My living room, as do many other Catholic homes, bears the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on the front facing wall. This means that anyone who sits there inevitably looks at this image. Most of the times, people feel drawn to contemplate what meaning is given in that image. Such was the case when my good friend Anne came to visit. I noticed that she kept on taking glances at this image, but was not saying what was on her mind. So, I offered to give an answer to an unasked question,
“This is the Image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.”
Needless to say, this opened up a discussion about devotion to the Sacred Heart. As we talked about Jesus being the visible image of the invisible God (cf. Colossians 1:15) and how all of Jesus’ deeds were a reflection of God’s love for us, I could see why the Church dedicates the month of June for devotion to the Sacred Heart. This is an opportunity to sit next to the Lord Jesus, and rest in His Heart (cf. Matthew 11:28). Later on, I sat gazing at the image of the Sacred Heart and was contemplating how it is a reflection of the Love and Mercy of Jesus Christ. I thought it would be a good thing to perhaps remind other Christians about the love received in taking up this devotion and even talking about it.
The Sacred Heart of Jesus, a symbol of God’s Love and Mercy
The Sacred Heart of Jesus is the manifestation of the human and divine love in Jesus Christ (cf. 1 John 4:9), who we acknowledge as true God and true Man (CCC. 464); and who we know to be our Redeemer (cf. Matthew 1:21 & Romans 3:23-24) and our King (cf. John 12:15 & 1 Timothy 6:15). The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 478) teaches us that Jesus knew and loved us each and all during his life, his agony and his Passion, and gave himself up for each one of us (cf. Galatians 2:20). As Pope Pius XII’s beautiful encyclical “Haurietis Aquas” (1956) enlightens us that Jesus loved us all with a human heart. And this Sacred Heart, which was pierced by our sins and for our salvation, is therefore quite rightly considered the chief sign and symbol of the love with which the divine Redeemer continually loves the eternal Father and all human beings’ without exception (cf. Pius XII, encyclical, Haurietis aquas (1956): DS 3924; cf. DS 3812).
In the Sacred Heart, we find the revelation of the depths of God’s love for us (cf. John 3:16) in the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us. This single, simple expression of the sensible fleshly (human) love of Jesus constitutes a human love that was infused with a divine love in His soul and His will. This is a divine love which the Lord Jesus shares with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit (cf. CCC. 240 & Matthew 11:27).
The Heart of Jesus shows us His inner life which was always radiated Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Jesus knew and loved us each and all during his life, his agony and his Passion, and gave himself up for each one of us. St. Peter describes the hidden person of the heart as not coming from outward adornment, but rather of the core of the person. The Heart of Jesus reveals the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight (cf. 1 Peter 3:3-4). The Heart of Jesus was His heart of flesh, but also His mercy and love. It is noteworthy that God’s love manifesting as such surpasses the human understanding. Why? Because the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God make His judgments to be so unsearchable and His ways to be so unfathomable (cf. Romans 11:33). We cannot of our own means understand how much God’s desire for our redemption caused Him to become man and face the agonizing death of the Cross.
The Symbolism of the Sacred Heart of Jesus
Reflecting on the symbolism of the Image of the Sacred Heart reveals to the human understanding, the extent of God’s love manifested in Jesus. Beginning with the heart itself, we find it is located in the center of His chest, displayed as if on the surface. This is the center of being; for from it flow the springs of life (cf. Proverbs 4:23). We know the heart as being both physical and spiritual, and from which flows the good and the evil (cf. Matthew 15:18). It is also the symbolic center of feeling and emotion. The Heart gives representation to Jesus’ deep love and affection for us – His compassion (cf. Luke 7:13 & Isaiah 40:11), understanding (cf. Matthew 20:34), love and charity (cf. Matthew 14:14). The Heart of Jesus represents the temple of God, His Divine Centre and dwelling place. It is the spiritual center of a human being (cf. 2 Corinthians 1:22). The image frequently depicts the heart as red, pointing to the color of blood, which Jesus poured out for us (cf. John 19:34). However, the color red also signifies fervent love. Jesus expressed this fervent love with which He so much loved us, that He laid down his life for us (cf. John 15:13).
The image portrays a crown of thorns encircling the heart horizontally. This represents all that Jesus suffered on our account – His Passion and His Martyrdom. The Crown helps us to recall that during the Passion, the execution squad wove a crown of thorns and placed it on the head of Jesus (cf. Matthew 27:29, Mark 15:17 & John 19:2 & 5). The thorns represent the stings that were caused by our sins (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:56); the consequences of the Judgement. The crowning is Jesus bearing the curse for man and dealing with sin and death that intruded at the time of the fall. All of which shows us that God’s love is a selfless (cf. 1 John 3:16), suffering (cf. Galatians 6:14), sacrificial love (cf. John 13:3-5).
