The Sacred Heart of Jesus


Sacred Heart of Jesus (Solemnity) Readings: Hosea 11:1,3-4,8-9; Ephesians 3:8-12,14-19; John 19:31-37

IN TODAY’S FEAST we celebrate in a special way the love of God for us, especially as expressed through the life, sufferings and death of Jesus.
In earlier times, especially in the Middle Ages, devotion was rather to the wound in the side of Christ and that event appears in today’s Gospel passage from John. In later times, especially arising from the visions of St Margaret Mary, the emphasis shifted more to the Heart of Jesus, as a symbol of the love of Jesus and hence of God for us. St Margaret Mary belonged to the Visitation convent at Paray-le-Monial in France, where she died in 1680.
John’s gospel features a number of ‘signs’, which express the meaning and significance of Jesus’ life as God speaking to us through him in a special way. Among these signs would be the changing of water into wine at the marriage feast of Cana or the feeding of the 5,000 people by Jesus on the mountain. Others include the healing of a cripple beside a pool, the restoration of sight to a blind man and the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Each one has a spiritual meaning beyond the physical curing that took place.
In today’s Gospel we read of the piercing of the side of Jesus as another ‘sign’, and one not mentioned in any of the other three gospels.
Blood and water
This sign occurs after the execution of Jesus by his being crucified, nailed to a cross – a common Roman punishment for criminals. Normally, crucified people could survive for several days on the cross and, in fact, it was custom of the Romans to leave the bodies for an indefinite period, as a deterrent to other possible criminals. However, with the approach of the Sabbath, the Jews would not allow the bodies of the executed to be left beyond sunset. Hence, the two other criminals executed with Jesus had their legs broken to hasten their death. But, when they came to Jesus, they found that he was already dead. He had already suffered so much from the scourging and the crowning with thorns. However, to make sure, one of the Roman soldiers pierced the side of Jesus – and his heart.
John then reports that blood and water flowed out from the opening in the side of Jesus. Medically speaking, this was not a strange phenomenon, but for John it has special significance. It is another special ‘sign’ pointing to the meaning of the work and mission of Jesus. Already in his gospel, water and blood have been established as signs of salvation.
In his interview with Nicodemus, Jesus had said: “No one can enter the Kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.” (John 3:5). An obvious reference to Baptism. Then in his discourse on the Bread of Life, Jesus had said: “If you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you will not have life in yourselves. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life… Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I in him” (John 6:53-54,56).
In describing the water and blood flowing from the side of Jesus, it is likely that John expects his readers to link the ‘sign’ with Baptism and the Eucharist, the two main sacramental celebrations of the early Church. And this is the common interpretation of the Fathers of the Church.
Jesus’ moment of glory
For John, the Cross is Jesus’ moment of glory – encompassing his death, his rising to new life and reunion with his Father and the breathing out of his Spirit on his followers. So, just before the Last Supper, Jesus tells his disciples: “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.” The ‘lifting up’ includes not just his being lifted up on the cross but on his being raised to glory by his Father.
Hence, it is understood that the Church can be said to have been born from the wounded side of Christ. Such importance is given to this ‘sign’ that John strongly emphasises the reliability of his witness. “He knows he speaks the truth – and he gives it so that you may believe as well.”
John concludes the passage with two other ‘signs’. He sees the manner of Jesus’ death – different from that of those crucified with him – as the fulfilment of a text of Scripture: “Not one bone of it will be broken.” This refers to the preparation of the lamb for the Paschal celebration of the Jews where instructions were given that, in preparing the lamb for the meal, no bones were to be broken. Jesus, of course, is now the new Paschal Lamb, whose blood poured out in love will bring salvation to peoples everywhere.
Then John quotes a text from the prophet Zechariah which he sees as pointing to the death of Jesus. The original text reads: “I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and petition and they shall look on him whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only son, and they shall grieve over him as over a first-born” (Zech 12:10). And a few verses on, Zechariah continues: “On that day there shall be open to the house of David and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, a fountain to purify from sin and uncleanness.” These texts point to the followers of Jesus who faithfully stood by his cross and the ‘fountain’ can refer to the cleansing water pouring from the side of Jesus – dead but also risen in glory.
The whole Gospel passage speaks of the love of God poured forth through the sacrificial death of his Son. And that is also what we are celebrating today in remembering the pierced Heart of Jesus, for us now a unique symbol of Love.
God our Loving Parent
The First Reading from the prophet Hosea, where Yahweh speaks as a loving parent of a dear child. A child he “called out of Egypt”, reminding Israel of the great act of liberation when they were released from slavery and began their journey to the Promised Land. “I led them with reins of kindness, with leading-strings of love.” Yahweh is like a loving parent who lifts the child tenderly to his cheek. Another beautiful image of our loving God.
The Second Reading from the Letter to the Ephesians has Paul make a beautiful prayer. He prays that those he is addressing may, like the rest of the church, deepen their understanding of God’s plan of salvation in Christ. He prays that Christ may live in their hearts – the same love that emanates from the Heart of Christ – through faith. Then, in a lovely phrase, “planted in love and built on love” they will be able, with their fellow Christians everywhere, to grasp the immensity of God’s love which penetrates to every corner of our universe.
Finally, having come to an intimate and experienced knowledge of the love of Christ, they may be “filled with the utter fullness of God”.
So today we celebrate the extraordinary love of God for us, manifested in such an extraordinary way by the sufferings, death and rising of Jesus Christ. Let us reflect today on the many ways in which that love has been manifested in our lives and continues to be manifested.
But let us not stop there. If we are fully to receive that Love and if it is to be truly effective in our lives, then it must be passed on to every person we meet. “By this will all know that you are my followers, that you show love for one another.” And this love is to have no limits, no exceptions. It is to be extended even to those who are hostile to us. Our love must be a love of forgiveness, reconciliation, healing and compassion.
 

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