Time was when pretty much every Catholic home in Ireland had an image of the Sacred Heart in a place of honour, normally with a red lamp burning perpetually before it. All that has changed. The place of honour in a home is more likely to be occupied by a plasma screen these days….
Religious faith and religious practice are obviously on the decline in Ireland. But even for those who still believe and practice, devotion to the Sacred Heart has largely gone out of fashion. Some of the language traditionally associated with the devotion, such as reparation and consecration doesn’t resonate with people as much as it did in days gone by. The idea of focusing on a specific part of Jesus in prayer can seem odd to some. Traditional hymns such as To Jesus’ Heart All Burning and accounts of the promises made to St Margaret Mary, can jar in modern ears. When it comes to the image of the Sacred Heart, Jesus displaying his burning, bloodied heart, surmounted with a Cross and thorns is vivid and literal in a way that isn’t appealing to many people nowadays. Frankly, pictures and statues of the Sacred Heart are often sentimental or a bit ghoulish – or both! I don’t think you’ll find many paintings or sculptures of the Sacred Heart in the great art galleries of the world…
Maybe this Jubilee Year of Mercy is an opportunity to look beyond the tacky kitsch imagery and re-connect with the beautiful reality which they attempt to present to us – the wonders of the love which God’s beloved Son has for us. The feast of the Sacred Heart is always celebrated on a Friday, the day when we recall the Cross. When we consider the Cross, sometimes we emphasise Christ’s sufferings… sometimes we emphasise his self-offering… sometimes we emphasise his victory… But on the feast of the Sacred Heart, we focus in a particular way on his love.
It is the Feast day of the Tenderness of Jesus towards us, his brothers and sisters. And that tenderness can never go out of fashion! Reflecting on the Sacred Heart of Jesus is especially appropriate in this Holy Year of Mercy. The Latin word for ‘mercy’ – misericordia – combines the words ‘misery’ and ‘heart’. For mercy is what happens when the heart reaches out and meets and touches the misery, weakness and need of another. The Latin word for ‘have mercy’ – miserere – combines the words ‘misery’ and ‘burn’. For mercy is what happens when the heart reaches out and the misery, weakness and need of another are destroyed, as if overcome by fire.
Mercy as a movement of the heart is presented to us very beautifully in today’s readings. The Lord himself is our shepherd, whose loving heart wants to reach out to us in our weakness and transform it with his burning love, bringing back the strayed, binding up the injured, strengthening the weak and feeding us with justice. God’s merciful love is not vague or general, it is personal and individual, extending to every single one of us. It is the love of a shepherd who when even one of his hundred sheep has strayed will leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it.
Today’s Opening Prayer said that ‘we glory in the Heart’ of Jesus. And so we do. But the burning love of the Heart of Jesus is not just a kind of comfort blanket or a teddy bear. St Paul reminds us that God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. And if love has been poured in, love must be poured out. The Holy Spirit challenges us, in our turn, to have merciful hearts. Or as the motto for this Holy Year puts it: to be Merciful like the Father.