What Do We Really Mean By “The Heart of Jesus”?

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

PART 2: What Do We Really Mean By “The Heart of Jesus”?

Let’s begin at the beginning. What do we really mean when we speak of devotion to the “Heart” of Jesus? We don’t really mean His physical Heart, beating in his breast, right? Surely, we mean His Heart merely as a symbol: a symbol of His love, like the heart on a Valentine’s Day card.

Well, yes … and no.

I have written about all this on this website before, and it’s worth repeating. The human physical heart is not necessarily a symbol of the virtue of “love,” simply because many human “hearts” are not loving at all. Rather, as I wrote: 

The human [physical] heart is the symbol of the deepest mystery of a person. When we talk about someone’s heart, we are talking about what really “makes him tick” — what the person really, deep down, thinks and feels and desires. As the Catechism tells us in entry no. 2563: “The heart is our hidden center, beyond the grasp of our reason and of others; only the Spirit of God can fathom the human heart, and know it fully.” 

Again, our heart is the deepest mystery of our person; it is our “hidden center,” from which most of what we think and say and do proceeds. 

According to the Bible, some people are cold-hearted, or hard-hearted; they have hearts of “stone.” (e.g., Ezek 11:19). The mystery of the Heart of Jesus, however, has been revealed to us through the gospels, and beautifully expressed in His prophetic revelations to St. Margaret Mary. Whatever we may say about other human hearts, the hidden center of this person, Jesus of Nazareth, is a Heart aflame with love: love for His heavenly Father, and love for us. That is why He showed His physical Heart to St. Margaret Mary as flaming with fire, surmounted by a cross, and pierced and surrounded by thorns. All of these were clear signs and symbols that this Heart — the “hidden center” or deepest mystery of the person of Jesus Christ — is pure love: the Sacred Heart of Jesus as all love and all lovable.

His physical Heart
Thus, while the ultimate object of this devotion is indeed the person of Jesus Christ, because of His unfathomable love, symbolized by His Heart, the initial object of our devotion should be the real, physical Heart of our Savior. The reason we must begin there is that His physical Heart — indeed, any human, physical heart — is a natural symbol of whatever that person, in his very depths, loves most of all, good or bad. Consider: The physical heart is centrally located in the human body, and vital to the health of the whole body. As Emily Jaminet puts it in her book Secrets of the Sacred Heart (Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 2020, p. xii): 

The heart resides at our core and pumps blood throughout our bodies, out to our extremities in order that we may live. So too does love emanate from our core, sustaining our souls and radiating outward to others. Love is meant to be pumped not only into our actions, but also into our interactions and relationships with family, friends, and all who cross our paths.

If our spiritual heart is corrupt at its core, however, devoid of the life-giving Holy Spirit, then what it “pumps” into all our actions and relationships will be poisonous and life-destroying. The spiritual Heart of Jesus, on the other hand, on full display in the Gospels and symbolized by His physical Heart in His revelations to St. Margaret Mary, is a Heart aflame with the fire of the Holy Spirit: the Spirit of Truth and Love (see Jn 16:13; Rom 5:5). He is truly “the Lord and giver of life,” as we say in the Creed.

Emotions
The human physical heart is a natural symbol of what we love in another way, as well. We know from experience that the heart is the physical recorder of our emotions, and all our emotions revolve around what we love most. When we come into the company of our beloved, for example, or when we are confronted with what we are devoted to most of all, our physical heart beats more rapidly and registers our affections. On the other hand, if we are confronted with what we dread most of all (especially if that confrontation is a sudden one), we often say our heart “skipped a beat” — which literally may be true! The fact is that internal affections of sorrow and love produce a greater and more manifest impression on the heart than any other part of the human body, which is why people can even die “from a broken heart.”

As we shall see throughout this series, the same is true of the Heart of Jesus. Pope St. John Paul II put it this way in his Angelus Meditations on the Litany of the Sacred Heart (Huntingdon, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 1992, p. 23): 

The expression “Heart of Jesus” immediately calls to mind Christ’s humanity and emphasizes the wealth of his feelings: his compassion for the sick, his predilection for the poor, his mercy for sinners, his tenderness toward children, his strength in denouncing the hypocrisy of pride and violence, his meekness before his opponents, his zeal for the glory of his Father, and his rejoicing in the mysterious and providential plans of grace. 

In this devotion, therefore, we are meant to use the depictions of Christ’s physical Heart as the first step on a ladder of contemplation. First, we adore the physical Heart of Jesus as the natural sign and register of all His affections of love, on which we can meditate in the gospels (as Pope St. John Paul II did, above). Those affections of love reflect the virtue of love in the depths of His human soul, His “spiritual Heart,” manifest in His preaching, healing, suffering, dying, and rising to life again, all to draw near to us, and to rescue us from sin and everlasting death. Jesus was not just a virtuous prophet and martyr, however, but God the Son in person, the Second Person of the Trinity who assumed human flesh and dwelt among us (see Jn 1:14); the virtue of love in His human, spiritual Heart, therefore, must be the incarnate, radiant expression of the Divine Love always burning in His Heart for His Heavenly Father, and for all human beings. Thus, we climb a contemplative ladder from the affective love registered in the beating of His physical Heart, to the virtue of love in His human soul or spiritual Heart, to the heights of infinite love expressed in both, and shining out from the Divine Person of the Son of God, “more brilliant than the sun.”

Depths of love
In this way devotion to the Heart of Jesus really does begin with His physical Heart — but it does not stop there. By honoring and worshipping that Heart, we are not just adoring a part of His physical Body all by itself; rather, we are adoring the Divine Person to whom His physical Heart belongs, and the depths of love in His human soul or spirit registered by that physical Heart, and manifest in all that He said and did for us.

In ancient Greece and Rome, a man who had won a race was crowned with a wreath of laurel leaves. This honoring of his head was not meant merely to honor a part of his body, but to honor that part as a sign and symbol of the person as a whole. In a similar way, we worship and adore the physical Heart of Jesus as the part of Him that best symbolizes the whole. To be more precise, we adore His physical Heart as the part of His body that symbolizes the deepest mystery of His Divine Person: namely, His unfathomable love, manifest in the whole of His Sacred Humanity, and clearly expressed in everything that He felt and said and did, from His birth in Bethlehem to His Ascension on the Mount of Olives — the mystery of His Infinite, generous and compassionate Love.

This series continues next week with Part 3: "Devotion to the Heart of Jesus and Its Roots in Holy Scripture" 

Robert Stackpole, STD, is the director of The John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy.

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