A solemnity known as the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus is celebrated nineteen days after Pentecost (June 27, 2014). Most Catholics have seen the pictures and images of Jesus, seemingly with his heart on the outside of his shirt, but few know the meaning or the purpose of this special feast day, which was ordained in a vision by Christ himself.
Perhaps the deepest meaning comes from the Entrance Antiphon that opens the celebration of the Eucharistic Liturgy this day, which reminds the faithful that the design of God’s Heart lives from age to age to keep souls from death and preserve their lives during famine. (Psalm 33:11,19) In part, the psalms themselves are guides to presenting one’s self to the loving, compassionate Heart of the Lord.
The Book of Psalms is a hymnal for the tradition of Ancient Judaism. It encourages those who come before the Father to do so with open heart, as he does in return. They tell the petitioner to ‘sing a new song,’ to present a new heart, a new spirit to our God. In the expression of great faith, did Jesus actually show his physical heart to mystics and visionaries, or is this a sign of something more? Is Jesus revealing the purity of his own heart in the light of humankind, whose heart continually knows only evil? (Genesis 6:5)
The theme of Lent asks God to create a clean heart in his servant, and renew a right spirit within him. (Psalm 51:10) Jesus instructs his followers on finding the kingdom of God: where your treasure is, your heart will be also (Matthew 6:21) and “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Matthew 5:8) The significance of the human heart is thoroughly instilled in the lessons of the Bible, and the connection it has with the presence of God is established.
Although she was not the first person in history to report a vision of Jesus’ actual heart, Julian of Norwich detailed her experience in Revelations of Divine Love (aka Revelation of Love or Revelations) sometime before AD1400. According to the mystic’s writing, she was made witness to the passion of our Lord.
In the very first of her sixteen revelations, she saw the first signs of blood on Christ. In his presence, Julian received the heartfelt joy of the Blessed Trinity’s presence, and she knew that this was what all eternity would be like for those who find God’s kingdom. She clearly understood Jesus’ heart as a sign of his never-ending love for humankind. That connection has been a part of the Church as early as the writings of Paul, John, and the apostles, but it was not until the middle ages that it became a prominent form of devotion to the loving, Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Margaret Mary Alacoque was born in Burgundy, France in 1647. When she was eight years old, her father passed away and she was enrolled in a convent school. Over the next seven years she suffered several ailments, the most prominent of which was rheumatic fever. The young woman separated herself from worldly things and was devoted to the celebration of the Blessed Sacrament. By the time she was twenty, Margaret Mary was a sister of the Visitation community and already experiencing visions of the Lord. Beginning two days after Christmas in 1673, she beheld several sightings over eighteen months, in which Jesus instructed her on the meaning of his Sacred Heart, which he revealed to her. He taught her a novena, assuring her of twelve promises to those who honor the devotion, including peace and well-being for the penitent and the whole faith community.
No one believed her. Julian’s Superior in the Visitation Sisters refused to recognize the strange apparitions; noted scholars and theologians rebuked her. It would take ten years before the Church would accept her testimony.
During that time, a priest named Claud de la Colombière came to the convent and remained as a pastoral leader and confessor for eighteen months. During that time, he came to know Margaret Mary and listened intently to the description of her visions. When he left the Visitation Sisters, Claud declared the apparitions genuine. On assignment to London after that, he succeeded in converting several Protestants to the Devotion of the Sacred Heart. In fact, his zeal for spreading this prayer, which he believed would revitalize the Church, caused the future saint to be condemned to death, which was later rescinded.
Margaret Mary’s next ally was Saint John Eudes, a Jesuit priest who already was a dedicated Marianist advocating Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Mary (eventually known as the Immaculate Heart). John was well known for aiding plague victims and women in distress. Because of that ministry, he became associated with the Visitation Convent and Margaret Mary. He had written a liturgical devotion to the Sacred Hearts and Jesus and of Mary, and became the greatest promoter of the new devotion.
Even though the devotion had become widespread and was recognized in every corner of the Church, it was not until 1856 that Pope Pius IX passed on the feast day to the entire Church. It was set to be celebrated, just as Jesus had asked Margaret Mary: Friday of the Octave of Corpus Christi, nineteen days after Pentecost. Further, it was not established to recall a bleeding, suffering muscle in the chest of Christ the Lord, but rather regarded as a symbol of his agape, his undying love, compassion, care and nurturing. It is through God that we make the connection between the heart and our emotional selves, recognizing the love of God is within us.
I’ve had a few wallets over the years and always toss a few things out when I switch to a new one. There is an item that peeks over the edge of one of those little pockets, and I’ve never parted with it even though it’s older than dust. It’s a small oval that shows Jesus and his Sacred Heart on side A, and an artist’s rendition of the Heart on the opposite side. The pocket icon was put out by the Apostleship of Prayer, who remain as promoters of the Devotion to the Sacred Heart today along with the Priests of the Sacred Heart, and other organizations.
The Sacred Heart of Jesus recognizes the loving connection between humans and their Creator; it recognizes the loving connection between humans and each other. Like the little wallet symbol says, “Sacred Heart of Jesus, thy kingdom come,” and every time I saw it there in my pocket, I knew that it surely would.