The Feast of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus
On the feast of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus (19 days after Pentecost Sunday), we give special honor to the source and symbol of the love Our Saviour has for us. Celebrated the Friday after the feast of Corpus Christi, the feast day celebrates the devotion to the Heart of Jesus; one of the oldest devotions of the Church, dating back in some form to the Patristic Era, the era of the early Church Fathers. Sr. Mary Jeremiah, O.P., S.T.D. Describes the importance and significance of the devotion:
“Jesus Christ is the center of the universe. His pierced Heart, as the symbol of His infinite and divine charity united to his human affections and love, is the focal point of all time. Those who lived during the long period before his incarnation and redemptive death and resurrection waited with yearning for the promised redeemer. Those who witnessed the piercing of his side, as well as all people who will live, are invited to gaze upon and contemplate this mystery. . . As Christians lovingly gaze upon his Heart, they are given the grace to believe in God's mercy and forgiveness.” - from the book The Secret of the Heart
In the early centuries, the devotion was not the same as the devotion to the Sacred Heart we know today. From the time of St. Paul and St. John, there was a devotion to the love of God, who so loved the world to give us his only begotten son, and to the love of Jesus, who has so loved us as to deliver Himself up for us.
“...Study reveals that the earliest Christians contemplated the crucified Saviour with deep veneration and love. They meditated on his wounds with a special emphasis on the wound in his side. At a later date, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, men came to see in His open side the wounded Heart of the Lamb. These Christians were understandably drawn to venerate that Heart and applied to it what the early Christians had taught of the open wound of the side.” - from the book Heart of the Redeemer
However, the early devotion was not specifically to the Heart of Jesus, as a symbol of his great love for us. This more specific devotion would develop later. Gradually, the focus on all of Christ's wounds from the crucifixion was narrowed to focus on the piercing of his side, through which the Heart would be reached. And it was this wound on the Heart which symbolized the wound of Christ's infinite love. Around the 11th century, the devotion to the Sacred Heart began to take on it's recognizable form. Around this time, greater interest in the suffering and Passion of Christ grew, and so with it, a greater focus on the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It was in the 11th century that St. Peter Damien wrote a passage which would speak strongly to Catherine of Siena, who was so fully devoted to the Love of Christ for us, two centuries later:
“It is in the adorable Heart of Jesus that we find every weapon proper to our defense, every remedy for the cure of our ills, the most powerful assistance against the assaults of our enemies, the sweetest consolation to relive our sufferings, the purest delights to crown our souls with Joy.” - St. Peter Damian quoted in The Secret of the Heart.
In the next century, a Latin hymn to the Heart of Jesus was composed; and in the 13th century, three nuns at the monastery of Helfta received mystical experiences pertaining to the revelation of the Heart of Jesus. The devotion grew and became central in the lives of many saints from these times. However, until the 16th century, it remained a more private, individual devotion of the mystical order.
It was in the 17th century that the devotion became a more public devotion, and grew into the veneration that has been handed down to us. It was from 1673 – 1675 that a Visitation nun, St. Mary Margaret Alacoque, received revelations from the Lord which established the basic structure of the modern expression of the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It was also around this same time that the first Mass in honor of the Sacred Heart was celebrated, and devotion to the Sacred Heart became more widespread. There is not one specific act or practice that defines the devotion to the Sacred Heart, since no one special act or practice can exhaust the depth of Christ's love and our devotion to his Sacred Heart. In 1956 in his encyclical Haurietis Aquas, Pope Pius XII summed up the devotion in this way:
“Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, of its very nature, is a worship of the love with which God, through Jesus, loved us, and at the same time, an exercise of our own love by which we are related to God and to other men. Or to express it in another way, devotion of this kind is directed towards the love of God for us in order to adore it, give thanks for it, and live so as to imitate it; it has this in view, as the end to be attained, that we bring that love by which we are bound to God to the rest of men to perfect fulfillment by carrying out daily more eagerly the new commandment which the divine Master gave to His Apostles as a sacred legacy when He said: "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another as I have loved you.”