What is the Meaning of the Rays?

In one of my Divine Mercy Q&A columns, I had the opportunity to briefly discuss the meaning of the word "mystery" in the Catholic tradition. In a nutshell, what I said was that a "holy mystery" is not something that we are completely in the dark about; it's just something about which there always remains more to be said. A holy mystery is a truth so deep that we can never completely unpack or express every aspect of it. The Holy Trinity, the Incarnation, the Eucharist, these are holy mysteries indeed, but so, too, is the image of The Divine Mercy, revealed to St. Faustina in the darkness of her convent cell in the city of Plock in Poland, back in 1931. She describes that moment in her Diary:


In the evening when I was in my cell, I saw the Lord Jesus clothed in a white garment. One hand was raised in a gesture of blessing, the other was touching the garment at the breast. From beneath the garment, slightly drawn aside at the breast, there were emanating two large rays, one red, the other pale. In silence I kept my gaze fixed on the Lord; my soul was filled with awe, but also with great joy. After a while, Jesus said to me, Paint an image according to the pattern you see, with the signature: Jesus, I trust in You. I desire that this image be venerated, first in your chapel, and [then] throughout the world.

I promise that the soul that will venerate this image will not perish. I also promise victory over [its] enemies already here on earth, especially at the hour of death. I myself will defend it as my own glory.
(Diary of St. Faustina,47-48)

There are depths upon depths of meaning in this sacred image, and we have discussed some of them in previous installments of this Q&A series.

One thing about the image that we have not covered in great depth, however, is the mystery of the rays that stream from the breast of Christ. In recent weeks I have received several good questions about the meaning of those rays. One of them, from a fellow named Ted, asked why we insist on showing the rays of blood and water coming from Jesus' "breast" or "heart" when the Bible clearly says that the blood and water flowed from His pierced side when He was on the cross?

There are a couple of reasons why it is appropriate to show the rays of blood and water streaming from the breast of Christ in the Image of The Divine Mercy, and to say that they are flowing from His Heart.

The first reason is that this is precisely what Jesus told St. Faustina about the rays. Faustina saw the rays coming from the area of His "breast" (Diary entry 47, quoted above), and Jesus taught her to pray these words: "O Blood and Water, which gushed forth from the Heart of Jesus, as a fount of mercy for us, I trust in You. (Diary, entry 84; cf. 309).

The second reason is that when St. Faustina asked our Lord about the meaning of the rays, He answered her by telling her that they signified the blood and water that gushed forth from His side on Calvary (see Jn 19:34-35):

When on one occasion my confessor told me to ask the Lord Jesus the meaning of the two rays in the image, I answered, "Very well, I will ask the Lord."

During prayer I heard these words within me: The two rays denote Blood and Water. The pale ray stands for the water that makes souls righteous. The red ray stands for the Blood which is the life of souls ...

These two rays issued forth from the very depths of My tender mercy when my agonized Heart was opened by a lance on the Cross.
(Diary, 299).

The historical reference that Jesus made here is significant ("when my agonized Heart was opened by a lance on the Cross") because they correspond to what New Testament scholars tell us about this event. The fact is that Jesus was crucified by Roman soldiers, and Roman soldiers were trained to know exactly where to stick their enemies with a lance so that the lance would pass between the ribs and pierce the heart, thereby guaranteeing instant death. In the Gospel story, the Roman soldiers were trying to make sure that Jesus was dead before they took Him down from the cross (Roman soldiers were subject to the death penalty themselves if they failed to successfully execute a criminal condemned under Roman law) so their lance passed into His side between the ribs, but went right up into His Heart (remember that they were thrusting the lance upward, from beneath the Cross). In fact, the phrase that Jesus taught St. Faustina to use in her prayer ("O Blood and Water, which gushed forth from the Heart of Jesus") is also precisely accurate. It corresponds to the word that St. John used in his gospel for the flow of blood and water: it "gushed out." The Roman spear evidently pierced the pericardial sack around the heart where relatively clear plasma would have collected after Jesus' death, and also probably pierced the Heart itself, where blood had settled. The result would have been similar to the piercing of a water balloon: the blood and water "gushed forth" from His Heart. In short, the side of Christ was pierced, according to the Bible, but everything about this incident suggests that the wound in His side entered right into His Heart.

