"His Blood Be on Us and On Our Children!"
Introduction to The Passion: Reflections on the Suffering and Death of Jesus Christ (Allegiance, 2004)
© 2004 Paul Thigpen
My first crucifix, a gift from my aunt, was made of white plaster, about a foot long. I was rather young, and the novelty of it fascinated me; I had only seen such images from a distance. I examined it carefully, running my fingers over each detail of the wounds, nails, and thorns.
It was beautiful. But before long I concluded that it was much too clean. Pulling out my box of watercolors, I painted it, with bloody reds and purples dominating the whole. All in white, it seemed, the Figure had looked like only a ghost. Now, with livid flesh, He looked at last like a Man, if a suffering One.
Since that time, the sacred image of Christ on the Cross has met me and challenged me countless times in church, on the walls at home, and in the homes of friends. Like millions of Christians through the ages, after years of familiarity, I still find myself strangely drawn to the crucifix, to reflect on the agony portrayed there. And the images I find the most honest, I also find the most compelling: I mean the kind of dark, grisly crucifix so beloved in Latin culture, and so unsettling to our own.
Why unsettling? I once heard a religion teacher in a parochial school complain about the crucifix. She insisted that the sight of a dying Human Being on an instrument of torture simply shouldn't be tolerated in a school or even a church. Too negative, she said, too messy, too bloody, too disturbing. Think of the children!
I do think of the children. And when I do, I also think of the broken, bloody world they inhabit, the same world into which their Savior came as a Child, the same world that nailed Him to that Cross. I remember that they were born in blood, they may well die in blood, and in the meantime, they will no doubt see a great deal more of blood.
The question is not whether our children, and we ourselves, will be confronted with blood. Life itself is crimson-stained. The question is this: What kind of meaning will we find in the blood? Will we learn that "life is in the blood" (Leviticus 17:11)? Will we know that forgiveness, and healing, and grace are in the blood? Or will we believe the lies of our time that blood is a mere commodity, or cheap entertainment, or the never-quite-satisfied taste of revenge?
The crucifix has much to teach us about the true meaning of blood, if we will only pay attention. A great deal of traditional Christian prayer and meditation has been precisely the attempt to pay that kind of attention. Such prayer dwells on the passion of Jesus Christ as prophesied and foreshadowed in the Old Testament; preached and remembered in the four Gospels; interpreted and lived in the rest of the New Testament.
The Power of the Passion
The Passion is an immense thing, a supernatural and divine thing, and thus a dangerous thing. Understood, appreciated, embraced for its own sake — genuinely, if never fully — it has the power to overthrow us and, overthrowing, to save us. Misunderstood, dismissed, or manipulated for a diabolical agenda, it still has the power to overthrow us and, overthrowing, to damn us.
The history of the Church provides ample illustrations of both kinds of encounter with the Passion. The Apostle Paul so deeply entered its depths that he bore on his body "the marks of Jesus" (Galatians 6:17). Yet he also wrote in tears of those he called "enemies of the cross of Christ" (Philippians 3:17) — Christians who confused and abused the message of Christ's suffering, death, and resurrection.
The horrible pogroms against Jews across the centuries display perhaps most starkly the hellish outcome when people attempt to harness the power of the Passion for selfish causes. Some Christians heard the sacred story and twisted it into a summons to vengeance against "the Christ killers," refusing to recognize that they had to include themselves in that wretched category. For them, the blood of Christ was not a costly and humbling invitation to goodness, but rather a convenient and explosive excuse for evil.
Nevertheless, there were men and women in every generation who hid themselves deeply in the precious wounds of Jesus and found there the bloody womb for a new birth. The Spanish Franciscan Maria (Coronel) of Agreda and the German Augustinian Anne Catherine Emmerich were two such Christians. Excerpts from Scripture and from the works of these two women form the basis for the forty reflections on Our Lord's passion presented here.
