The Sacred Heart of Jesus leads us from misery to mercy

The Most Sacred Heart of Jesus is depicted in a stained-glass window at St. Andrew Church in Sag Harbor, N.Y. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus is so central to a healthy biblical spirituality that we don’t acknowledge this divine love only once a year; thanks to the apparitions of Our Lord to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque in the seventeenth century, we commemorate and celebrate the love of Christ for us unto death on the First Friday of every month.

Indeed, one of my fondest memories of grammar school is that of Masses on the First Friday of the month for the entire student body. Since an important part of preparation for receiving Holy Communion in those days called for a three-hour fast from solid foods, that meant that most of us came to school actually fasting from the night before. Right after Mass, we proceeded to the school cafeteria where our pastor treated us to crumb buns and hot chocolate. Thus, our celebration spilled over into a common meal.

Years later, I would relish the lyrics of the lovely hymn, “Draw Us in the Spirit’s Teather,” with the verse that prays, “May all our meals be sacraments of Thee!”

I share that recollection because of another experience I had many years later. I was seated on a plane, hoping that the seat next to me would go unoccupied. Just minutes before the plane door was shut, a man rushed in and, yes, took the empty seat next to me. While we were still taxiing on the runway, he turned toward me and asked, “Are you a Catholic priest?” “Yes, I am.” “I used to be Catholic.” “What are you now?” “I’m saved, I’m a Christian.” “You weren’t saved as a Catholic?” “No, it was just a lot of rituals. I never heard about the love and mercy of God.” “Did you go to Catholic school?” “Yeah, for a few years.”

“Were you,” I asked, “brought to Mass on the First Fridays?” “Yeah, I think so.” “Well, what were you told about that devotion?” “Oh, something about going nine times and going to Heaven.” “You mean you weren’t told about the love and mercy of Christ, so great that He died for you and that that love is experienced every time we make a good confession and receive Holy Communion worthily?” “I guess I wasn’t listening too well.” I hope everyone here this evening has listened better than that poor fellow.

The heart is a symbol with a rich biblical lineage. In Hebrew, both the heart and the bowels represent the very depths of a person – where the cognitive and the affective meet in unity and harmony. Hence, we find passages in the Bible which speak thus: “My heart is overwhelmed, my pity is stirred” (Hos 11:8). Far more than an organ of the body, then, the heart suggests the source of compassion, tenderness, kindness – in short, what we call “mercy.”

An interesting piece of biblical trivia: A quick survey of a biblical concordance reveals that the word “mercy” is used more than 200 times in the Sacred Scriptures, while the word “heart” appears over 600 times! No surprise, then, that St. Augustine, playing with the origins of the Latin word for mercy (misericordia), tells us that God’s grace moves us “a miseria ad misericordiam” (from misery to mercy). “Misericordia,” you see, comes from two words which combine to mean “having a heart for the miserable.”

Shakespeare rhapsodized on the beauty and glory of mercy when he had Portia exclaim:

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: It is twice bless’d;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest; It becomes
The thronèd monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway,
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God Himself,
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation: We do pray for mercy,
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.

As beautiful as that soliloquy is, as one commentator has observed, “before Shakespeare wrote it, God was it!”

Tomorrow we honor Our Lady under the title of her Immaculate Heart. The feasts of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary are not placed by each other in the liturgical calendar by coincidence but by the careful plan of the Church. Because the heart of Jesus began beating beneath the heart of His Blessed Mother. Because her heart, in turn, took form from the creative Word and Power of the Heart of God. Two hearts beating as one. Because God became Mercy Incarnate within the spotless womb of the Virgin Mary.

And Mary (the first and best disciple) understood it all so well that she broke forth into her canticle of praise, the Magnificat: “Et misericordia eius a progenie in progenies timentibus eum.” (And His mercy is from age to age on those who fear Him). Our Lady was not teaching theology from a textbook but from the lived experience of her life. God had touched her so profoundly by His mercy that she became what the Church’s lovely night prayer to her rightly calls her – “Mater misericordiae” (“Mother of Mercy”): God the Father sought the young maiden’s cooperation with His eternal plan of mercy; God the Holy Spirit overshadowed her with His merciful wings; she became the very seat of Mercy, the Mother of the One who is “dives in misericordia” (rich in mercy), as the title of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical reminds us.

Our world, my dear people, needs to hear the message of mercy perhaps as no other age before. A culture of violence, death, destruction and despair can be healed only by mercy. It is no accident, I suspect, that in the last century – the century of blood and violence and alienation from God – that Almighty God would raise up a Polish nun to develop the theology of the Sacred Heart devotion. Interestingly, St. Faustina was the first saint canonized in the new millennium, expressing the hope of St. John Paul that this new millennium and new century would be more receptive to the love of God than the last. Thus, like St. Faustina, you and I must count ourselves among the apostles of mercy.

First, however, we must be convinced that mercy has been granted us; otherwise, our words will ring hollow. The result of knowing mercy (which comes from the very core or heart of the Being of God) means being grabbed at the very core or heart of our own being – and that gives birth to the emotion – both divine and human – of joy. Once more, Our Lady leads the way as she sings out: “Exsultavit spiritus meus in Deo Salvatore meo” (My spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior). Where mercy spawns joy, melancholy, fear and death are definitively banished.

In the beautiful litany in honor of the Sacred Heart, we laud Christ as “the King and Center of all hearts.” May that be true in the lives of each one of us. With Our Lady as our model and guide, we pray: “Jesus, meek and humble of heart, make our hearts like unto Thine.”

(Editor’s note: This homily was preached on the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, June 28, 2019, at the Church of the Holy Innocents in New York City. It appears here in slightly different form than the original.)


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