Friday, 7 June 2013

Feast of the Sacred Heart

Today is the Feast of the Sacred Heart, and I have to admit that this is one of those devotions I always struggle with.  It always strikes me, at first glance, as a product of that school of french sentimentality and schmaltz (and the 1929 propers for the feast don't help much in that regard!).

Accordingly, I always have to refresh myself on the underlying theology of the feast.  Mind you, I'm not alone in this: the Sacred Congregation of Rites actually rejected the devotion back in 1727!  Despite this, it slowly gained acceptance through the advocacy of various saints, as well as approval from various Popes, not least as an important counter to Jansenism.

The most recent development in its theology, under Pope John Paul II, has been as a day to pray especially for the sanctification of priests, a most important cause.

Scriptural context

This is a feast where the readings set for Matins (and the Mass itself) really do help explain the basis for it.

The critical New Testament text is arguably St John 7: 37-38, where Our Lord quotes Scripture as saying "Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water", a quote fulfilled literally and metaphorically in the section of the Gospel actually used in the Traditional Mass for the Feast, John 19, 31-37, where the soldier pierces Christ's side with a lance at the Crucifixion.

The reading from St Bonaventure explains the ecclesial importance of the text for us:

"In order that the Church might be taken out of the side of Christ, in his deep sleep on the Cross, and that the Scripture might be fulfilled which saith : They shall look on him whom they pierced : it was divinely ordained that one of the soldiers should pierce his sacred side with a spear, and open it. Then forthwith there came flowing out blood and water, which was the price of our salvation, pouring forth from its mountain-source, in sooth, from the secret places of his Heart, to give power to the Sacraments of the Church, to bestow the life of grace, and to be as a saving drink of living waters, flowing up to life eternal for those who were already quickened in Christ. Arise, then, O soul beloved of Christ. Cease not thy vigilance, place there thy lips, and drink the waters from the fount of salvation."

The Old Testament Scriptural readings at Matins, from Jeremiah, also help to make the link between Christ's love for us, expressed by his pierced heart, and our transformation through Christ's heart.  Here is an extract from that collection of readings:

"Thus saith the Lord the God of Israel: Like these good figs, so will I regard the captives of Juda, whom I have sent forth out of this place into the land of the Chaldeans, for their good.  And I will set my eyes upon them to be pacified, and I will bring them again into this land: and I will build them up, and not pull them down: and I will plant them, and not pluck them up.  And I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the Lord: and they shall be my people, and I will be their God: because they shall return to me with their whole heart." (Jer 24, 5-7)


The Encyclical promulgating the feast as a universal one for the Church, by Pius IX, gives the feast a its particular focus on expiation for Eucharistic sins, such as unworthy reception, making it all too appropriate for our times as well:

"But in order to establish fully and entirely the worship of the most Sacred Heart of Jesus, and to spread the same throughout the whole world, God himself chose as his instrument a most humble virgin from the order of the Visitation, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, who even in her earliest years already had a burning love for the Sacrament of the Eucharist, and to whom Christ the Lord had very many times appeared, and was pleased to make known the riches and the desires of his divine Heart. The most famous of these apparitions was that in which Jesus revealed himself to her in prayer before the blessed Sacrament, shewed her his most Sacred Heart, and, complaining that in return for his unbounded love, he met with nothing but outrages and ingratitude from mankind, he ordered her to concern herself with the establishment of a new feast, on the Friday after the Octave of Corpus Christi, on which his Heart should be venerated with due honour, and that the insults offered him by sinners in the Sacrament of love should be expiated by worthy satisfaction...."

The readings at Matins also tell us that:

"Lastly, the Sovereign Pontiff Pius XI, in order that, by its solemnity, the feast might answer more fully to the greatly widespread devotion of the Christian people, raised the feast of the most Sacred Heart of Jesus to the rite of a double of the first class, with an octave ; and moreover, that the violated rights of Christ, the supreme King and most loving Lord, might be repaired, and that the sins of the nations might be bewailed, he ordered that annually, on that same feast-day, there should be recited an expiatory form of prayer in all the churches of the Christian world."

Praying for priests

In the Novus Ordo, the theology of the feast has been 'developed' further, such that this year's readings (Year C) don't actually use the word 'heart' at all, but instead focus on Christ as the shepherd.

Kind of missing the point I think, given that Scripture uses the word over and over again (in some 775 verses in the King James Version) to refer to our will, feelings and conscience.

Still, those readings do, perhaps, link well to the theme of prayer for the sanctification of priests, reflecting the idea that the Eucharist, and hence sacrament of Holy Orders, is a product of that blood and water flowing from the side of Jesus.

Here is a prayer composed by Pope Pius XII you might want to consider using:

O Jesus, eternal High Priest, Good Shepherd, Font of Life, Who by a special favor of Thy most tender Heart hast given to us our priests in order to accomplish in us those holy ideals with which Thy grace inspires our hearts, let Thy mercy, we beseech Thee, come to the aid of our priests.

Grant them, O Jesus, lively faith in their works, unshakable hope in their trials and fervent charity in their intentions. May Thy word, radiant with eternal Wisdom, become through continual meditation, the never failing nourishment of their interior life; may the examples of Thy Life and Passion be renewed in their conduct and sufferings for our instruction and as a light and consolation in our sorrows.

 Grant, O Lord, that our priests, free from all earthly attachments and solicitous for Thy glory alone, may persevere to their last breath in the fulfillment of duty and in purity of conscience. And when in death they deliver into Thy hands a task well done may they have in Thee, Lord Jesus, their Master on earth, the eternal reward of the crown of justice in the glory of the Saints. Amen.


Maureen said...

Interesting post; having been educated at a French Convent of the Sacred Heart, I remember the Feas as one of the high points of the year - with magnificent singing!

Kate Edwards said...

Yes there are some nice hymns and other music suitable for the feast around, I guess I just always gag at the neo-gregorian chant for the feast.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew West Wyalong NSW said...

My understanding of the 'schmalz' surrounding the feast is that it began in the time of the French Revolution, especially as Robbspierre waged war against the Church and religion. Religious art was destroyed and forbidden to be publicly displayed so the first images of what later became the popularised ones of St Margaret Mary era, began to be mass produced - and crudely. This defiance took on the air of resistance among the faithful, especially the poor. The open chest was the defiance, the wounded heart was on fire with love and determination.
Young people today are fascinated by the sacred Heart images and those comparable ones for Mary. Speaks volumes about how we need to be today in our Church.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew West Wyalong NSW said...

Sorry, St Catherine Laboure, not St Margaret Mary as she was a century earlier than the French Revolution.

A Canberra Observer said...

So what is needed are polyphonic settings for the propers !!

As I recall, the devotion was prefigured in the middle ages by various holy nuns (?)

Kate Edwards said...

Thanks you Fr Mac Andrew - That helps explain one of the aspects of the feast I've always wondered about in a much more positive light!

And yes CO, St Gertrude the Great amongst others have some association with the history of the feast, perhaps the modern day holy nuns of monasteries putting out gregorian chant recordings such as Le Barroux and the US Benedictines of Mary might have a crack at some new compositions!