June: The month of the Sacred Heart

A sermon by a Dominican friar

You shall draw water with joy out of the Saviour’s fountains (Isaiah 12:3)

We may sometimes be tempted to wish that we were living at a different period in the history of the Church. Would it not have been fine, we may think, to have lived in the early centuries of Christianity, when the lives of the apostles and the miracles which converted the pagans were still vivid in the memories of the faithful? Or, would it not have been fine to have lived in the Middle Ages, when Christendom was strong and great cathedrals were being erected in every city? Yes, it would have been good to have lived in such times; yet, God in His goodness gives to every age certain blessings which other ages lack, and we who are the children of the Church in these later days enjoy therefore some advantages which our ancestors in more ancient times did not possess.

Of these advantages which we possess, certainly one of the greatest is the revelation, for our devotion and for the sacred liturgy, of the mystery of the divine Heart of Jesus. Of course, there was never a time when the Church was ignorant of the love of Christ for His people, both for His people as a whole and for each of the faithful in particular. But the Holy Spirit willed that this love be brought before the minds of Christians more vividly in these later days. The first of the instruments which He chose for this task was the German Benedictine St Gertrude, sometimes called St Gertrude the Great. She was only twenty years old when, in the year 1281, she was visited by St John the Evangelist, and told about the future glorification in the Church of the Heart of Jesus. St Gertrude asked St John why he had not spoken more about this subject in his gospel, and in particular why he had not described what he had experienced in reclining on the Heart of Christ at the last Supper. The evangelist replied that when he had written the gospel, the Church was still young, and that his task had been to write a short word about the earthly life of the uncreated Word of God. The revelation of the riches of the Sacred Heart had been reserved, he told St Gertrude, for a later day, when the love of men had already begun to grow cold.

St Gertrude wrote down what had been revealed to her, but although her writings were greatly treasured by a few souls, they were not much read outside religious houses. So, four hundred years later, when Protestantism had now begun, so to speak, to cover much of the Christian world with ice, our Lord spoke to St Margaret Mary, who was twenty-six years old, and living in an unremarkable convent in France. He told her that she was to have a new feast instituted in the calendar of the Church! By the time that she died, in 1690, she had the happiness of seeing her own community kneel in reparation before an image of the Sacred Heart; but the feast itself was not yet in existence. Another life-time would pass before, in 1765, a pope would grant to the church in Poland the right to celebrate a Mass and office in honour of the Sacred Heart. And finally, after another hundred years, at the request of all the bishops of France, Blessed Pius IX extended the feast to the whole Church.

Yet, although this glorification of the Heart of His Son is a gift of God the Father to the Church in these later days, it was foreshadowed by the Holy Ghost from the beginning. If we turn to the books of Moses, and the most famous of the manifestations of God, what do we find? In the book of Exodus, God appears to Moses in the midst of a thorn-bush. Our translations sometimes just call it a ‘bush’, but those who know Hebrew tell us that the Hebrew word used in this passage means specifically a thorn-bush. It is on fire, but it is not consumed. And the Lord speaks to Moses from the midst of the fire and of the thorns with a message of mercy: I have seen the affliction of my people, and knowing their sorrow I have come to deliver them. It is an image of the Heart of the Saviour, the Saviour who has come down from heaven to deliver men, His heart on fire with merciful love for them, yet pierced with the ingratitude of the human race, as with so many thorns.  

But we can go back still further than Moses. If we read the life of Adam, what do we find? He is cast by God into a deep sleep, his side is opened, and a bride is fashioned for him from what comes from his side. It is another image of our Lord, the second Adam. After He had been cast into the sleep of death upon the Cross, one of the soldiers with a spear opened his side, and immediately there came out blood and water. The blood and water which flowed from the Heart of Christ are built into the Church, by the power of the Holy Ghost. The water washes us in baptism; the blood nourishes us in Holy Communion. A bride is fashioned for the divine Bridegroom.  

Certainly, the Heart of Christ was beating with love for mankind, from the moment that it was formed in the womb of the Blessed Virgin by the power of the Holy Ghost. From the beginning of the incarnation, the human intellect of Jesus saw the divinity, and seeing all things in the divinity, He saw all the human beings who have ever lived or who will ever live upon the earth.  In seeing them thus, Jesus also loved them with human will; He not only loved mankind as a whole, but had for each human being a unique love.

Among other men, the heart exists first, and charity only comes later, for example when a person is baptised. In the case of the human nature of our Saviour, the opposite is true. His charity existed first, and it was this charity itself which set His heart in motion. Such is the teaching of the Benedictine abbot, Dom Guéranger. He writes: “His love set in motion those beatings which made the Blood of redemption circulate in his sacred veins.”

Yet, since the Passion of our Lord, His divine heart has a new motive for love. For the Church, and we as members of the Church, have been formed by the blood and water that flowed from His sacred side. We are the fruit of His great labour.  So the same Dom Guéranger speaks thus: 

“Christ being now in possession of her who has wounded his Heart, he gives her, in return, full power over that sacred Heart from which she has issued. There lies the secret of all the Church’s power. If Adam, our first father, sinned, it was because Eve used, and for evil, her influence over his heart, by misleading him and us in him; – Jesus saves us, because the Church has won his Heart; and that human Heart could not be won, without the divinity also being moved to mercy.”

In other words, the Church’s prayers cannot fail to touch the Heart of her divine Bridegroom, and this Heart will supply for our deficiencies. I finish with some words with which the editors of the writings of St Gertrude the Great summarised her revelations:

“At one time, the divine Heart is shown to her as a treasure, which holds all riches within it; at another, it is a harp played upon by the Holy Spirit, and the music which comes from it gladdens the Blessed Trinity, and all the heavenly court. […] It is a golden thurible, whence there ascend as many different sorts of fragrant incense, as there are different races of men, for all of whom our Redeemer died upon the Cross […] It was in this Heart that was formed and composed he Lord’s Prayer, the Pater noster; that prayer was the fruit of Jesus’s Heart. […] When our life is at its close, that Heart is the peaceful abode, the holy sanctuary, ready to receive our souls as soon as they have departed from this world; and having received them, it keeps them in itself for all eternity, and beatifies them with every delight!”