There are few religious images that hold more significance for me than that of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. My grandmother, a pillar of faith in our Mexican-American family, kept a framed copy of the image in her bedroom, adorned with numerous prayer cards, mementos, and old palm branches. For a young child walking by the door, that image seemed both mysterious and comforting. What was it actually depicting and why should it be a focus of such devotion? Who was this Jesus who stared out at me, gesturing to the flaming heart in his chest, poised as if to offer it out through the frame of the picture?
Only years later would the full meaning of the image become apparent, as I learned more about the history of Christianity and the fundamental meaning of the Incarnation. Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which developed particularly in 17th century France from earlier medieval devotions to Christ, is about much more than the image itself. Given particular shape by the writings and experiences of figures such as St. John Eudes and St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, the devotion is a way of contemplating more deeply the mystery of God’s love for humanity expressed in the true human existence of the Son of God as the Incarnate Word. Ultimately, the image and devotion remind us that the God we confess as Christians is not a powerful yet distant God. Rather, the God who so loved the world (Jn 3:16) loved us in such a way that he truly entered into human life, becoming a human being not merely in appearance but complete with body and soul, mind and heart.
In a certain way, the devotion trains our minds to resist passing over the Incarnation as simply a well-worn article of doctrine, affirmed as a matter of course but rarely considered more closely for its radical implications. Christianity is not ultimately a belief in formulas but rather an encounter with God in faith expressed, preserved, and remembered authentically through such fundamental doctrines as the Incarnation (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church §170). As Pope Benedict XVI wrote so beautifully in his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, “being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (Deus Caritas Est, §1).
The devotion to the Sacred Heart, and the strikingly concrete image of a human heart, presents this encounter in high relief. Jesus Christ is much more than a moral teacher or religious sage. He is much more than a simple mode of communication between God and human beings, or a courier of divine knowledge and commandments. He is, instead, the Good Shepherd who has come to us, whose heart is moved with pity. He is the Bridegroom who has loved us with a human heart and given himself completely for us. He is the God who is Love (1 Jn 4:8), who unites to himself a human heart in the Incarnation and transfigures it with the fire of divine love as the heart of the Incarnate God.
This good (and truly astounding) news is depicted in the gaze and kindled heart, the crown of thorns and the cross, of the image of Jesus that hung in my grandmother’s bedroom. The image and devotion, so widespread now as to feel fundamentally traditional, invites all Christians to return in awe to an encounter with this God who has loved us and humbled himself so much for our sake, “becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8). On this Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, may we turn to Jesus, who is turned to us and always has his eyes fixed lovingly upon us (cf. St. John Eudes, Letter 9), so that we may “know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge… [and] be filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:19).
Deus Caritas est: God is Love. How many times have we heard this simple yet profound theological truth in a homily, story, or teaching? How many times have we taken this for granted? In a world where truth often seems subjective, God’s love remains a refreshing and comforting constant in the Christian life. If this were not so, for what purpose, let alone by what means, would you or I exist? It is this perfect love of God which sustains us each and every moment of eternity. In fact, it’s God’s very nature, so bursting with love, that wills us into being. So too must our love for our neighbors guide and give purpose to our lives.
The liturgical season of Lent is an especially wonderful opportunity for us to reorient ourselves towards God’s love and mercy. As we prepare to celebrate the ultimate expression of love the world has ever known this liturgical season, we may give up something we fleetingly desire in order to be made more aware of our need to depend on the One Love, the True Love, the Infinite Love. Of course, we can do more throughout Lent, but take to heart the suggestion of my bishop:
[T]his Lent, fast and abstain when the Church requires it; give something up to make room for God and his mercy to fill you. Pray more and pray deeply and whenever you can because God listens to you: prayer puts you in touch with God and his mercy. Do something good for someone else every day; resolve to care about someone else every day, because God does, Jesus does and wants you to be like him, loving and full of mercy. Don’t make this Lent a complicated regimen of resolutions and promises that will unravel a week from now. Make it simple. Make it real. [emphasis added]
Lent is not a time of self-pity or bemoaning our spiritual shortcomings. To fail to acknowledge God’s willingness to have mercy and forgive the sinner of his or her faults places sin as the end without further hope of relief, restricts one’s view of God as having limits on his love, and risks committing a sin against the Holy Spirit (i.e. believing that the magnitude of a sin is greater than God’s power— and continuous willingness— to forgive [cf CCC 1864]). While Lent brings to mind the classic images of sackcloth and ashes, the Lord desires something much more personal than just the recognition of our sins—“sincere, heartfelt repentance, change of heart, conversion” is what each of us is called to offer the Lord with the same Love He offered to those He encountered in His earthly ministry and ultimately from the Cross.
