Friday, June 03, 2016

The Authenticity of the Sacred Heart

I have always had a bit of uneasiness about the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart. It stems back to the days when I was perhaps more devoted to the Prayerbook than I am now. I used to wander around Catholic shops and see the most hideous statues and paintings, the type of things modern Anglo-Catholics would call “tat”. Frequently, these paintings and statues were of the Sacred Heart of Our Lord and, I must say, it rather put me off Roman Catholicism.


The statues and paintings were cheap: badly done, or factory produced with the colours slightly off. The face of Our Lord often appeared to have big “puppy-dog” eyes and seemed to be demanding the same affection desired by a puppy rather than the uncompromising devotion that is required in order to be a follower of Our Lord. For me, the Solemnity seemed not to be authentic and it was the imagery that put me off. I felt, and still feel in many cases, that these factory-line images are being sold just to make money and not for the edification of the Christian.

I still loathe this sort of image, but I love religious iconography from both the East and West. The art of Michelangelo, Rublev, and the like is wonderful. One can see why. The creators of good religious iconography take pains. They take pains to perfect their art; they take pains to prepare their materials; they take pains to plan their work; they take pains to prepare themselves. The art of the Ikon writer has a whole regime of prayer and fasting, purifying the heart so that they might see God.

The Solemnity of the Sacred Heart focuses on one event in the ministry of Our Lord Jesus, namely the moment when the soldier took a spear and plunged it into His side, piercing the no-longer-beating heart. Immediately, we go back to Psalm LXIX:
Thy rebuke hath broken my heart; I am full of heaviness: I looked for some to have pity on me, but there was no man, neither found I any to comfort me. They gave me gall to eat: and when I was thirsty they gave me vinegar to drink.
Then we begin to see the authenticity of the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart. We look upon the One Whom we have pierced, and we see what we have done to the son of God through sin and behaviour to those around us who share our humanity. We see the fountains of mercy that pour out from that heart in the form of blood and water. We receive the two liquids necessary for our salvation: the waters of baptism cleansing us from sin and bringing us to new birth, and the blood of Christ shed for the remission of sins which we receive in the Miracle at the Altar. These cannot have come without the agony of the Lord, and our depictions of the Sacred Heart should convey this.

Not an easy task, I know, yet Rublev managed to produce that inspirational picture of the Holy Trinity where the meditating mind just begins to engage in the perichoresis, the dancing between the Persons and the Essence of God.

Caravaggio manages to produce the sense of rent flesh in his painting of St Thomas having his finger forcibly thrust into that pierced side by the hand of Our Lord.

All too often, our efforts do not convey the authenticity of what we are trying to do. Instead of producing a picture of Our Lord’s mercy, we end up like the famous picture of Our Lord lovingly, yet horrendously restored, by an old lady.

Too often, we settle for this in our lives. The Jesus Christ we are painting in our lives will never be perfect, yet it is for perfection that we must strive. The Sacred Heart shows us the extent to which mercy can be shown for anyone and everyone. We mar the image of Christ in us, but that very image continues to burst through should we take advantage of the regeneration that the Lord offers us.

The horribly twee statues and paintings of the Sacred Heart then do have a value – a great value. First, they remind us of the fact that we can always do better, and we can always strive to live more authentically Christian lives. Second, they remind us that the images that we produce are shockingly distorted and barely recognisable. Third, they remind us of what we are supposed to see, and that we have indeed fallen short. Fourth, they remind us of what we’re really supposed to see, that the love and mercy of God are limitless for all who are hungry and thirsty. Fifth, they remind us of what came first!

We must be careful though, especially if the image of Christ’s love and mercy we bear actually puts people off Christianity. The Church has not always done well at this, but it has done better than many people would give it credit. Somewhere, in the Church, the face of the Lord is visible – it is not necessarily where you would expect to see it, nor will it appear as beautiful as you would expect to see it. However it appears, it will always be accompanied by the blood and water flowing from the Sacred Heart.

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