[The following very much falls in the range of "too much information." It is not for the squeamish. But one cannot talk honestly about the Incarnation of God without including a few uncomfortable details.]
It started when I stepped into the bathroom at the end of a work day in April, stood at the urinal, and out came a stream of red. Something is wrong here, I surmised. I quickly flushed and cleaned up after myself. I then rushed outside, hopped on my bicycle, and rode home. When my wife walked in the door a few minutes later, I suggested we spend our Friday night at the emergency room. (It was one of few times she didn't have a better idea about what to do on our weekly date night.)
After arriving at the hospital, I was asked to urinate. I could tell the nurse didn't quite believe me when I described what had happened. She no doubt thought I was panicking after seeing a little pink in my urine. When I filled the little urine container with what appeared to be pure blood, her eyes widened and she said, "Ah, I see."
This was the first stage in my new relationship with blood. Our friendship warmed over the next month before I had prostate surgery; we saw each other often in those weeks. But since the surgery was so successful, well, we just don't see each other as often as we used to.
I may be friendlier with blood, but we're not intimate yet—that is, I'm not ready to drink it. That Jesus would use this metaphor to talk about the Eucharist—well, how can a middle-class, suburban white guy, sheltered from the gorier details of life, put it? How about: It's disgusting. If you serve wine in your home, and tell your guests to think about blood as they drink it, you can be sure that some will gingerly put their wine glass down, saying, "I think I'll just have some water, thank you."
We are uncomfortable around blood—maybe men more than women, who have a monthly encounter with it. But few people are as comfortable with it as we are our flesh, the other tangible sign of our humanity. Every time we bleed profusely—like the Labor Day my head slammed into a screw protruding from a partially closed garage door—it's scary. Even when you know that head cuts bleed profusely and that it's nothing to be concerned about (just get some ice on it ASAP). But when your hair is matted with blood and your face has streaks of red all over, it's not a welcome sight for your wife when you walk into the kitchen asking for a towel. When blood moves from the inside of our bodies to the outside, suddenly we are made aware of how utterly dependent we are on this red liquid. This is why some people refuse to give blood, as if doing so would drain some of their life away. Other people faint at the sight of blood—as if falling unconscious were a dress rehearsal for death.
We live in an age that has done its very best to shield us not only from death, but from blood as well. Other people slaughter our livestock or take care of our bleeding loved ones, in places and institutions far from our daily doings. This is not altogether a good thing for many reasons, but one is this: The less we experience blood, the less comfortable we become with it. And if we're not comfortable with blood, we cannot be comfortable with ourselves.
We are, literally, flesh and blood. Flesh we like. Blood, not so much. But to separate flesh from blood is to stab at the very heart of who we are, of who God created us to be. To be squeamish about blood is to be squeamish about life. It is only a half-step away from Gnosticism, where even the flesh starts to frighten us.
We talk about Jesus' blood in church a lot, but most of the time we don't think about what we're saying. The mind has this amazing ability to take the life out of metaphors, and we've certainly done that with Jesus' blood. Well, except those Catholics who are into the Sacred Heart of Jesus. But most of us Prostestants think such people are sick, though we're too ecumenical and polite to ever say so. But it may be that we're the ones who are sick.
The fact is, we're as uncomfortable with Jesus' blood as with our own. Again, I think that's because we're uncomfortable with his humanity. We like our Jesus to be divine, powerful, the great healer and fixer of problems, one who may have looked like a man with flesh—but not blood, God forbid. But this is the One who thinks blood appropriate dinner conversation ("My blood is true drink," John 6:55), and dips his robe in blood to make a fashion statement (Rev. 19:13). His comfort with blood suggests his comfort with his humanity.
Whenever we see clear signs of our humanity—our vulnerability and mortality—we are apt to become frightened and flush the red liquid down the toilet, and then clean up any signs splattered about. We like our religion clean and sanitary, a religion that enables us to transcend our humanity, a religion that makes us feel powerful, one that can transform us. But the religion of Jesus is a religion of blood. It's about weakness and death. It's not about blood as an interesting metaphor, but about taking in deep drafts of humanity, relishing Jesus' blood as we would a fine glass of wine.
This thing we call our humanity is, after all, the flesh and blood God created and called "very good," the flesh and blood assumed by God's Son, the flesh and blood that died on the cross, the flesh and blood that renews us in our humanity week in and week out.
I can't say I thought all this standing in front of splattered urinal on that startling April day. Nor have I dwelt on it much since. As I suggested, me and blood are more like Facebook friends. But I'm hoping to become better acquainted in the coming years, and so discover not only my humanity, but the Word who became blood, and bled among us, full of grace and truth.
Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today. He is author of Jesus Mean and Wild: The Unexpected Love of an Untamable God (Baker).
Copyright © 2010 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Previous SoulWork columns include:
The Lord Who Acts Like It | Where did we get the idea that the church should be a place that makes people feel comfortable? (June 10, 2010)
Judgment in the Gulf | Woes and blessings of the oil spill. (June 1, 2010)
Taming Religion | Why we need to keep The Extremist in check. (May 13, 2010)