“I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” our Lord, echoing the words of the prophet Hosea, declares to the Pharisees during the calling of Matthew (cf. Hosea 6:6) For us today, these words still ring true. Lent is not an easy time, but it invites us to shake us out of our spiritual complacency if we are to answer the Lord’s call to conversion. This may be uncomfortable. Receiving the ashes on our foreheads tomorrow, however, signifies our commitment to God that we will endeavor each day—and not just until Easter Sunday—to change our lives to be (once again) oriented towards God in avoidance of the sin and distractions which lead us away from His love. While we seek forgiveness from God, we are also to freely forgive others, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Even if we fall along the way, the important thing is to pick ourselves up and start again— the Lord is patient!
In closing, let us reflect on a final word from the Venerable Fulton Sheen:
God loves you despite your unworthiness. It is His love which will make you better, rather than your betterment which will make Him love you. … Say to yourself over and over again, regardless of what happens: “God loves me!” And then add: “And I will try to love Him!” (Fulton Sheen, Remade for Happiness: Achieving Life’s Purpose through Spiritual Transformation (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2014), 187, 25.)
In Pope Francis’ recent exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, he concludes with a prayer to the Holy Family. The first part of the prayer reads, “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, in you we contemplate the splendor of true love; to you we turn with trust.” In just those few words, we are reminded of the importance of the Holy Family; they are the perfect reflection of true love. They exemplify to us what it means to love God and one another.
Of course, it might be wise to first ask ourselves, “What is true love?” The dictionary defines it as a “strong affection for another” (Merriam-Webster). The author Victor Hugo once equated love to joy when he said, “The greatest happiness of life is the conviction that we are loved” (Les Miserables). For our purposes, let us take the definition straight out of the Gospels, that “no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:18). True love, then, is self-sacrificial. Having true love does not mean that we live to seek the best for ourselves. Rather, it means that we actively seek the best for others.
Using this understanding of true love, it becomes clearer how each member of the Holy Family exemplifies those qualities. St. Joseph is commonly known as the silent man of the Gospels in that he is never quoted. Yet, we see episodes that testify to his goodness. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that when Mary became pregnant, Joseph wanted to divorce her quietly to spare her from any shame. Nevertheless, he ended up taking Mary into his home at the urging of the angel (Matthew 1:18-24).
During this period of time, Mary as a pregnant and unwed mother was extremely scandalous. Joseph would have had every right to publicly humiliate her and cast her aside; in fact, accepting her in her state would have brought notoriety to himself. Yet, he took her into his home. He was willing to sacrifice his own reputation to show his devotion to Mary and to her son, an act of true love.
Mary, similarly, shows sacrificial love at the message of an angel. Luke’s Gospel tells us that the angel of the Lord appeared to her and announced that she would bear the “Son of the Most High” (Luke 1: 32). Mary was a teenager, just betrothed to Joseph. Before the arrival of the angel, she was assured a quiet life, a peaceful life. Accepting this message would change everything; Mary’s life ahead would be a vast unknown. Nevertheless, she simply replied, “I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1: 38). Mary showed true love by sacrificing herself in order for the Son of God to enter the world.
And, of course, it does not take much effort to think of a moment when Jesus displayed true love. In dying on the cross, he destroyed death itself; as the tomb was closed, he opened the gates of Heaven. His willful sacrifice is the ultimate example of “laying down one’s life.” Thus, each member of the Holy Family demonstrates to us, what it means to truly love. In Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict reminds us that “Love is the light – and in the end, the only light – that can always illuminate a world grown dim” (Deus Caritas Est, 39). As we move forward into the New Year, let us use the example of the Holy Family as our inspiration and bring a bit of light to our world. By being willing to sacrifice some of ourselves each day for the sake of others, we too can become models of true love.
Victor David is a collaborator with the Catholic Apostolate Center and a staff member at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC.