A Heart Bursting with Love
Many churches contain a statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It is as familiar to Catholics as photos of the Pope in Church foyers. Why? The Sacred Heart reminds us of two important things. First, because we regard the heart as the centre of our emotions (as demonstrated by actions such as drawing a heart to represent love), we are reminded that Jesus is indeed fully human. Second we are reminded that God loves us unconditionally and yearns to forgive us when we make mistakes. God’s heart overflows with love for us.
The fact that Sacred Heart is used to name so many of our parishes, schools (5/49 NZ Catholic secondary schools and many primary), and religious congregations (Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart, Religious of the Sacred Heart…) indicates that the image of God who loves us abundantly, as represented by the Sacred Heart, has a special place in our Catholic psyche.
An enduring image through the years
Prior to the mid twentieth century the prevailing recent image of the Sacred Heart in churches and homes was a pious looking Jesus with his heart stuck outside his chest. This was sometimes mockingly referred to as the ‘open-heart surgery’ picture. It can appear gruesome and unnecessary because we all know what a heart looks like. However, in earlier times there was a tendency for people to venerate representations of just the heart. Worried about the dualism being expressed and the need for believers to appreciate that Jesus was fully human and fully divine, Church authorities insisted that depictions of the Sacred Heart include the whole human body.
In the imagery of the Sacred Heart, God is presented as loving, with a heart bursting with love and compassion for all. This was a different image of God from God as a bookkeeper or judge, taking notes and determining if a person was in credit or debit and therefore a worthy or unworthy person. Nor was God a mystical Father Christmas that with a nod and a wink would provide everything if you were holy enough to be rewarded. With the Sacred Heart God was presented as having a heart full of love.
History of Devotion
Although devotion to the Sacred Heart became very popular after the visions of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647-1690) the Sacred Heart had been part of the Church’s tradition from earliest time. In the early Church the image of Jesus’ heart was a symbol of humankind’s oneness with a loving God encouraging believers to see God in the reality of the embodied people and events that they encountered daily. St Justin Martyr (d. 165) when debating with a Jewish scholar wrote, “We the Christians are the true Israel which springs from Christ, for we are carved out of His heart as from a rock”(Dialogue with the Jew Trypho). St. Iraneaus of Lyons (d. 202) stated that “The Church is the fountain of the living water that flows to us from the Heart of Christ” (Adversus Haereses). St. Bonaventure (1221 – 15 July 1274) talked about the Church being born from the wounded side of the Lord.
Through the years devotion to the Sacred Heart continued to develop, particularly during the Middle Ages. Pope Innocent VI authorised a Mass of the Sacred Heart in 1353. A surge in devotion to the Sacred Heart occurred during the Reformation. By current practice the Feast of the Sacred Heart is celebrated on the Friday after the octave of the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi) . From 1765 the Feast of the Sacred Heart was celebrated in France and in 1856 Pius IX extended the feast to the universal Church.
The Sacred Heart Today
Like all popular devotions, devotion to the Sacred Heart is optional. You can have a strong relationship with God and be a good person without ever practicing devotion to the Sacred Heart. Our Christian faith calls us to be like Jesus. Jesus’ outpouring of love, from his heart is told again and again throughout the Gospels, in the stories of his miracles, his healing actions and compassionate encounters. The Sacred Heart reminds us of our call to live what St Francis de Sales called the ‘little virtues’; patience, humility, gentles, simplicity, honesty, and hospitality. Not in grand ‘look at me!’ ways but in our ordinary, everyday life. We are called to consider how we can reflect the Sacred Heart of Jesus through deliberately considering how we might practice and encourage the little virtues in our lives.