Maria of Agreda (1602-1665)
Maria Coronel entered the convent in Agreda, Castile, as a teenager, and took the name Maria de Jesus. By the age of twenty-five — over her protests — she was made abbess and, except for three years, remained the superior there for the rest of her life. During the time of her administration the convent became one of the most fervent in all Spain, and she died with a reputation for great holiness. The cause for her canonization was introduced in 1762 by the Congregation of Rites at the request of the Court of Spain.
Maria is chiefly known, however, for writing a book entitled The Mystical City of God, A Divine History of the Virgin Mother of God. Though the text focuses on the life of Mary, her life is intimately intertwined with that of her Son. So the volume in part attempts to take us up close to the events of Our Lord's passion.
The Mystical City was first conceived nine years after Maria became a nun, but written down ten years later at the command of her confessor. She wrote the first part, consisting of four hundred pages, in only twenty days. Her desire was to keep it from publication, but a copy was sent to the Spanish King Philip IV. Later, in obedience to another confessor, she tossed the book and all her other writings into the flames. Then, in 1655, a third command of her spiritual director caused her to start again. She finished the project in 1670.
The Mystical City is presented as a record of special messages from God, received in contemplation and revealed in mysteries, that tell the life of Mary. It overflows with elaborate detail, describing both interior and exterior events beginning with the Virgin's conception and extending to her coronation in heaven. As soon as the text found a public beyond Spain, it provoked a fierce storm of controversy.
It is not difficult to see why. Read as a precise theological treatise, a reliable historical account, an accurate scientific text, or even an exact record of what Maria heard and saw in her visions, the book presents numerous problems. She herself had been reluctant to see it published, perhaps sensing that the visions were intended more for her personal reflection than for public dissemination, and that much of what she saw and heard, as she often put it, was "indescribable" in the first place.
Difficulties were compounded by several factors: claims that Maria's confessors had tampered with the text; political tensions between France and Spain; theological debates between the Franciscans (her order) and their philosophical rivals; and certain mistranslations and misinterpretations of the original Spanish by non-native speakers. In general, the book was widely praised and approved in Spain, but condemned elsewhere.
Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824)
Anne Catherine Emmerich entered the Augustinian convent at Agenetenberg, Dulmen, at the age of twenty-eight. Since childhood the supernatural realm had seemed ordinary to her; she frequently experienced mystical visions and displayed extraordinary gifts. She predicted certain happenings accurately and could hear and see remote events. When the sick came to visit her, though she had no medical training she could diagnose the causes of their problems and prescribe remedies that worked. Nevertheless, her own physical condition was frail and troublesome.
The sisters in the convent remained suspicious of her because of her unusual powers and poor health, and they were annoyed by her frequent ecstasies. In 1812 the government of Napoleon closed the institution, and Anne Catherine was forced to seek lodging with a poor widow. In 1813 she became bedridden.
Soon after, the stigmata — the wounds of Christ — appeared on her body, including the marks of the thorns. She tried to conceal them, as well as the crosses that appeared on her breast, but the word got out, and soon the local bishop sent a commission to examine the unusual phenomena. Though the examination was strict, in the end, the vicar general and three physicians who administered it were thoroughly convinced that the stigmata were genuine.
Some years later a noted German poet, Clemens Brentano (1778-1842), visited her, was converted, and remained daily at her bedside from 1820 to 1824, taking notes on her visions and mystical experiences as she described them. Each day he would rewrite the notes, replacing her local dialect with standard German, then read them back to her for her revision and approval. Brentano was deeply impressed by her purity, humility, and patience under remarkably intense suffering.
In 1833, some years after the nun's death, Brentano published the compilation of these notes, under the title The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ According to the Meditations of Anne Catherine Emmerich. The book focuses on her visions of His suffering, death, and resurrection. They are remarkable for their vivid detail, their simplicity of style, and the passionate participation of the visionary in the agonies described. We can't be certain how much Brentano may have added in his attempt to organize and clarify the material, but the text reflects brightly the fire and purity of a soul who was consumed by the passion of her Lord. Anne Catherine was declared "Venerable" by the Church in 2001.
