Tuesday, June 25, 2019

The Heart of the Matter

The shortest sentence in the whole Bible is only three words: “And Jesus wept” (John 11: 35).  It’s when Our Lord visits the grave of his dear friend, Lazarus, who has been dead for four days.  While succinct, the words give us much to ponder.  Here we have Jesus, God Incarnated—all knowing, all powerful—not just shedding a tear, but literally weeping.

Jesus is true God and true man.  He has a human heart that beats as ours; He has a divine heart that loves with a perfect love.  God feels emotions.  He has a heart that feels deeply because He loves so deeply.

The whole month of June is dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  The devotion also has its own special day, which is the third Friday after Pentecost (this year: Friday, June 28).

When we consider the Heart of Our Lord, we are really talking about two different levels of meaning.  Of course, on the surface, there is the literal physical heart of Christ.  This organ should be the most important one in the body since it provides life to all the other parts.  Our Lord’s heart now beats in heaven in His Resurrected body.  It is with us, too, in the Eucharist where He is fully present body, blood, soul, and divinity.

Yet, when we think about a heart, we also mean more than a bodily organ.  On Valentine’s Day there are hearts galore and they mean more to us than an anatomical muscle.  In Judaism, the word “heart” has to do with the very core, the essence of a person: it is the very center of one’s spiritual life and emotions.   

Just consider some of the turns of phrase we use.  “He has his heart set on it.”  “My heart goes out to you.”  “She poured her heart out to him.”  “He wears his heart on his sleeve.”  All of these point to the fact that the heart is an outward expression of a person’s inner reality.

And the inner reality of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is one of abounding love and mercy.  Christ has a heart of flesh that contains the love of God for us.  Everything Our Lord did in His life was directed by this love in His heart, from humbling Himself to be born an infant in Bethlehem, to curing the sick, to suffering and dying on the Cross for each one of us.  Christ Himself tells us, "Take my yoke upon your shoulders and learn from Me, for I am meek and humble of heart" (Matthew 11:29).

Historically, devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus has Scriptural roots and a long history in Church Tradition.  Yet, it became much more widespread after Christ appeared to St. Margaret Mary of Alacoque in the 17th century.  St. Margaret Mary was a Visitation nun living in France.  In 1672 Our Lord explained devotion to His Sacred Heart to her.  The next year He gave her the great gift of being able to rest her head upon His Heart, which filled her with consolation.  Our Lord told her that she would spread the message of His love for all people.  Then, in 1674, Jesus shared His desire that people would honor His Sacred Heart, especially on the First Friday of each month.  In 1675 He asked that the Feast of the Sacred Heart be celebrated every year on the Friday after the Octave of Corpus Christi. 

On May 8, 1873 Pope Pius IX officially approved devotion to the Sacred Heart and in 1899 Pope Leo XIII dedicated the whole world to the Sacred Heart.

You have probably seen an artistic rendition of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, either in a painting or on a statue.  This image of the Sacred Heart that we have comes to us through St. Margaret Mary, who saw it in her visions.  She describes:

“The Divine Heart was presented to me in a throne of flames, more resplendent than a sun, transparent as crystal, with this adorable wound. And it was surrounded with a crown of thorns, signifying the punctures made in it by our sins, and a cross above signifying that from the first instant of His Incarnation, that is, as soon as the Sacred Heart was formed, the cross was implanted into it and from the first moment it was filled with all the sorrow to be inflicted on it by the humiliations, poverty, pain, and scorn of His sacred humanity was to endure throughout His life and during His sacred passion.”

Christ’s Sacred Heart is surrounded by flames, a sign of the intensity of His love.  His heart literally burns with love for us!  The fire also reckons back to the sacrifices of the Old Testament, which were burnt offerings.  Christ’s perfect, one-time sacrifice on the Cross was the perfection and completion of all the Old Testament sacrifices.  Fire is a sign of God, too (think of Moses and the burning bush).

The Sacred Heart also shines with a light brighter than the sun.  Jesus is, after all, the light of the world.  This resplendent light recalls the Transfiguration, when Christ’s face shone like the sun and His clothes became dazzling white.

Christ’s Sacred Heart is surrounded by a crown of thorns, which obviously points to Our Lord's passion.  He felt the pain of His suffering right into the depths of His heart.  Yet, Christ’s Heart still feels pain.  As St. Margaret Mary writes, the punctures of the thorns aren’t from Good Friday; they are from today, from you and from me and the sins that we commit.  This is a sobering reality.

Finally, there is the cross above, “implanted” into the Sacred Heart.  The positioning seems to suggest that we can only really understand the crucifixion through the love of Christ.  Love is more than pretty words; it is sacrifice, the giving of oneself.  Our Lord suffered on the cross out of love for us.  “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15: 13).

Christ opens His heart to us … He doesn’t keep His Sacred Heart closed or hidden because He wants every soul to receive His love and mercy.  As He said to St. Margaret Mary, “Behold this Heart which has so loved men!”

Yet, in opening His Heart to us, Christ makes Himself vulnerable.  The reality is that Christ’s love for us isn’t always reciprocated.  Many times, His love is even rejected or despised.  Our personal sins puncture the Sacred Heart.

So this Friday when we celebrate the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart, let us try to console the Heart of Christ, so wounded by indifference, lukewarmness, sin, and rejection.  Devotion to the Sacred Heart should lead us to reparation, to making up for the times when Christ’s love is spurned.  Maybe it’s beginning the First Friday devotion Our Lord recommended.  (Here is a great explanation of how to do this.)  Perhaps it’s placing an image of the Sacred Heart in your home where it can be honored.  

Or maybe it’s just placing yourself in the presence of Our Lord in prayer and saying simply, “I love you, Jesus.”

Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us!