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.
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
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.
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
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."
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: 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.