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Father Paul

The Sacred Heart of Jesus
by Father Paul Keenan

Growing up Catholic in the late 40’s and 50’s was a rich experience. A typical Catholic home like ours was replete with religious imagery, statues, crucifixes, religious pictures, fonts of holy water, holy cards bearing images of Jesus and the saints – all of these were part of a normal Catholic home. While it is understandable that some of the other faiths believed that we were worshiping or praying to these objects, the truth is that Catholics worship only God. The various religious objects of my boyhood – and you find them in many Catholic homes today – were powerful reminders of the presence of God. They "lift up our minds and hearts to God," as our catechism taught us. Even, and perhaps especially, in troubled times, they taught us that God’s love was ever near. There was something else that our religious objects did for us. They helped us to recall our heroes. When we were tempted to forget our goals and ideals they helped us to remember.

Heart Storming by Father Paul Keenan

In our home one of the most powerful religious images was a large picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus that hung in the hallway for all to see. When I say "picture of the Sacred Heart," I do not mean to imply that it was a picture of an anatomical heart; rather it was a reproduction of a painting of Jesus. In that painting, we see the heart of Jesus surrounded by a crown of thorns, behind which lay a burning fire of love. As you could well imagine from the place of prominence the picture had in our home, devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus was important to us. During the month of June, my parents kept a red vigil light burning beneath it day and night. June is the month dedicated to the Sacred Heart and the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is celebrated on the first Friday of June. During that month our family made a special novena to the Sacred Heart – nine days of prayers in honor of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Devotion to the Sacred Heart was not limited to one month of the year. Catholics made a special effort to receive the Body of Christ on the first Friday of every month, which was dedicated to the Sacred Heart. St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, a seventeenth-century mystic, had received a vision in which Jesus promised that those who made the First Friday devotion for nine consecutive months would be given the grace of repentance at the moment of death. Today in many Catholic churches throughout the world, the Eucharistic Host is solemnly displayed and special first Friday devotions are held in honor of the Sacred Heart.

For Catholics, the symbol of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is a powerful image of the love of God. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, the heart of God was a key image of the God who kept covenant with his people. The heart itself was the very center – the core – of a person. Time and time again the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob begged his people not to harden their hearts but to return to him. In the Gospels, when Jesus was challenged to summarize the law of God, he stressed loving God with all our heart and our neighbor as ourselves. The New Testament stressed love as the way to life, "God is Love," wrote St. John; "and whoever abides in love abides in God and God in them" (I John 4:16). To St. Paul, the presence of love renders all other gifts worthwhile, while its absence renders them useless (I Corinthians 3).

The Sacred Heart of Jesus, then, is meant to symbolize the love of God and to evoke love for God from us.

What is so striking about the image is that the Heart of Christ is depicted as both crowned with thorns and on fire with love. Ringed by a crown of thorns, Jesus’ heart is the heart of the one who was crucified. On the cross, Jesus was given a crown of thorns by his tormentors. This was a gesture of mockery. His enemies believed that Jesus was attempting to establish a kingdom on earth. The crown of thorns was meant to highlight the apparent failure of Jesus to do so successfully. Instead of a majestic crown of gold studded with diadems, this terrible crown made of dead wood was an image of barrenness, futility and failure.

Besides its meaning as an instrument of mockery, the crown of thorns was an actual instrument of torture. It was positioned so that its points pressed into the skull, causing bleeding and excruciating pain. The cutting remarks of those who tormented Jesus were reinforced by the thorns cutting into his head.

Yet in the image of the Sacred Heart there is a blessed irony. Though crowned with thorns, the heart of Jesus is aflame with love. In the Gospel of John (1:5), the light of God is described as "a light no darkness can extinguish." This is the meaning here. The divine love burns on behind, despite and within the crown of thorns. To Christians, the image is a potent reminder of the omni-potent power of divine love.

Stages of the Soul by Father Paul Keenan

The image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus at once glorious and suffering raises a puzzling question in the post-resurrection era. Can divine redemptive love and divine suffering co-exist once Jesus has arisen? Does not the victory of Jesus over sin and death abolish the crown of thorns? Was not the resurrection of Jesus a triumph over sin and death? Basking in the resurrection, do we not say, "O Death where is your victory; O Death where is your sting" (I Corinthians 15:55)?

In the Book of Revelation, written by John, the author of the Fourth Gospel, there is an intriguing suggestion about the co-existence of divine glory and suffering. The Book of Revelation is a mysterious and image-rich account of a vision given to John of the end of time and of the entry of creation into the fullness of glory. In Chapter 5, John speaks of seeing a lamb looking as if it had been slain. It symbolizes the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ the Savior. It is a jarring image, for one would expect to see the Savior in complete glory. John seems to be saying here that somehow in Christ, glory and suffering co-exist. Back in the Fourth Gospel, Jesus showed something similar in the passage about the appearance of the risen Christ to Thomas the Apostle (20:24-28). Clearly, Jesus is in his glorified state, yet He invites Thomas to place his hands into the wounds from the crucifixion. The mystery that John seeks to communicate is that somehow, even in glory, there remains a close connection between divine life and suffering.

That is a mystery that the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus imparts as well. The divine heart is radiant with love, yet crowned with thorns. Somehow, even in God, it tells us, the vestiges of suffering remain an intricate part of God as we know Him.

What does this mean for us? It means that to approach God implies coming into the presence of One who is deeply touched by the reality of suffering and sorrow. Our expectation tends to be that to be God means to be above the reality of pain. This is, indeed, mysterious to us, for we are accustomed to believing that God in his omnipotence would destroy all evil. We sometimes become deeply angry when He does not. "Why does God allow bad things to happen to us?" It is a question often on our lips. The answer has to do with the relationship between divine initiative and human response. Looking at the Sacred Heart, one wonders why the flame of divine love does not destroy the wooden crown. It seems that there is something about the crown of thorns that is self-replenishing even in the face of God’s love. The story imaged here is that of the ongoing battle between good and evil. The image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus tells us that God’s heart is as affected by that struggle as ours.

For Christians, and for others as well, that might seem to be bad news. It might appear to be saying that in the face of evil, God is as helpless as we often feel ourselves to be.

Yet that is not the message that the Gospels or the devotion to the Sacred Heart proffer. The Christian insistence is that the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ results in the ultimate triumph of good over evil, a triumph which is not yet fully realized in our world to date. The images of the glorious, yet wounded, God do not imply a lack of victory. They tell us, rather, that even after the victory has been fully manifested, the history of the human struggle for and against the ways of God will always be significant and never be trivialized.

What this means, I think, can be exemplified in the story of a friend of mine. She tells the story openly, and I should add that the priest in whom she confided was not I. As my friend tells this story, she was for many years engaged in actions and relationships that by her own admission were immoral. One day, while reading a simple newspaper story, she was overcome by the realization of how damaging her actions had been to so many others and to herself. Filled with remorse, she spoke to a priest and poured out her entire story. When she had finished, she waited for the priest to condemn her. Instead, he shook his head and, with deep compassion, remarked, "How you have suffered. How you have suffered."

Good News for Bad Days: Living a Soulful Life by Father Paul Keenan

That encounter touched my friend deeply and literally changed her life. The priest’s compassion acknowledged both her sense of sinfulness and the deep anguish that had plagued her life for years. He did not justify or excuse her actions or in any way pretend that they or the anguish didn’t exist. Yet, behind them, he offered the assurance of God’s love and forgiveness. All of that, the thorns and the heart, enabled my friend to turn her life around. Now she spends her life helping others like herself to experience that same love. The thorns are still there, but now they are transformed so as to enable her to use her experience for good.

We see something similar when any suffering becomes redemptive. I have seen people ravaged by divorce help others when their marriages have fallen apart. Alcohol and drug abusers often become effective counselors for other substance abusers. They do not forget their pain; but now, instead of destroying them, it transforms it into something useful for others.

In an age that often tries to "fix" bad decisions and misfortunes and make them "go away," the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is a powerful reminder that merely taking away those moments may rob them – and us – of their deeper gift. When our painful moments (our crown of thorns) can be transformed so that they no longer destroy us, but assist us in helping others, they allow us to realize our essential goodness and enable us to live our lives in new and positive ways.

And in the end, the image of the Sacred Heart reminds us that when we open ourselves to that transformation, we are drawing near to the heart of God.

© Copyright 2002 Father Paul Keenan.  All Rights Reserved. Excerpted from Heartstorming: The Way to a Purposeful Life, Contemporary Books.

Father Paul Keenan
Father Paul Keenan: Popular speaker, author and radio co-host of WABC Radio’s "Religion on the Line," Father Paul Keenan likes to talk and write about the issues that matter to people. Widely experienced as a national and local television and radio news commentator, he is the author of Good News for Bad Days, Stages of the Soul and Heartstorming. As Director of Radio Ministry of the Archdiocese of New York, he supervises, produces and writes for various radio and television programs. In addition, he serves as a parish priest in New York City.

Father Paul Keenan, came to his now-ten-year-old career in New York broadcasting after having been a college teacher and administrator and a parish priest for many years. He hails from Kansas City, where he graduated from Rockhurst University and completed an M.A. in Moral and Pastoral Theology at Saint Louis University. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1977, and went on to complete an M.A. in Philosophy at Fordham University.

Father Paul is also known for his work on the Web. He hosts his own website (www.fatherpaul.com) and contributes regular articles to various other sites. He is a regular columnist for the monthly newspaper, "Catholic New York." His other talents and interests include reading, cooking and being humble servant to his three cats, Teddy, Lionel and Midnight.





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