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«The Wounds and the Ascended Body: The Marks of Crucifixion in the Glorified Christ from Justin Martyr to John Calvin Peter Widdicombe Laval ...»

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are the same as those given in the Homilies, although more briefly stated. To the list he adds a quotation from Pseudo-Augustine which, among other things, parallels the popular medieval notion of the wound in Christ’s side as the door, which we noted above. The quotation reads : “Christ knew why he kept the scars on his body. He showed them to Thomas who did not believe until he touched and saw them. So too will he show them to his enemies to convince them by his proclamation of truth itself : Look at the man whom you have crucified. You see the wounds you have inflicted. You recognize the side which you have pierced : it was opened by you for your own benefit, yet you did not wish to enter therein.”59 Here the notion of the threat that the wounds pose to those who do not accept Christ is underscored. Aquinas then goes on to take up the question that had concerned Cyril, of how to reconcile such signs of corruption with Christ’s incorrupt body. He argues that the wounds should not be thought of as indications of incorruption or imperfection, because they are “signs of virtue” intended “to manifest a greater degree of glory.” Indeed, there “even appeared in the place where the wounds were a special type of beauty.”60 The body of Christ, then, was not less but more perfect because of the wounds, and Aquinas concludes the discussion in Question 54 with the comment that “Thus it is clear that the scars which Christ manifested after the resurrection never left his body afterwards”.61 Aquinas had opened Question 54, in articles 1 and 2, with a lengthy discussion of the nature of bodies in general, of Christ’s ascended body in particular, and of the nature of glorification, arguing that there are different degrees of glory.62 The substance of this discussion need not detain us, but it is perhaps such a concern with the metaphysics of the question, and the fascination of medieval and early modern writers and artists with the physicality of the wounds and the blood, that may in part account for why Luther and Calvin shy away from the topic of the wounds. For the Reformers, what was definitive for the salvation of humankind was the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, and they were reluctant to address questions pertaining to what went on in those spheres — heaven and hell — which lay outside time and space. They were concerned to strip away what they thought of as the mythological beliefs that commonly were used to comfort Christians in the face of death, as witnessed in their rejection of the doctrine of purgatory and the invocation of the saints in prayer. Furthermore, it appears that Luther felt that an absorption with the Passion was incompatible with a proper understanding of justification by faith alone.

59. Ibid., p. 32-35.

60. Ibid., p. 35.

61. Ibid. Not surprisingly, there were variations on how the marks and the ascended body were viewed in the medieval period. MECHTHILD OF MAGDEBURG, for instance, writing in 1250-1270 in The Flowing Light of the Godhead, trans. F. Tobin, The Classics of Western Spirituality, New York, Paulist Press, 1998, p. 71-72, maintains that Christ’s wounds will remain unhealed, “ready to prevail over the Father’s justice”, until after the last judgment, at which time, although the wounds will be healed, the scars will remain, “bright red — love’s colour”, and never fade.

62. Summa Theologiae, vol. 55, p. 19-27.


For the most part, Luther’s references to the marks of the wounds are brief and his interest in them principally has to do with his attempt to show that the ascension does not mean that Christ cannot be bodily present in the Eucharist. But in one passage at least — in A Meditation on Christ’s Passion of 1519 — where he does discuss the issue of the marks and the ascended body, he maintains that the marks are not to be seen on the ascended body. It is the absence of the marks, not their presence, which is of importance in understanding his spiritual psychology. In contrast to the earlier writers we have considered, the focus for Luther lies squarely on the question of the believer’s subjective spiritual condition. In A Meditation on Christ’s Passion, he criticises what he perceives to be the unacceptable consequences of popular, theologically ill-ordered devotion to the passion of Christ : a superstitious belief that “carrying pictures and booklets, letters and crosses” on one’s person will protect one from “all sorts of perils” ; and an absorption in the contemplation of scenes from the passion so intense that devotees never get beyond a sentimental response to it.63 The passion, rather, is to stir us to a correct understanding of ourselves through the creation of a despairing conscience, in order that we might come through grace (and only through grace) to recognize the severity of our sin and thus to a softening of our hearts. Properly contemplated, the “passion of Christ performs its natural and noble work, strangling the old Adam and banishing all joy, delight, and confidence which man could derive from other creatures, even as Christ was forsaken by all, even God.”64 But Luther goes on to warn that contrition and penance are not enough in themselves to bring about one’s salvation, for in the end they will lead to despair. The key to finding peace of mind is the resurrected body of Christ. We are to cast our sins from ourselves onto Christ, in the firm belief that his wounds and sufferings are our sins, borne and paid for by him. If, then, we see sin “resting on Christ and [see it] overcome by his resurrection, and then boldly believe this, even it is dead and nullified. Sin cannot remain on Christ, since it is swallowed up by his resurrection. Now you see no wounds, no pain in him, and no sign of sin.”65 He goes on to enjoin the believer to pass beyond the suffering of Christ to “see his friendly heart,” a heart which beats with a love that draws us to the Father’s heart and the knowledge of the Father’s eternal love for us. This knowledge will lead to faith and confidence and to our being born anew in God.66 Calvin’s interest in the wounds and the ascension is even more scant than Luther’s, but he gives us little indication of why this is. He dismisses the idea that the ascended body retains the marks in a few sentences in his Commentary on the Gospel of John. Commenting on Jn. 20:20, “He showed them his hands and his side,” he begins by asking whether it is “strange and inconsistent with the glory of Christ, that

63. A Meditation on Christ’s Passion, trans. M. Bertram, in M. DIETRICH, ed., Devotional Writings I, Philadelphia, Fortress Press (coll. “Luther’s Works”, 42), 1969, p. 7-8.