The Value of the Visions
In drawing from the visions of Maria and Anne Catherine, we must use discretion, recognizing that their value is primarily spiritual. Though the authors were by no means doctors of history, science, or theology, they were most certainly doctors of the soul. Both women display a marvelous understanding of the inner workings of the human mind and heart, and the subtle influences of grace. In their visions, then, we see not only Jesus, Mary, and their contemporaries, but ourselves as well. Held up as mirrors, the texts invite us all to recognize our role in the passion of Christ, so that we will kneel in gratitude before our Savior, confess our sins, and call out to Him for forgiveness, healing, and strength.
At the same time, we should keep in mind what the Church teaches about the place of private revelations — messages individuals claim have come to them directly from God, beyond the deposit of public Revelation that came to the world in Christ. Even when the Church approves such a revelation as worthy of belief, it does not hold us obliged to give it the same assent of faith we would give to Scripture.
How much more so, then, should we refuse to treat the visions of Maria and Anne Catherine as if they were somehow infallible. In fact, it would be difficult to do so consistently: The details of the two visions sometimes seem to contradict each other.
Instead, it seems to me, we should view these writings as a kind of spiritual drama: The events described, though offered in reference to historical events, are presented through an angle of vision akin to that of the poet, the playwright, or the film director, rather than the historian, the scientist, or the theologian. We find here a fusion of realistic detail and mystical imagery, such as we might encounter in the best of visionary cinema.
The Passion of the Christ
I was not at all surprised, then, to read in several news reports and commentaries that director Mel Gibson's exquisite production, The Passion of the Christ, was influenced, at least in part, by Maria and Anne Catherine's writings. To interpret through film the sketchy Gospel accounts of Our Lord's passion, a number of details must be filled in and an overarching creative vision of the story must be crafted. In developing these cinematic elements, it only makes sense that Mr. Gibson, himself a devout Christian, would mine the riches of two profound Christian souls who spent so much of their lives at the foot of the Cross.
Predictably, once the association of Mr. Gibson's film with Maria and Anne Catherine was suggested in public, the works of the two visionaries were scrutinized, in particular by the director's critics. Those who were already convinced that the Gospel accounts themselves are hopelessly anti-Semitic had condemned the film for reflecting too closely, in their estimation, the evangelists' perspective. By scouring these women's visions as well for evidences of anti-Semitism, they hoped to strengthen their claims that Mr. Gibson's work was flawed.
Given the deeply rooted animus against Jews in the cultures of Spain and Germany, it would be miraculous indeed to find no traces of such sentiment in Maria's and Anne Catherine's writings. These two women were shaped in certain regrettable ways by the evils of their times, as are we all, to one degree or another. Nevertheless, the more telling aspect of their visions is their fervent, repeated insistence that each one of us — of every national and ethnic background, every religion, and every generation — is in some sense a "Christ killer"; we all bear the shame and the blame for deicide, the murder of God. In this light, any pogrom claiming to avenge His death would have to begin with suicide.
The Reason for This Book
No doubt the present work will receive some share of such accusations of anti-Semitism. After all, these reflections on Our Lord's passion are based on the Gospels and the writings of the visionaries, and I freely confess that I believe Mr. Gibson's film on the same subject to be a work of spiritual and artistic genius. Even so, any claim that I am anti-Semitic would be utterly unfounded.
Twice now I have wept uncontrollably as I walked through the grounds of the death camp at Dachau, a sincere token of my overwhelming sorrow for the horrors perpetrated on the Jewish people for so many generations. I was raised in a home free of anti-Semitic absurdities, and I would certainly not stoop to them now. But to those who would charge me with insensitivity in this regard at the very least, I would reply briefly:
First, I categorically reject the charge that the Gospels are tainted with anti-Semitism, though countless bigots have certainly twisted their meaning in an attempt to justify anti-Semitic behavior.
