To Be Loved by a Sacred Heart
“Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” These words explain Christ’s whole life. They allow us to understand why he has come to us with a heart made of flesh, a heart like ours. This is a convincing proof of his love and a constant witness to the mystery of divine charity.
St Josemaria Escriva
Christ is Passing By, no. 162
That Christ has come to us with a heart made of flesh tells us a lot about how the Sacred Heart loves us, and about the kind of love we need. We are loved by any number of hearts during our earthly lives, but one alone among them we call Sacred. We know how it feels to be loved by fallen people—by those who try, but cannot love perfectly. But what it is to be loved by a Sacred Heart?
Contemplating a heart flaming, pierced, ringed with thorns, and surmounted by a cross, as Jesus revealed His heart to St Margaret Mary, our contemplation also takes an unexpected turn inward—and startles us: We are the object of that heart’s love. The fire and cross, thorns and blood, are for us. This is the heart of a relentless Lover. It is a heart that observes no boundaries in its love for us, as our Lord told St Margaret Mary: “This Heart has spared itself nothing until it has exhausted itself and consumed itself in order to show men its love.”
And so when we hear that the Good Shepherd leaves “the ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness, and [goes] after the one which is lost, until he finds it,” or that the good Samaritan turns aside to dress the wounds of the battered and abandoned traveler, or even that Jesus inserts himself among “tax collectors and sinners” at table, we understand that the heart’s iconic features point to a love working through concrete, unsparing acts of compassion and rescue—acts which might even strike us as excessive and unreasonable.
Since God wishes His human heart to appear before us in this way, we can only conclude that this is the only kind of love that will conquer us—who are, not infrequently, excessive and unreasonable. My heart, my life, my track record, must be of such a flawed—and vacillating—quality that only that Heart, ‘made of flesh like mine,’ can love me out of my misery. Scripture makes no secret of the fact that God regards us as a generally fatigued, thirsting, helpless race—lost sheep and broken cisterns are among the Biblical descriptions of our waywardness. And yet the same Lord urges us to embrace a mystery about ourselves: we are capable of receiving and giving the greatest possible love—a love that Jesus Himself declares ‘no greater’ exists to His apostles.
The mystery of divine charity reached its summit on the cross, but the preview of what it would most often look like in practice, in daily life, was given to those same apostles at the last supper.
Think about His audience there. Jesus speaks most tenderly to men who are just moments away from abandoning Him, from fleeing to get as far away from Him as they can so as to save themselves. They will be pursuing not the union to which the true Vine invites them, but cutting themselves off from Him. Maybe if Jesus had known all this He wouldn’t have invited them to share His love and His joy? Had He known, perhaps He would have been more restrained in His affection for them? No, He knows everything. He knows what’s coming next. He knows these men through and through—where they’ve been, where they’re going, and the trouble brewing in their hearts.
And so does Jesus know us. Maybe if the Lord knew us a little better He wouldn’t make such “extravagant” offers of union with Himself? Maybe He wouldn’t trouble Himself so much to seek us out in our misery? But no, the Lord knows everything about us—our past, our future, and the current contents of our hearts. This is what it means when the Gospel says that Jesus loves His own unto the end. He isn’t put off by our off-putting behavior. His love isn’t based on our goodness, but on His. He pursues us not because we are so lovable, but because the more we receive His love, the more lovable we become.
Here, both the logic and strategy of divine charity are revealed: God means to show us so much attentive love and mercy that the hardness of our hearts will break and we will be fully converted.
Look at the evidence in your life. Let God’s interventions speak for themselves. Have you ever had your sins forgiven? Have you ever been treated mercifully? Have you ever been loved? Most of the time Jesus does not draw attention to Himself in loving us. But He leaves us to look on with wonder as the evidence mounts, and we discern one Heart loving us through many others, one Providence at work through many means.
At the outset of the last supper, the Lord gets down on His hands and knees and washes the feet of His disciples. “Do you understand this?” He asks them. Before He tells the Apostles about union with Him, about the great commandment of love, about His joy, Jesus first shows them what it all “looks” like.
“Do you understand this?” This is perhaps the ultimate question as we reflect on what it means to be loved by the Sacred Heart. Perhaps the answer will be an honest, “No, Lord, I do not understand your love for me,” and that could be nearer the truth than anything. “I don’t understand what God is doing on His hands and knees wiping the dirt off of my feet. If I were Jesus, I wouldn’t treat me like He treats me. I wouldn’t be so tolerant and forgiving. I wouldn’t keep on loving someone like me.”
But to spend our lives in contemplation of His love for us, as the apostles surely did, is what will bring us ever closer to the source of the Love that constantly reaches into our lives, showing itself to be subtle, selfless, and inexhaustible. If the fire, thorns, and blood are the divinely revealed gauge of divine love in a human heart, then the more I welcome His tireless forgiveness, His unflinching friendship in the face of my infidelity, the more I will appreciate the mystery of divine charity which the Sacred Heart reveals.
Now we see imperfectly, in part, but the part we do see should teach us why He needed to come to us with a heart of flesh, like ours.
Father John Henry Hanson, O. Praem., is a Norbertine priest of St Michael’s Abbey in Silverado, California. He entered the community in 1995, earned his STB and Masters in Theology at the Pontifical University of St Thomas (Angelicum) in Rome, and was ordained to the priesthood in 2006. Currently, he teaches English at St Michael’s Preparatory School, the boarding school operated by the Norbertine Fathers. He also preaches retreats, is chaplain to the cloistered Norbertine Nuns in Tehachapi, California, and serves Armenian rite Catholics at the Cathedral of St Gregory the Illuminator in Glendale, California (Our Lady of Nareg Eparchy). He and his community are cooperators of Opus Dei.