When I talk to my students at Mission College Prep about God, one of the first things I try to emphasize is that God is a relational being – God is love. A few months ago, I asked my freshmen to explain the difference between agape and philos – between love and friendship. One student said, “I’d do a favor for a friend. For someone I love, I’d be willing to share or sacrifice almost anything.”
Today, we happen to celebrate the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. About four hundred years ago, Saint Margaret Mary Alocoque wrote about her devotion to the Sacred Heart. She popularized the “Holy Hour,” a devotion where a person of faith spends an hour in prayer, before the Blessed Sacrament. In Margaret Mary’s case, she would lie prostrate before the Blessed Sacrament for the entire hour. Margaret Mary had a weak constitution – she often fell sick. And just as often, her illness would suddenly vanish. Margaret Mary claimed that Jesus himself ministered to her, and that he even spoke to her in her visions. Not surprisingly, she was met with some scepticism by her superiors and those in her religious community.
But as is the case with many saints, her popularity, and the popularity of her writing, grew after she passed away. All of the great French saints of the nineteenth century – John Vianney, Therese of Lisieux, Bernadette, and Catherine Laboure – had a devotion to the Sacred Heart. Perhaps most fittingly, a national cathedral was erected in Paris – The Cathedral of the Sacred Heart – as a memorial to those who had suffered at the hands of violence during the political turmoil of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in France.
This devotion is firmly rooted in Scripture, because the theme of love is firmly rooted in Scripture. Yesterday, we heard the story of Tobiah being introduced to his future bride, Sarah. The entire Book of Tobit is, in one sense, a love story. In fact, many scholars have referred to the Old Testament as a love story between God and His chosen people.
The devotion to the Sacred Heart is, at its simplest, just a way of remembering that God is love, and that God loves us. Today’s second reading is fitting, as Saint Paul tells us that God’s love has been poured into our own hearts.
There is a tradition associated with the devotion to the Sacred Heart, that on the first Friday of each month, we might perform some small penance in reparation for those times when we have not returned God’s love, or when we have failed to love others.
Of course, a saint like Therese of Lisieux might be inclined to think less in terms of penance, and more in terms simply remembering that God loves us. To quote from her diary,
I need a burning heart with tenderness,
who will support me forever,
who loves everything in me, even my weakness,
and who never leaves me day or night.
Today we can celebrate the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, perhaps by doing some small penance for those times that we have forgotten to love others. Or, we can simply commit to remember, each and every day, how much Christ loves us. Not surprisingly, Therese of Lisieux chose the latter route.