describe our actual reality. The idea of transformation must be accompanied by that of devastation. How can we best make sense of the moment we’re in? “We are living —Polish-born philosopher and sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has written— under liquid modern conditions can be compared to walking in a minefield: everyone knows an explosion might happen at any moment and in any place, but no one knows when the moment will come and where the place will be;” 

There no longer seem to be any fixed points, undisputed values, no rocks in the sea to cling to, or against which, perhaps, to collide against. Everything is floating. The worst of the hypotheses that the philosopher had foreseen is the effects of God’s death, one that the advent of the super-human should have prevented, yet did not prevent: “What did we do when we loosened this earth from its sun? Whither does it now move? Whither do we move? Away from all suns? Do we not dash on unceasingly? Backwards, sideways, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an above and below? Do we not stray, as through infinite nothingness?” (Friedrich Nietzsche. The Gay Science. Book III – Aphorism # 125).

It has been said that “killing God is the most horrendous of suicides,” and that is what we are seeing in part. It is not true that “where God is born, man dies” (Jean-Paul Sartre); quite the opposite is in fact true: where God dies, man also dies. A surrealist painter of the second half of the last century Salvador Dalí painted a Christ crucified (called: Christ of St. John of the Cross) that looks like a prophecy of this situation. An immense, cosmic cross, with a Christ on top, equally monumental, seen from above, with the head tilted down. Below him, however, there is not land, but water. The Crucifix is ​​not suspended between heaven and earth, but between heaven and the liquid element of the world. This tragic scene —where there is also, in the background, a cloud that could allude to a mushroom cloud of an atomic explosion—, although it also contains a consoling conclusiveness: that there is hope, even for a liquid society such as ours! There is hope, because above “stands the cross of Christ”. This is the Good Friday liturgy which every year prompts us repeat in the words of the text Vexilla Regis by the poet Venanzio Fortunato: O Crux ave, spes unica, “Hail to the Cross, our only hope.” Yes, God died, He died in His Son Jesus Christ Jesus; but He did not remain in the tomb, for He rose again. “you killed, using lawless men to crucify him —cries Peter to the crowd on the day of Pentecost— But God raised him up, releasing him from the throes of death!” (Acts 2:23-24). He is the one who “was dead, but now lives forever and ever” (Revelation 1:18). 

Vexilla Regis

The cross does not “stand still in the midst of the upheavals of the world” as a reminder of a past event, or as a pure symbol; it is there as an actual, living and functional reality. We must not stop, like sociologists, making an analysis of the society in which we live. Christ did not come to explain things, but to change people. The heart of darkness is not just that of some evil hidden within the depths of a jungle, nor is it society that produced it. To some extent, it is within each one of us. The Bible calls it a heart of stone: “From their bodies I will remove the hearts of stone —says God in the prophet Ezekiel— and give them hearts of flesh” (Ezekiel 11:19). A heart of stone is a heart that is sealed to the will of God and to the suffering of brothers and sisters, the heart of those who accumulate boundless wealth yet remain indifferent to the desperation of those who do not have a glass of water to give to their crying child; it is the heart of those who allow themselves to be completely dominated by their impurities, their passion,  leading a double life and are ready to kill for it. 

In order for us to keep our gaze always turned outward, toward others, we should definitively affirm: that it is our hearts which are evangelist of God, yet as practicing Christians we still seem to live fundamentally just “for ourselves” and are failing to live “for God” as though we are afraid to do so. It is written that at the moment of Christ’s death “the veil of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom, the earth quaked, rocks were split, tombs were opened, and the bodies of many saints who had fallen asleep were raised.” (Matthew 27:51-52). An apocalyptic explanation is usually given to these portents, as a symbolic language necessary to describe an event relating to death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind. But they also have an encouraging and persuasive meaning: they indicate what has to happen within the heart of those who read and meditate upon the Passion of Christ. 

Regarding the liturgy in our present days, Pope Saint Leo the Great said to the faithful: “Let human nature tremble in the face of the Redeemer’s torture, let the rocks of unfaithful hearts break and those who were closed in the tombs of their mortality come out, lifting the weighed stone off them” (Sermo 66, 3; PL 54, 366). The heart of flesh, promised by God in the prophets, is now present in the world: it is the heart of Christ pierced on the cross, which we venerate as “the Sacred Heart”. In receiving the Eucharist, we firmly believe that that heart also beats within us. Looking at the cross for a short moment, we say from the bottom of our hearts, like the tax collector in the temple: “O God, have mercy on me a sinner!” And we too, like him, will return home “justified” (Luke 18:13-14).