The Most Sacred Heart of Jesus (Year B)

Commentary on 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 wine into water 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 and 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 a 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:

Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. (John 3:5)

This is an obvious reference to Baptism. Then in his discourse on the Bread of Life, Jesus had said:

Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day…Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them. (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:

And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself. (John 12:32)

The ‘lifting up’ includes not just his being lifted up on the cross, but also 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 in today’s Gospel, John strongly emphasises the reliability of his witness:

He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth, so that you also may continue to believe.

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:

None of his bones shall 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:

And I will pour out a spirit of compassion and supplication on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem so that, when they look on the one whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him as one mourns for an only child and weep bitterly over him as one weeps over a firstborn. (Zech 12:10)

And a few verses on, Zechariah continues:

On that day a fountain shall be opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity. (Zech 13:1)

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 is 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 cords of human kindness,
with bands 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’s love may live in their hearts – the same love that emanates from the Heart of Christ – through faith. Then, using a lovely phrase, Paul writes that they and their fellow Christians everywhere will be:

…rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the 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 and continues to be manifested in our lives.

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 everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 12:35)

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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