We are not angels. We are flesh and blood rational creatures. We always think and imagine and communicate, in this incarnate world, through material signs which point beyond themselves. We require visible signs and symbols that speak to us in our humanity.
That is what the image of the Sacred Heart does. It is a visual sign, an image, that helps us to experience the meaning of the love of Jesus, made manifest especially on Good Friday. It is drawn from Scripture (which itself is the Word of God made flesh in human language), and from our human experience. We must not live abstractly, from the neck up: we need visual symbolism.
The ultimate encounter with divinity in humanity is found in the incarnation of Jesus Christ: “the word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14) We continue to encounter Jesus now, in our lives as his disciples, through the sign of language in the Scriptures, and through the signs of matter and words in the Sacraments, which effect what they signify. Those are all acts of God. But the encounter with Jesus in our human life is also experienced in other ways, and especially through the prayerful practices of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which engage us personally in the love of Christ among us.
Even in our secular society, the heart is the common sign for love, as we see every Valentine’s day. But for a Christian the love signified by the Sacred Heart is not a passing emotion, but the steady, reliable, faithful, life-giving love which we experience in Jesus as we encounter him in the Gospels, in the Sacraments, and in our life of faith. We are called to imitate that faithful love.
The heart is a natural sign of true love: it is hidden, it is steady, and it is reliable. As it beats, moment by moment, day by day, year by year, it keeps us alive. That is true love, not the sentiment that deceives, nor the passing infatuation that blows away like a cloud. That is the Sacred Heart of Jesus, steady and true, and that is what we must take to heart. Our life of Christian discipleship must be guided by the profound vision of love represented by the Sacred Heart.
The Sacred Heart image shows the heart as wounded, and this reminds us of a scriptural foundation of the devotion, the reference in John 19:34 to the lance piercing the side of Christ on the cross. From this verse there developed Christian meditation upon the wounds of Christ, especially the wound to the heart, from which, the Gospel states, flowed blood and water.
Doubting Thomas (John 20:24-29) said that he would not believe unless he put his hands into the wounds of Christ. And in the Apocalypse, we see the image of the Risen Lord as the Lamb before the throne of God in glory, and yet slain (Apocalypse 5:6). All of this reminds us that the love of Jesus for us was not some theoretical love. He actually suffered with us and for us, in the midst of brutality and injustice greater than anything you or I will ever experience. That love is not superficial, but involves the readiness to enter into suffering, to take up our cross and follow Jesus. Such is the love of Christ symbolized by the Sacred Heart. Such is the love expected of a disciple of Christ.
The Sacred Heart is portrayed as encircled by a crown of thorns. As with the wound in the heart, the crown of thorns reminds us that real love, faithful love, totally committed love for others, can lead to rejection and suffering. If we only act in order to attract applause, and shift our principles to guarantee that approval, we will never truly live or love at all, and we will lose our very self. Real love is inseparable from integrity, and may well include a crown of thorns, which reminds us of the cost of discipleship.
It also reminds us that whenever people are mocked, marginalized, bullied or rejected in any way, the disciple of Jesus must be with them to care for them with the compassion of Christ. Christians in fact have been doing that, for two thousand years, and do so to this day, around the world and, unrecognized, in our own community.
The Sacred Heart is surmounted by a cross, the primary symbol of Christian faith: it draws us to contemplate sacrificial love of Jesus, as he lays down his life for us on the cross. In a world that would crucify an innocent man, Jesus returns love for hatred and says: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) The love represented by the Sacred Heart is that sacrificial love which is centered not on self, but on others. We must go and do likewise.
As Saint Paul says, we must have among ourselves the mind of Jesus who “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8) Jesus calls on his disciples to show that same generous and sacrificial love, as we take up our cross and follow him each day.
The Sacred Heart is surrounded by flames. These are flames of glory, for love of the quality represented by the love of Jesus is truly glorious. They are flames that provide light in a world darkened by sin, and warmth in a world that too often is cold, that treats people as things to be used, not as persons to be loved. They are flames of zeal, sign of the fire that came down upon the disciples at Pentecost, as they were sent out to set the world on fire for Christ, as are we all.
Sometimes, Jesus points to the Sacred Heart, inviting us to come to him when we labour and are heavy laden; sometimes the arms of Jesus reach outward, welcoming everyone, as he calls us to do. The Sacred Heart is a powerful symbol of the love of Jesus, which each of us was commissioned to make present in this world on the day we were baptised. More than ever before, our fractious world now needs the love symbolized by the Sacred Heart of Jesus.