Perhaps this comes because, with our modern TV medical dramas and our scientific documentaries, we are all too familiar with the look of a human heart. (And dissection classes in school didn’t help either.) To imagine someone’s heart, pierced and ringed with thorns while still beating, is indeed enough to make anyone cringe.
However, that’s not the purpose of honoring the Sacred Heart image or devotion — to make us cringe or even wince in sympathy. Instead, it’s to make us realize how much we are loved.
Celebrations honoring the Sacred Heart of Jesus formally date to 1856. Honoring the Sacred Heart is most often associated with the visions of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque in 1675, during which she said Jesus showed her his heart and made promises to those who chose to honor the love that lives in that heart. St. Margaret Mary described Jesus’ heart as “more radiant than the sun and as transparent as crystal” and burning like a furnace.
This year, we celebrate the feast of the Sacred Heart on June 7. (It is a movable feast, falling on the Friday after the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, which always comes two Sundays after Pentecost.)
St. Margaret Mary wasn’t the only saint to have visions about Christ’s love or about his heart. St. Gertrude, in the 13th century, reported a vision in which her heart was pierced by a ray of light from the heart of Christ. St. Catherine of Siena (who died in 1380) reported a vision in which Christ exchanged his heart for hers.
While devotion to Christ’s heart seems to have its first roots in the Middle Ages, when there was a great focus on the Passion of Christ and the wounds of that Passion, the realization of Christ’s deep love for us goes back to his time on earth. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that, “Jesus knew and loved us each and all during his life, his agony and his Passion. … He has loved us all with a human heart.” (n. 478).
Think of the times when we can almost feel Jesus’ heart beating with love in the Gospels:
Mk 10:16: People were bringing children to Jesus for a blessing and the disciples tried to stop them. How did Jesus react? Just like an angry parent protecting his own child. Then he called the children to himself, “embraced them and blessed them, placing his hands on them.” How do you think the children felt, with Jesus’ arms around them and held close to his heart?
Mk 9:36-37: The disciples were arguing about who was more important. So Jesus explained their importance to them. “Taking a child he placed it in their midst, and putting his arms around it he said to them, ‘Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the one who sent me.’” Again, can you imagine being that child? Would you understand what Jesus was saying? Or would you just understand what you were feeling?
Mt 23:37: Looking out over the Holy City and all its inhabitants, Jesus mourned. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how many times I yearned to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her young under her wings, but you were unwilling!” Who hasn’t watched a mother hen gather her brood and seen how eagerly the chicks push close to her? Think about being a little hatchling, nestled under your mother’s warm wings and close to her heart. Jesus intentionally used that image to refer to himself and his desire to be with us.
Jn 13:23: Then there is perhaps the clearest image of how Jesus wants us near his heart. In John’s Gospel, at the Last Supper, one then-unnamed disciple is very close to Jesus, “reclining at his side.” The Greek of this verse can be translated as reclining “in his bosom.” Imagine being so close as to have Jesus’ arm around your shoulder and be able to hear his heart.
None of these are creepy images, but rather images that we can relate to: hugs, an arm around a shoulder, a mother’s snuggle or a father’s cuddle. Close enough to hear a heartbeat.
An exposed and wounded heart might be a hard image for some of us. However, most of us can relate to a hug, a warm and safe embrace, even to soft feathers. That is what Jesus’ Sacred Heart wants us to remember, that God’s love surrounds us. As the late Pope John Paul II said in a 1999 address, “Everything that God wanted to tell us about himself and about his love he placed in the heart of Jesus, and by means of that heart he has told us everything.” The evangelist John said it more simply: “God is love.”
So instead of focusing on what the Sacred Heart looks like, try to remember what its love feels like. St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the Little Flower, said that, no matter how badly she felt or how badly she had acted, she knew that Jesus’ love was all that mattered to her and that nothing would keep her from running to him like a little child: “I should go and throw myself into the arms of my Savior.”
Nothing creepy about a warm hug from someone who loves you, no matter what.
Sources: “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; Catechism of the Catholic Church; “Dictionary of Catholic Devotions”; sacredheart.com and vatican.va/holy_father.
Kasten is the author of “Linking Your Beads, The Rosary’s History, Mysteries and Prayers,” published by Our Sunday Visitor Press.