Commentary on the Readings
Feast of the Sacred Heart – June 19 2020
The heart of Jesus and our hearts
Devotion to the Sacred Heart has very ancient origins. It has spread in the Church especially starting from the seventeenth century through the work of a French mystic, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque. In her autobiography, this Visitation sister tells the revelations she had and refers to the famous twelve promises of the Sacred Heart from which the pious practice of the nine first Fridays of the month was derived. It is on the inspiration of this saint that the feast of the Sacred Heart was established.
Like all forms of popular piety, this too entered into crisis after the Vatican Council II. The traditional image—the one showing the Sacred Heart “on a throne of flames, radiant as the sun, with the adorable wound, surrounded by thorns and topped by a cross” is in conformity with the description given by St. Margaret Mary to whom He appeared. This image, too, first exposed in every home, was gradually replaced by others that expressed a new theological concept and a new spiritual sensitivity.
In the post-council period, many devotional practices have been abandoned. That of the Sacred Heart instead received a decisive boost by the conciliar spirit that led to seeking the solid foundation of every form of spirituality not in private revelations, to which—rightly—a more relative value has been given, but in God’s word.
The mystical experiences of St. Margaret Mary had, for three centuries, a great importance and significant repercussions on the life of the Church. They nourished the spirituality of God’s love and fostered a virtuous and committed moral life. However, theologians put forward reservations on these revelations reported by the saint. Today, they no longer are the foundation of devotion to the Sacred Heart, which instead is solidly rooted in the Word of God.
Bible study led to some interesting discoveries. It was immediately realized that the devotion to the Sacred Heart was different from the others. It does not emphasize one of the many aspects of the Gospel message, but took the center of Christian revelation: God’s heart, his passion of love for people that became visible in Christ.
In the Bible, the heart is not only intended as the seat of physical life and feelings, but it designates the whole person. It is primarily considered as the seat of intelligence. We may find it strange, but the Semites think and decide with the heart, “God has given people a heart to think”—says Sirach (17:6). He relates even some perceptions of the senses to the Israelite heart. Sirach, at the end of a long life, during which he accumulated the most diverse experiences and has gained much wisdom says: My heart has seen much (Sir 1:16).
In this cultural context, the image of the heart has also been applied to God. The Bible, in fact, says that God has a heart that thinks, decides, loves and can also be full of bitterness. This is exactly the feeling that is invoked when, at the beginning of Genesis, the word heart appears for the first time: “The Lord saw how great was the wickedness of man on the earth and the evil was always the only thought of his heart” (Gen 6:5).
What does God feel in the face of so much moral depravity? “The Lord regretted having created man on the earth and his heart grieved” (Gen 6:6). He is unfazed—as the philosophers of antiquity thought— he is not indifferent to what happens to his children. He rejoices when he sees them happy and suffers when they move away from him because he loves them madly. Even if provoked by their faithlessness, he never reacts with aggression and violence.
The designs of the Lord, the thoughts of his heart are always and only projects of salvation. For this—the Psalmist says—“Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord” (Ps 33:11-12).
Until the coming of Christ people knew God’s heart only by “hearsay” (Job 42:5). In Jesus, our eyes have contemplated it. “Whoever sees me, sees him who sent me” (Jn 12:45), Jesus has assured his disciples. In his farewell address at the Last Supper, he reminded them of the same truth: “If you know me, you will know the Father also … Whoever sees me sees the Father” (Jn 14:7-9). We can come to know the Father’s heart by contemplating his heart.
When we speak of the heart of Jesus, we refer not only to his whole person but also to his deepest emotions. The Gospel refers often to what he feels in the face of human needs. His heart is sensitive to the cry of the marginalized. He hears the cry of the leper who, contrary to the requirements of the law, comes up to him and, on his knees, begs him: “If you want to, you can make me clean.” Jesus—the evangelist notes—gets excited from the depths of his bowels. He listens to his heart, not to the provisions of the rabbis who prescribe marginalization. He stretches out his hand, touches him and heals him (Mk 1:40-42).
The heart of Jesus is moved when he meets pain. He shares the disturbance that every person feels in the face of death; he feels sympathy for the widow who has lost her only child and is left alone. At Nain, when he sees the funeral procession advancing, he comes forward, comes close to the mother and tells her: “Stop crying!” And he gives her the son. No one asked him to intervene; no one has asked him to perform the miracle. It is his heart that drove him to move closer to those in pain.
