The Blessed Virgin Mary shared in the sufferings of her divine son Jesus in a unique way. Saint John recounts that she stood by the cross of Jesus as “one soldier thrust his lance into His side, and immediately blood and water flowed out” (John 19:34).
The Blessed Sacrament at the National Shrine
This Gospel passage is fittingly depicted in a brilliant mosaic in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel in the Great Upper Church of the National Shrine. Set against a radiant gold background, the exquisite mosaic invites contemplation of the mystery of Jesus’ passion and death on the cross and the faithful’s privileged sharing in the fruits of His loving sacrifice. Portraying Jesus on the cross with blood and water flowing from His side into a chalice held by His beloved mother, Mary, the mosaic is a powerful visual catechesis to guide devotion to the Most Precious Blood of Christ, celebrated in July.
The Blessed Sacrament Chapel has the unique distinction of being visited by three popes. Pope St. John Paul II (1979), Pope Benedict XVI (2008), and Pope Francis (2015), prayed silently in this ethereal chapel on their respective papal visits to the National Shrine. On entering the chapel, one is enveloped in the sheer beauty of warm light reflecting off the gold tile adorning its walls. The eye is drawn to the stately marble altar with these words carved in bold, “Food of Angels, Food for Men, All you Lowly Come and Eat.”
Behind the marble altar is the chapel’s magnificent bronze tabernacle, created by Xavier Corbero. One’s gaze is led upward to delight in the shower of divine blessing suspended in gold-leafed manna falling from heaven as depicted by the baldachin. The dome itself portrays people from around the world partaking in a universal offertory procession. Other scenes around the pendentives point to the Eucharist: the Lord’s Last Supper and His miracle of the multiplication of loaves and fish, as well as the celebration of the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation.
The central image of the dome is a large crucifixion scene: Jesus with arms outstretched in love for the world, His haloed head crowned with thorns as He endures the humiliation of the cross for the salvation of the world. Standing by the cross is Mary, clothed in radiant robes of red and blue, signifying the humanity and divinity of her son, Jesus. With her haloed head raised up to the cross, the Blessed Mother beholds her suffering son. From His pierced side, two streams of blood and water flow into the vessel held aloft by His mother.
The Spiritual Meaning of the Blood and Water
The Catechism of the Catholic Church invites us into the spiritual meaning of this magnificent mosaic when it teaches that, “the origin and growth of the Church are symbolized by the blood and water which flowed from the open side of the crucified Jesus.” For it was from the side of Christ as He slept the sleep of death upon the cross that there came forth the “wondrous sacrament of the whole Church.” As Eve was formed from the sleeping Adam’s side, so the Church was born “from the pierced heart of Christ hanging dead on the cross” (CCC 766). Beneath the crucifixion mosaic are these words of Saint Paul, “The cup is a sharing with Christ’s Blood. The bread is a sharing with Christ’s Body.” (1 Corinthians 10:16).
A visit to the Blessed Sacrament Chapel leaves the pilgrim with a deep awareness of Jesus’ real sacramental presence in the Eucharist. There, Jesus invites our encounter with His loving mercy as we share in the gift and mystery of His loving self-gift on the cross, by which we are saved.
Rohling, Geraldine M., PhD, MAEd. The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception: Guide and Tour Book. Washington, D.C.: Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, 2018.
About Dr. Jem Sullivan
Dr. Jem Sullivan, Ph.D. is associate professor in the School of Theology and Religious Studies at The Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C. She is an appointed member of the International Council for Catechesis in the Vatican’s Dicastery for Evangelization in Rome. Over three decades, she has served the Church at the national and diocesan levels, and has taught seminarians, undergraduate and graduate students. Dr. Sullivan is the author of four books including The Beauty of Faith: Christian Art and the Good News and Believe, Celebrate, Live, Pray: A Weekly Retreat with the Catechism. She writes art essays for Magnificat and is a guest commentator for USCCB’s Scripture reflections. Jem has hosted two EWTN television documentaries on the arts and evangelization, and used to serve as a volunteer docent at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., where she led tours of the museum’s masterpiece collections. Jem resides in Maryland with her family and is a parishioner at Saint Mark’s Catholic Church.