Devotion to the Heart of Jesus and Its Roots in Holy Scripture

“More Brilliant than the Sun," a weekly series by Robert Stackpole, STD, Director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy 

The series so far:
PART 1: The Plan of the Heart of Jesus to Drive Back the World's Darkness
PART 2: What Do We Really Mean By “The Heart of Jesus”?

PART 3: Devotion to the Heart of Jesus and Its Roots in Holy Scripture

Let’s review what we established in the previous installment of this series.

Devotion to the Heart of Jesus essentially consists in the adoration and service of the Person of the Son of God, because of the unfathomable depths of His divine and human love — love for His Heavenly Father and love for all of humanity — signified by the physical Heart of the Redeemer. In other words, the physical Heart of Jesus points to the mystery of His Person, His “hidden center,” a mystery that has been disclosed to us in the Gospels as overflowing with divine, human, and compassionate love. This devotion, therefore, leads us more deeply to appreciate that everything our Savior did and suffered was an expression of that threefold love. As Pope Ven. Pius XII wrote in his encyclical letter on the Sacred Heart (Haurietis Aquas, 59):

Hence, in [our Lord’s] words, actions, commands, miracles, and especially those works that manifest most clearly His love for us — such as the divine institution of the Eucharist, His most bitter sufferings and death, the loving gift of His Holy Mother to us, the founding of the Church for us, and finally the sending of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles and upon us — all these, We say, ought to be looked upon as proofs of His threefold love.

In the devotion to the Heart of Jesus, our principle motive should be “to return love for love,” as St. Margaret Mary put it: to love our Savior in return for all the love He has shown for us, symbolized by His wounded Heart of flesh, flaming with the fire of the Holy Spirit.

Indeed, the Heart of Jesus in this devotion is properly depicted in the form revealed to St. Margaret Mary: surmounted by a cross (symbolizing Christ’s redemptive death for us), surrounded by a crown of thorns (symbolizing the grief and sorrow caused to Him by our sins), marked with the wound caused by the spear (symbolizing the unfathomable depths of His Heart, from which flows His love for His Heavenly Father and for all of humanity), and all aflame with fire (symbolizing the Holy Spirit, “the Living Flame of Love” — as St. John of the Cross put it, the fire of love ever burning in our Savior’s Heart). When this depiction of the Sacred Heart is set within an image of the risen and glorified Son of God, it shows us that the Heart of Jesus is not a dead thing, like a relic, or a bare symbol, but a living reality in the heavenly, glorified Body of Christ, where it forever symbolizes and manifests His threefold love.

Scriptural roots
These days, however, people rightly want to know where all this can be found rooted in Scripture, the Word of God. Obviously, the symbolic elements added to the image of the Heart of Jesus — the Cross, the crown of thorns, the wound in the side of Jesus pierced by the spear, the presence of the Holy Spirit symbolized by fire — all these elements of the image revealed to St. Margaret Mary can be found in the Gospel stories of Pentecost, and the accounts of the Passion and death of Christ. But what about the whole idea of venerating the Heart of Jesus itself?

Let’s look first at the Old Testament roots of this devotion, and next time at the New Testament witness in this regard.

Biblically speaking, we can define the “heart” as the entire interior life of a human being, which manifests the deepest mystery of his person. For example, in his book A Biblical Spirituality of the Heart (New York: Alba House, 1991, p.1), Fr. Jan Bovenmars found this perspective expressed in Proverbs 4:23 (“More than all else, keep watch over your heart, since here are the wellsprings of life”):

Our heart is the wellspring of life, so we must keep watch over it. Here we are at the source of our feelings and decisions, of our thinking and of what we want, what we say and do; our external behavior is determined by this interior center.

In his essay “The Heart Language in the Bible,” Joachim Becker surveyed the many passages in the Bible that mention the human “heart,” and how they often refer to thinking, considering, and gaining wisdom; thus, the Heart includes also the deepest human thoughts, and the underlying dispositions of the will reflected in those thoughts (in Leo Scheffcyzk, editor, Faith in Christ and the Worship of Christ. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986, p. 23-31). In other words, by the “heart,” the Bible means “the core of who we really are — what we really think and love, and therefore what we are most committed to, deep down” (see Jer 31:33).

The most important biblical exposition of this subject can be found in an essay by Hugo Rahner, SJ, clearly summarized for us in Timothy O’Donnell’s classic work, The Heart of the Redeemer (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1983, p. 23-52).

To begin with, Rahner shows that “God really intended the revelation of the Heart of the Messiah” in prophetic passages of the Old Testament and that “this revelation belongs to the original message and meaning of inspired Scripture.” For example, we read in Psalm 40:7-9: “Behold I come … . To do Thy will, O my God, is all my desire. I carry Thy law in the midst of my heart.” According to Hebrews 10:5-7, this passage in the psalm is a prayer expressing the deep commitment of the Heart of the Messiah to accomplish His Father’s will.

Sufferings of the Heart
In Psalm 22:2, we get an intimate glimpse of the sufferings of the Heart of the Redeemer: “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me” — a prayer that the Messiah makes His own on the Cross when He gives His life for the sins of all (see Mt 27:45-46; see also Mt 27:35 and Jn 19:24 as further references to this psalm in the story of the Passion and death of Christ). In Psalm 22:14-15, the suffering Messiah exclaims, “My heart is like wax, it is melted within my breast.” This passage deeply moved the early Christians; St. Justin Martyr, for example, around 150 A.D. (in his Dialogue with Tryphon, PG vol. 6, p. 718-719) understood it to be a prophecy of our Lord’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemane:

[I]t is written that His sweat poured out like drops of blood as He prayed and said “If it be possible, let this cup pass from Me.” His heart and His bones were evidently quaking, and His heart was like wax, melting in His bosom, so we may understand that the Father wished His Son to endure in reality these sufferings for us, and may not declare that, since He was the Son of God, He had no feeling of what was done, and inflicted upon Him.

O’Donnell remarks: “This scriptural passage leads us directly to one of the primary characteristics of the devotion to the Sacred Heart — an intense compassion for the broken, human heart of our Lord” (Heart of the Redeemer, p. 31).

Another prophecy of the agony and Passion of Christ is found in Psalm 69:21.

Reproach has broken my heart and I am cast down, and I looked for one that would grieve together with me, but there was none; and for one that would comfort me, and I found none.

Solace and consolation
That this passage points to the death of Christ is clear from the New Testament (see Jn 2:17, 15:25; Acts 1:20; Rom 15:3). As we shall see, another characteristic of devotion to the Sacred Heart, as it developed in the life of the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is a longing to bring solace and consolation to our Lord in His suffering.

Finally, a number of passages in the Old Testament testify to the joy and delight of the Heart of the Messiah, such as this one from Psalm 16:9-10, which speaks of the gladness of His Heart in the triumph of His Resurrection:

For this reason my heart is glad and my soul rejoices, moreover my body also will rest secure, for Thou wilt not leave my soul in the abode of the dead nor permit Thy holy one to see corruption [a passage frequently cited by the apostles] (see Acts 2:30-31 and 13:35).

What is merely prophesied in the Old Testament, however, comes to full fruition in the New: the full manifestation of the loving Heart of the Divine Word made flesh.

This series continues next week with Part 4: "The Heart of the Savior in the New Testament"

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Part 23: In the final entry of his 23-part series on the Sacred Heart, Dr. Robert Stackpole discusses the role that devotion to the Sacred and Merciful Heart of Jesus may play in the completion of our Lord’s plan to drive back the darkness of the present age.