The Sacred Heart of Jesus

“Use your head!” the teacher shouts. “I can’t get my head around it,” the student moans. The two of them start going “head to head,” and in the end, the teacher “loses his head.” Maybe the teacher was the “Head Master.” At any rate, you’d wish he had a better “head on his shoulders.“ 

Just think of all the phrases we use in English with the word “head” in them. I wonder whether we in the West might be a bit too “head-centred” these days. Let’s see what happens when we take those phrases and put in a different organ of the body instead.

What if someone told you to “use your heart?” 

What if we tried to get our “heart” around a problem? 

How different would an encounter be if instead of being “head to head,” it was “heart to heart”? 

Imagine if instead of losing your head at someone, you lost your heart to someone. 

I wonder what kind of school might be led by a “Heart Master”? 

When I celebrate mass, at the preparation of the altar, there’s a small ritual I carry out which you probably haven’t noticed, unless you’re a server. I take the chalice and pour into it not just wine, but water as well, and I say (in Latin) “by the mystery of this water and wine may we take part in the divinity of him who took part in our humanity.”

To find out why, and what that’s got to do with hearts, we’re going to need to look at the icon hanging in Lichfield Cathedral. 

Lichfield Cathedral Icon

Look at what is coming out of Jesus’ side: two thin lines, one red, one blue. If you know your Bible, this takes you to the story of Jesus’ crucifixion in John’s version of the Gospel, where a soldier makes sure he is dead by stabbing him in the heart with a spear, and out of it flow blood and water. So why? What do these signify? 

Let’s take the blood first. Blood represents the sacrifices made for God in the ancient Jewish religion, and especially the sacrifice of the Passover lamb, by which Moses led the Israelites to freedom from slavery in Egypt. So Jesus’ blood is shed for the freedom of all people, all of us, from slavery to guilt and sin. This is something that only God himself could do for us, so the precious blood of Christ symbolises his divinity, his participation in God. 

And the water? It conjures up so many images: Moses leading the Israelites through the water of the Red Sea to safety, Moses striking a rock with his staff to bring forth a spring of water when the Israelites were dying of thirst; water as the basic stuff we need to live, the stuff which makes up most of the human body, but also, the stream of water flowing through paradise which nourishes the heavenly tree of life. Water which Christ blessed at his baptism, and in which we are washed clean in ours – and so a symbol of Christ’s humanity, as he comes down from the godhead to be one of us, living in our world, blessing all that he has made. 

As St Athanasius said,

“God became human so that humanity might become God.”

On the Incarnation, St Athanasius

The wine and water in the chalice at the Eucharist show how in Jesus God becomes one of us so that we might become one with him; and all this comes from reflecting not on Jesus’ head, but on his heart. 

We think of an “intellectual” being someone who lives by her head; but in the Middle Ages, the word intellect meant the head and heart working together. Many non-Western cultures continue to value the head and heart equally. But so much of modern life encourages us to live in our heads and ignore our hearts: I know it’s something I can be guilty of myself. Our exam-driven education system and all our electronic devices with their constant notifications encourage us to focus everything on the head. 

I think that also comes across in some of our western ideas about justice, too, which can be very calculating: all about reparation and retribution, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. As long as we think people should get what they deserve, we’re thinking with our heads alone. 

God’s justice, God’s fairness, is something quite different. It’s the justice of the heart: a heart pierced by a spear, a heart which flows with life-giving blood and water, the heart of a man executed on a cross, whose dying word is “forgive.” When we think about this with our heads, this seems terribly unfair. We will only know it is true when we learn to think with our hearts, or more precisely, with the Sacred Heart of Jesus – which the Church commemorates every year on the Friday eight days after Corpus Christi. 

So how do we do this? How do we join the beating of our own hearts with the beating of the Sacred Heart?

One way is the ancient prayer of the Orthodox Christians of the East called the Jesus Prayer. It means taking some time away from all the stuff that distracts our heads, sitting somewhere in silence on our own, perhaps using a prayer rope or rosary beads to help us, as we lower our minds into our hearts and simply say, over and over again, the words:

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me.”

The Jesus Prayer

Thirty-three times is a good start, as that is the number of years Jesus lived, and the number three is always a good one for Christians. When you get really good at it, you may even manage to say the words in rhythm with your heartbeat. Make the time to do this often, and notice the difference in how you think about yourself and other people – using your heart as much as your head.

It’s not often that I counsel people to get out their heads, but today’s the day. Instead, how about trying to become Heart Masters?

Cor Jesu sacratissimum, miserere nobis: Most sacred heart of Jesus, have mercy upon us.