The last time I wrote for Messy Jesus Business, I discussed one of my favorite topics –– the Holy Grail. I want to return to that subject, because I think it is such a fruitful picture. There is a vessel that caught the blood and water which poured from the side of Christ. But what was that vessel?
According to legend, Joseph of Arimathea was there with John and Mary at the foot of the cross. It was, according to this same legend, Joseph’s home, where Jesus held his Passover feast before his crucifixion, and his dinnerware used for the institution of the Eucharist. So when the Roman soldier –– often called Longinus, whose name is almost certainly a reference to the spear he carried –– pierced Christ’s side, it was the cup Christ had used when he said, “This is my blood of the covenant,” which captured the blood and water. The legend continues that Joseph was a tin trader and thus made frequent visits to Cornwall, home of a major tin mine, and took this cup with him to Glastonbury before his death. This cup we call the Holy Grail.
But what actually happened that day? What might be the importance of Christ’s blood and water pouring out from his side? According to Orthodox theologian Sergei Bulgakov, this event has cosmic implications. Bulgakov claims that we can call Earth itself the Holy Grail, the receptacle into which Christ’s blood and water were poured. Bulgakov goes in depth explaining how this blood and water is different from that received in Eucharist, though still connected to it. For him the blood signifies in many ways the soul, the thing that animates the body, that gives it life. The water, on the other hand, represents the “proto-element of the cosmic matter out which the world was originally formed.” So it is life and, in a way, the cosmos itself which pours down onto the Earth, another of the proto-elements. The water also symbolizes the body itself, so for Bulgakov this is a pouring out of Christ’s humanity onto the Earth. This makes real Christ’s commitment to be with us always. He is with us in Eucharist, but also in Earth itself.
This presence of Christ, however, is hidden. It is not immediately evident to our senses. But it works, invisibly, through all the streams and veins of the earth, reaching out to us. Those who are pure of heart may be able to see it occasionally because the pure of heart will see God. This chalice, which is Earth, thus mimics the Arthurian legend of the Holy Grail. It is only the pure Galahad, or Percival in older tales, who achieves fully the quest for the Holy Grail. And thus, it is only the pure who can see the hidden Christ at work in all of the cosmos. And note that Bulgakov describes this world as Heaven and Earth, the earthly and the stellar. Christ’s blood, the blood poured out on our particular planet, runs through the entire cosmos. It is as though the Norse understanding of the Cosmos as the world tree Yggdrasil is true in a way the Norse could never have known. And it seems that all worlds are connected through a very different tree, one which is both the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Crucifixion.
Bulgakov is very clear that this presence of Christ is not the same as his presence in the Eucharist. It is not for the faithful, but for the “sanctification and transfiguration of the world.” This notion therefore makes sense of those places where we sense a kind of liminality, a kind of spiritual presence which have sometimes been called thin places. Christ’s mysterious, transfiguring presence is in those places, breaking through, but not simply on its own, but because someone pure of heart was there to encounter it. Consider, for instance, St. Bernadette, who finds a young girl appearing to her at the Grotto in Lourdes. She was one of those pure of heart who saw through the mists, through the film of familiarity and encountered Christ through his Blessed Mother, through the Earth itself in a way so many others could not.
But how do some see as others do not? Bulgakov connects it to the notion of deification. While this word may sound foreign to some, it has a longstanding Christian tradition, meaning our union with Christ in such a way that can be called deification. As Athanasius says, “God became man that man might become God.” Bulgakov explains the return of Christ as “a change in human beings in the case of which the Lord will become accessible to our vision.” In this sense, our journey toward deification in this life is precisely what allows some, but not all, to see more clearly the deeper realities upholding the world at all times, the presence of Christ in a particular well or forest or mountain or stream. We only need the eyes to see and the ears to hear, and we will find Christ in every corner of the cosmos.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. David Russell Mosley is a poet and theologian living and teaching in the Inland Northwest. He is the author of two books of poetry “The Green Man” and “Liturgical Entanglements,” both published by Resource Publications. In his spare time, Dr. Mosley likes wandering around in the woods, spending time in community and smoking a pipe.