A Heart Apart, Looked on and Loved
I keep many sacred images in my apartment. Like the pictures I have of family members and friends, my holy artwork reproductions keep people who are special to me close to my heart — no matter how far apart we may be, physically speaking, due to miles or years or even death.
There is a portrait of the Holy Family right here, a print of Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal Son” over there. But my favorite is an image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. I venerate it with special intensity each year on the Friday following the second Sunday after Pentecost. That’s the feast of the Sacred Heart. This year it falls on June 15. It’s a good day to ask: Why do we pause to adore Jesus’ heart apart from the rest of his body?
“Only the heart of Christ who knows the depths of his Father’s love could reveal to us the abyss of his mercy,” the Catechism teaches us in No. 1439. It also notes that the Church venerates and honors the Lord’s heart, which, “out of love for men, he allowed to be pierced by our sins” (No. 2669).
In a way, devotion to the Sacred Heart began at the foot of the cross. One of the soldiers stabbed Our Lord through the heart with a spear to make sure the executioners’ job was finished. In his Gospel account, John the Evangelist testifies that not only blood flowed from the puncture but also water. Why water? There are multiple layers of meaning to consider — too many to fully explore here. But two come instantly to any Christian’s mind.
For one thing, we must be baptized with water in order to be saved. For another, earlier in his ministry Jesus had said: “If any one thirsts, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:37-38).
The devotion got a big boost in 1675, when Jesus appeared to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque. He promised 12 spiritual benefits to all who devoted themselves to his Sacred Heart. (The promises are posted online at enthronement-sh.org.)
And just last year Pope Benedict XVI said that gazing upon Jesus’ pierced heart — the customary image shows his heart ringed with the crown of thorns — “helps us become more attentive to the suffering and needs of others” and “reinforces our desire to participate in Jesus’ work of salvation by becoming his instruments.”
There are many devotional customs associated with the Sacred Heart. One is the Litany of the Sacred Heart, in which we address Jesus with a series of 33 poetic titles, one for each year of his life. To each we respond: “Have mercy on us.” The Church grants a partial indulgence to those who pray this prayer. (It’s online at ewtn.com/devotionals.)
Another Sacred Heart observance is to go to confession and attend Mass for First Friday in nine consecutive months. I always try to do it and, despite my confinement to a wheelchair due to spastic cerebral palsy, I’ve sometimes managed to pull it off.
As a sinner who depends on God’s mercy, I need all the help I can get on my pilgrim journey toward heaven. Looking with love at my image of the Sacred Heart, exposed and wounded for love of us all, does wonders for my own heart.
It gives me strength to continue on, one heartbeat at a time, toward the place Christ has prepared for me — close to him and my loved ones who have gone before me.
I pray that it works the same wonders in your heart.
Bill Zalot writes from