What About Jelly?: A Physician’s Reflection on the Symbolism of Holy Saturday
Disclaimer: The following content contains graphic medical descriptions which may be disturbing to some readers.
The church looked different that day — as it should. It was Good Friday. The building was dark and unlike a typical Sunday morning there were multiple tables set up at the front of the auditorium. Each table had plastic silver coins scattered around the edges. Adjacent to the coins were multiple loaves of homemade bread which surrounded a large bowl of grape jelly in the center. The silver coins symbolized Judas’s betrayal of Jesus (Matthew 26:14-16)1 and were a reminder that each of us has betrayed Christ. The bread represented Jesus’ body broken for us, and, instead of wine, the jelly represented his blood shed for us (1 Corinthians 11:24-26)1. Household units were encouraged to approach one of the front tables together, take a silver coin, tear off a portion of bread, then dip it in the jelly. There was time and space for loved ones to share the Lord’s supper and pray together. As we were leaving church, I remember Dad saying, “Yes, that is the way communion should be.” I wondered if he was referring to enjoying the robust loaves instead of the more common oyster crackers or to the experience of approaching the table as a group rather than individually. He quickly clarified, “We should be using jelly instead of juice or wine. Jesus’ blood would have been coagulated, not liquid after He died.” I laughed a little as an initial reaction of surprise at Dad’s comment. But after a few minutes, the saliency of the suggestion began to sink in. Could jelly be a better symbol of Christ’s blood shed for us at certain points of the church calendar year? Would it be a more accurate embodiment to portray Jesus’ blood as a solid during specific parts of His Passion?
It was not long before I realized that, rather than being surprising, Dad’s reflection was well aligned with the ways in which he has been shaped and formed. His perspective of the physicalness of Christ’s body on Earth is influenced by his career. My father is a surgeon. His training and many years of experience have forced him to see his fair share of blood. He has made thousands of incisions –– smoothly cutting through epidermis, dermis, and obtaining hemostasis of the small vessels in the subcutaneous tissue. He has stopped the gushing of the splenic artery after trauma by removing spleens, clipped the cystic artery before taking out gallbladders, ensured there was adequate blood supply to a new bowel anastomosis, cleaned out bulky infected hematomas, and much more. As I venture through a winding path of residency training which will lead to becoming a surgeon, I am slowly amassing encounters with blood. I am struck by the spectrum of its redness — the pink of hematuria, the bright pulsatility as it exits an artery, the dark ooze as it spills from a vein, the almost black of a crust on a laceration repair which has failed to receive the recommended emollient. Sometimes it flows when we want it to stop, and sometimes it clots when we wish for it to continue flowing.
This past Holy Week, my thoughts often wandered to thinking about Jesus’ blood. At first, there were moments of awe in attempting to better appreciate that Christ became man and had the same erythrocyte, platelet, white blood cell, and plasma-laden substance in His body that is in ours today. Next came a more in-depth analysis of the liquid versus solid state of Jesus’ blood surrounding His death. My thoughts returned to the idea of jelly. Could it be a more accurate symbolic presentation on the communion table?
"As a Christian, I am humbled and nauseated when I consider the gruesomeness of Jesus’ passion and execution. But, as a physician, I am intrigued by the pathophysiology — the sequence of abnormal bodily processes which lead to illness or injury — of Christ’s crucifixion"
As a Christian, I am humbled and nauseated when I consider the gruesomeness of Jesus’ passion and execution. But, as a physician, I am intrigued by the pathophysiology — the sequence of abnormal bodily processes which lead to illness or injury — of Christ’s crucifixion. Multiple articles have been published in peer-reviewed academic medical journals exploring this very question. In 1986, Dr. Edwards and colleagues attempted to outline the prominent etiologies of Jesus’ death. In their article, "On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ," they identify two primary causes: 1) hypovolemic shock: severe blood loss which prevents the heart from distributing enough blood to the rest of the body, and 2) exhaustion asphyxia: the inability to breathe due to extensive fatigue.2 They describe how the whip used for scourging would initially cause deep bruises and then cut into the skin and underlying subcutaneous tissues. Subsequent beating of these fresh wounds would tear into skeletal muscles, producing stripes of bleeding flesh and the beginning stages of hypovolemic shock. Jesus’ blood loss would have been exacerbated when soldiers mocked him and placed a robe around His shoulders. The wet cuts on His back would adhere to the dry robe, and thus tearing the robe off His back would reopen the wounds. Additionally, hemodynamic instability — inability to maintain a proper blood pressure — would progress when back wounds scraped against the rough wood of the cross, causing additional blood loss.
The compounding mechanism of death by crucifixion was interference with normal respirations, particularly the ability to exhale.2 To fully exhale Jesus would have needed to lift by pushing up on His feet. This action would produce searing pain, and over time the respiratory effort would become agonizing resulting in asphyxia. In a more recent article, Dr. Bergeron further describes that a recognized complication of trauma is trauma-induced coagulopathy.3 He notes that the extensive tissue damage Jesus sustained from multiple beatings likely caused depletion of platelets and coagulation factors — proteins in the blood that help form blood clots and stop bleeding. As he continued to bleed, blood loss would be hastened and worsened without the components needed for coagulation. After Jesus had died, John’s account depicts a soldier piercing Jesus’ side with blood and water coming out (John 19:33-34)1. While this may have been due to numerous potential anatomic causes, overall, it conveys a fluid state of blood surrounding the day of Jesus’ crucifixion.
"On the glorious Resurrection Day, His blood is again vibrantly moving. Because of the hope Jesus has secured for us, we can feast."
So, what about jelly? I continue to think Dad’s reflection is an excellent one. Jesus’ death was physical and bloody. In His human death, His blood would have coagulated. Yet, it seems juice or wine, a liquid, is most appropriate for the events of Good Friday. Juice or wine serve as a symbol of the multiple physiologic mechanisms which led to liquid blood being poured out from Christ’s incarnate body. I propose, though, that jelly should be served at the altar for Easter Vigil. On Holy Saturday, Jesus’ body lay in a tomb. The blood remaining in his circulatory system would have stopped flowing and clotted. Thus, jelly, in place of liquid wine, would appropriately represent the temporary solid state of the Lord’s blood on this, and only this, one day of the church calendar year. On Easter Sunday, we should return to partaking with bread and liquid wine. On the glorious Resurrection Day, His blood is again vibrantly moving. Because of the hope Jesus has secured for us, we can feast. We can wait in anticipation as we proclaim His death until He comes again (1 Corinthians 11:26)1. We can acknowledge the ways God is at work redeeming the world, including our own broken, blood-containing bodies, to Himself through Christ. In navigating these mysteries of faith, I like to imagine that Jesus’ blood type is O negative, the universal donor: the creator and sustainer of life and of all good things.
References: 1. The ESV Study Bible: English Standard Version. Crossway Bibles, 2008. 2. Edwards WD, Gabel WJ, Hosmer FE. On the physical death of Jesus Christ. JAMA. 1986;255(11):1455-1463. 3. Bergeron, Joseph W., MD. The crucifixion of Jesus: Review of hypothesized mechanisms of death and implications of shock and trauma-induced coagulopathy. Journal of forensic and legal medicine. 2012;19(3):113-116. doi:10.1016/j.jflm.2011.06.001