The wounds of Christ: sermon on Low Sunday

“Put in thy finger hither and see my hands; and bring hither thy hand, and put it into my side; and be not faithless, but believing.”

Now that we have had a week to taste, as it were, the gladness of the Resurrection, the liturgy today, without detracting from the paschal joy, reminds us again of the Passion of Christ, and especially of His sacred wounds. Already in the epistle of the Mass, St John alludes to the wound made by the centurion in the side of Christ, when he says, “This is he who came by water and by blood; not by water only, but by water and blood.” I find these to be mysterious words: what exactly is the contrast which St John is drawing, when he says that our Lord came by blood and not by water? Perhaps he is drawing a contrast between Christ and St John the Baptist. The Baptist came with water only, even though he also was a martyr, since the Baptist had nothing that he could offer the people except his baptism of preparation, unlike Christ, who poured out His blood for the redemption of many. Or perhaps the apostle is drawing a contrast between Christian baptism and Holy Communion; he is reminding his faithful that their baptism was just the beginning, and that they must be gradually incorporated into Christ by sharing often in the mysteries of His body and blood. Or perhaps his words have both these meanings, and others also, which we do not have space to consider now.

For Low Sunday, I want above all to consider the gospel. We have the famous story of St Thomas; in fact, Eastern Catholics call this Sunday after Easter “Thomas Sunday”. When St Thomas, called “the twin”, hears from the other ten apostles that the Lord has risen and appeared to them, he refuses to believe. Why is this? Perhaps he feels a bit aggrieved at the idea that the Lord would have chosen to appear to the apostles at a time when he himself was not there. One can imagine Thomas saying to himself, “Am I alone unworthy to see Him? What have I done wrong? It was Simon who denied Him, not me!” Whatever the reason we might feel surprised by his words: “Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails … and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” If we were in Thomas’s place, would we suppose that if the Lord had really risen, He would still keep the marks of the nails in his hand, and even have an open place in His sacred side? But no doubt the other apostles told Thomas that they had seen all these things, since St Luke in his account of Christ’s appearance to the disciples says that He “showed them his hands and his feet”. 

Yet, it was surely not without a secret divine inspiration that St Thomas was moved to make his request; for without his words, nothing else in the New Testament would teach us that our Lord still had the wound in His side after the Resurrection. What then is the reason for this mysterious dispensation? Why did Christ keep, why does He still keep, these five sacred wounds in His risen body? We can try to answer this question in relation to Christ Himself, and to us, and to God the Father.

In relation to Christ Himself, His wounds are like trophies. That is, they are signs of His victory over death and sin. There seems to be a natural human instinct to reward those who have done some heroic feat, whether in war or in peace, those who have pursued the enemy bravely or protected their comrades in a desperate plight, or saved someone from drowning or from a burning building. Today, our soldiers are given medals; in ancient times, a successful general would have been crowned with a wreath of laurel. Well, our Lord is truly human, and so it is fitting that He too should be rewarded in a human way. It is fitting that He receive some visible sign of that great fight when, according to St Paul, He triumphed over the “principalities and powers”, that is, over the evil spirits and their leaders, “putting them all to shame”. 

You might say, “But is it not humiliating for Him to retain the marks of His suffering?” Listen to St Augustine. Talking about the martyrs, and how they will appear in heaven, he says: 

“Perhaps in that kingdom, we shall see on the bodies of the martyrs the traces of the wounds which they suffered … and these wounds will not appear there as a deformity but as a dignity.” 

The very part of the body where they suffered most will be most glorious. And so St Thomas Aquinas thinks that the five wounds of Christ’s body have a special beauty and splendour even beyond the rest of His body.

Next, we can think of these wounds in relation to ourselves. They served to confirm the faith of the apostles, and therefore to confirm us in the faith that we have received from the apostles. What better proof could God have devised to convince them that the One whom they were seeing was truly the same One whom they had known and lived with, and who had been nailed to the Cross a short time before? Or what better proof could there have been that the Passion of our Lord had not been a disaster, but rather the very means chosen by the Blessed Trinity for our salvation? If Jesus had returned from the dead without the marks of the nails, the apostles might have supposed that He was ashamed of what He had suffered for them. They might even have imagined that He did not want them to preach the mystery of the Cross to the nations, whereas in fact, as St Paul says, “the word [that is, the preaching] of the cross is the power of God. ”And how could our Lord invite mankind more powerfully to respond to His love than by leaving open the wound in His side? He has made there a place in which, in the words of an English mystic of the middle ages, “there is room enough for all mankind that shall be saved”.

Thirdly, and finally, we can think of the precious wounds of Christ in relation to His eternal Father. Already at His baptism, and at the transfiguration, the voice of the Father was heard saying, “This is my beloved Son.” As the Father looks upon Him now in heaven, “ministering,” as St Paul says, “in the holy place,” He must say again and eternally, “This is my beloved Son.” Even a human father, if he saw the wounds which his eldest son had received in saving the lives of his younger brothers, would be moved to pity and to overlook the offences of the younger children, if ever their brother interceded on their behalf. How much more, therefore, is the heavenly Father moved to have pity on the sins of mankind, and especially of the baptised, when He looks upon the wounds of Jesus, “the first-born among many brethren.”

May we therefore, “like new-born babes, desiring the rational milk without guile”, adore the wounds of Christ our king, finding in them our strength, and may He bring many, like the great apostle Thomas, from unbelief to faith, from darkness “into his wonderful light”.