Today is the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Yes, I’m going to explain why I think that a big enough deal worth mentioning. 🙂
Though first I want to talk a little about just what “solemnity” means. In 1969, when Pope Paul VI revised the Church calendar for the, possibly, 869th time in the 20th century, he simplified the ranking of feastdays so that each fell into one of three categories: Memorial, Feast, or Solemnity. A Memorial, as the name may suggest, is a day set aside to remember someone or something, usually the death of one of the Church’s martyrs. A Feast goes a step further, as a day when we not only remember but celebrate a special event in our history, such as the finding of the True Cross or the dedication of the Lateran Basilica (the Pope’s cathedral church for the last 1700 years), or someone especially noteworthy, such as one of the Apostles or the Gospel writers. But a Solemnity, the day of highest rank, is even more than that. The Latin word sollemnis originally noted something that is observed at the same time and in the same way every year. It had an additional meaning of “usual, customary, typical,” since these annual observances attracted to themselves their own distinct features and customs–rituals, if you will–and so they became something reflective of the individuals and communities observing and celebrating them. So something that is solemn is something that tells us who we are, something that makes us uniquely us. So it is with the Solemnities of the Church. Look at some of the things the Church solemnizes: Jesus’ birth; His resurrection; His ascension; Mary as the Mother of God; her immaculate conception; the coming of the promised Holy Spirit to the Apostles; the triune nature of God. Solemnities are those feastdays when we remember and celebrate what it is we believe, and it is the way in which we do that that solemnizes the event.
So yes, this is one of those days: the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. This devotion probably grew out of a more general devotion in the Middle Ages to Jesus’ love. It started to become really prominent in the 1600s, first because of Saint John Eudes, a French missionary who was the first to compose an official office of worship to the Hearts of Mary and Jesus. The first real feastday in honor of the Heart of Jesus was celebrated in August 1670 in France. But the devotion as we know it today was born from the visions of a French nun, Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque. Between 1673 and 1675 Jesus came to visit her several times to ask her to spread this devotion by encouraging acts of reparation, such as frequent reception of Communion and the observance of hour-long meditations upon the exposed Eucharist (known as Holy Hours). In June 1675 she experienced what is called the Great Apparition, in which Jesus requested a formal feast be instituted to His Sacred Heart, to be celebrated on the ninth day after the Feast of Corpus Christi. In this Apparition He spoke these powerful words to Saint Margaret Mary, in what she described as mournful tones:
Look upon this Heart That has so loved mankind and has stored up goodnesses for everyone, and That has found no thanks returned for Its limitless love, but rather forgetfulness, neglect, insults–and these things more than a few times from those who were bound by the debt and duty of a special love.
We don’t tend to think of Jesus as seeming so….for lack of a better word, needy. After all, the Gospel reveals that He is the Son of God and God Himself, the eternal Word of the Father through Whom the Father created all that is. And yet this complaint of unrequited love from His lips to our ears is one that speaks to a fundamental truth of the Church’s faith: our almighty God has an almighty weakness. You see, He loves His creation so much, and wishes so greatly to be with it in all things, that He constantly humbles Himself before His creation. Throughout history He has chosen to make deals and pacts with people instead of forcing them into accord with His will, so that they can continue to be free people making free choices. When the Church recently celebrated the Solemnity of Christ’s Most Holy Body and Blood, we remembered and celebrated the belief that God wishes to be a part of us so much, not just in the overall cosmic sense but in ways that we can visibly and tangibly perceive, that He becomes food and drink, enabling us to literally take Him into ourselves and make Him one with ourselves and to make a part of us completely divine. But on this occasion, in a different and almost inverted way, we revere and simply stand in awe of this great and terrible weakness of God by recognizing that there is a part of Him that is, and forever will be, completely human.
Among the prayers associated with this feastday is an ancient hymn, dating back to the very first generation of the Church when the Apostles were spreading the Gospel message to the ends of the world. It’s called the “kenosis” hymn, from the Greek word meaning “emptying.” It speaks of Jesus, fully divine and co-equal with the Father, as emptying Himself; He took flesh and was born as a man, and in doing so He became a slave to death. Because of this wondrous act, the Father took Jesus, this fully human part of His entire Self, and exalted Him above all creation once again as co-equal, to be acknowledged and honored by all as LORD. It is that emptied yet equal part of God, represented by a bruised and bleeding Heart surrounded by thorns and surmounted by fire, that desperately wants us to love Him back–a very human thing that we’ve all experienced at one time or another.
We may never be able to repay so great a love, but we can certainly try. And the way we who believe try is by following His commands: believing in the saving power of His Name, and by loving each other as He loved us–that is, to the end. So on this great day let’s commit to doing just that, and thereby solemnize the remembrance and celebration of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, the blunt and exposed emblem of a loving God Who makes Himself weak so that we can be strong.
“Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, abundantly pour out, we beseech You, Your blessings upon Your holy Church, upon the Pope, and upon all the clergy. Give constancy to the righteous, turn sinners back, enlighten the faithless, bless our neighbors, friends and benefactors, defend the dying, free the souls waiting in Purgatory, and upon all hearts sweetly extend the rule of Your love. Amen.” – Prayer to the Sacred Heart