We began this week with our annual celebration of Corpus Christi, a feast which honors Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, the very heart of our faith. Today we honor Jesus once more, this time focusing on his Most Sacred Heart.
It is a long-standing practice in many cultures to use the image of the “heart” in our attempts to speak about the inner reality of a person, especially the reality of love. Because we cannot see love, we use this common symbol, a heart, to represent it. When we say someone has a “heart of gold,” we mean that person is selfless and loving. When we have a “heart-to-heart talk” with a friend, we are expressing our deepest concerns with someone we love.
The Sacred Heart of Jesus is a symbol of the greatest love of all, divine love. What better way to symbolize the inner life of Jesus Christ than with a Heart, a Heart aflame with love, radiant with love, wounded for love? Today’s feast gives us a tangible way to approach a mystery which is beyond our comprehension, a love so great that it moves God to lay down his life for us: “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.”
The historical development of devotion to the Sacred Heart is linked in a special way to Jesus’ private revelations to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque in 1675. However, the roots of this devotion can be found throughout the Bible and the whole history of salvation. Today’s readings focus on the love of God as symbolized by the tender care of a Good Shepherd for his sheep. Through the prophet Ezekiel, the Lord promises us that he will look after us and provide for us. He will gather us from all the dangerous and distant places to which we have been scattered. He will lead us to rich pastures, heal us, and give us rest. Today’s Psalm, the famous Psalm 23, uses this image of a loving shepherd and applies it to each one of us who follows him. The Lord is not only the shepherd of us all, he is my shepherd. He attends personally to my needs and refreshes my soul. Jesus takes up the same theme in the Gospel, revealing that he himself is the Shepherd who searches for me when I am lost and alone, and who joyfully places me on his shoulders to bring me home.
These passages all speak to us about what is in the Lord’s heart. He is attentive and patient, compassionate and merciful. He loves us – he is all love! We have a great need to see and hear about this kind of love, because in our guilt and fear, we often cling to false impressions about God. We know in our minds that God is merciful and all-loving, but in our hearts, we fear his anger over our many sins. We know that we have greatly sinned, through our own “most grievous fault,” and we expect some kind of punishment. According to the distorted perspective of our flesh, merciful love does not make sense to us. Retaliation is what makes sense. When our hearts are wounded, we lash back at the one who wounded us – and often at everyone else as well. It is hard for us to believe that God, whose heart we have wounded, is really not intent on paying us back. The feast of the Sacred Heart proves all our natural fears wrong, and surprises us once more with the amazing magnitude of God’s merciful love.
St. Paul helps us reflect on this by inviting us to think of examples of someone laying down his life for another. The cases are rare, but we can imagine the possibility of someone willing to die to save the life of a truly good person. However, Paul tells us, such a noble example does not apply to us, because we were not good when Christ died for us. We were still sinners, we were “still helpless,” “the ungodly,” “we were enemies,” we were sheep that had gone far astray many times. By our own honest estimation, we would say we were not worth dying for. Who would bother to die for people like us? But the Heart of God sees us differently: we are worth dying for. Therefore, even though we deserve punishment from him, we have no reason to fear him. “How much more then, since we are now justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath.”
St. Paul shares another beautiful insight at the beginning of today’s reading: the love in God’s heart has been poured into our hearts “through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” In other words, not only are we saved by the love of God, we are filled with the love of God. Transformed by the power of this love, we can love others with the heart of God. As we honor the Sacred Heart of Jesus today, with hearts full of adoration and gratitude, we rededicate ourselves to love one another as he has loved us (cf. Jn 13:34). Jesus, meek and humble of Heart, make our hearts like unto thine!
In what ways have I experienced God’s love for me? How often do I have a “heart-to-heart” talk with Jesus? How am I a shepherd to others?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 18, no. 5. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.