We are told in the Fioretti that, Through love and compassion Francis was wholly changed into Jesus. This took place initially on Mount La Verna but persisted for the rest of the saint’s life. The transformation seems to have been immediate, though clearly Francis had been preparing for it, without knowing what was to come, since he first set himself on the way to perfection. This kind of change is something which, less dramatically, should be taking place in all of us. The passage quoted adds: The marks of the nails began anon to appear on the hands and feet of Saint Francis. The word “anon” and later the word “after a space” would seem to show that the significant grace was the interior one of union and that the stigmata expressed it outwardly. For us who have not experienced the grace of transforming union a comparable process may be traced: a heightened awareness of Christ’s love and of his Passion expressed outwardly in works of charity and acceptance of suffering.
Christ suffering extends himself in our sufferings: we suffer and so extend the merit of his suffering. Saint Paul explains this to the Corinthians when he says: We carry about continually in our bodies the dying state of Jesus so that the living power of Jesus may be manifested in our bodies too. Without the sufferings of Christ, in which our own sufferings find their place, there would be no merit in suffering. Suffering in itself is not a good but the denial of a good: for a Christian the whole value of suffering lies in its identification with Christ’s Passion.
In the playing down of traditional devotions, particularly those which have to do with the sacred Passion, the faithful are losing their sense of oneness with the Crucified. We need to be reminded that we are members of a Body whose head is crowned with thorns, whose heart is open and bleeding, whose hands and feet are pierced with nails. Physical pain could be called a sacramental mystery whereby we are united with him who instituted the sacraments of which he is the fulfillment and the mysteries of which he is the author. Our Lord, raising pain from the physical to the spiritual, wants none of it to be wasted. Naturally we shrink from pain, as in his human nature he did too, but supernaturally we sanctify it by directing it towards his pain. The world aims at eliminating pain, or at least anesthetizing it, while the Spirit invites us to make the most of it. The attitude of the saints toward suffering will be considered in another place, so all that need be said here is that pain was for them a veil through which they could see the sufferings of Christ. This did not lessen its hurt but it made pain into a prayer.
The story that the soldier who thrust a spear into our Lord’s side was cured of a disease of the eyes by the blood and water which flowed from the wound may not have historical backing, but it certainly has a spiritual meaning for us. The soldier was not completely blind or he could not have seen the body to pierce it (let alone held his post in the army). Nor are we completely blind when confronted with the crucified Christ: we see the blurred figure, the hazy outline of the cross. Like breaking the legs of the prisoners, Longinus’s act was in the line of duty. Our reaction to the Passion, at first anyway, is dutiful rather than from the heart, a routine piety rather than an outpouring of compassion. The mixture of water and blood washes the man’s eyes and he sees. Water symbolizes cleansing; blood symbolizes life. When grace has come from Christ’s body to ours, washing us in baptism and giving us life in the Eucharist, we see. The image of the Passion is now more than an image, more than a symbol. It is an experience which we, with our own sufferings, can share. We have no cause to envy Longinus his luminous vision – far more penetrating than the original gift of sight.