The Gospel of John tells us that one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water (Jn. 19: 34). In the very next verse, the evangelist tells that he who saw it has borne witness – his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth – that you also may believe.
The evangelist immediately passes from testifying about the piercing of Christ's side to reassuring us of the truth this testimony. Clearly, the evangelist expects the reader to be stunned with disbelief upon reading about the piercing and the outflow of blood and water. Let us perceive deeply the symbolism of the piercing, and feel the stun of unbelievably good news.
Let us consider each element of this symbolic event. First, the one who pierces is a soldier. Second, what he uses to pierce is a spear. Third, what he pierces is the body of Christ. Fourth, where he pierces the body is in the side. Fifth, the time when he pierces Christ's side is after Christ has completed offering the sacrifice ("it is finished", v.30). Sixth, what results from the piercing is an outflow. Seventh, the outflow is composed of blood and water. All these elements are significant. Together they form the dream, and Scripture tells the interpretation.
It is significant that the one who pierces Christ is a soldier and that the soldier uses a spear to pierce him. David was a type of Christ. Now the soldier Goliath approached David with a spear (1 Sm. 17:45), but David physically defeated the giant. Likewise, the soldier approached Jesus with a spear, but Jesus spiritually defeated the soldier: "truly this man was the Son of God" (Mk. 15:39). David defeated the Goliath while David was still alive, but Jesus defeated the soldier when Jesus was dead. For the fulfillment must be greater than the prefiguration.
It is significant that the soldier strikes Christ and there flows out water. Moses struck the rock in the desert with his staff, and there flowed out water for the Israelites lest they die of thirst (Nm. 20:8-13 and Ex. 17:2-7). The rock is Jesus. For St. Paul says that the Israelites "drank from the supernatural Rock which followed them, and the Rock was Christ" (1 Cor. 10:4). The significance of the water will be shown below. Other things need to be pondered first.
It is significant that it was the body of Christ that was pierced and that his body issued forth a flow of water. For the body of Christ is the temple (Jn. 2:21). And the prophet Ezekiel saw a vision in which an ever-increasing river of water flowed from the temple (ch.47).
It is significant that it was the side of the body of Christ that was pierced. In Ezekiel's vision of the Temple, the water issued from the side of the temple – "from below the threshold of the temple toward the east" (Ez. 47:1). Furthermore, the side is where the heart is accessible. We can plausibly suppose that the heart of Christ was pierced.
It is significant that the water flowed out from the side of Christ. Water flows out from fountains. Now, the prophet Zechariah prophesied of a day when "they shall look upon him whom they have pierced" (Zech. 12:10), and Zechariah says "on that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and Jerusalem to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness" (Zech. 13:1). The evangelist himself refers to this passage of Zechariah in connection with the piercing event (Jn.19:37).
It is significant that water flowed out from the side of Christ. This for four reasons.
First, the water of baptism gives life and cleanses from sin. In baptism, we are made one with Christ in his death and rise with him to new life (Rm. 6:4, Col.2:12). The issue of water from the side of Christ, say the Fathers, is a symbol of baptism. As a symbol of baptism, the water also symbolizes the Church. For baptism incorporates one into the Church.
Second, the water from Moses' rock slaked the thirst of Israel, but Israel thirsted again. The water from the rock of Christ slakes the thirst of the world, and the world need never thirst again. "Whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst" (Jn.4:14).The water from Moses' rock gives physical life, but the water from Jesus gives spiritual life consisting of knowledge of God and Christ: "the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life" (Jn.4:14). And "eternal life is knowing God and the one whom Thou has sent" (Jn. 17:3). The water from Moses' rock springs from the strike on the surface, but the water from Christ springs from the piercing of the heart. And "out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water. This he said about the Spirit" (Jn.7:38-9). The water issuing from the side of Christ thus symbolizes nothing less than the outpouring of the Spirit. It is the Spirit who is the Lord the giver of life (Nicene Creed), the Spirit who leads into the knowledge of all truth (Jn.16:13), the Spirit who washes from all uncleanness (Ez. 36:27-9).
Third, the water from Ezekiel's temple also gives life. The river of water from the temple gave life to fish, swarms of fish, and fisherman worked along its banks (Ez. 47:10). So too the water flowing from Christ is swarming with souls, and the members of the Church are "fishers of men" (Mt. 4:19). The river also gave life to trees, fruit trees in particular, with unfading leaves and bearing fresh fruit every month (Ez. 47:12). So too the water from the side of Christ empowers the members of his Church to go and bear much fruit and fruit that will last (Jn.15:8, 16).
Fourth, the water (presumably) from Zechariah's fountain, like the waters of baptism, cleanses from sin and uncleanness (Zech. 13:1). It also puts an end to idolatry and false prophecy (Zech. 13:25-5), just as the Church will do thanks to the power of the water flowing from the fountain of Christ's pierced heart. "Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream" (Amos 5:24).
It is significant also that it was blood that came forth from the side of Christ. This for eight reasons.
First, blood is the life of a thing. "The blood is life" (Deut. 12:23). "Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood" (Gen. 9:4). The association between life and blood is so close that even today we speak of a murderer as someone who "spilled blood."
