The Sacred Heart is one of the most familiar and moving of Catholic devotional images. But its symbolism can be strange.
So, as we celebrated the Feast of the Sacred Heart a day ago, let’s take a look at the explanation behind some of the features of the Sacred Heart.
Most obviously, the Sacred Heart brings to mind the Passion of Christ on the cross. There is the crown of thorns, the cross, usually on top of the heart, and the wound from the spear which pierced His side.
But why is the Sacred Heart usually shown as if it’s burning?
As we know that, it certainly did not happen at the crucifixion.
Here are three reasons behind this.
First and foremost, we have to remember that the self suffering of Christ on the cross was the one-time perfect consummation of all the sacrifices of the Old Testament.
According to The Jewish Encyclopedia, this includes burnt offerings, which were the highest form of sacrifices in ancient Israel. And an early form of such sacrifices was actually what Abraham set out to do with Isaac, hence the wood he made his son collect beforehand.
On a second note, fire is always associated with the essence of divinity in the Old Testament. Let’s think back to the burning bush which spoke to Moses, the cloud of fire that settled on Sinai, and the flames from above which consumed the sacrifice of Elijah.
This explanation above fits with the gospel account of the crucifixion, where the piercing of Christ’s side revealed His heart at the same time, the curtain of the temple was torn, unveiling the holy of holies where God was present.
Lastly, the image of fire that was associated with heart represents Christ’s passionate love for us.
During the 19th-century, one French devotional card has these words arched above the Sacred Heart— Voilà ce Cœur qui a tant aimé les hommes, which in translation means: “Here is the heart that loved men so much.
One of the traditional exclamations then is, “Sacred Heart of Jesus, burning with love of us, inflame our hearts with love of Thee.” We notice that this actually happen in the gospels, where the disciples on their road to Emmaus got to realize that their hearts had been “burning” after their encounter with Jesus.
The rays of light.
Take a look closer at the image of the Sacred Heart. There is something else that’s framing it besides the flames. They are the rays of light.
In the gospel of John 8:12, Christ made it known that He is the “light of the world.” Also, in Revelation 21:23, we are told that “in the new Jerusalem at the end of times there will be no light from the sun or moon because the Lamb of God, that is, Jesus—will be its source of light”.
Light, like fire, symbolizes divinity.
Let’s think of the Transfiguration and the blinding light that Paul experienced on the road to Damascus. Christ as the light of the world, is also the one who “enlightens” us, revealing God to us.
The Sacred Heart established the climax of divine self-revelation, showing us the depths of God’s love for us.
The crown of thorns and the spear is a wonderful indication. But most times the Sacred Heart is also portrayed with arrows. And again, that’s not something we find in the gospels. One good explanation to it is that the arrow represents sin.
This is reported as what our Lord Himself said in a private revelation to St. Mary of St. Peter.
The arrow could however, draw upon an ancient Roman metaphor for love, which, occurred when the god Cupid shot an arrow through the hearts of lovers, according to ancient myth.
The crown of thorns
Not just like the arrows, in this case, the crown of thorns is reported in the gospels. But in traditional images it surrounds the Sacred Heart, whereas in Scripture the crown was fixed to the head of Jesus.
According to one traditional account, it offers this interpretation, describing those who are devoted to it: “They saw the crown transferred from His head to His heart; they felt that its sharp points had always pierced there; they understood that the Passion was the crucifixion of a heart”.
In other words, clothing the crown around the heart symbolizes the fact that Christ felt His wounds to the depths of His heart.
However, after the resurrection, the crown of thorns turns out to be a crown of victory. As Donnelly talks at this as well: “From the weapons of His enemy, from cross and crown and opened Heart, our conquering leader fashioned a trophy which was the best testimony of His love.”
According to the ancient gladiatorial contests, the victor was crowned. In the book of Revelation 19:12, Christ wears “many crowns” and believers who are victorious over sin and Satan will receive the “crown of life”.
According to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, the seventeenth French nun who helped to start the devotion, finally refers to the thorns as the many individual sins of people, pricking the heart of Jesus.
She furthermore, put it in a letter, recounting the personal vision she had received, “I saw this divine Heart as on a throne of flames, more brilliant than the sun and transparent as crystal. It had Its adorable wound and was encircled with a crown of thorns, which signified the pricks our sins caused Him.”
Just like the thorns, the cross is also rooted in the gospels but it is displayed in a way that does not follow them in every detail. Because in this case, there is almost an inversion of the crucifixion.
According to the gospels, Christ hung on the cross, His heart correspondingly dwarfed by its beams. But in the images of the Sacred Heart, His heart has now enlarged and the cross has shrunk.
Moreover, rather than the heart to be nailed to the cross, the cross now seems ‘planted’ in the heart just as St. Margaret Mary Alacoque points out “If to say to us that the entire reality of the crucifixion derives its meaning from and cannot be understood apart from the heart of Jesus”.
As Donnelly also wrote, “The Heart [is] forever supporting the weight of a Cross.” Surely, it is the heart of Jesus which makes the cross meaningful for us today.