The feast of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus is a popular Catholic observance. It began with the devotion to the Most Sacred Heart from the apostolic times. The feast developed over many centuries. Jesus appeared to Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque in France in 1673 and requested a special devotion to his Sacred Heart. The feast got universal acceptance after this vision. It also relates to other devotions of Jesus like the First Friday Devotion, the feasts of Corpus Christi, the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and the Divine Mercy. The symbols on the image of the Sacred Heart are worthy of reflection.
(John 19:30) Jesus took the wine and said, “It is now fulfilled.” Then he bowed his head and gave up the spirit. (31) As it was Preparation Day, the Jews did not want the bodies to remain on the cross during the Sabbath, for this Sabbath was a very solemn day. They asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified broken, so they might take away the bodies. (32) The soldiers came and broke the legs of the first man and of the other who had been crucified with Jesus. (33) When they came to Jesus, they saw that he was already dead; so they did not break his legs (34) Instead, one of the soldiers thrust a lance into his side and immediately there flowed out blood and water. (35) This testimony is given by one who saw it; his testimony is true and he knows that he is telling the truth. This man gives his witness so that you may believe as well. (36) All this happened to fulfill the words of Scripture, Not one of his bones shall be broken. (37) Another text says, They shall look on the one whom they have pierced.
We need to understand the devotion to the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus in the Biblical, historical, and symbolic perspective.
(30) Jesus took the wine and said, “It is now fulfilled.” Then he bowed his head and gave up the spirit.
Jesus died on the cross after he completed the mission that his Father had entrusted to him.
(31) As it was Preparation Day, the Jews did not want the bodies to remain on the cross during the Sabbath, for this Sabbath was a very solemn day. They asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified broken, so they might take away the bodies.
John was the only apostle and evangelist present at the foot of the cross during Jesus’ crucifixion. Only he has recorded the piercing of Jesus’ heart. He gives the reason for the piercing. Though Romans let the dead body to hang on the cross overnight, the Jews could not do that. “If a man, guilty of any capital offence, has been put to death by hanging him on a tree, his body must not remain hanging there through the night. But, you shall make sure to bury him on the same day because the hanged man is accursed by God. So you shall not defile the land which the LORD, your God, is giving you as an inheritance” (Deut 21:22-23). Besides, the following day was a great Sabbath of the Passover feast. The soldiers broke the legs of the crucified using clubs to speed up the person’s death.
(32) The soldiers came and broke the legs of the first man and of the other who had been crucified with Jesus. (33) When they came to Jesus, they saw that he was already dead; so they did not break his legs.
Jesus was weak when the soldiers crucified him. So, out of the three crucified, Jesus died first and there was no need to break his legs.
(34) Instead, one of the soldiers thrust a lance into his side and immediately there flowed out blood and water.
The purpose of piercing the side of Jesus with a spear was not to kill him because he was already dead. According to the non-canonical books, Centurion Longinus did this to confirm Jesus’ death. The water flowed from Jesus’ heart is the watery lymph from the pericardium. The blood that remained in the heart also came out.
Though the human heart is on the left side of the body, some artists make this wound on the right just below the ribs. The centurion might have pierced from below on the right side to bypass the ribs and to push the heart against the ribs on the left side. This, by divine providence, assured that Longinus did not break Jesus’ rib. “All this happened to fulfil the words of Scripture, not one of his bones shall be broken” (Jn 19:36). The piercing of the heart assures that Jesus was dead before his burial, proving beyond any doubt that he had died before the resurrection.
Theologians give a symbolic interpretation of the water and blood that came from the heart of Jesus. Water stands for baptism and blood for the Holy Eucharist. Sister Faustina who propagated the Divine Mercy devotion confirmed this interpretation based on her vision. Some believe that just as God opened Adam’s side to create Eve, God opened the side of Jesus to generate his bride, the church. Church uses water (baptism) and blood (Holy Eucharist) of Jesus to start the spiritual birth, which is the Christian life. Through the baptismal water, Jesus cleans the stains of original sins, and through his body and blood, he nourishes our souls for eternal life.
(35) This testimony is given by one who saw it; his testimony is true and he knows that he is telling the truth. This man gives his witness so that you may believe as well.
John the Evangelist was an eyewitness to the events that happened at Jesus’ crucifixion because he was present there with Mary, the mother of Jesus. He assures that he saw what he has recorded. His purpose for this recording was to increase our faith in Jesus.
(36) All this happened to fulfill the words of Scripture, Not one of his bones shall be broken.
John found the fulfilment of the scripture passage in keeping the bones of Jesus unbroken. According to Exodus 12:46, when the Israelites killed the Passover lamb, God commanded them not to break bones of the lamb. The Lord repeated the same instruction for the later observance of the Passover (Num 9:12). Psalm 34:21 prophesied on Jesus’ crucifixion: “He watches over all his bones; not one of them shall be broken.” So, John presents Jesus as the perfect lamb, fulfilling the prophecies and completing the Old Testament sacrifices.
