The Spirit, The Water and The Blood

Why does God always seem hidden? Why doesn’t God simply manifest Himself (and Herself) in a way that’s as indisputably real as is our physical world?

Karl Rahner gives us a hint as to why this is. In a prayer entitled, A Blessing on Our Ending, he writes: “[God] we do not ask that your continuing presence should be reflected for us in lofty emotions, for these only reflect ourselves, not you. We can believe without these …”

What’s he saying? Among other things, that if we felt the reality of God in the exact same way as we feel the reality of our physical world and if we felt God’s love with the same kind of emotions we experience when we fall in love, there’s a good chance, unless we’re already saints, that we would end up focused a lot more on ourselves than on God. There’s also a good chance that we would end up manipulating the experience selfishly and distorting the reality that’s contained within it. God, it seems, has to work in secret for good reasons. Otherwise we too quickly end up dealing with our own egos rather than with God.

So where does that leave us?

God comes to us and is present in realities that we cannot so easily manipulate, engineer to our benefit, or distort so as to self-determine their meaning. Our faith tradition has various ways of wording this. For example, Karl Rahner, in the conclusion to the prayer just cited, puts it this way: “[God] You are with us; that suffices. Stay with us: this is our plea. Stay with us, in your holy spirit, in the spirit of the fear of God, in the spirit of contrition, humility and chaste fear lest we dishonour the holiness of God by sin, in the spirit of faith and of the love of prayer, in the spirit of courage and of responsibility for your gospel and for your kingdom in this world and in our time, in the spirit of generosity and magnanimity, in the grace of the love of your holy cross.” (Prayers for a Lifetime, p.162)

Scripture too has various ways of expressing this, but one cryptic phrase (that I very much like) states that God is present, and testified to, in “the spirit, the water, and the blood.” (1 John 5, 8) What’s meant here?

Obviously, these are symbols, the stuff of mysticism and iconography, more than literal, common-sense concepts. As with a lot of other religious language, they attempt to create an imaginative construct for something that’s unimaginable and to give words to something that’s ineffable. And, like all good religious language, these words point to realities beneath common-sense conception. What realities?

“The Spirit”, as defined in Scripture, refers to everything that’s the opposite of jealousy, selfishness, greed, and deceit. As Paul defines it, “the spirit” is “charity, joy, peace, patience, goodness, long-suffering, fidelity, gentleness, and chastity.” These realities make God present and testify to the existence of God in a way that few other things do. By their very nature too, they’re realities that take us outside of ourselves and cannot be programmed for our own advantage.

What is “the water”? Biblically it’s an expression for sacrament, for the way God’s ineffable presence can be given to us through certain concrete symbols; a water-bath, a sharing of bread and wine, an anointing with oil, a laying on of hands. It speaks of mystery, namely, that God is always beyond us, unimaginable in existence and presence, and yet so near that this presence is so overwhelming, simple, and direct that it’s best grasped and related to through certain concrete physical things which, because they function symbolically, conceal and respect God’s existence and presence even as they reveal it. Jesus did that during his time on earth. He was, and remains, the primary sacrament of God. But sacred symbols, of all kinds, also that do. They point beyond their own reality to something deeper, God’s existence and mysterious presence.

And finally, there’s “the blood”. This refers to self-sacrifice, the giving away of one’s life for others to the point of giving one’s own blood, and the carrying of tension (to the point of sweating blood) rather than violating or disrespecting the deep contours of life. Jesus’ giving of his own life for others, so aptly symbolized by his sweating and shedding his blood, is the prime example of this. True altruism powerfully testifies to the existence of God and makes that reality present. As well, like “the spirit” and “the water”, altruism, “the blood”, is something that takes us out of ourselves, away from ego, self-interest, and manipulation. That’s why God can be present within it.

Therese of Lisieux once said: “I think we have to be very careful not to seek ourselves; for we can get a broken heart that way.” That’s the perennial danger, both in love and religion. “The spirit”, “the water”, and “the blood” testify to a route beyond that danger.


Ronald Rolheiser, a Roman Catholic priest and member of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas.

He is a community-builder, lecturer and writer. His books are popular throughout the English-speaking world and his weekly column is carried by more than seventy newspapers worldwide.

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