The Gospel relates also a heartfelt prayer of Jesus. A father has a child with serious physical and mental problems: he stiffens, foams and is thrown into fire or water. With the last glimmer of hope that remained he goes to Jesus, and, by appealing to the feelings of his heart, directs him a prayer, simple but beautiful: “If you can do anything, have pity on us and help us … “If you can!” (Mk 9:22-23). It is not an expression of doubt about his feelings, but it is a pointer to a consoling truth: he is always listening to those who suffer.
In Jesus, we have seen God crying for the death of his friend, and for the people unable to recognize the one who offered salvation; we have seen God excited for the tears of a mother, touched by the sick, the marginalized, those who hunger.
The God who asks us confidence is not far away and insensitive. He is the one to whom everyone can shout: “Let yourself be moved!” The God who revealed himself in Jesus is not the impassive one the philosophers talked about. He is a God who has a heart that is moved, rejoices and grieves, weeps with those who weep and smiles with those who are happy. An anonymous Egyptian poet wrote, towards 2,000 B.C.: “I seek a heart on which to rest my head and I cannot find it, they are no longer friends.”
We are luckier: we have a heart—that of Jesus—on which to lay our head to hear from him at all times, words of consolation, hope, and forgiveness. Today’s feast wants to introduce us, through the meditation of the Word of God, in the intimacy of Jesus’ heart, so that we learn to love as he loved.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Give us, Jesus, a heart like yours.”
The emotion a woman feels, when the young man who is destined to become her husband, opening his own heart, for the first-time whispers: “I love you,” is memorable. Even Israel has never forgotten the day that his God has made the first declaration of love. The sacred author has kept in the moving page of Deuteronomy proposed to us today: “You are a people consecrated to the Lord” (v. 6).
It is the formula by which the Lord swore eternal love to Israel—his beloved—promising unswerving loyalty: “The Lord your God has chosen you from among all the people on the face of the earth, that you may be his own people” (v. 6).
Israel, the favorite. Why? All other nations ask. How is she able to draw to herself the attention and affection of the Lord? How did she conquer his heart? What’s so fascinating about her? Experience suggests us the answer: the lover’s heart is unpredictable; it follows its own logic; it has reasons that the mind does not understand.
One cannot command the heart. In fact, not even God was able to command his own heart. Logic required that—given its high position—he chose to ally himself with a famous people, powerful, worthy of him. Instead, he fell in love with Israel, not because it was the “most numerous among all the peoples,” but because it was the least, the most insignificant of all (vv. 7-8).
God is not attracted by the rich because they do not need anything; they have it all and no one can enrich them. His heart turns irresistibly to the poor because only to the poor he can deliver himself and give them all the best. Israel has this mission to carry out in the world: to remind always and to all what the Lord’s preferences are. It is the image of all those who will always recall the attention of God’s heart: the marginalized, the miserable, and the sinners, those who, in the eyes of the world, do not matter.
Paul understood it very well when he wrote to the Corinthians: “Yet God has chosen what the world considers foolish, to shame the wise; he has chosen what the world considers weak to shame the strong. God has chosen common and unimportant people, making use of what is nothing to nullify the things that are” (1 Cor 1:27-28).
In Jesus, God’s heart is made visible and showed his preferences for the last: he is born in a cave of the shepherds, grew up among the poor of the world, has chosen the company of tax collectors and sinners and returned to heaven bringing with him a criminal who represents the whole of humanity at last conquered by his love.
In the second part of the reading (vv. 9-11), God reveals to Israel—the bride he has chosen—what is expected of her: an answer without compromises or reservations to his immense love. If she refuses him she would decree her own ruin; she would declare her preference for her own misery than the condition of the queen.
The dramatic nature of this choice is presented in our passage—as in many other pages of the Bible—with the image of punishment, of retribution from God, the unrequited love (v. 10). It is a literary language that wants to draw attention to the responsibility assumed by one who rejects the proposal of the Lord.
According to people’s criteria, the spontaneous response to ingratitude is punishment. But God does not behave in this way because he cannot help but love, as assured by the prophet Hosea: “My heart is troubled within me and I am moved with compassion I will not give vent to my great anger … for I am God and not human” (Hos 11:8-9).
More than the other evangelists, John gained insight into the secrets of the heart of Jesus and discovered the immensity of God’s love. He exclaimed with overwhelming joy: “See what singular love the Father has for us: we are called children of God and we really are” (1 Jn 3:1). In today’s passage, he takes up and develops the theme of divine sonship that filled him with wonder. He begins with an exhortation: “My dear friends, let us love one another for love comes from God. Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God” (v. 7).
Jesus made the same request to the disciples and presenting it as a commandment, as the hallmark of his followers: “Now I give you a new commandment: Love one another! Just as I have loved you, you also must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:34-35).
