Whether you’ve liked them or not, you’ve likely seen representational art portraying Jesus with a human heart floating outside his chest, sometimes surrounded by thorns and topped with a flame of inextinguishable fire. Such images can conjure up emotions and questions both positive and negative. The image I’m referring to is known as the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It’s a widely popular devotion in Catholic Christianity and we remember that devotion today.
You have before you an icon. The word icon is the Greek word for “image.” It’s the word Paul uses in his Letter to the Colossians where he speaks of Christ as the image of God. Although this is not an icon of the Sacred Heart, it is an icon of Jesus and for many Christians today and for centuries before, it is an object of veneration. While there is no heart represented here I’ve always thought that the gesture of the right hand points to the heart. The gospel book that Jesus is holding is written in Slavonic, the liturgical language of the Russian Orthodox Church. It reads, “Come unto me all who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” Icons occupy a central position in the devotional piety of orthodoxy in a largely uninterrupted history of 1,600 years. It is important to understand what is being venerated. To understand what the icon represents in the minds and hearts of many believing Christians.
It seems fair to say that at least in Western culture, we have lost much of the symbolic or metaphorical quality of the human experience. This was not the case as little as a hundred years ago. Icons are just such kinds of symbols. In iconic art each and every detail presents some expression of higher spirituality reality. None is without some specific significance. The shape and position of the hands, the unusual perspective, the folds of the vesture and their particular colors and shadings, the facial expression, the nimbus that surrounds the head, the short-hand lettering; every detail represents something about whatever individual is represented. Icons have been treasured precisely because they have the ability to transmit spiritual truth instantaneously to the believer. In an individual familiar with their symbolic system, as are many Eastern Christians, their multitude of meanings transmits reams of spiritual information.
Our cultural expressions are fragmented and becoming more so each day. So, much of this symbolic system is lost to many of us. It is not only in the area of art but also in religion that a highly evolved symbolic system is loosing more and more currency with each passing day. I think you can rather easily test what I am saying by having a conversation with any teenager. You will be amazed, I think, at what is current and relevant for them. Even at the level of language our most widely shared, and until recently, understood symbolic system, there is increasing misunderstanding and disagreement. You may have experienced yourself wondering what, in heaven’s name, people born only ten years later than you, are talking about.
I believe that we are poorer emotionally, psychologically, socially and spiritually as a result of these phenomena. We have literally lost our ability to communicate with one another across language and culture. Something, as I said earlier, that was not the case just a few short years ago. And the loss of symbolism has been especially problematic because religious expression is largely symbolic and metaphorical. The idea of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which we remember today, is precisely one of those places in which Christian devotion, beginning as high-minded and solidly grounded in belief, has appeared to become increasingly irrelevant if not downright bizarre.
For biblical Jews, the heart did not so much represent that extraordinary muscle that beats in our chests as much as the unity and singleness of human beings. The body-soul dichotomy is something that Christianity incorporated from Platonic philosophy, not from the biblical faith.
If the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is about anything it is about the symbol of the heart, understood in the sense that biblical Jews would have understood it, and what that might or might not evoke in the human psyche. It’s not about devotion to the literal physical heart that beats in the chest of the God-man, Jesus.
The symbolic heart is seen as the center and symbol of the deepest expressions of love. Whether the heart is literally the site of that all-important divine phenomenon, or not, is irrelevant. The focus of devotion is based entirely upon the symbolism of the heart. It is the symbolism that imparts meaning and unity, and it is this symbolism that the artistic representation of the wounded heart of Jesus attempts to complete.
From a time that is only a vague memory in humanity’s history; people have resorted to symbolic expressions of things that they have found mysterious and inexplicable. The representation of the heart of Jesus is something of a sensible sign of Jesus’ senselessly limitless and entirely inexplicable love for humanity and the representation of a wounded heart is meant to recall the invisible wound of this love; the heart of God broken in our rejection of that love. Since in images of the Sacred Heart, the symbolic expression must dominate all else, anatomical accuracy is not sought anymore than it is sought in this icon. Any such accuracy would injure the devotion by rendering the symbolism less evident. Since the heart is above all else an emblem of love, the devotion is entirely to the love of Jesus.
So if we honor the Sacred Heart we in fact honor the love of Jesus for humanity through a symbol, a metaphor, because words fail when we attempt to give expression to what cannot be literally expressed. God’s love is everywhere manifested. In Jesus, the God-man, it is uniquely expressed in that his divine love and his human love are inseparable as are his divine and human natures.
I think that it is important to remember that Jesus had a human heart and that the human heart, in its fullest and most authentic expression, never lies far from the very heart of God. The Sacred Heart of Jesus draws us to those truths.
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