“HOLY LANCE”: Homily for the Celebration of the Passion of Our Lord

29 Mar 2024

St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, Good Friday, 29 March 2024

The Holy Lance or Spear of Destiny is the one that pierced Jesus’ side in today’s Passion of St John (Jn chs 18 & 19 at 19:34). Like the Grail (or chalice) of the Last Supper, the Lance became the subject of various extrabiblical traditions, including the Arthurian legend. In Chrétien de Troyes’ medieval poem Perceval, the Fisher King has keeping of both Lance and Grail: the one has destructive powers, the other healing ones. The story passed through the writings of Eschenbach and Malory to Wagner’s opera Parsifal. It obsessed both Napoleon and Hitler, who thought the Lance could assure them military victory. It has also featured in comics, novels, and the 2005 movie, Constantine. To this day there are several relics purporting to be from the Holy Lance, but none has been authenticated.[1]

Why run Jesus through with a lance? Wasn’t it enough to brutally scourge Him, drag Him heavy burdened through the streets, and nail Him to a cross to die of asphyxiation, blood loss and organ failure? Well, it was festival time, and the authorities wanted the bodies out of the way. Crurifragium was ordered: breaking the legs of the crucified below the knees, so they could no longer support themselves and would soon suffocate. But when the soldiers got to Jesus, He was already dead. It was said that the Saviour would be pierced but His bones unbroken (Ex 12:43,46; Num 9:12; Ps 34:20; Zech 12:10), but Officer Longinus was unaware he was fulfilling prophecy when he speared Jesus through. John records that “immediately there came out blood and water” (Jn 19:34). So, like the Holy Grail, the Holy Lance is a relic of our redemption by blood: the first carried the Precious Blood of the Eucharist, the second released it from Christ’s side.

Jesus was lanced because they were determined to see Him dead. There were many negative emotions in the air that day, even in John’s rather sanitised telling of events. A traitor brings soldiers to arrest Jesus. Simon Peter wounds the high priest’s servant. The mob bays for blood. Jesus is seized and bound, roughed up by guards, tortured and executed. There’s no shortage of hatred about.

There’s fear also. When in the garden Jesus intimates His divinity by saying “I am He”, the soldiers quake and fall to the ground. There’s some fumbling fencing from Peter, but he ultimately plays the coward. Pilate is anxious that Jesus might really be some sort of king or even son of a god. He’d release Jesus were he not afraid of how that might make him look in Rome…

Hatred, fear—there was also plain indifference. Judas enables his friend’s arrest. Peter denies even knowing Him. Caiaphas says he’d happily sacrifice an innocent for the greater good. The Council go along with him. Pilate cynically asks “What is truth?” and, though convinced of Jesus’ innocence, hands Him over to be flogged, crucified, lanced.

The innocent Jesus or the bloodthirsty Barrabas? The true Son of God or the imposter-god the August Caesar? Courage or betrayal? Power or sacrifice? Truth or falsehood? In the face of indifference, fear and hatred, what do we choose?

Left to our own devices, we’d probably be no better than the Good Friday mob. But the antidote to indifference is faith, to fear is hope, to hatred is love. Faithfulness meant Arimathea and Nicodemus would give Jesus a reverent burial. Hopefulness led myrrh-bearing women to return to the tomb and maybe find it empty. Love made Jesus’ mother and friend standby to the end. More than the nails, it was a solid love that held Jesus to the cross as He gave up His life for the world. And a liquid love poured forth from His Sacred Heart as His side was breached.

Ancient animosities and modern conflicts, polarisation and persecution, financial insecurity and relationship difficulties: all conspire to stir up hatred, fear and indifference. But the Holy Lance, an instrument of destruction, is the beginning of the end for such destructive forces. As the water of Baptism and the blood of the Eucharist erupt from the side of Christ, we are freed from the power of those negative emotions. But freed for what? More tomorrow night! For now, Christ proclaims: “It is accomplished!”

[1] The Holy Lance was said to be one of the principal relics in Jerusalem in pre-Saracen times, until it was brought to Constantinople for safe-keeping. On one account it was assumed into the treasury of the Latin Kingdom after the sacking of Constantinople and from there into the keeping of the French kings at Sainte Chapelle until the French Revolution when it was lost. On another account it was seized by Sultan Mehmed II in 1453 and sent by his son Bayezid II in 1492 to Pope Innocent VIII: this relic is preserved at St Peter’s Basilica, in a loggia carved into the pillar above Bernini’s statue of Saint Longinus. The Rome and Paris relics were later found to be parts of the one lance head.

The most prominent alternative Holy Lance was in the keeping of the German monarchs since Henry the Fowler in 926 AD and is on public display at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, adorned with a distinctive gold cuff; but the Kunsthistorisches Museum has dated it to the 8th century. A third claimant is conserved in Vagharshapal, the religious capital of Armenia, where it was supposedly brought by the Apostle Thaddeus; it is now on display in the Manoogian Museum, enshrined in a 17th century reliquary. A fourth relic of the Holy Lance was purportedly discovered by a monk during the Siege of Antioch (1098) and kept in Antioch’s Church of St Peter.