Another questioner, a man named Brian, asked me this fascinating question:

Is there a theological significance in the [Divine Mercy Image] rays returning from whence they came in visions St. Faustina had?

For example, in Diary entry 370: That same day, when I was in church waiting for confession, I saw the same rays issuing from the monstrance and spreading throughout the church. This lasted all through the service. After the Benediction [the rays shone out] to both sides and returned again to the monstrance. Their appearance was bright and transparent like crystal. I asked Jesus that He deign to light the fire of His love in all souls that were cold. Beneath these rays a heart will grow.

I think there are similar visions, where the rays returned to the monstrance or tabernacle, although I cannot find them just now.

Does the fact that the rays were seen to return reveal part of the nature of the Divine Godhead, for example, omnipotence: that despite the rays going out, this does not deplete them?

Does it pick up the words from Isaiah 55? Namely:

[10] "For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and return not thither but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
[11] so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and prosper in the thing for which I sent it.

Thanks for this excellent question, Brian. I think there is some wisdom in your speculations here about linking the retracting rays to this passage from Isaiah. After all, the rays of Divine Mercy, insofar as they represent the graces that Jesus Christ longs to pour out upon us (if only we will receive them with trust!) are not meant to leave us right where we are. Rather, they are meant to transform our hearts, to "mercify" us, as Fr. George Kosicki, CSB, likes to say, so that we can give our hearts back to Him in love.

Think of the rays in the image as akin to a typical scene from the Star Trek science fiction movies. When Captain Kirk and his crew want to get back to the Starship Enterprise where they belong, he calls on his communicator to his chief engineering officer and says "Scottie, beam us up." Soon, transporter rays are sent down from the ship and surround the captain and his crew, and Kirk and his crew dematerialize and are taken back into the ship. This, by analogy, is what our Savior longs to do with us: to so fill and surround us with the transforming grace that streams from His Heart that we will eventually consent to Him "beaming us up" right back into loving union with His Heart, right where we belong!

Thus, the first part of this mystery is Christ sending His rays of mercy down to us to transform and sanctify us. Pope John Paul II spoke about this mystery in his homily on Divine Mercy Sunday, 2001:

Today the Lord also shows us His glorious wounds, and His Heart, an inexhaustible source of truth, of love, and forgiveness. ... Saint Faustina saw, coming from this Heart that was overflowing with generous love, two rays of light that illuminated the world. "The two rays," according to what Jesus Himself told her, "represent the blood and the water" (Diary, 299). The blood recalls the sacrifice of Golgotha, and the mystery of the Eucharist. The water, according to the rich symbolism of the Evangelist St. John, makes us think of Baptism and the Gift of the Holy Spirit (cf. Jn 3:5; 4:14).

Through the mystery of this wounded Heart, the restorative tide of God's merciful love continues to spread over the men and women of our time. Here alone can those who long for true and lasting happiness find its secret.

Here is the way I put it in my book Jesus, Mercy Incarnate (Marian Press, 2000, p. 118):

The focus is on the merciful love that flows to us from His Heart, for in that image what stands out most distinctly are the red and pale rays that shine out from His breast. These rays represent the healing and sanctifying graces, especially of Baptism and the Eucharist, that flow from the Sacred Heart of Jesus toward us. This makes the Mercy image especially suitable for the desperate needs of so many Catholic families in our time, families all too often broken and wounded by evil: apostasy, adultery, divorce and division, contraception, fornication, greed, shallow consumerist materialism, and the killing of the unborn. These assaults of evil, often promoted by modern culture, are simply overwhelming many Catholic families. The rays of the Mercy image show us the healing, sanctifying graces that our Savior is longing to pour into very human heart, if only we will receive then with trust.

When we do open our hearts to him with trust, then those rays and graces beam us back into deep union with the Heart of Jesus, as they did for St. Faustina herself. She writes:

He brought me into such intimacy with Himself that my heart was espoused to His Heart in a loving union, and I could feel the faintest stir of His Heart, and He of mine. The fire of my created love was joined to the ardor of His uncreated love. ...

O my Master, I surrender myself completely to You, who are the rudder of my soul; steer it Yourself according to your divine wishes. I enclose myself in Your most compassionate Heart which is a sea of unfathomable mercy. (Diary, 1242 and 1450)

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press). Got a question? E-mail him at questions@thedivinemercy.org.

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