John does not speak of commandment. To the Christians of his community, he reveals the wonders of the heart of God he contemplated in Jesus. He found that “God is light and there is no darkness in him,” that is why Christians must walk “in the light, as he is in the light” (1 Jn 1:5-7). Then his mystical gaze went beyond and captured the heart of the divine life: God is love. It is from this infinite source that love emanates and spreads among people.
One does not love for an imposition, but for an inner need, for the impulse that comes from the new heart, from the heart of the children of the One who “is love.” Love for the Christian is a given fact; is the necessary manifestation of this new reality in his heart: the divine seed placed in him.
Children of God are those from whose life love emerges. “Those who work for peace, they shall be called children of God” (Mt 5:9); those who love their enemies and pray for their persecutors are “children of your Father in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on both the wicked and the good” (Mt 5:45).
This is a similarity from which even the greatest saint will remain infinitely distant, but towards which we must constantly strive to. In fact, Paul exhorts: “As most beloved children of God, strive to imitate him” (Eph 5:1). Only in Jesus, the only Son of God, the love of the Father’s heart is fully manifested.
The second part of the passage (vv. 9-10) describes what consists love. God has shown his love by giving us what was most precious to him, his Only Begotten Son. He sent him into the world as a “victim of expiation for our sins.” He loved us, not because we were good, but he has made us good by sending his son to involve us in his love, “the time that Christ died for us: when we were still helpless and unable to do anything” (Rom 5:6).
In the last part of the reading (vv. 11-16), John explains what happens in the life of a person when the Spirit, that animates the heart of the Father who is in heaven, is present. The divine sonship is not a reward reserved for those who behave well; it is a free gift. However, it is easy to see where and by whom this divine seed was welcomed: everywhere one notices a spark of love revealing the presence of the divine life; it is there the Spirit of our heavenly Father is acting.
God’s heart will never cease to amaze, reserving surprises in store even if not everyone will be able to seize them. In today’s Gospel, Jesus suggests the interior dispositions necessary to be able to understand the gestures of the love of the Father and to be involved in it.
At the beginning of his public life, along the Sea of Galilee, Jesus has stirred many enthusiasts and had considerable success. Full of wonder at the miracles worked by him, the crowds were asking: “Who can this be?” (Mk 4:41), “How did this come to him? What kind of wisdom has been given to him?” (Mk 6:2).
But soon misunderstandings began: people began to struggle to understand and respond to the new message he preached. The Pharisees, inflexible guardians of the law, almost immediately opposed him as perverting the sacred traditions of their people. Even many disciples, puzzled by his proposals, separated themselves and turned away from him (Jn 6:66). Even his family has shown themselves quite cold and distrustful: “For neither did his brothers believe in him”—says John (Jn 7:5).
Only a small group of disciples belonging to the poorer classes and despised by the Jewish society remained with Jesus. The Master is not agitated and to the Twelve—confused and bewildered by his discourse on the bread of life—he asked a provocative question: “Will you also go away.” On behalf of all, Peter could only reply: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (Jn 6:67-69). There is nothing to wonder about this general confusion: it is not easy for anyone to understand the heart of God who revealed himself in Christ.
This passage must be placed in this difficult time of Jesus’ preaching. Chapter 11 of Matthew’s Gospel from which it is taken, begins by introducing the crisis of faith of the Baptist. He sends some of his disciples to ask Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come or should we expect someone else?” (Mt 11:3), then the passage continues with the heavy judgment of Jesus on his generation (Mt 11:16-19) and with the threat: “Alas for you Chorazin and Bethsaida” (Mt 11:21-24).
In the middle of public life, the balance could only be seen as disappointing. Faced with a similar failure, we would have dropped our arms. Jesus instead rejoices for what happened and says: “Father, Lord of heaven and earth, I praise you because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to simple people” (v. 25).
The wise and the intelligent are often mentioned together in the Bible and, many times, in a pejorative sense. They are those who declare themselves devoted researchers of wisdom. They even think of having the monopoly, while in reality, they rack their brains in foolishness and revel in vain disquisition. Against them, the prophet Isaiah had declared: “Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and take themselves for sages” (Is 5:21).
Jesus does not declare them excluded from salvation. He merely states a fact: the poor, the humble, marginalized people were first to welcome his liberating word. It is normal—he says—that this happens because the small ones, more than any other, feel the need of God’s tenderness, hunger, and thirst for justice, weep, live in grief, and wait for the Lord to intervene to lift their head and fill them with joy. They are blessed because for them the kingdom of God has come. Then he adds: this fact is part of the Father’s plan: “Yes, Father, this is what pleased you” (v. 26).