64. Ibid., p. 11.

65. Ibid., p. 12.

66. Ibid., p. 13. In the light of this understanding of the our relation to God, we are then able to take Christ’s passion as a pattern for our lives because we will enter actively into it and not think of it as something that mechanically works for us while we remain passive.


he should bear the marks of the wounds after his resurrection,” and he concludes it is not, as the wounds serve to confirm belief in the resurrection and anything which contributes to our salvation augurs to the glory of Christ. He goes on to make it clear, however, that “if any person should infer from this, that Christ still has the wounded side and pierced hands, that would be absurd ; for it is certain that the use of the wounds was temporary, until the apostles were fully convinced that he was risen from the dead.”67 This is all he has to say on the subject in the Commentary, no explanation is given, and the passage seems to be the only place in his writings where he addresses the subject. In the course of his discussion of the resurrection of the body in the Institutes, however, he does give us an oblique indication of why he may have held such an attitude concerning the marks. It appears to have to do with his notion of perfection and the basis for our having confidence in the reality of the resurrection.

He does not mention the marks in the passage, but, quoting Psalm 16:10, “Thou wilt not allow thy meek one to see corruption”, he remarks that “Christ alone, who is immune from all corruption, received back a perfect body,” to which perfection, he makes it clear, we may be confident our bodies also will be conformed on the day of judgment.68 Here we have the suggestion that the removal of the wounds is a sign of the triumph of the power of God over sin and the imperfection within creation to which it has led, and that it is in this power that one is to trust, rather than in the mercy and love of God evidenced by the enduring reality of the marks, as it was for the earlier writers in the tradition. Although he rails elsewhere in the Institutes against Severus’ view that the ascended body of Christ was swallowed up in his divinity,69 that body for Calvin nonetheless is a body devoid of the marks of what he must have regarded as the principle raison d’être for the taking on of that body.

That the Reformers may have rejected the notion of the permanence of the wounds, did not, of course, mean that the wounds did not continue to play a role in Protestant piety and art. Such a painting as Lucas Cranach the Younger’s The Crucifixion (Allegory of Redemption) of 1555 (Stadtkirche of Saints Peter and Paul, Weimar, Germany), although its subject is the crucifixion, and not the ascended body, clearly suggests that the wounds, properly theologically construed, have an on-going significance for the believer. The artist, standing at the foot of the cross, is being washed with the blood that flows from the wound in Christ’s side, while Luther, who stands beside him, points to passages in his own German translation of the Bible ;

and, although the lesson of the painting is that the word of God, received in faith, is sufficient to redeem us, the painting suggests that the wounds remain of contemporary importance for the Church. In another genre, Buxtehude’s beautiful passionCommentary on the Gospel According to John, vol. 2, p. 265. There may have been precedents for this view. AQUINAS, for instance, in the Summa 54, 4, implies that John of Damascus believed that the marks of the wounds were dispensed with once their purpose of establishing the identity of the body had been accomplished. In the passage of De Fide Orthodoxa IV.18 (PG 94, 1189) on which Aquinas is drawing, however, JOHN OF DAMASCUS does not in fact say that.

68. Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 2, ed. J. NEILL and trans. F. Battles, Philadelphia, The Westminster Press (coll. “The Library of Christian Classics”, XXI), 1960, Bk III.25.3, p. 990-991.

69. See, for instance, Institutes, vol. 2, Bk IV.17.29, p. 1398-1399.


meditation Membra Jesu Nostri (Members of our Jesus), dating from 1680, contemplating seven parts of Christ’s body on the cross, the text of which is drawn from a medieval poem “Salve mundi salutare”, also attests to an ongoing interest in the wounds in a Lutheran context, probably liturgical, although once again the focus is on the crucifixion and not the glorified body.70 For Luther and Calvin, in contrast to Cyril, Augustine, Bede, and Aquinas, it is the very removal of the marks of the wounds which point to the salvific efficacy of Christ’s death and resurrection, his triumph over sin and suffering, and it is their removal that allows us to have confidence that we are the objects of God’s love and that we will be alright in the end. With his focus on the spiritual condition of the believer and his concern with what he perceived to be the abuse devotion to the passion had caused, it was more important for Luther that the spiritually anxious be assured that the wounds and the sin to which they testify had been overcome. The perfect, unmarked glorified body of Christ gave just that assurance. For Calvin, the issue appears to turn on a conception of perfection which in the end requires the obliteration of all signs of the marring of God’s good creation ; created reality is to be restored to what it was before the Fall. It is on this that we are to base our hope. There is little evidence, however, that for the earlier writers the issue had to do with the immediate spiritual condition of the believer, or with an abstract notion of perfection.

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