Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus

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By Danny O’Hara, Christendom College


Understanding the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus lies first in recognizing the significance of the heart as a conventional sign of love and placing that symbol in the context of God’s love for mankind.  The heart is symbolic as the organ from which the human being wants, desires, and loves, and God, Who knows us better than we know ourselves, is not unable to speak the human language.  He uses the metaphor of His heart to communicate with us on our level, using our terms to help us better apprehend this mystery, e.g. in Hosea, when the voice of God cries, “My heart is overwhelmed, my pity is stirred.”[1]

Of course, when God speaks in the Old Testament, His heart is purely metaphorical, but when God becomes man in the Incarnation, His heart becomes flesh.  In Christ, God’s love for us is shown through a person, and while Christ’s heart is not an organ of love and compassion except symbolically and mythically, a physical object functions better as a symbol than an abstract metaphor, for we are able to understand the former better.  Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas held that knowing is according to the mode of the knower, so if we are to know of God’s infinite mercy for us, it will have to be in a way that suits our mode of knowing.  Aristotle and Aquinas agreed that, as embodied knowers, it is easiest for us to know the natures of material things.  God, Who has created us this way, has accordingly given us a material manifestation of His divine love in the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  When speaking of God’s compassionate heart before the coming of Christ, man had to imagine a physical heart in God and then apply the metaphor, but now that Christ has come, we do not have to imagine the heart of God, for it beats in Christ.  Thus, the Sacred Heart of Jesus makes visceral the symbol of God’s love for us, just as Christ makes visceral God’s love and compassion for fallen mankind through His passion and death. 

This is the significance of the Sacred Heart, but devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus adds another layer of meaning and beauty to this mystery.  When we devote ourselves to something in the truest sense, we give everything we are.  This is revealed by the etymology of “devotion,” which comes from the Latin noun devotio, a relative of the compound verb devovere, which means “to vow, consecrate, or sacrifice.” This meaning becomes even more visceral when the roots of the compound are examined, for the de– prefix denotes that the action is performed in an outward direction, or “from” the agent, which in the context of a sacrifice or consecration implies that it is directed to God.  Thus, devotion is more literally to vow or sacrifice oneself away, giving oneself totally to the object of devotion, and there is no person or thing more worthy or devotion than God Himself.  Christ’s death on Calvary is the ultimate example of a devotion, in which a human agent sacrifices their whole being to God, so every devotion in the Church is ultimately an imitation of the Cross and a response to God’s love for us as revealed in Christ. 

The Catholic who devotes himself to the Sacred Heart of Jesus recognizes God’s love and compassion for us and accepts the Cross in reciprocation of this love.  Thus, the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus is an invitation to enter into Christ’s redemptive suffering, which, as the most visceral manifestation of God’s love for His people, is the greatest instance of God showing His heart to us.  Through devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, we have an opportunity to learn from Jesus, who is “meek and humble of heart,”[2] and to unite our hearts to God, a foretaste of the everlasting ecstasy of Heaven.  

[1]Hosea 11:8-9 (NAB).

[2]Matthew 11:29 (NAB).

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