By Cole DeSantis
Within the space of a little over a week, the Church has celebrated two major feast days. The first was the Feast of Corpus Christi and the second was the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. When one examines the theological implications of these feast days, one sees deep connections between the two, and particularly in terms of their implications for the life of the Church.
Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Christ traces its roots back to St. Mary Margaret, a 17th-century French Catholic saint, nun and mystic. Born in 1647 in Lhautecour, France, she was the child of two devout parents. At the age of 13, after recovering from a severe case of paralysis brought on by her private practice of self-mortification, she then entered into a nearby convent. During this time, she would have visions of Christ, including of Jesus crucified or Jesus during His trial. Over time, Mary Margaret, under the influence of her mother — who felt that she was too young to enter the convent — left the convent, and began to live the conventional life of most people of her age and social standing. One day, after returning from a ball, she had a vision of Christ as He was when He was scourged, and He expressed disappointment in her for not staying true to her vow. She then entered into the Visitation Convent in Paray, France in 1671, and made her final vows in 1672.
Saint Mary Margaret eventually developed a series of devotions dedicated to the suffering and death of Christ. During her time as a nun, she continued to have visions of Christ. In one of the first major apparitions of Christ, Jesus told her how He wanted to make known to the world the great treasures of His love, namely His desire for the sanctification and salvation of mankind. He then made known His desire for a feast day dedicated to His Sacred Heart to be established and celebrated during the Octave of Corpus Christi. Sister Mary Margaret continued to promote devotion to the Sacred Heart throughout her life and writings, until her death in 1690. She was canonized a saint in 1920 by Pope Benedict XV. Yet, even before her canonization, a feast day dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus was incorporated into the liturgical calendar of the Church in 1856 by Pope Pius IX. Even before then, an Office and Liturgy associated with the Sacred Heart were written by the 17th-century French priest and missionary St. John Eudes, a contemporary of St. Mary Margaret.
The image of the Sacred Heart brings forth a great amount of symbolism. As the Catholic Encyclopedia points out, the heart has often been taken as a symbol for love, and thus the Sacred Heart of Jesus is taken as a symbol for the love of Christ. Yet, devotion to the Sacred Heart does not only extend to Sacred Heart as a symbol, but rather to the "Heart of flesh," that is, "the love of which the Heart is a living and expressive symbol." The love of Christ is not and never was an abstract concept. One should not think that because the Heart of Christ symbolizes the love of Christ that the love of Christ is something merely symbolic; rather it is something concrete, rooted in God’s plan of salvation, which Christ was the active agent in bringing about. Thus, the Catholic Encyclopedia goes on to say that, "The Heart of Jesus, like all else that belongs to His Person, is worthy of adoration, but this would not be so if It were considered as isolated from this Person and having no connection with It." Jesus is a concrete person, a concrete reality, and the love of Christ, represented by His Heart, is inseparable from this.
Christ gave Himself to us in and through His life, ministry, death and resurrection. Even the very being of Christ is God giving Himself to us in an intimate manner since, in Christ, God became one of us. Yet, there is a sacramental character to God's plan of salvation. God gave Himself to us in an intimate way in His plan of salvation, and through the sacraments, we receive the grace whereby we reap the spiritual fruits of this self-giving love, and participate in it in an intimate way. The self-giving love of Christ towards man is extended to us through the sacraments. Thus, according to St. Augustine in his commentary on John 19:34 — which speaks of Jesus being pierced in His side — the wound on Jesus' side signifies "that there a gate of life might be opened, whence the sacraments of the Church flow forth, without which there is no entrance to the life that is truly life."
We see this in the Eucharist in particular. The Eucharist is the unbloody renewal or perpetuation of Christ's sacrifice on the Cross. It is a participation in that perfect sacrifice which took place on the Cross. Thus, the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, the father of modern existentialist philosophy and himself a devout Christian, once wrote in his work Discourses at Communion:
Hence the Lord's Supper is called communion with Him; it is not merely in remembrance of Him, not merely a pledge that thou hast communion with Him, but it is the communion, the communion which thou shalt endeavor to maintain in thy daily life by more and more living thyself out of thyself and living thyself into Him, into His love that hides the multitude of sins.
What Kierkegaard is implying is that reception of the Eucharist, as an expression of God’s love, helps us to attain – and in fact is a form of – union between us and God, which helps us to live less for ourselves and more for God, and thereby helping us to overcome being in a state of sin and attain a state of moral and spiritual purity. This is the effect of God’s love, this is also the effect of receiving the Blessed Sacrament. The Lord thus knew what He was doing in asking for the feast day dedicated to His Sacred Heart to be celebrated immediately after the feast day dedicated to His Presence in the Blessed Sacrament.
Cole DeSantis is a candidate for the Master of Arts in theology at Providence College, a Dominican school in the diocese of Providence Rhode Island.
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