How could I let this Feast pass by silently?
Today is the solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. This solemnity is always celebrated the Friday after the solemnity of Corpus Christi, which is the final post-Easter “dogmatic feast” that honors the paschal gift of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. On Trinity Sunday we honored the stunning revelation given to us in Jesus: Israel’s “one God” is one in three divine Persons. Like husband and wife, God is one, not solitary. On Corpus Christ we honored a stupefying gift from the Trinity: being permitted to ingest (!) the incarnate God, Jesus Christ, and so receive into our own humanity a full share in divine life. Today, June 23, the church offers us an executive ‘festal’ summary of the whole paschal mystery by presenting in a single image the source and goal of the entire economy of creation and redemption: the unbreakable union of divine and human love forged in the Heart of Jesus.
The divine-human Heart of Jesus reveals both the core identity of God and the core identity of man: oblative (self-giving, agape) and possessive (uniting, eros) love. Love is defined in the Christian tradition as willing the good of the other in accord with the divine will, as well as the uniting of two lovers in the exchange of their mutual self-gift one to the other. The biblical covenant formula contains all of these dimensions of love, “I will be your God and you will be my people.” Or as the Song of Songs 2:16 has it, “My beloved is mine and I am his.”
Love is neither wholly other-centered giving nor wholly self-centered receiving, but both, with the center of gravity being found in other-centered giving. This is what Jesus means when He commands, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” i.e. love your neighbor as “another you” so that in loving neighbor you are loving yourself. And for Jesus, neighbor refers to every human being without exception. I would say this is why He makes forgiveness and enemy-love the sine qua non of love since enemies are those we would most naturally exclude from the ambit of charity that demands universal solidarity. This, Jesus says, is how God deals with humanity, His enemy.
Put another way, love is meant to contain a mutuality. In the absence of this mutuality, you have slavery, with one taking from the other without reciprocating the gift. I know a married couple in which the husband, who is clearly a raging narcissist (of the personality disorder kind), has broken down the personality and spirit of his wife over the years with his voracious appetite for attention, devotion and service. But he responds to her only with bitterness and manipulation. It’s painful beyond words to watch, is the antithesis to authentic love in the divine image and the epitome of the primal curse of sin in Genesis 3:16: “He shall rule over you.”
This is why the God who “loved us first” (1 John 4:19) commands that we love Him. Not because He is needy or a narcissist, but because the very nature of love demands reciprocity. God in fact, metaphysically speaking, does not need us at all. He is purely actualized in every way and cannot become more or less than He is from all eternity. God is self-subsistent, without origin or terminus. But because as Trinity God is love in His essence, an eternal act of Threefold mutuality of giving and receiving, when He creates us out of pure love in His image and likeness, He invites us into this eternal Triune exchange and awaits our return to Him in love. This is not due to a lack in God, but rather the perfection of His nature as love which gives and receives. So St. Maximus the Confessor can make that stunning statement I so often quote:
Those skilled in divine matters call Him a zealous and exemplary lover, because of the intensity of His blessed longing for all things; for he longs to be longed for, loves to be loved and desires to be desired.
God longs for us to accept the gift of His unconditionally offered, freely given love and desires for us to respond in kind by a life obedient to the demands of love (the commandments, love of neighbor) and by a total gift of ourselves back to Him that leads to a divine-human union much like that of marriage and friendship. But note that God acts first, He takes the first step, puts Himself “out there” first, awaiting our free response; or free rejection. There is a profound vulnerability, great risk in God’s act of creating us in love and awaiting our free response of love. In fact, the world vulnerable, from the Latin vulnerare, which means “to wound, hurt or injure,” i.e. that God in creating us risked being wounded by us. Indeed, Isaiah 53 is this.
Here is where the image of the Sacred Heart offers such power as a language of love. The image of the Heart, especially as revealed to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque in her visions of Jesus, shows the divine-human Heart of Jesus lacerated by the signs of the Passion. In other words, His Sacred Heart betrays the bitter signs of human rejection of His gift offered, sings of the refusal of love’s mutuality. But — what a great mystery! — out from the center of that wounded Heart rises a raging fire, the unquenchable love of God for humanity that burns even and especially in the face of our rejection. The words Jesus spoke to St. Margaret Mary beautifully witness to this:
Behold this Heart, which has loved men so much that it has spared nothing, even to exhausting and consuming itself, in order to testify to them its love; and in return I receive from the greater number nothing but ingratitude.
A number of years ago, on my 8-day Ignatian retreat, my retreat director asked me to sit in front of a statue of the Sacred Heart for an extended period of time. I did and it was profound. As I never had before, I sensed the purity and innocence of divine love — offered to us, it seemed to me, like a child who opens herself trustingly up to an adult with a special gift she has created, only to discover the adult turns on her, abuses her and utterly rejects her tender gift of love. For whatever reason, the image of that small child’s pained expression in the face of rejection — crushed, bewildered — seemed to be that of Jesus offering His Heart to me. In fact, as I prayed more there was a scene from the movie, The Passion of the Christ, that suddenly filled my heart with overwhelming emotion. The scene during the trial of Jesus before Caiaphas when, right after He joyfully reveals His identity as the Son of Israel’s God, they, His beloved chosen, slap Him, spit on Him, and a tear falls down His cheek. It was crushing to see this image as I prayed before the statue. It matched perfectly that image of the purity and innocent trust of the little girl’s face as her gift was rejected. I must show it here for you to imagine with me:
But as I continued to pray through this, there also seemed to be this difference between God and the little girl — I sensed how God is omnipotent and could in a word annihilate the entire cosmos if He willed. Yet that love, the unfathomable innocence of that love (compassion?) restrains Him as He returns trustingly again and again to us seeking out our loving response to His offer of total self-gift.
Above all in the Holy Eucharist.
That’s today’s Feast, the Feast of God’s unfathomable, tender and merciful love.
Rejoice, respond and reciprocate to Him and to your worst enemy.