We have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way which he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh. Hebrews 10.19-20.
June is the month particularly dedicated to devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and it is worthwhile for us to reflect on the importance of this profound scriptural image which conveys so much of what God does for us in the life and mission of His Son. Many people associate devotion to the Sacred Heart with garish statues, usually in red and cream, with Jesus displaying a gruesomely accurate and anatomically explicit human heart on his chest, from which radiate plaster sunbursts. Some of us of course like just that sort of thing, but for those who don’t, it is worth recalling that devotion to the Sacred Heart does not commit you to a particular standard of bad taste in ecclesiastical art. The popular image as we have it now is the interpretation of visions of the Sacred Heart which was revealed to S. Margaret Mary Alacoque at Paray-le-Monial in 1673-4, which inspired the great flourishing of devotion to the Heart of Jesus in modern times. But Christian theology is not built on the visions of individuals, however much the Church may choose to endorse their experience as beneficial, and it is in the Scriptures that we find the sign of Christ’s divine Heart taught and unfolded.
Both S. Matthew and S. John place in their accounts of Christ’s Passion immediately after the Lord’s death a symbolic incident of profound importance to explain the significance of what has taken place. Matthew, writing as we believe for an audience of Jewish Christians, takes us to the temple in
: And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom (Matt. 27.51). John by contrast has the soldiers coming to kill their victims, and finding Jesus already dead they do not break his legs: But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water (John 19.34). Jerusalem
Now at first sight these two accounts seem quite unrelated, but the writer to the Hebrews provides the link when he describes how the work of Jesus has reconciled us to God: He is the new and living way which he opened for us through the curtain, that is his flesh (Hebrews 10.19). Jesus’ death, the piercing of his body, brings about the piercing of the veil which separates God and Man: in the Old Testament, the veil of the temple is the sign of the division which exists between heaven and earth, between the created order and the place where God himself dwells; its piercing by Jesus the great high priest supersedes the sacrifices and ceremonies of the old law, and replaces them with a new priesthood and a new offering, the ministry of the people of God who are washed in baptism and fed at the Eucharist. This is the significance of the water and blood which flow from the pierced side of Christ in John’s gospel: from Jesus’ stricken body, indeed from his heart, flow the waters of baptism and the blood of the new covenant which are the sacramental signs of our redemption. Here the prophecy of Ezekiel is fulfilled: Behold, water was issuing from below the threshold of the temple … so everything will live where the river goes (Ezekiel 47.1, 9). Jesus is the true
, the place where humankind offers perfect and acceptable worship to the eternal Father, and the rending of the veil of his flesh and the piercing of his Heart are the signs which the evangelists give us of how his death makes once and for all the sacrifice which reconciles us to God. Temple
So devotion to the Heart of Jesus is really a way of expressing our belief in his true humanity crucified for us, and in which we participate through our baptism and through our approach to his altar. When we are baptized, and when we receive Holy Communion, we are made participants in the Body of Christ, the Body which through its piercing on the Cross has become for us the way to salvation. The Heart of Jesus expresses in terms of symbol and devotion what the fathers of the Church were prompted to express in the language of philosophy at the great Council of Chalcedon, which declared that Christ was made known in two natures without confusion, human and divine. When we speak of a person’s heart we use the image of the bodily organ to convey what is most profound about them, what is most fundamental: when Christians venerate the pierced Heart of Jesus, they honour that holy of holies where the fullness of God dwells perfectly united to the sinless and sacrificed humanity which the Word has taken on for the redemption of the world.
And of course, the heart is also a sign of love, and in honouring the Heart of Jesus we pay reverence to the depth of God’s love for us and reflect with sorrow on the lukewarmness of our response and the indifference with which His love is received in the hearts of so many. The Heart of Jesus is a pierced heart: pierced on the Cross, and pierced by every human sin which wounds Him by neglect, by deliberate intent, and by callous disregard. This is a season not simply for praise but for reparation: as we contemplate the love of God shown in Christ, we consider also our own lack of love, our own indifference to the things of God, our neglect of our neighbour and our high-handed love for our own will. And still more, we make what reparation we can for the massive indifference of our world: those who live as if there is no God, and those who hold his laws in contempt. And if we are to be true and faithful members of the Body of Christ, then like Him we must expect our own hearts to be pierced as His was: pierced by contrition as we contemplate our own sins; pierced by compassion as we come to know with His eyes and His heart the pain of the world; pierced by the hatred of the world, as evil wars against the good purposes of God. This is our calling: to be like Christ even as we are washed, refreshed and fed by Him, and as we become more like Him, to know as He knows, love as He knows, and suffer as he suffers in order that as S. Paul writes, we might complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church (Col. 1.24).
How are we to do this? Scripture offers to us the model of another heart, the heart of the Mother of God. S. Luke tells us two things about the heart of Our Lady: firstly, that a sword will pierce it (Luke 2.35); and secondly, that she kept all these things in her heart (Luke 2.51). Mary’s vocation is not one which exempts her from suffering, far from it, and neither is ours: like her, our pilgrimage with Christ will be one in which the furnace of divine love will burn ever more fiercely the nearer we approach. But it is one freely embraced, and one in which the heart of the believer is turned with devotion and awe to the contemplation of the things of God, all these things kept in our hearts, in order that they might become more like the Sacred Heart of the Lord. When first the feast day of the Sacred Heart was celebrated, it was kept as the Heart of Jesus and Mary: the bridegroom looking upon the Church His bride, and the bride reflecting that love in a perfect union. May Mary be our model as we turn our hearts once more towards God, and as we seek to reflect in our own lives the shining love of God shown to us in the Sacred Heart of His divine Son.
Saturday, May 31, 2008
On Friday, the House celebrated the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus with a Solemn Mass. This was followed by drinks in the cloister and the Leaver's Dinner. The Principal gave the homily (see below) and Fr Andrew Davison, tutor in Doctrine, presided. More photos of the Mass and Leaver's Dinner can be viewed here.
Tuesday, May 27, 2008
The National Pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham took place on Monday 26th May 2008 with a great fear of bad weather again following the disastrous downpours of 2007. However, the weather held out and the day was a great success. Nine students from St Stephen's House helped to steward the event and Fr James Hill (SSH 2005-07) and Fr Charles Miller (SSH 2004-07) deaconed at the Mass and then at Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament (given by Bishop Geoffrey Rowell, the chair of House Council) in the Abbey grounds. It was good to see so many former students of the House, not least the Priest Administrator, Fr Philip North CMP (SSH 1989-92), and the Shrine Priest, Fr Philip Barnes SSC (SSH 1998-2000), both of whom are leaving the Shrine this year to take up posts at parishes in the Diocese of London. We wish the all the best for the future.
Saturday, May 24, 2008
St Stephen's House celebrated the solemnity of the body and blood of the Lord (Corpus Christi) this year with a Solemn Mass, Procession around the grounds of G F Bodley's church of St John the Evangelist, and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. Fr Christopher Pearson, Superior-General of the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament and Vicar of St Agnes, Kennington, preached the sermon and Fr James Hill (SSH 2005-07), assistant curate of St Paul the Apostle, Tottenham, deaconed the Mass. Fr Hill is to be ordained priest, God willing, next month. The House choir sang Ave Verum Corpus by the sixteenth-century English composer, William Byrd, and the Principal presided over the liturgy. The service was followed by the usual Thursday night Guest Dinner and an opportunity to meet the preacher, Fr Pearson, and other guests. Further photographs of the liturgy are available here.