God’s tender love


12 Jun 2023

Celebrated on the Friday following Corpus Christi Sunday, the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus focuses attention on God’s tender love for us shown in Jesus’ death.

One hundred years ago almost every family home displayed a picture of Jesus wearing a red inner garment, pointing to his heart surrounded by a gold aureole. The image is the symbol of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It was commended in schools, in sodalities and in such devotions as attending Mass on nine consecutive First Fridays dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

The Feast itself began relatively late in the history of the Church. But it gathered together elements of Christian life that were already significant. The heart has always been a natural symbol of human life. As long as our hearts beat we know we are alive. In many cultures, too, the heart is a natural symbol of human love. We may locate our feelings of deep affection in our chest. The regular beating of our hearts also suggests the depth and the enduring power of our love. When we speak of the heart of a novel or of a problem we indicate the deepest point that explains its other aspects. It is natural then to associate people’s love with their heart. We praise people for being warm hearted and criticise them for their hard hearts, and might say facetiously to someone who is self-pitying, ‘My heart bleeds for you’.

We also find these associations of the heart in the New Testament. The most significant story in shaping the Devotion to the Sacred Heart is found in the account of Jesus’ death in the Gospel of John. After his death a soldier pierced Jesus’ heart with a spear, whereupon blood and water flowed out. The story showed that Jesus had given all he had in his love for us, leaving us with the waters of baptism and the blood of the Eucharist as signs of his continuing presence to us in the Church. The image of the pierced heart embodied for early Christians God’s love shown in Jesus’ life and death.

In the medieval Church Christians were fascinated by the stories of Jesus’ bodily life, and focused on his body in their prayer. Devotions focused on Christ’s wounds, allowing Christians to associate themselves emotionally with Jesus in his Passion. Out of these devotions grew devotion to Jesus’ Sacred Heart and eventually in 1670 to a Feast approved for some local Churches.

The Devotion grew massively and took its recent form after Margaret Mary Alacoque, a French Religious Sister, had visions of Jesus who instructed her to spread the devotion to his loving heart, and to have a feast celebrated on the Friday after the Feast of Corpus Christi. She was supported by her Jesuit spiritual director, Claude de la Colombière. His writing and that of his colleagues contributed to the growth of devotion to the Sacred Heart.

The devotion to the Sacred Heart was providential at the time because it focused faith on God’s tender love for us shown in Jesus’ death. Other harsher expressions of faith, associated with the teaching of Cornelius Jansen, emphasised the soul at the expense of the body, God’s stern judgment of sin, and the difficulty of salvation. Devotion to the Sacred Heart focused our attention on God’s overwhelming love and forgiveness. It also allowed people living difficult and painful lives to associate their suffering with those of Jesus in his passion.

The Feast and the various devotions to the Sacred Heart, like many other devotions, are less popular today. But the heart of the Devotion with its focus on God’s love for us shown in Jesus’ death also remains the heart of Christian faith.

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ is an editorial consultant at Jesuit Communications
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