Catechesis on the Sacred Heart of Jesus

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Bishop Hugh Gilbert OSB Catechesis on Sacred Heart of Jesus.


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Dear Brothers and Sisters,

I would like to offer a catechesis on the feast of the Sacred Heart that we keep this Friday. I do underline the word “feast”. I am approaching this subject through the door of the liturgy.

This is the third of the three Solemnities of the Lord that follow on the feast of Pentecost: Trinity Sunday, Corpus Christi and the Sacred Heart. As I’ve said twice before these feasts inter-connect. And to assure you I am not making this up, here’s Pope Benedict: “Each of these liturgical events highlights a perspective which embraces the whole mystery of the Christian faith…respectively the reality of the Triune God, the Sacrament of the Eucharist and the divine and human centre of the Person of Christ. These [each] …in a certain sense sum up the whole itinerary of the revelation of Jesus, from his incarnation to his death and Resurrection and, finally, to his Ascension and the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Angelus 7 June 2008).

Through all we have been celebrating from Advent to Pentecost, God has been drawing close to us. As somebody put it to me recently: in the feast of the Trinity, our focus is who has come close: Father, Son and Holy Spirit; at Corpus Christi, the focus is how the Lord is now close to us, the Eucharist; with the Sacred Heart, the focus is the why of it all. “It was for love of you”, says Moses in the 1st reading. “Love is his meaning”, says Julian of Norwich. For Bl. Columbia Marmion, the Irish Benedictine Abbot, this feast “closes the annual cycle of the solemnities of the Saviour; it is as if, arrived at the term of the contemplation of her Bridegroom’s mysteries, there is nothing left for [the Church] to do but to celebrate the very love that inspired them all.”

It’s as if we have been walking through a picture gallery, admiring each portrait or landscape or whatever one after another, this Sunday, that Sunday. Then suddenly, we stand back, and we notice the wall that holds the pictures, we notice the colour it has – a glowing red perhaps – which sets off and enhances every picture. Or maybe it’s a red lighting that pervades the whole gallery – the glowing red of Christ’s Heart.

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What about the feast? The Dominicans have a claim to have originated it, at least remotely. From the late 13th c., on today’s liturgical date, Friday after the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, they commemorated the wound in the side of Christ – the wound that revealed his heart, and from which blood and water flowed. But usually the honour of first celebrating the Sacred Heart of Jesus liturgically is given St John Eudes (1601-1680), a French priest of the 17th c., originally an Oratorian and later founder of two religious congregations. He is remembered as a great propagator of devotion to the hearts of Jesus and Mary, and first celebrated a Mass of the Sacred Heart on 20 October 1672, I think in Rennes, in Brittany. Just under two hundred years later, in 1856, the feast became universal in the Roman rite. In 1929, Pope Pius XI re-edited it, and with the help of a French Benedictine monk of Solesmes, Dom Henri Quentin (1872-1935), new texts, a new formulary as it is called, came in. After the Second Vatican Council, it was partially revised again, with an additional Collect, more Scripture (three sets of readings), a special Preface and a new Prayer after Communion.

I’ve mentioned before: Entrance Antiphons set the tone of a Mass. The one for this feast comes from Ps 32, vv. 11 and 19: “the designs of his heart are from age to age, to rescue their souls from death and to keep them alive in famine”. It’s a beautiful beginning, and the only time in the Psalter that the heart of God is mentioned. God’s heart is the seat of his eternal plans, his designs, for the world and for us, and these designs are good: to rescue us from death, to feed us in a time of famine. God has a heart for us.