Second, though anti-Semitic passages can be found in Maria's and Anne Catherine's writings, I have extracted and freely adapted portions of their works in a way that focuses attention on our universal responsibility for Christ's passion rather than that of the first-century participants in these events.
Finally, I have concluded with considerable sadness that self-serving agendas have blinded many to the beauty and truth in the film The Passion of the Christ. I suppose we should expect that those who make their living by finding as many cases as possible of fatal disease (whether physical or spiritual) will tend to sound the alarm every time a man clears his throat. Mr. Gibson is not sick. He is simply clearing his throat to bring attention to the only lasting cure for those who are indeed desperately ill.
Curse or Blessing?
The beauty and truth of that cinematic work find their source in the blood of the Savior so powerfully depicted. When the ancient people of God sought liberation from their oppressors and protection from the avenging angel, they splashed the blood of the Paschal lamb around their doors (Exodus 12:7). In the same way, we must splash the blood of the eternal Paschal Lamb, Jesus Christ, on our homes and our hearts if we would be free, if we would be saved. The Cross should hang before us on our walls where it can plant itself daily in our thoughts. And not only the Blood, but the Body, Soul, and Divinity of Our Lord as well, received gratefully from His altar, must be our frequent and welcome Guest.
One particular scriptural text referring to this Blood has provoked especially sharp controversy in the debate over the alleged anti-Semitism of the Gospels. In the Passion account of St. Matthew, when Jesus' trial reaches its terrible climax, we read: "So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, 'I am innocent of this righteous man's blood; see to it yourselves.' And all the people answered, 'His blood be on us and on our children!' (Matthew 27:24-25).
Tragically, many Christians over the centuries have interpreted those last words of the crowd as a curse uttered by Jesus' Jewish enemies on themselves and their descendants. Viewing the statement as an admission of guilt, some have considered it an invitation to revenge, both human and divine — with horrific results. Understandably, Jewish people have been loathe to hear the words repeated.
Why, then, have I taken these very words as the title of this book's introduction? Certainly not to give offense. Instead, I believe that they hold the key to reconciliation and salvation, if we can only read them with new eyes.
It is the blood of Jesus, after all, that "cleanses us from all sin" (1 John 1:7). The "new covenant" of forgiveness is in His blood (Luke 22:20). His blood brings freedom (Revelation 1:5), victory (Revelation 12:10), and eternal life (John 6:54). Through His blood we are redeemed (Ephesians 1:7), purified (Hebrews 13:12), made righteous (Romans 5:9), reconciled to God and one another (Colossians 1:20).
Knowing all this, I think we should read the words of the crowd not as a curse, but as a blessing. In calling for Christ's blood to be upon them and their children, they were actually praying that all the graces of salvation be poured out on them.
This is not to say that the people who cried out knew what they were doing. No doubt they would not have deliberately cursed themselves, nor would they have understood these words as a prayer. Perhaps this was their way of dismissing the possibility that the execution would have any significant consequences.
In any case, what they meant by the words is not nearly as important as what God may have been saying through them, even without their awareness. According to the Gospel of John, a similar thing had happened when Caiaphas, the high priest, had said about Jesus: "'It is expedient for you that one man should die for the people" (John 11:50). The priest had meant that Jesus was a troublemaker whose death would keep the Romans from overreacting to the situation. But John explains that God, using Caiaphas without his knowledge, was prophesying through him that Jesus' death would redeem us all (verses 51-52).
In this light, we would all do well to echo those profound words with a sense of urgency: "His blood be on us, and on our children!" We already bear, every one of us, the guilt of that blood; let us pray, then, for its cleansing. This little book is offered with a sincere prayer that in its pages, you will encounter as never before the power of Our Lord's blood, the graces of His passion — and the love of the One who laid down His life for you.