The belief that God is a friend only of the good and the righteous, who prefers those who behave well and bears with difficulty those who sin, is deeply rooted. This is the God created by the “wise” and the “intelligent.” It is the product of human logic and criteria.
The Father of Jesus instead goes to recover those that we throw in the trash. He prefers those who are despised and those who are not paid attention to by anyone, the public sinners (Mt 11:19) and prostitutes (Mt 21:31) because they are the most in need of his love.
The rich, the satiated, those who are proud of their knowledge do not need this Father. They hold tight to their God. They will also reach salvation, of course, but only when they make themselves “small ones.” The trouble for them is that of arriving late, of losing precious time.
In the second part of the passage (v. 27), an important statement of Jesus is introduced: “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”
The verb ‘to know’ in the Bible does not mean having met or contacted a person a few times. It means ‘to have had a profound experience of the person.’ It is used, for example, to indicate the intimate relationship that exists between husband and wife (cf. Lk 1:34).
A full knowledge of the Father is possible only to the Son. However, he may communicate this experience to anyone he wants. Who will have the right disposition to accept his revelation? The small ones, of course.
The scribes, rabbis, those who are educated in every detail of the law, are convinced that they have the full knowledge of God. They maintain they know how to discern what is good. They present themselves as guides for the blind, as light to those who are in darkness, as educators of the ignorant, as masters of the simple ones (Rom 2:18-20). As long as they do not give up their attitude of being “wise” and “intelligent” people, they preclude the true and rewarding experience of God’s love.
The last part of the passage (vv. 28-30) refers to the oppression that the “small ones,” the simple people of the land, the poor, those who suffer from the “wise and intelligent.”
They (the scribes and Pharisees) have structured a very complicated religion, made up of minute rules, prescriptions impossible to observe. They loaded the shoulders of ignorant people “unbearable burdens … that they do not even move a finger to help them” (Lk 11:46).
The law of God, yes, is a yoke and the wise Sirach recommended to his son: “Put her constraints on your feet and her yoke on your neck … do not rebel against the chains … you will find in her your rest” (Sir 6:24-28), but the religion preached by the masters of Israel has transformed it into an oppressive yoke. For this, the poor not only feel wretched in this world but also rejected by God and excluded from the world to come.
The poor, unable to observe the provisions dictated by the rabbis, are convinced that they are impure: “Only this cursed people who have no knowledge of the law” declared the high priest Caiaphas (Jn 7:49). To these poor, lost and disoriented people, Jesus addressed the invitation to be free from fear and distressing religion instilled in them. He recommends: Accept my law, the new one that is summed up in a single commandment: love because in God’s heart there is only love.
He does not propose an easier and permissive moral, but an ethic that points directly to the essential. It does not make one waste energies in the observance of prescriptions “that has the appearance of wisdom” but in reality, they have no value (Col 2:23).
His yoke is sweet. First of all, because it is his: not in the sense that he imposed it, but because he carried it first. Jesus always bent down to the Father’s will. He freely embraced it while he never imposed human precepts (Mk 7). His yoke is sweet because only those who accept the wisdom of the beatitudes can experience the true joy.
Finally, the invitation: “Learn from me for I am meek and humble of heart” (v. 29). Perhaps this statement leaves us a bit confused because it seems a deserved auto-celebration, certainly, but not appropriate. These words are nothing more than a boast. “Learn from me” simply means: do not follow the teachers who act as masters on your consciences. They preach a God who is not on the side of the poor, the sinners and the last. They teach a religion that takes away the joy with its fussiness and absurdity.
Jesus presents himself as meek and humble of heart. These are the terms that we find in the Beatitudes. They do not indicate the timid, the meek, the quiet, but those who are poor and oppressed and those who, while suffering injustice, do not resort to violence.
Jesus experienced dramatic conflicts, but he confronted them with the disposition of heart that characterizes the “meek.” He did not renounce to confront the forces of evil; he did not escape far away from the world and from the problems of people. He has a meek heart because he made himself small; he chose the last place, and put himself at the service of people and assumed the attitude of a slave.
This is the “yoke” that he proposes also to his disciples. To all these poor people of the land, Jesus says: I’m on your side, I am one of you; I am poor and rejected.
This Gospel passage invites us to make both personal and community reflection. Which God do we believe in? Is he that one of the “wise,” or that one revealed to us by Jesus? For whom is our community a sign of hope, for whom is one convinced of meriting the first place, for whom does one feel unworthy to cross the threshold of the church? Does it testify the tenderness of God’s heart or the stiffness of the legalists’ heart?
There is a video by Fr. Fernando Armellini with English subtitles commenting on today’s Gospel reading.