This is the fourth of a series of posts reflecting line-by-line on the Anima Christi.
Over the past few months we have been reflecting on the rich prayer Anima Christi. The first three lines petition the Lord to sanctify, save, and inebriate the petitioner. The fourth line of the Anima Christi implores: “Water from Christ’s side, wash me.”
The “water from Christ’s side” refers to the water, mingled with blood, which flowed out at the crucifixion when a soldier thrust his lance into Jesus’ side to give assurance of his death. Tradition, supported by medical fact, holds that the soldier’s lance actually went up through Jesus’ ribs into his heart, and so the blood and water that came out of Jesus’ side originated from his heart (the water being fluid from the pericardium). Jesus confirmed this to St. Faustina when he gave her the Divine Mercy image, which shows rays of light, representing blood and water, emanating from his heart.
This is an interesting biological tidbit but it has such beautiful spiritual implications. The heart, of course, is thought of as the center of emotion, particularly love. The cleansing water that we are asking Jesus for in this prayer is water straight from his very heart – from the center of his love for us. Jesus underscored this spiritual implication by telling St. Faustina that the blood and water “issued forth from the depths of [his] tender mercy.”
It’s significant that the author of this prayer specifies exactly what water with which he’s asking to be washed. When we pray this prayer we should be thinking of the origin of the water – the crucifixion. It is by the sacrifice of Jesus’ death that any washing clean is possible. Without this sacrifice, we would be have no access to cleansing water. We would be mired in the dirt of our sin forever.
The first time we become beneficiaries of the water flowing from the crucified Christ is at Baptism. Water is used to cleanse our souls of original sin (and actual sin, if we are beyond the age or reason at the time we are baptized). We believe that this cleansing with water is very real, not just a symbol. It of course is not literally the water from Christ’s side with which we are washed, but the water that is used is itself efficacious in making our souls spotless. Without literal water, the washing away of original sin cannot take place.
Baptism is the starting place of our salvation but it does not ensure a permanently-clean soul. As Catholics, we understand that we have to be forgiven over and over again because we sin over and over again. Each time we fall, we must ask forgiveness, repent and start anew. As we sin on a regular basis, we need spiritual cleansing on a regular basis; and though we can bless ourselves with holy water to remove venial sins, we don’t always need literal water to cleanse our souls. The Sacrament of Confession is the normal way that we seek forgiveness, and there’s certainly no water needed there!
As reception of the Eucharist also forgives venial sins, this verse asking the Lord to remove our sins is very appropriate in a prayer that people would be praying after Communion. But I see it as asking for an even deeper cleansing. We are asking the crucified Lord to cleanse us not only of our sins themselves, but also of our imperfections, our tendencies toward sin, our attachment to sin. We want to be purified completely so that our souls can be restored to the pristine condition they were in after our Baptisms. We want to be able to present ourselves to the Lord “without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that [we] might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:27).
In summary, the fourth verse of Anima Christi is asking Christ, by the power of his crucifixion, to pour his very heart out over us to make our souls sparkle as they did just after our Baptisms – to make us new again.
I often struggle to find the “right” words to say to the Lord after receiving him in the Eucharist. No words ever seem adequate. Writing this reflection has reminded me that the treasury of prayers in the Church provides us rich and beautiful ways to express the wordless whisperings of our hearts. There are those Christians who believe that you should always pray “off the cuff” and that there is something “less than” or even bad about repeating memorized prayers. I, however, am grateful to have such spiritually-deep prayers available to me, not only to help me to express myself to God, but to help me to hear God expressing himself to me.