Sunday Sermon for April 14, 2019, Palm Sunday, Year C
Readings: Lk 19:28-40; Is 50:4-7; Phil 2:6-11; Lk 22:14-23:56
In the second reading St. Paul speaks of the profound humility of our Lord saying He did not deem equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave. The idea that God would lower Himself to become a man is so unthinkable that even the highest of the angels was unable to accept it. But God, Who is absolute and perfect love, is therefore, absolute and perfect humility because humility and charity are directly connected: the height of charity is equal to the depth of humility. Since this is a one to one correlation, absolute love necessitates the possession of absolute humility.
I say this because as unthinkable as the Incarnation may be, our Lord was not satisfied merely with becoming human. He humbled Himself, becoming obedient even to the point of death, as St. Paul tells us. Of course, we all know that one statement, although true, does not tell the whole story. He died not only a horrific death, but every element of His Passion was the worst it could be. This year we are reading St. Luke’s Gospel, which includes aspects of the Passion that only he relates. But there is one I would like to focus on for today’s homily.
Each of the Gospel writers tells us about our Lord’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, a word which means “the olive press.” An olive press in ancient times was a huge round stone base with something like a trough or groove cut into it where the olives are placed. Another huge circular stone, like a wheel, would sit in this groove or trough; this stone would be used to crush the olives causing their oil to ooze out. This is an apt description of our Lord in the garden being crushed under the weight of the sins of the world.
St. Luke tells us Jesus “was in such agony and He prayed so fervently that His sweat became like drops of blood falling on the ground.” This passage has caused problems for translators and exegetes over the years because the word St. Luke uses is thromboi which means clots. As you can see from the quote above, the word is translated “drops” because the translators are unsure of what the word means. Remember, St. Luke was a doctor; several medical terms are used in His Gospel and, it can be assumed, he would be precise in his description of a medical condition.
Dr. Pierre Barbet, in his book A Doctor at Calvary explains this is a rare medical condition known as hematidrosis. Dr. Barbet describes what occurs, saying this condition “consists of an intense vasodilatation of the subcutaneous capillaries. They become extremely distended and burst when they come into contact with the millions of sweat glands that are distributed over the whole skin. The blood mingles with the sweat, and it is this mixture which pearls over the whole surface of the body. But once they reach the outside, the blood coagulates and the clots which are thus formed on the skin fall to the ground, being borne down by the profuse sweat”(p. 70).
A literature survey about hematidrosis published by Holoubek and Holoubek at the Louisiana State University School of Medicine in 1996 stated only a few instances of hematidrosis were reported in the twentieth century. Several causes were mentioned; however, acute fear and mental contemplation were found to be the most frequent inciting causes. The Gospels of Matthew and Mark tell us our Lord’s soul was sorrowful unto death during His agony in the garden. Immediately prior to telling us about the thromboi haimatos, the clots of blood, St. Luke mentions Jesus was in agony and prayed fervently. So this would match the causes of hematidrosis described in this article.
Dr. Barbet explains the effects of this condition by speaking first about the large amount of blood our Lord would have lost and then says “the abnormal state of this skin, which, having bled in close connection with its sudoral glands over the whole surface of the body becomes tender and painful, makes it less able to bear the violence and the blows which it will receive during the night and during the following day right on till the scourging and the crucifixion” (p. 70).
So, the scourging, especially, would have been almost unbearable in itself, but with the added tenderness of the skin and weakness from the loss of blood, we can understand the words of Isaiah in a new light: “I gave my back to those who beat me…my face I did not hide from buffets and spitting.” Isaiah goes on to say the Messiah is not disgraced and not put to shame. Rather, His extreme suffering is His glory offered to His Father with absolute and perfect love for our salvation.
Fr. Altier’s column appears regularly in The Wanderer, a national Catholic weekly published in St. Paul, Minn. For information about subscribing to The Wanderer, please visit www.thewandererpress.com.