Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Thoughts on the Sacred Heart

Leave it to the Catholic Church to dedicate a feast day to an internal organ. A cynic might chortle and, with a roll of the eyes, mutter, "What next? The Blessed Toe? The Immaculate Hangnail? The Miraculous Gall Bladder?" Such utterances notwithstanding, June 7th marks the Church's celebration of the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart. Although understandably neglected by most of us - no children, after all, get a Sacred Heart vacation - it may be worthwhile to spend a few moments considering what it means to celebrate the "Sacred Heart."

The symbolism of the heart is hardly foreign to any of us. Top-40 songs croon melancholically about the "broken heart." Students feel devastated when the college they had "set their heart on" sends them a rejection letter. As loved ones struggle with an issue, one feels "heart sick." In the Scriptures, "hardness of heart" prevents Pharaoh from allowing the Hebrew people to leave Egypt and keeps the crowds gathered around Jesus from accepting his message. The symbolism of the heart encapsulates so much of what is essential to being human: love, fear, hope, sorrow, and joy.

Corporations and young lovers keenly grasp this. In the weeks leading up to Valentine's Day, Sweetest Day, and Mother's Day one finds an endless array of heart-shaped boxes filled with various delights. We are encouraged to buy bags of heart-shaped candies stamped with "Call Me" and "Be True" and "Kiss Me." A young man, in love perhaps for the first time, carves his initials along with his beloved's into the bark of a tree; a little boy, wanting to do something nice for his mommy, uses safety scissors to cute a heart from construction paper and writes "I Love You" in a barely legible scrawl no mother can fail to understand.

Furthermore, the heart occupies more than a sentimental place in human life. Physicians tell us to maintain cardiovascular health. Heart disease, the slow hardening of the arteries with plaque, is a leading cause of death in our country. We regularly hear of difficult transplants and emergency bypasses. Lastly, a common metaphor for gauging the vitality of something comes quite literally from our human mortality: we "take the pulse"of a situation in a manner analogous to measuring the strength of the heartbeat. To "call the code" on a person popularly means to recognize the cessation of the heart's function.

What has this to do with the Sacred Heart? Everything. This feast reminds us that Jesus' heart was nothing less than fully human, open and susceptible to the world around him. Jesus' heart could be scourged with grief - he wept over Lazarus's death - and gripped, in the Garden, with fear. His heart moved with love for the Rich Young Man. His heart led him to preach and to teach, to act and live in a way that gave those around him hope in God's Kingdom. A heartbeat measured his lifespan, a rhythm animated by a heart knitted together in Mary's womb, a heart that heart finally failed and was pierced on the cross. A heart able to say "Peace be with you" when greeting his disciples who deserted him.

Jesus' heart is sacred not because it is magical but because it focused exclusively on one end: the love of God. Jesus' heart is sacred because Jesus focused his entire self upon bringing into a world grown dark with sin the light of the Good News. Jesus, enlivened by a heart live to the Good News of what God is doing in history, never said, "Change so that God can love you. Change and then God will love you and  heal you." Jesus flips such a sentiment on its head: "God loves you, so you are free to become the person you are called to be!" Jesus does not ask us to be different persons. Instead, Jesus gives us a way  to be be people differently.

We are all offered, daily, an opportunity to make our own the Sacred Heart of Jesus. A heart committed to love rather than hate, forgiveness over vengeance, peace instead of war. We might see our lives as the circuit-training of Christian discipleship, a workout program sustained by God's Word and Flesh, aimed not at beach-worthy bodies but Kingdom-living hearts. Christian faith hopes that on our last day Jesus will ask us not about our waist size but about the size of our heart. Did you give me food to eat and water to drink? Did you clothe me when I was naked? Did you visit me in prison? In the hustle and bustle of your daily life, did you allow your heart to be moved in love and compassion? Did you bother to love?

In the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Christians believe, we encounter the fulfillment of humanity's hope for God and God's hope for humanity. We are each offered a share in this heart, a chance to make our hearts beat in time with Jesus' own heart. And, unlike the clothing at Abercrombie & Fitch, the Sacred Heart is available to all regardless of size or shape. A heart on fire with a desire to share the Good News with a world desperately in need of it. A heart vulnerable to the cares others. A heart open to being touched, pierced, and moved. A heart pouring itself out in joyful love, giving without ever counting the cost, courageously allowing each heartbeat the record a life lived for God's greater honor and glory.

Oh, Sacred Heart of Jesus, give us strength to allow our hearts to beat in time with yours that our entire lives - our words and deeds - may become one single prayer lifted up to you.

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