(37) Another text says, They shall look on the one whom they have pierced.
John here quotes Zechariah 12:10.
HISTORIAL BACKGROUND OF THE FEAST
People consider the heart as the centre of feelings. The heart stands for love, compassion, understanding, and the seat of emotions. Devotion to the Heart of Jesus is a human response to God’s love manifested through His son’s self-sacrifice for humanity. The central theme of the salvation history is God’s love for people who are the only beings created in his image and likeness. Unlike other creations, human beings are the children of God. So, when they fell from grace, he could not abandon them. He took every effort to redeem them.
God made a special covenant with the nation of Israel and selected it as his firstborn son (Ex 4:22). At Mount Sinai, the Lord passed in front of Moses and cried out: “The LORD, the LORD, a God full of tender love and graciousness, slow to anger, and abounding in fidelity and kindness. He shows kindness to the thousandth generation, and forgives wickedness, rebellion and sin” (Ex 34:6-7). Even when the Israelites sinned against God, He was faithful to his covenant and continued loving and forgiving them.
John 3:16 expresses God’s great love: “Yes, God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.” Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus has a link to Saint John the Evangelist because he was “the disciple whom Jesus loved” and reclined close to Jesus (Jn 13:23).
The earliest known proponent of the devotion to the Sacred Heart was Saint Bernard in the 11th century. Saint Gertrude the Great and Saint Mechtilde were 12th century visionaries of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. However, this devotion became popular after four centuries when Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque had visions in 1673. Jesus showed her the now-famous image of the Sacred Heart and revealed to her his desire for a widespread devotion of his Sacred Heart. On the feast of Saint John the Evangelist, Jesus allowed Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque to rest her heart upon the heart of Jesus. Saint John and Saint Gertrude had similar opportunities. So, Jesus wanted to propagate not just the love but the devotion to the physical and beating heart of Jesus. The feast of the Sacred Heart was first started in France in 1670. Later in 1856, Pope Pius IX extended this feast to the universal church. On 11 June 1899, Pope Leo XIII consecrated the whole of mankind to the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.
This feast of the Sacred Heart interconnects with the feasts of Corpus Christi, Immaculate Heart of Mary, Divine Mercy, and the First Friday Devotion. Pope Urban IV instituted the Feast of Corpus Christi in 1264 that is especially devoted to the Body and the Blood of Jesus. Just as the Old Testament priests separated blood from the sacrificial lamb’s body, so was the last drop of Jesus drained out with the piercing of his heart on the cross. Jesus asked Saint Margaret to have the feast of the Sacred Heart on the Friday after the octave of Corpus Christi. So, Jesus selected the feast day and related it to the feast of Corpus Christi.
Pope Pius VII established the feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary in 1805. It was from Mary that Jesus received his physical heart. She supported Jesus through her suffering at the foot of the cross. The church celebrates the feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary on the day after the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Thus, the church links the feasts of the two hearts. Saint John Eudes propagated the devotion to the two hearts in the 17th century
Pope Saint John Paul II established the Feast of the Divine Mercy on 22 April 2001. Through a vision to Saint Faustina, Jesus revealed that the red and white rays on the image of the Divine Mercy signify the blood and water that flowed from his side on the cross when Longinus pierced his heart. Thus, the feast of the Divine Mercy extends the feast of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.
The First Friday Devotion also developed from the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus based on Saint Margaret Mary’s vision of Jesus. This devotion is in reparation for mankind’s sins by attending Holy Mass and receiving the Holy Eucharist on the first Friday of every month for nine consecutive months. Jesus assured special privileges for those who practise it: the grace of last penitence, death in grace, an opportunity to receive sacraments at the time of death, and a safe refuge in the Divine Heart at the last moment of life.
SYMBOLIC MEANING OF THE SACRED HEART
Based on her visions, Saint Margaret Mary designed and produced the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In the image, we see the heart outside the chest of Jesus, shining with divine light. It has wounds and bleeding, encircled by the crown of thorns, and with a cross on the top. The wounded hands of Jesus point to the heart.
The heart stands for the physical heart of Jesus and his sacrificial love for humanity.
The pierced and bleeding heart reminds us of the piercing of his heart while he was on the cross and the last drop of blood and water that came out of his heart.
The crown of thorns recalls the sharp thorns woven into a crown and pressed onto Jesus’ head to humiliate and torture him before his crucifixion.
The cross on the top of the heart stands for the Roman device of execution that was used on Jesus. It is the ladder that connects heaven and earth through the redemptive work of Jesus.
Flames on the heart are symbolic of the burning love of Jesus for humanity.
The light surrounding the heart represents the divine light that shines in the darkness of this world.