From Soul of Christ
The fourth petition of the Anima Christi prayer focuses on water flowing from the heart of Jesus as a symbol of cleansing and new life – for each of us individually, and for the world.
Water From the Side of Christ…
“But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out,” (John 19:33-34). The Fathers of the church saw a great deal of symbolism in the water mixed with blood flowing from the side of Jesus: an image of the sacramental baptismal waters that cleanse us from our sins, and also a reference to the church, founded on the new life that Jesus came to bring us.
Water is essential for life. We thirst for it, bathe in it, drink it, and wash with it; water nurtures life on our planet. When water is abundant, we take it for granted. But when a big storm threatens, the first thing we do is stock up on water. Without water, our very survival is endangered. And it’s not enough to drink a large quantity of water once; we need to drink a certain amount of water every day, usually several times a day, to be healthy.
What water is for our physical survival is akin to what God’s grace is for our souls. Without God’s grace, we are spiritually trapped in a perilous existence: always thirsting, always dying of drought. When we receive the Sacrament of Baptism, we receive the gratuitous gift of God’s grace.
Grace is a supernatural gift and a mystery which our Roman Catholic tradition describes in many ways:
- sharing in God’s own life;
- God’s favor;
- God’s help in living our call to holiness.
We can make the mistake of thinking that the grace of our baptism is something static that happened once – perhaps when we were infants. While it’s true that baptism is received only once and changes us forever, the grace of our baptism sustains us all our lives. The grace of justification, which we receive in our baptism, includes the forgiveness of our sins, the gift of our sanctification, and our inner healing and renewal from the effects of sin. Sanctifying grace enables us to respond to our new identity as children of God, to grow in holiness, to fully live our human and Christian vocation to love.
Theological studies and sermons can fool us into thinking of grace as an abstract, generic quality. But grace is anything but generic and abstract. Grace is God’s gift of himself to us. Grace is a sharing of God’s life with each of us – the same life that Jesus poured out in blood and water from the cross.
While grace is a supernatural reality, something that can be understood only in the light of faith, its effects in our lives can be felt, often tangibly. Holy people can sometimes seem to facilitate an encounter with grace when we are with them. Certain places of pilgrimage, such as Lourdes, Rome, Guadalupe, and Fatima, are places of grace to the countless pilgrims who visit them.
Love Affair, an overlooked film that deserves to be better known than its popular remake, attempts to show such an encounter with grace. Starring Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer, the heart of this classic love story is not a romantic scene, but a visit that the couple makes to the man’s frail grandmother at her peaceful island home.
When they arrive, Irene Dunne’s character, Terry, notices something special: “What is there about this place? Something makes you feel you ought to whisper. Such peace.” She makes a visit to the little chapel and prays before a statue of Our Lady of Grace, where she is deeply moved. As Terry leaves the chapel, she finds that she sees everything differently: “I’ve never seen such lovely colors. Everything seems so vivid. Even the green seems greener.” In her conversation with the grandmother, Terry is touched by the wisdom and peace of the tiny, luminous woman, who confides to Terry her fears for her grandson. As she leaves, we sense that Terry’s life has changed. She doesn’t want to leave – she runs back up the stairs to hug the grandmother, taking strength from the frail woman’s inner peace.
Terry has received a tremendous grace: a new vision of life and possibly of her vocation – marriage to the lost and lonely man she has been flirting with. (The spirituality of this scene – which is never explained but is alluded to at key moments in the film – gives the film a depth that its popular remake, Affair to Remember, simply does not have.)
Encounters with grace can be small, almost indescribable moments; they can be profound, ground-shaking experiences; or they can be anywhere in-between. The key is to be open to God working in us, so that each encounter with grace can transform us, filling us with new life.
To cherish and nurture the mystery of God’s life in us, we can:
- thank God for our baptism and the gift of his life that continues to grow in us, blessing us with joy, peace, and strength;
- deepen our union with God by choosing to spend time in prayer each day, and by receiving the sacraments often;
- pay attention to our choices – big and little – so that our lives can be shaped by grace. This means both avoiding sin and situations that could lead us to sin, and cultivating the virtues we particularly need to grow in him.
This image of the water that flows from Christ’s side, that comes from his Sacred Heart, that is mixed with his blood, that represents the life Jesus sacrificed for us, is a wonderful image for grace, for how God’s life intimately transforms us.
Wash me is an insistent cry for cleansing, healing, and renewal. We need to be washed from our sinfulness and healed from the wounds we have suffered as a result of our sins and those of others.
“Wash me!” becomes our sincere plea when we know who we are in the sight of God: incredibly beloved and graced, but also indisputably weak and prone to sin. Jesus patiently guides us toward a fuller understanding of ourselves, so that we can rely fully on him.
Blessed James Alberione received these precious words in a vision of the Eucharist: “Do not be afraid, I am with you. From here (the tabernacle) I will enlighten. Live in continual conversion.” These comforting words are inscribed on the walls of every chapel of the Pauline Family around the world. But why would Jesus give that last phrase, “Live in continual conversion,” to the young priest who had already made holiness a way of life, and who would share his vision with the Pauline religious priests, brothers, sisters, and consecrated lay people? Because everyone needs to live in ongoing conversion. The closer we grow to Christ, the more his brilliance reveals the depths of our shadows, enabling us to see deeper into our own hearts, with all our foibles and woundedness.
Living in continual conversion means more than just avoiding sin and acknowledging our sinfulness when we fail. It means daily recommitment to a life dedicated to Christ. Many saints have joked that our ego dies ten minutes after we do. Their focus on God gave them a greater awareness of human nature – capable of great love and great selfishness, great humility and great pride.
An ordinary and yet marvelous way to experience this sacred cleansing and conversion is to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation. This sacramental encounter with the mercy of Christ is so hard to define that we call the sacrament by many names: Confession, Penance, Reconciliation. An underappreciated gift that the church continually offers to us, the Sacrament of Reconciliation is a way to be healed, renewed, and transformed by God’s loving forgiveness. If we are honest with ourselves about our neediness, we will receive this remarkable sacrament more often.
Water from the side of Christ, wash me.
If the chapel you are going to does not have a crucifix easily visible, you may wish to bring a small crucifix or a picture of Jesus Crucified, as well as a copy of the gospels.