‘They will look on the one whom they have pierced.’
This feast comes in this month when summer finally gets under way; it comes in a time of light and warmth. It comes after we have lived through Christ’s life in the liturgy, all the way from his conception under Mary’s heart to his return, ascending, to the bosom (the heart) of the Father. It comes after we’ve celebrated Pentecost, Holy Trinity and Corpus Christi. And like those two last feasts, it’s a taking stock of what has happened, of what has been given. It’s a kind of reflection in depth, a going to the root of who Jesus is. And that root, that depth is his heart, the source of everything he is and does and says.
It has been well said: ‘the term “Sacred Heart of Jesus” denotes the entire mystery of Christ, the totality of his being, and his person considered in its most intimate essential: Son of God, uncreated wisdom; infinite charity, source of the salvation and sanctification of mankind. The “Sacred Heart” is Christ, the Word Incarnate, Saviour, intrinsically 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).
Today the heart of reality is opened up to us, and it’s not ‘the heart of darkness’, but the heart of Christ. It’s this limitless divine-human love for the Father and for us. This is the pearl of great price. This is the treasure hidden in the field. And blessed are we who find it and keep it and take it to heart. How many have and do!
‘They will look on the one whom they have pierced.’
The Holy Spirit guides this look. He wants every disciple to share it. And century after century in the life of the Church, and year after year in our own lives, he gathers disciples at the foot of the Cross and lifts their eyes. Inspired by passages in the Gospel and the prophets, like those we’ve just heard, many holy men and women of the Middle Ages saw what John and Mary saw: Jesus pierced and open. They did what the risen Jesus invited Thomas to do; they put the hand of faith into Christ’s wounded side. St. Bernard, St. Bonaventure, St. Luitgard, St. Mechtild of Marburg, another Ss. Mechtild and Gertrude of Helfta, Ludolph of Saxony can all be named. They had this sense of Christ’s heart as a place, as a space, as a refuge. Christ’s love is a certainty. It’s somewhere to fly to. It’s protection; it’s sanctuary. It’s a safe place, the one safe place. ‘Refuge’ is a great biblical word, in the Psalms especially:
– ‘God is for us a refuge and strength, / a helper close at hand in time of distress’ (Ps 45:2).
– or again: ‘O that I had wings like a dove / to fly away and be at rest. / So I would escape far away / and take refuge in the desert. / I would hasten to find a shelter / from the raging wind, / from the destructive storm, O Lord, / and from their plotting tongues’ (Ps 54:7-10).
– or once more: ‘In you, O Lord, I take refuge. / Let me never be put to shame…Be a rock of refuge for me, / a mighty stronghold to save me… Release me from the snares they have hidden / for you are my refuge, Lord. / Into your hands I commend my spirit. / It is you who will redeem me, Lord’ (Ps 30: 2, 3, 5-6).
Jesus, as a human being, found his refuge in the heart of the Father, and we find ours in his. Here’s the great hostel for homeless humanity. It’s ‘the breadth and the length, the height and the depth’. No need to take refuge in the bottle or drugs or endless distractions or the internet or deafening music. The best refuge in any time of trouble is the heart of a friend or a loved one. We know that. The heart of Christ is in their hearts, and even if their hearts fail us, his doesn’t. In any desert, he’s the refuge. He’s the shelter. The Father has given us this home.
And then in the 17th c. and again in the 19th, the Holy Spirit turned eyes and hearts to the One who was pierced. St Francis de Sales, St Margaret Mary Alacoque, St John Eudes and St Claude de la Colombière are names here. The Society of Jesus played a role. And now after St Faustina and Pope St John Paul II, and with Pope Francis, the word that’s linked more and more with the Sacred Heart is ‘mercy’. ‘Heart of Jesus, patient and rich in mercy, says the Litany, have mercy on us.’ We heard this mercy in the prophet Hosea: ‘My heart recoils from it, my whole being trembles at the thought. I will not give rein to my fierce anger, I will not destroy Ephraim again, for I am God, not man: I am the Holy One in your midst and have no wish to destroy.’ Refuge. Mercy.
And from all these currents of devotion, this great feast emerged. When a devotion enters the liturgy, it goes beyond particular expressions and individuals or the nations or religious orders that have championed it. It becomes something broad, completely healthy, available to all. It belongs to the whole. The whole Bride of Christ is gazing at the Pierced One.
‘This is the evidence of one who saw,’ says John. He saw deep things. He knew there was more than the merely physiological here. It was a sign. It brought back to his mind mysterious words from the prophet Zechariah. Only now did they make sense: ‘And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of compassion and supplication, for when they look on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him as one weeps over a first-born’ (Zech 12:10). There’s this strange combination of a piercing and a pouring. And a few verses later, comes this: ‘On that day a fountain shall be opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness’ (13:1). Refuge, mercy, fountain. It’s the fountain of a love that can redeem as blood and regenerate as water. It’s the fountain of love that flows in the Sacraments, and gives birth to the Church. It’s the fountain flowing in every Mass. It’s the fountain that will make our hearts like his heart, and fill them with a spirit of compassion and prayer.
And that’s the final point: to become what we see. ‘Jesus, meek and humble of heart, Make our hearts like your heart.’ To be the pierced heart of Christ. To be, in our own small world, refuge, mercy, fountain. To live the lovely love poem of E.E. Cummings:
i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go, my dear; and whatever is done
by only me is your doing, my darling)
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)
May that be us!