The point of the story was not that Christ is still unknown in parts of Japan, but that perhaps only someone who has never before heard of His passion can fully appreciate the horror of His death. Tour guides, art historians, inheritors of the artifacts of the Christian West: it is possible for us to look at life-sized crucifixion scenes unmoved, even if we are ourselves Christians. We might even talk about our esthetic tastes, loudly preferring “tasteful,” bloodless wood and turning up our noses at the sanguinary — and, horribly, probably realistic — depiction of the crucifixion in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.
I saw The Passion with a group of theology professors and fellow students, and I remember that it was the older students who most objected to the gory scenes. “Too much,” was one sentiment, but I think Gibson was trying to shake the Catholics in his audience out of our complacency, our easy familiarity with, for example, the five sacred wounds.
For the crucifixion wasn’t pretty. The crucifixion was horrifying. Jesus — our brother, our friend, our Lord and our God — was very badly hurt during His lingering, legal murder. Someone took a hammer and drove spikes through His hands — probably through the top of His palms, angling through His wrists, says one American forensics expert — and through His feet. Later, a soldier took a spear — such as you may see in the ROM — and jammed it in His side to kill Him, if He were not already dead. His mother saw all this, of course. Our Lord felt the nails, not the spear, but imagine what Mary felt when the blood and water came bursting out.
Imagine also what the disciples felt when they joyfully told Thomas that they had seen the risen Lord, and he sneered that he would not believe unless he could put his fingers or hands through the wounds. Stop for a moment and consider what a bizarre, disgusting thing that was to say — not just about Jesus, but about any murder victim. We have heard the story of Doubting Thomas so many times, the angry cynicism, the unthinking blasphemy of his words is lost on us. Would you tell an Italian Catholic you believe Padre Pio had the stigmata only if you could have stuck your finger through the holes?
Like Padre Pio, St. Francis of Assisi received the painful blessing of stigmata in his hands, and this event strengthened and encouraged the growing devotion to the five sacred wounds of Jesus. The earliest extant mention of this particular devotion is by St. Peter Damian in the 11th century, and in the 12th century a king of Portugal put the five wounds on his country’s coat of arms in gratitude to Christ, whom he said had appeared to him in battle. The devotion to the five wounds increased during St. Francis’ century, and in the 14th century, it began to be celebrated liturgically. There was a popular Mass of the five wounds, and the five Paternosters of the Rosary represent the Five Wounds. Several saints, including St. Gertrude the Great, composed prayers in their honour. When 40,000 English Catholics, resisting the “reforms” of King Henry VIII, rose up in the 1536 “Pilgrimage of Grace,” they carried a banner bearing their image.
The development of the devotion to the five wounds reflected the Middle Age’s increasing appreciation of Christ’s humanity. Before the 11th century, religious iconography stressed Christ’s divinity. The increasingly realistic crucifixion scenes of the Middle Ages emphasized His human suffering and were meant to excite the hearts of viewers to contrition for sin and gratitude for Christ’s sacrifice. Significantly, in The Passion of the Christ, the hands shown driving the first nail into Jesus’ shaking hand belonged to the director himself.
Familiarity breeds contempt, they say. We Christians hear the Gospel accounts so many times, we are in danger of treating them lightly, of taking Christ’s passion for granted, and perhaps even sniggering at Thomas’ doubt and blasphemy, as if he were a dummy in a sitcom. In this case, a renewed devotion to the five sacred wounds may serve as a salutary medicine.
(Cummings McLean is a Canadian writer and author of Ceremony of Innocence.)