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).
Whenever you think of Christianity, it is next to impossible to overlook the role and importance of love in the story of salvation. God’s love for us is one that is infinitely more enduring than any infatuation or passing attraction. It is one that gives and purifies, sacrifices and yields for the good of another -- again and again and again. God’s love is one that extends through, before, and beyond eternity and is ultimately expressed from Calvary to each and every person, fully, freely, and forever.
The Church has dedicated the month of June to a reminder of the depth of God’s love: the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In His Most Sacred Heart, we see how absolutely consumed with love God is for us — so much so that He was willing to bear those heinous wounds, false accusations and derisions, and even His death in order to grant salvation for all. Artistic depictions of the Sacred Heart remind us of the torment Christ endured on our behalf: the heart is wrapped in a crown of thorns, pierced, bleeding, and aflame with a cross rising from the tongues of fire. The visible wounds of Christ’s heart reveal His invisible love. Thus, devotion to the Sacred Heart is described as “devotion to the love of Jesus Christ in so far as this love is recalled and symbolically represented to us by His Heart of Flesh.” As creatures that have both soul and body, bodily representations of Christ’s love sometimes touch us in ways that words do not. The Sacred Heart teaches us that authentic love incurs great costs, but it also always gives life.
Historically, devotion to the Sacred Heart is believed to have grown from another devotion to Jesus’ body: the Sacred Wounds of Christ from His Passion. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux said that the piercing of Christ’s side revealed His goodness and the charity of His heart for us: “How good and pleasant it is to dwell in the Heart of Jesus! Who is there who does not love a Heart so wounded? Who can refuse a return of love to a Heart so loving?” Other religious and saints, such as Francis of Assisi, have themselves exemplified closeness to the love poured out by Christ’s Five Wounds and Sacred Heart.
The devotion as it is most commonly known today is said to have begun with the 1673 appearance of our Lord to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, a French nun of the Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary. Over a series of visits, Our Lord revealed to St. Margaret Mary the importance of devotion to His Sacred Heart:
"Behold the Heart which has so loved men that it has spared nothing, even to exhausting and consuming Itself, in order to testify Its love … But what I feel most keenly is that it is hearts which are consecrated to Me, that treat Me thus. Therefore, I ask of you that the Friday after the Octave of Corpus Christi be set apart for a special Feast to honor My Heart, by communicating on that day, and making reparation to It by a solemn act, in order to make amends for the indignities which It has received during the time It has been exposed on the altars. I promise you that My Heart shall expand Itself to shed in abundance the influence of Its Divine Love upon those who shall thus honor It, and cause It to be honored."
In 1856, the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart was officially added to the liturgical calendar — the day before the Memorial of the Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The faithful have several options for honoring the Sacred Heart as requested by our Lord:
The Love that Christ continually showers on us should totally consume us. Christ’s death is an infinitely huge debt that we can never repay—but in His infinitely huge capacity to love and be merciful, all our Lord asks in return is our love. As we are invited to share in His Divine Love, we are called to let that love change us to become better disciples and better witnesses. Most of all, let us strive to become authors of great love stories, never ceasing to wonder at the incredible truth that the God of the Universe loves us!
The Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart is also the World Day of Prayer for the Sanctification of Priests. Please pray for the priests in your parish and any other priests who have touched your life!