The Scripture of a feast is vital too. From the Old Testament, there is Deuteronomy: Moses, as the covenant is renewed, reminding the people of Israel, how the Lord set his heart on them, not because they were many or mighty, but from a free, gratuitous love. In Years B and C, we hear from the prophets Hosea and Ezekiel. Here the Lord is shown as the one who rescues Israel after its going astray: a wandering child, errant sheep. This unfurls as it were the depths of God’s merciful love. “I am the Holy One in your midst and have no wish to destroy”. This is a love that recalls and rebuilds. There’s the 1st Letter of John, predictably, inviting us to recognise and replicate the love of God. There’s St Paul in Years B and C, and in the Divine Office, straining language in his attempt to have us grasp “the breadth and the length, the height and the depth” of it all, wanting us to know the love of Christ “which is beyond all knowledge”. Then there are the Gospels, which I’ll come back to at the end.

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What is this feast about? I remember visiting a Benedictine convent of nuns, which had been founded by a bishop in the 19th c. In their cloister was a jar, and in the jar was the preserved heart of the bishop. This was rather disconcerting. And I don’t think it would provide a helpful approach to our feast. For a start, Jesus is alive.

So, let’s ask the question, who and what are we celebrating in this feast? What’s brought before us? The Sacred Heart indeed. But let’s go a bit deeper.

This is called a “solemnity of the Lord”.  The focus is Jesus himself, in person. It celebrates Him, God and man in one, our crucified and risen Saviour, present among us. It celebrates him as the One who has loved us, from the beginning, who has shown that love, not least on the Cross, and who loves us still. “To him who loves us, says the Book of Revelation, and has freed us from our sins by his blood and has made us a kingdom, priest to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion foe ever and ever. Amen “ (Rev 1:5-6). That’s the spirit of this feast.

Most feasts celebrate events in our Lord’s life: he is born, he is shown to the wise men, he is presented in the Temple, he is baptised, and so forth. These are happenings in Christ’s life. He undergoes and / or does something in history, even though we know it goes beyond a moment in the past and has present relevance. In the case of our feast, he is the object of attention once again, but differently: not in relation to a specific or one-off event, but to something more pervasive, underlying. We are highlighting not so much some special thing he did (ascend into heaven, for example) but something he has: a heart, a heart full of love for us, for each of us, a heart “containing, in the Spirit, an infinite divine-human love for the Father and for his brothers and sisters” (Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy, 166). We are marking what he has, what he has as the very core and centre of his being, at the heart of who he is: divine-human (theandric) love for his Father and for us. We are celebrating Jesus having a heart for us, having us at heart.

This is something to celebrate!

There’s a fine little poem by Francis Thompson, Arab Love-Song. The man is inviting his beloved to come secretly to his tent at night, and he ends:

“And thou – what needest with thy tribe’s black tents

“Who hast the red pavilion of my heart?”

That could be Christ speaking to us, calling his Church to “the red pavilion” of his heart.

Before exploring that further, one more thought about who and what. Everything Christian liturgy gives thanks for comes first of all from the Father and is related back to him. Liturgical prayers are almost always directed to God the Father. So we are giving thanks for the gift the Father has made us in the opened heart of his Son. The Son’s love conveys the Father’s. “God’s love for us was revealed when God sent into the world his only Son so that we could have life through him.” That’s St John in the 1st reading of Year A. The reading in the Divine Office is from Romans ch. 8: “Who will separate us from the love of God made manifest in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:39).  The divine deeds of creation, of the choice of Israel – “the Lord set his heart on you” – of the forgiveness and rescue of his people from disloyalty and exile, culminate in the Father’s gift of his Son in the Incarnation. And so we feast the Father too. “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for revealing these things to mere children,” says Jesus in the Gospel this year. Our feast shares in his thanking of the Father. And if we are feasting the Father and the Son, then of course the Holy Spirit too, divine love in person.

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Personally, this feast has grown on me over the years. St Jerome wrote once, “Plato makes the chief human element the intellect; Christ puts it in the heart.” Isn’t an underlying question in every life, Am I loved? After his Resurrection, Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Do you love me?” And when we turn to Christ, to God, it’s the same question that torments us. It is a point of Catholic doctrine that none of us knows now whether he or she will be finally saved, but we do know that we are from eternity definitively loved. To know this is healing, redemptive, life-giving – and not at all easy to absorb. It isn’t something inevitable, something we can just read off the world or our own experience. It isn’t easy for us fallen humans – for all our bravado – to recognise that we are loved. And this, with a love beyond all knowing. In the conversation between the serpent and the woman beside the garden tree, the serpent subtly insinuates the idea that God does not want the good of human beings, but rather to defend his own prerogatives. And this lie we swallowed, and it is now well-digested in our ‘system’, as it were: God as enemy. In its contemporary, secularised form, it says, faith is not good for you. It cripples you or fanaticizes you, or meshes you in to self-serving structures. It’s the source of most of the troubles in the world. This feast undermines this lie. It is not saying that God’s love simply delivers comfortable endorsements of our personal projects or cultural fixations. This love is a refashioning fire, and no individual and no culture that gives it space will emerge unscathed. But it’s also the only ultimate ground on which we can stand and flourish and come together as human beings. It is the treasure hidden in the field of faith and for sharing everywhere. This is the love that makes missionaries. This is the love with which that Dante ends his Divine Comedy, “the love that moves the sun and the other stars”, that turns tragedy into the best of all comedies and, most astonishingly of all, like a Holy Communion, has its whole heart to give to each least one of us, as the smallest flower feels the full force of the sun. “For each, the entire monopoly of day; for each, the whole of the devoted sun” (Alice Meynell, A General Communion).

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In recent years, this feast has been associated with the practice of praying for priests, for our holiness. Such prayers would be gratefully received: prayers that we who are ordained may be, like David, shepherds after God’s heart.

“This Heart, it has been written, calls to our hearts. It invites us to step forth out of the futile attempt at self-preservation and, by joining the task of love, by handing ourselves over to him and with him, to discover the fullness of love which alone is eternity and which alone sustains the world” (J. Ratzinger, Behold the Pierced One, p. 69).

There are many prayers we might pray to the Sacred Heart. There are many beautiful prayers, like the Litany of the Sacred Heart. But we can just simply ask to realise we are loved, or just say, Thank you.

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The Christians of the Middle Ages would be surprised how little our liturgy uses the Song of Songs – a few allusions in the reading from St Bonaventure in the divine Office. But they would feel at home with references to John Ch. 19, the final scene on Calvary, the piercing of Jesus’ side, the issue of blood and water and the quotation from the prophet Zechariah: “they will look on the one whom they have pierced.” The Gospel of Year A is Christ’s appeal to come to him, gentle and humble of heart. The Gospel of Year C is the parable of the shepherd seeking the lost sheep. But the Gospel of Year B is John’s. The Preface holds up the same scene. A Communion Antiphon re-echoes it. This is, as it were, the icon of this feast.

As Mary stood by the Cross, with the beloved disciple, the faithful witness, so does the Church. Through the aperture of the visible wound, she sees far into the invisible wound of God’s love for us, the divine vulnerability. Julian of Norwich, standing in the same place, as it were, found her understanding led by Christ through the wound and beyond. “And there he showed a beautiful and delightful place, large enough for all mankind that will be saved to rest there in peace and love…And in this sweet beholding he showed his blessed heart, cloven in two…and he revealed to my understanding…the endless love that is without beginning and is and ever shall be. And with this our good Lord said most blessedly, “See how I love you”, as if he had said, “My darling, behold and see your Lord, your God, who is your maker and your endless joy. See your own brother, your saviour. My child, behold and see what love and what joy I have in your salvation…See how I love you.”

Let me go back to Francis Thompson’s Arab Love-Song:

“Leave thy father, leave thy mother
And thy brother;
Leave the black tents of thy tribe apart!
Am I not thy father and thy brother,
And thy mother?
And thou – what needest with thy tribe’s black tents
Who hast the red pavilion of my heart?”