On the fourth Friday of Lent (Friday of the Third Week of Lent), following the tradition of the Passionist Community in Rome, Catholics have remembered the “Five Wounds of Christ.” These five wounds are those in his hands, his feet and his pierced side.
While never a universal feast of the church, similar memorial Masses and prayer devotions have been celebrated since the time of the Crusaders, especially after the 12th century. These devotions were aided by the preaching of saints devoted to Christ’s sufferings such as St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) and St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226). There were also prayers composed by St. Clare of Assisi (1194-1253) and St. Mechtilde (1240-1298).
The Benedictine theologian, St. Gertrude the Great (1256-1302) was known to pray daily to honor not only the Five Wounds, but the 5,466 wounds he suffered during his Passion, as revealed to her by Christ in a vision. (St. Bernard is also credited with a vision in which Christ revealed that he had suffered a great shoulder wound while carrying the cross to Calvary.)
The earliest Mass celebrated in honor of the wounds of Christ’s Passion dates to 532. That was when Pope Boniface II also reported a vision he had had — this one of St. John the Evangelist. The saint asked the pope for the celebration of a “Golden Mass” to honor Christ’s wounds. No specific date was set for this Mass, but it was later stipulated that five candles must always be lit during this Mass.
It is in the Gospel of John where we hear of the risen Christ appearing to St. Thomas. Jesus told Thomas to touch the wounds in his hand and his side and “do not be unbelieving, but believe” (Jn 20:27). It was by these wounds that Thomas recognized Christ as the risen Lord.
According to the “Catholic Encyclopedia,” it was in 1831, when a feast in honor of the Five Wounds was adopted by the Passionists and celebrated during Lent.
Various devotions to the Five Wounds developed after this.
These include the Chaplet of the Five Wounds — which only a Passionist priest can bless. This chaplet dates to 1823 and consists of five sets of five beads. Each bead is used to pray the Gloria Patri (the “Glory Be”). The spaces in between are used to offer a “Hail Mary” in honor of the Sorrowful Mother.
The familiar five-decade rosary also has ties to the five Wounds, because there is a tradition that developed of dedicating each of the Lord’s Prayers said on a rosary in honor of Christ’s wounds.
When you attend the Easter Vigil this year, you will see the priest insert grains of incense into the wax of that candle at each point of the cross etched there, as well as in the cross’ center. These grains are for the Five Wounds of Christ. As he places the grains of incense, the priest has traditionally prayed: “By his holy and glorious wounds, may Christ our Lord guard us and keep us.”
This pattern of the incense grains can be seen in early artistic forms of the crucifixion cross, known as the crux gemmata (jeweled cross). Instead of having Christ depicted on them, crux gemmata used precious gems to mark where Christ’s wounds would be on the cross. This emphasizes how precious Christ’s blood and suffering are to Christians, and how much more glorious than jewels his suffering is to believers.
Another cross style associated with the Five Wounds is the Jerusalem Cross. This is also called the “Crusaders’ Cross” or the “cross and crosslets.” It consists of one large, equal-sided cross with four identical, but smaller, crosses at each of its intersections. This cross was used in Medieval times as part of the heraldic signs on banners and shields of knights — some of whom had traveled to the Holy Land.
This Jerusalem Cross exists even today on the flag of the country of Georgia. And a similar style — with five shields arranged in a cross, with each shield bearing five white dots — can be seen on the flag of Portugal. This is because, in 1139, the first king of Portugal, Alfonso I, took this as his coat of arms after his victory against five Muslim kings in the Battle of Ourique in what is now southern Portugal.
Whatever reason one might have for carrying a cross or chaplet or even a flag of the Five Wounds, the basic reason is what Thomas saw in the risen Christ. Pope Francis explained this in his Regina Caeli address on Divine Mercy Sunday in 2015. The pope noted that Thomas “faced his incredulity so that, through the signs of the Passion, he was able to reach the fullness of faith in the Paschal Mystery, namely faith in the Resurrection of Jesus.”
Sources: fisheaters.com; the “Catholic Encyclopedia”; catholicculture.com; glorious.tv.com; worldflags101.com; britannica.com and w2.vatican.va.