Paradox is everywhere: Sometimes the things you think will make you happy end up saddening you and sometimes the very thing that breaks your heart is also the thing that opens it to warmth and gratitude.
Sometimes it’s death itself that pours out life.
We see this in the language that surrounds the death of Jesus in the Gospels. In some of the Gospels, the moment of Jesus’ death brings with it a series of apocalyptic-type cataclysms – the temple veil is ripped, top to bottom, and a series of earthquakes shake the earth, opens graves, and the saints begin to walk around. Among other things, what this says is that Jesus’ death strips away the veil that blocks us from seeing what’s inside of God and, after Jesus’ death, we are to believe that the graves are empty, our loved ones aren’t there, but with Jesus, alive, elsewhere.
John’s Gospel though has a different image: He tells us that after Jesus died, the soldiers came and pierced his side with a sword and “immediately blood and water poured out.” Classically theologians have been quick to read the origin of the sacraments into that, namely, the blood and water refer to Eucharist and Baptism. No doubt that’s true, but there’s something more immediate there.
What are “blood” and “water”? Blood carries life through our bodies. It’s the flow of life. In a manner of speaking, blood is life itself. Water keeps us alive, quenches thirst, and, importantly too, washes us clean. What John is saying when he says that “blood and water” flowed out of the dead body of Jesus is that Jesus died in such a way that his death became for those who loved him and for those of us who continue to love him a source of life, health, and cleansing. After he died, those who loved him, paradoxically, experienced his death not as something that drained life from them and made them feel guilty, but the opposite: As sad and heart-breaking as was his death, those who loved him experienced it as something which gave them deeper life, let them breathe more freely, and freed them from feelings of guilt. That’s an incredible paradox but we are not without parallels within our own experience to help us understand this. We all too have experienced blood and water flowing out at the funeral of someone we’ve loved.
During the past several years, the most genuinely joy-filled occasions I’ve gone to were three particular funerals, each a farewell to a man who died relatively young, the victim of cancer. Two of the men were in the mid-fifties and the other was a young seventy. But in each case, the man had lived, and then died, in a way so as to make his death his final gift to his family and his loved ones.
In each case, all of us who were at the funeral walked out of church deeply sad but, at the same time, strangely more free, more open to life and love, more grateful at some deep level, and more free from that free-floating guilt that can so easily rob our lives of delight. In every case, almost tangibly, blood and water flowed from their casket. That’s not just a metaphor.
We experience this negatively as well: Sometimes someone we know dies and his or her death has the opposite effect. No blood or water flows. Rather that person’s death somehow asphyxiates us, stops our blood, gives us trouble breathing, and we feel guilty about having known this person and about all the things we did, didn’t do, or should have done. A sword has pieced someone’s side, but no blood and water are flowing out.
I remember a conversation with one of those men whose funerals were so joy-filled. Visiting him in palliative care, I asked him if he was afraid of anything. He answered: “No, I’m not afraid of dying, though I’m finding this hard. It’s hard to describe the loneliness of it. I have a very loving family and so many friends and someone is holding my hand almost constantly, but I am deeply alone inside of this. People can love you, but they can’t go into this with you. But I’m only really afraid of one thing, of not doing this with dignity. I want to make this, the way I die, my final act of love for my family. I want to do this right!” He did. We cried at his funeral but we all walked out of the church afterwards more free, more loving, less wrapped in guilt.
Sometimes the very thing that breaks your heart is the thing that most warms it and the very life that is taken from you is what opens up the flow of blood inside of you. Our task, in the end, is to do what this man did, die in such a way that our going away is our final gift to those whom we love.