The gashing wound recalls when the soldier thrust his lance into Jesus’ side (cf. John 19:34). The suffering Servant of Isaiah 53:5 comes to us as the pierced and bleeding Heart. The manner of Jesus’ death so reveals His goodness and charity which are ours by his wounds and ultimate sacrifice which heals us. We see how the lance not only cut through Jesus’ rib cage but also cut through his heart, proving that Jesus really was dead (cf. John 19:33) and had given his life for us (cf. Philippians 2:8). The pierced heart of the Crucified Lord is God’s own heart opened up. Because of this gaping wound, Heaven is no longer locked up. In the Sacred Heart, God has come out of his hidden nature (cf. 1 John 4:16), and the ancient Messianic prophecy is fulfilled as we look on Him whom they thrust through (cf. Zechariah 12:10 & John 19:37).
The droplets of blood take us back to the Last Supper when Jesus offered the cup of wine (cf. Matthew 26:28). Jesus referred to this Blood as a true drink, which whoever drinks remains in Him and He in him, and has eternal life (cf. John 6:54-56). God’s love is life-giving love (cf. John 1:3-5). These droplets represent the new and everlasting Covenant of God’s love for you and I (cf. Mark 14:24 & Hebrews 13:20).
The flames symbolize spiritual power and forces. We know that fire and flame both represent truth and knowledge as they are consumers of lies, ignorance, illusion, and death. The flames bespeak the intensity of the warmth of Jesus’ undying (everlasting) love (cf. Jeremiah 31:3). The presence of the Cross in the image most decisively demonstrates the love of his Sacred Heart. It symbolizes salvation through Christ’s sacrifice, coming to us as redeeming or ransoming love (cf. 1 John 4:10), atoning love, suffering love and faithful love (cf. Lamentations 3:22-23). The Rays of Light, the array of glistening gold, white, or red beams of light radiating from Jesus’ heart remind us that Jesus is the Light (cf. John 8:12 & John 12:46), and the love of his heart enlightens the world (cf. John 1:9 & John 13:34). Light is a symbol of life, truth, illumination and a source of goodness.
Characteristics of the Love of the Sacred Heart of Jesus
The love of the Sacred Heart is a human love, coming from the heart of one who is really and truly man. Therefore, its love is that of a heart that beats with pulsations like ours. It has all that belongs to human love but which has been raised to an almost impossible intensity by reason of the divinity to which it is joined. It is a sensible love; for the heart is the organ of love. It is capable of feeling affection and is physically influenced by it. The Heart of Jesus has strong emotions – one moment rejoicing, the next moment sorrowing as He is touched with the feelings of our poor infirmities. While He walked the earth, there was human joy and sorrow thrilling through this Sacred Heart. Now that He is seated in Heaven, His Heart rejoices over His children, and still mystically sorrows for our sins. His is a love of sympathy. He always has for us unlimited sympathy! The Sacred Heart has itself experienced all that we suffer. Having achieved union with Him in the Holy Eucharist means that each human misery has its echo in the Sacred Heart. The Lord Jesus not only understands all our troubles; He has felt each trouble in His own person.
Return love for Love
In general, devotion is any action in which we freely show ourselves willing to serve God. All true devotion is to be offered out of love. It is through devotion that we offer our talents, our thoughts, our actions, and our sufferings to Him. Although God does not need them, still we offer all these things for His service and the service of His Church. With devotion to the Sacred Heart, we show the honor and the service that we wish to render for the love of God. This is the love that we return for the love that we freely receive from God. When we grow in love for the Sacred Heart, we grow in love for Love (cf. Revelation 3:19 & Deuteronomy 7:13).
This is love of God the Creator, who brought into existence the world and the human race out of sheer love and goodness. It is a love of God, for having chosen to live among men and be their God. It is the love of God the Son, who took on our humanity so that He might freely suffer and die for our redemption. It is the love of Christ the Teacher, who calls us to imitate Him and follow this command to love one another as He has loved us. It is the love of God the Holy Spirit, who makes Christ known to us and through whom the love of God is poured into our hearts. It is our firm response to the action of God in our lives. It is more than the simple honor of the kind that we show to fellow men. It is the loving worship of the Divine Love by which we were loved first.
Through devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, we love God in return. Through it, Mother Church reminds us that love is not soft, occasional, or sentimental; Love is strong, enduring and sacrificial. This is the basis for true friendship, both human and divine. We must honor, venerate and love the Sacred Heart of Jesus; for without doing so, we can only find an imperfect understanding of God’s love and mercy.