He had given us His Mother. He had given His spirit to His Father.
He had spent five hours bleeding for us. He had breathed his last and died.
But Christ had one thing left to give us, to pour out for us, on the Cross: His heart.
Here is how it is described in the Gospel of John:
The soldiers therefore came; and they broke the legs of the first, and of the other that was crucified with him. But after they were come to Jesus, when they saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. But one of the soldiers with a spear opened his side, and immediately there came out blood and water. And he that saw it, hath given testimony, and his testimony is true. And he knoweth that he saith true; that you also may believe (John 19:32-35, Douay-Rheims translation).
It is not reading too much into this text to see, in the piercing of Christ’s side, a wound to His heart. In his encyclical on the Sacred Heart, Pope Pius XII says this is a proper reading of the gospel account:
What is here written of the side of Christ, opened by the wound from the soldier, should also be said of the Heart which was certainly reached by the stab of the lance, since the soldier pierced it precisely to make certain that Jesus Christ crucified was really dead. Hence the wound of the most Sacred Heart of Jesus, now that He has completed His mortal life, remains through the course of the ages a striking image of that spontaneous charity by which God gave His only begotten Son for the redemption of men and by which Christ expressed such passionate love for us that He offered Himself as a bleeding victim on Calvary for our sake. …
This interpretation is not only warranted by pious reflection. It is also the only one that can be best reconciled with medical assessments of what physically happened to Christ on the Cross. A number of commentators, both medically-informed theologians, as well as medical professionals themselves, have concluded that the best explanation for the blood and water that poured out is that the heart itself was stabbed.
A bit of medical science: the heart is encased in a sack of fluid known as the pericardium. This fluid actually serves as a lubricant for the heart muscle as it pumps blood (according to medical sources here and here). It is this surrounding fluid that accounts for the water that flowed out from the side.
But, because both water and blood flowed out, the spear likely had passed beyond the outer layers surrounding the heart. In other words, the spear did not only prick the heart’s outer surfaces but most likely penetrated the heart itself, according to one explanation presented by three doctors in their analysis of the death of Jesus.
(Readers can find the analysis of the doctors here; for more on the wound to the side, see especially pages 8 and 9 of that document. The alternative explanation for the inner piercing of the heart is that blood had already pooled in the pericardium. Either way, it seems certain that the heart was pierced, with the question being how far into the heart itself the lance went.)
Confident, then, that it was Jesus Christ’s very heart that was pierced for us, we can read anew both the gospel account and traditional interpretations of it.
In the crucifixion account, the piercing of the heart is paralleled in one other event: the tearing of the veil of the holy of holies in the temple. In a timeline of the crucifixion constructed from each individual gospel account, the tearing and the piercing happen in the same hour, around 3 p.m., after Jesus has already died. It’s hard to see this as coincidence. Anything, after all, recorded in these vital last hours of Jesus could hardly have been accidental to the account.
Now there is some debate as to whether there was one or more veils in the temple—and, if there was more than one veil, which one was actually torn. The view endorsed as mostly likely here is that the veil that was ripped was the one that separated the innermost, holy of holies from the rest of the temple.
In the temple, the holy of holies was where the glorious presence of God dwelled. In the first temple, it was actually the the location of the Ark of the Covenant, the mystical footstool of the invisible God. The ark itself had powers and was an object of veneration by the Israelites. Only one man, the high priest, could enter the holy of holies and, even then, this one man was allowed in once a year, on the Day of Atonement. The priest had to enter barefoot with his head down and incense shielding his eyes from a direct view of the glory cloud of the divine presence.
The rending of this veil, then, signified that men would no longer be cut off from the presence of God. One article on the topic well put it this way: “As the veil was torn, the Holy of Holies was exposed. God’s presence was now accessible to all.” This symbolized what really happened in the piercing of Christ’s heart. As Fulton Sheen puts it,
There is an intrinsic connection between the soldier piercing the Heart of Christ on the Cross, which drew forth Blood and water, and the rending of the veil of the temple. Two veils were rent: one, the purple veil of the temple which did away with the Old Law; the other, the veil of His Flesh which opened the Holy of Holies of Divine love tabernacled among us. In both instances, what was holy was made manifest; one, the Holy of Holies, which had been only a figure; the other, the true Holy of Holies, His Sacred Heart, which opened to the guilty access to God.
In the case of Christ, we can say that more than the presence of God was made accessible to man. In the biblical worldview, the heart was considered the seat of one’s being. So, in the piercing of Christ’s heart, God’s very being was opened up to us. Indeed, the Church teaches that we participate in the divine life through the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist, signified in the sacramental water and blood that poured out of the side of Christ.
It has been said that the way to a man’s heart is through his wounds. The crucifixion shows us that the way to God is through the wounded heart of Jesus Christ.