Reflections on the Sacred Heart

According to the prophet Jeremiah, “the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah … I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” Now, in the fulness of time, we can see that the first heart upon which the law of God was written is the heart of Jesus. Indeed in one way the heart of Jesus is not only the first heart, but the only heart, upon which the law of God has been inscribed. This is because it is written upon our hearts only to the extent that we come to share in His. The heart of Jesus, unsealed so that it may communicate itself to the world, is the place of humanity’s reconciliation with God: it is the site in which reconciliation is first accomplished, in Jesus Himself, and then brought to completion, in being shared with all creation.

But Jesus is not just the primordial human participant in our covenant with God. Because His heart is human and, at the same time, because it expresses in human terms the heart of the Divine Son, He is not only a participant in the covenant, but He is Himself that covenant: He is, in His own Person, the reconciliation of man and God. To share in the heart of Jesus is to enter into His very being, and to receive from Him a participation in the covenant that He is. Conformed to His human heart, we are thereby conformed to His eternal heart; and so we come before the Father, in the Holy Spirit, as sons in the Son; human by nature and divine by adoption, we draw life from our place within the One Who is originally both human and Divine. Our covenant with God, then, is the Incarnate Son Himself, and we enter the covenant by entering Him. Our hearts are shaped according to His, and we find there, in His heart, the human and Divine sonship for which we were always destined.

For this to be possible, however, the human heart of Jesus must first be shaped to our hearts: He must bear within Himself the full weight of our misery. And yet He must bear it differently from the way we bear it ourselves: He must bear it as a son, turned towards the Father, rather than as one in flight from the Father, turned away from Him in estrangement. This is the great mystery embodied in the heart of Jesus: His sinless solidarity with sinners. The solidarity is essential, otherwise His heart could not find us and be present to us where we are, and the suffering that comes upon us because we are sinners would impose a distance between our hearts and His, making our fate unreachable by Him. And then how could He rescue us? For this reason He must suffer all that sinners suffer because they are sinners. And yet He must suffer it not as a sinner, but as a son, so that, in the midst of their suffering, sinners can be shown another way to be. For again, how else could He recuse us? And so the heart of Jesus embodies the unfathomable mystery of the sinless One Who was made sin for our sake.

The spiritual director of St Margaret Mary, St Claude de la Colombiere, puts His finger on this mystery when He writes that in the heart of Jesus we find “an infinite patience [and] an extreme sorrow and contrition for all the sins He took upon Himself; the confidence of a tender son combined with all the shame of a great sinner.” St Claude here identifies very precisely what it means to bear away the sins of the world: it must be as if the sins are one’s own – one must endure, as if for oneself, the sorrow and contrition and shame of estrangement from God through sin: and yet one must suffer all this not because of sin but because of love, in the patience and confidence of a son: unlimited patience towards the brethren whose sins these are, and unlimited confidence towards the Father to Whom one is drawing the brethren home.

To be conformed to the heart of Christ means, in the midst of sin, to come to share in precisely this patience and this confidence – to share in it in the midst of the sins of others, and of course in the midst of the sins that are our own. In this life we are not promised a sinless world, nor even a sinless self. What we are promised is the grace of entering into the heart of Christ, and thereby of living as sons of the Father. Of course this means that we have to struggle against sin. But even more importantly, it means, in spite of sin, having complete confidence in the mercy of God, towards others and towards ourselves. 

Mercy, rather than sin, is what the Christian is called most deeply to affirm. But the spectacle of sin – our own sins and the sins of others – can easily tend to make us downcast and discouraged, anxious and judgmental; and then, even worse, we can fall into supposing that these are the reactions that faith demands of us. Here sin predominates, and the mercy of God is subordinated to His justice, which we imagine in its proximity to us, ready at every moment to be aroused against us. But this way of thinking gets everything the wrong way round. Here again is St Claude de la Colombiere: “The love of our Lord’s heart was in no way diminished by the treason of Judas, the flight of the apostles, and the persecution of His enemies. Jesus was only grieved at the harm they did themselves; His sufferings helped assuage His grief because He saw in them a remedy for the sins committed by His enemies.”

Nothing could be clearer. God’s love for us is not based upon our being sinless, and the heart of Jesus loves no one less because he or she is a sinner. And just as our sins do not reduce His love for us in the slightest degree, so they do not make Him grieve in what might be called a self-regarding way, as we  grieve when we feel wounded by someone and are most of all aware of the harm that he has done us. The grief in the heart of Jesus, by contrast, focuses not on harm done to Himself, but on the harm we do to ourselves: He grieves because we suffer. Sin, then, is not an offence against God, demanding compensation. Or, if we wish to speak like this, ‘offence’ must be understood in a very specific way: as a mode of compassion – of suffering with, rather than at; and ‘compensation’, likewise, must be understood, not as paying a debt of justice, but as a readiness to repent, and to receive anew the grace of sonship which is offered us. And this is the proper meaning of practising reparation to the heart of Jesus: we practice reparation to His heart, not by restoring to it what He is owed, but by receiving from it what He desires to give.

By Fr Philip Cleevely, Cong. Orat.
St Philip's Seminary, Toronto
[email protected]