Sacred Heart of Jesus
A Talk given on July 26, 2015 at Ascension/St. Francis Churches
by Matthew Dunn (a seminarian of the Baton Rouge Diocese)
In 1673, a French nun went to the chapel of her convent to pray. While she knelt before the altar, our Lord appeared before her and held out his hand. In his palm was an image of a bright red heart burning brightly with a flame above it. It was bruised and bloody from the crown of thorns wrapped around it, but it glowed intensely. This nun, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, took this image and dedicated her entire life to it. She heeded the Lord’s request and fervently spread the devotion to Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Today, there are churches and school named in honor of the Sacred Heart, we have holy cards and medals with the image, and we see statues and stained glass windows depicting the Sacred Heart everywhere. The devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus has grown tremendously and is practiced by many. But have you ever taken a moment to look at the Sacred Heart and really think about what it means? Why such a specific—and somewhat gruesome—way of depicting it? Allow me to offer a little of my own take. Since I was little, my favorite image of Jesus was the image of the Sacred Heart. I knew nothing about the heart itself, I just liked the image of Jesus with his hands pierced by the nails, the pure white and vibrant red garments he wears, and the clouds which he typically stands on. This could have something to do with growing up as a parishioner of Most Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Gramercy, where I saw a beautiful stained glass window of the Sacred Heart over the high altar every Sunday. There was also a statue of the Sacred Heart which stood by the door in the back of the church with his arms outstretched. I asked my friend one day after Mass if he thought Jesus had his arms outstretched to give us a hug—because we had just recently learned in Religion classes about Jesus’ love for us. He replied that Jesus actually stood with his arms out to hit you when you misbehaved during Mass, according to his grandmother. I didn’t like that explanation, because as we know, that’s simply not the case. As I grew older—in fact, it was just a few years ago—I fell in love with the Sacred Heart all over again. I realized that Jesus stretches out to us to welcome us. To bless us. To embrace us. He doesn’t stand over us to scare us or show himself as some dictator, but rather he stands over us to show his protection over us, his beloved. And right in the middle is the glowing image of his heart: bound with the sharp thorns, bleeding and bruised, yet burning so intensely with pure love for us. This image remains my favorite because of what it says to us. Our Lord stands before us, offering his love to us. It’s as if he says, “I love you. I always have and I always will. Don’t believe me? Look at the scars in my hands and feet. Look at the blood pouring forth from my heart. I did it for you. I reach out to you, even in the midst of your sharp sinfulness. It pierces my heart like these thorns and it pains me to see you fall, but that’s ok. I’ve already paid the price for you. You are mine. Just let me embrace you. Let me heal you, comfort you, love you.”
I often wonder what kind of love this could be—this pure, selfless, merciful love which we receive so freely and unreservedly from our Lord. It’s the love that pushed Jesus to the top of Calvary. He carried his cross—the cross he didn’t deserve or earn in any way—out of love for us. He got up when he fell and pushed on, just to meet his most painful death out of love for us. It’s the love that made him give his mother to the church as he hung on the cross. It’s the love that instituted the Church in the first place. Through this Church comes the Sacraments, and through the Sacraments comes the graces we need to keep going in life—to keep walking the road to God. Yes, we fall. Yes, we sin. Sometimes we feel as if we just can’t go any further because the weight of our cross is too much to bear. In times like this, it’s important for us to meditate on the pictures hung along the walls of our churches. In the stations of the cross, you’ll see that not once, not twice, but three times Jesus fell under the weight of his own cross. It’s ok that we fall, but only if we love the Lord enough to get back up and continue to him. Jesus fell too. We’re reminded that during the Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass. The priest genuflects three times while the Eucharistic Prayer is said to commemorate the three times Jesus fell but got up again. Why? Because it all points to the love of the Sacred Heart. That love which pushed our Lord to get up again and walk to Calvary. That love which gives us the Eucharist. If you’ve never heard of Eucharistic Miracles, by all means I encourage you to look them up. A Eucharistic miracle is when a consecrated host from Mass miraculously turns to actual, living, bleeding human flesh. There have been tests done on some of these hosts, and they all come back to say the same thing: the tissue which miraculously appeared is actual living human flesh. In recent years, advanced medical technology is now able to pinpoint which part of the body the flesh comes from. I’ll give you one guess as to which organ the flesh typically comes from. The heart. The heart that bled for us—bled with the blood so pure and perfect that it saved each and every one of us. The heart that still burns so intensely and brightly with loving mercy for us. That’s the flame which is rekindled in our own hearts each time we receive the sacrament of Reconciliation. When we receive the Anointing of the Sick, our sins are forgiven and our soul is ready to meet our Lord. Why? Because Jesus Christ gives us—gives his Church—everything we need to make the journey back home to him. He loves us so intensely and yearns to have us spend eternity with him that he gives us ample opportunity to be able to do so.
Briefly, I’d like to share with you a little of what the Sacred Heart has done for me in my life. First, it taught me patience. When we have those days when that sibling, that coworker, or that friend just seems to enjoy working our last nerve and being the thorn in our side, we have to love them anyway—because Christ did. It taught me forgiveness. When we’re wronged by others to the extent that we feel we could—and should—hold the grudge forever, we have to forgive them. Because that’s what our Lord does out of the mercy of his Sacred Heart. It taught me how to pray. When Jesus went to the garden before his arrest, he prayed for us. “Father, you gave me your children and entrusted them to me. By my own sacrifice on the cross, I’m giving them back to you. I love them as you love them.” If Jesus Christ himself knelt in prayer for us, what excuse can we possibly have not to do the same for ourselves and for others? Above all, the Sacred Heart taught me love. True love. Not the emotions and affections we claim as love. “I love pizza, I love my dog, I love this movie, this car, this book, this song.” That is not love. You can enjoy those things—but you can’t love them. Love is when you care so deeply about something or someone that you’re happily willing to put their needs and interests before your own. Love is such an intense endearment that you’re ready to lay down your very life for the beloved—just as Christ loves us so much that he gave us the greatest gift—himself. He literally gave us himself in the Eucharist, he gave us himself on the cross, and he gives us himself in the merciful love we receive in Confession. THAT is the love we are ALL called to. We’re called to accept it, we’re called to embrace it, and we’re called to allow it to change us. Most of all, we’re called not only to have that love, but to BE that very love to everyone—the rich, the poor, the sinner, the saint, the Christian, the atheist, and even the bitter person who hates everything and everyone that moves. Why? Because Jesus Christ did and still does.
The next time you see an image of the Sacred Heart, stop for just a moment and look at our Lord’s heart. Ponder the intense meaning of such a simple image. Thank him for his merciful and gracious love, and ask him for the special grace to conform your own heart to his. It’s only when our own hearts are transformed by the Sacred Heart that we can burn with love, that we can bleed with merciful forgiveness to others, that we can embrace our brother even in his sinfulness. THAT is when we’re truly living our Christian mission. Jesus, meek and humble of heart, make our hearts like unto thine. Amen.
-Matthew Dunn (a seminarian of the Baton Rouge Diocese)