Second, blood saves lives from death. On the night of the first Passover, the blood of the Lamb was touched to the doorposts of the Israelite houses and the angel of death passed by (Ex. 12).
Third, blood seals covenants. The covenant between God and Abraham was sealed in blood (Gen. 15:1-17), and so too the covenant between God and Israel under Moses (Ex. 24). Since "even the first covenant was not ratified without blood"(Heb. 9:18), what poured forth from the side of Christ was "my blood of the covenant" (Mt. 26:26, Mk.14:24, Lk.22:20), that is, an "eternal covenant" (Heb. 13:20).
Fourth, blood purifies vessels from uncleanness. Moses "sprinkled with blood both the tent and all the vessels used in worship. Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood" (Heb 9:21-22).
Fifth, the blood of Christ holds every salvific benefit. The blood of Christ is "an expiation" (Rom. 3:25). The blood of Christ justifies us: "we are now justified by his blood" (Rom. 5: 9). The blood of Christ redeems us: "we have redemption through his blood" (Eph. 1:7). The blood of Christ purifies "your conscience from dead works to the living God" (Heb. 9:14). Jesus Christ made "peace by the blood of his cross" (Col. 1:20). Jesus Christ entered the heavenly sanctuary "taking not the blood of goats and calves but his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption" (Heb. 9:12). The blood of Abel cried out to heaven from the ground (Gen. 4:10), but the blood of Christ speaks more eloquently than that of Abel (Heb.12:24).
Sixth, the blood of Christ (like water) is also connected with baptism. "These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb" (Rev. 7:14) And "the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin" (1 Jn. 1:7). Blood is associated with baptism because baptism applies to individuals the redeeming power of the blood of Christ.
Seventh, the blood of Christ is also associated with the Eucharist. Under the Old Covenant the Israelites were forbidden from eating blood (Gn.9:4, Dt. 12:23). But "Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life…" (Jn. 6:53-4). It is no accident that in the setting of the last supper, Jesus uses an image to say that his life will pass from him to his followers: "I am the vine; you are the branches" (Jn. 15:5). To drink the blood of Christ is nothing less than to receive his life. For "the blood is life" (Deut. 12:23).
Eighth, in their spiritual battle with diabolical powers the saints are victorious by the power of the blood of Christ. "The defeated him by the blood of the Lamb, and the word of their testimony." (Rev. 12:11, Breviary translation).
It is significant also when the blood came forth from the side of Christ. The blood issued forth after Christ had offered his sacrifice. When giving instructions to the Israelite priests about how to perform sacrifices (burnt holocausts), God instructed them that after the slaughter of the animal they were to drain the rest of its blood and pour it out on the ground at the base of the altar. God gave these instructions first to Moses: "the rest of the blood you shall pour out at the base of the altar" (Ex. 29:20). God gave the same instructions to later Israelite priests: "the rest of the blood of the bull he shall pour out at the base of the altar of burnt offering" (Lv. 4:7, see also 4:34, 5:9). Just as Moses and the Levite priests drained the rest of the blood from their sacrifices and poured it out at the base of the altar, so too Christ drained the rest of his blood and poured it out at the base of his cross. Even in his death, Christ fulfilled the ceremonial precepts of the Torah in a surpassing way.
But these Torah instructions, someone might object, apply only to burnt offerings and Christ's sacrifice was not a burnt offering. I reply that although Christ did not offer himself in physical flames, he did offer himself in the spiritual fire of the Holy Spirit. Christ "through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God" (Heb. 9:14).
The pierced Christ is the rock of Moses, the temple of Ezekiel, the fountain of Zechariah. The pierced heart of Christ is the source of the water that truly slakes spiritual thirst. The pierced side of Christ is the side of the new temple that issues in a torrential river of eternal life. The pierced One is the fountain that cleanses us from sin, purges idolatry, and quenches false prophecy. All of this is summed up and made available to us today in baptism and the Eucharist. The water that flows out from the pierced One is the Holy Spirit who leads to knowledge of all truth and gives knowledge of God and Christ. Not by piercing but by being pierced, our Anointed Soldier has defeated Goliath. He has defeated the world belonging to Satan and death. "He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him" (Col 2:15). "O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?" (Col. 15:55).
Christ is our High Priest offering himself as a burnt offering consumed in the flames of the Spirit. Christ fulfills the Torah in a surpassing way by draining the rest of his blood at the base of his altar. When he pours down upon us his blood, he pours down upon us his very life. Now, we carry this life in our selves, that is, "in earthen vessels" (2 Cor. 4:7). Yet his blood also cleanses the vessels, and thus we are called "vessels of mercy" (Rom. 9:23). The outflow of blood causes the angel of death to pass over us, seals the new and eternal covenant with us, opens up the fount of baptism for us, lays the Eucharistic banquet before us, and through these two sacraments communicates to us every salvific benefit: sanctification, justification, expiation, redemption, and victory in the diabolical battle of our day.
All of this is love. When we look at the piercing of Christ in light of all these types and prophecies, we find layers upon layers of significance and meaning. But all the layers show us one thing: a God who "loved them to the end" (Jn. 13:1).