From Simply Sentimental to Strong and Sure: Pondering the Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus

I must say that in the past I was not always as on board as I should have been when it came to the feast of the Sacred Heart. As I man I have struggled especially with some of the Sacred Heart images of past years, especially from the 1940s into the 1970s that frankly made Jesus look like a bearded lady. Deep red lips, baby soft skin,  and a “come-hither” look, head tilted in a rather feminine manner and the long slender fingers and strangely bent wrists all seemed too feminine for me. See for example here: Sacred Heart. Frankly the feminized portrayal of Jesus made me cringe. “Maybe this works for some,” I thought, ” But not for me.” Women are beautiful but men shouldn’t look like women.

Then too, the whole notion of the heart has become rather distorted. The heart is largely thought of by most as the domain of sentimental feelings, and of romance. Stronger Biblical notions of the heart were lost in favor of these sentimental and romantic ones.  So there Jesus was pointing to heart, to indicate his Love but I experienced it through the current notion of sentiment and romance. While the true teaching on the Sacred Heart was much richer and proper, the version that reached me was distorted and had little appeal for me.

In recent years I have tried to recover a more proper notion of the Feast of the Sacred Heart. I have done this by coming to understand the heart in a more Biblical way. I have also done this by learning to understand the heart of Christ in a stronger way that is more helpful for me.

Recovering a more Biblical understanding of the heart – In celebrating the heart of the Lord Jesus, we ought to see it in a more Biblical way. In the Biblical world the heart did not exclude feelings but feelings were more located in the gut. Things such as tenderness, mercy, love and emotions were spoken of in terms more visceral than we are comfortable with today. Most of our modern translations do not literally render the Hebrew and Greek references which speak of the “bowels of mercy”  in God or in the human person.  Most modern translations render the Hebrew “bowels of mercy” as “tender mercy” and expressions such as “my bowels are moved within me” as “My heart is moved within me.” We just don’t talk about bowels today in polite company!

I say this to indicate that for the Biblical writers, feeling, sentiment, mercy and so forth were not usually located in the heart but elsewhere. You can see this if you get a rather literal rendering of the Hebrew and Greek such as the Douay Rheims or Young’s Literal Translation  and refer to passages such as this: Gen 43:30; 1 Kings 3:26; Song 5:4; Is 63:15; Jer 31:20; Lam 2″11; 2 Cr 6:12; Phil 1:8; Phil 2:1; Col 3:12 etc. While feelings such as anxiety, fear, romance, tenderness etc. were pondered in the heart their real “place” was shifted down one level to the “gut” or viscera. We do have some vestiges of these ancient notions in expressions like “gut reaction” or “butterflies in my stomach.”

So what then IS the biblical notion of the heart? While not wholly excluding feelings, the “Heart” in the scriptures is the deepest part of us where we “live.” It is where we deliberate, where our memories and thoughts are. It is where we process feelings and events. It is where we ponder what to do and decide. It is where we reflect and consider the direction of our life and most deeply understand who we are and how we are related to God and others. It is the place of our decisions and where we set priorities. In short is it the place where “I am” in the deepest sense. Most moderns locate this in the brain (or mind, a word that the Scriptures often use for a similar understanding) but the ancients located all this in the heart.

A broader and stronger notion of the heart – Hence, as we ponder the Heart of Christ on this feast of the Sacred Heart we do not wholly exclude his tender feelings for us. But we must also broaden our notions of what it means to celebrate the Heart of Christ. The Heart of Christ is where he lives and is most essentially His very self. Hence his human heart is a heart that first of all worships and obeys his Father. It is in his heart that he ponders his Father’s will and sets out to obey it. It was in his heart that he set his face like flint for Jerusalem (Lk 9:51) and said to this apostles, “the world must know that I love the Father and that I do just as the Father has commanded me” (John 14:31). It is in his heart that he decides to lay down his life for us: No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again. This command I have received from my Father (Jn 10:18). Isaiah had said of Jesus: Oblatus est quia ipse voluit (He was offered because he himself willed it) (Is 53:7). It is ultimately by Christ’s obedience that we are saved and this was determined in his heart. His love was manifest by his decision both to obey his Father and to die for us. This is deeper than emotion or feeling though it does not exclude them. When the solider thrust a lance in his Chest and heaved it open there was revealed the human heart of Christ who resolutely chose to save us. There was also revealed the very heart of God who loves us infinitely.

A heart tender but also strong – On this feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus we celebrate not just that he loves us in an emotional sense, but even more, that he decided to die for us. He freely pondered what our salvation would cost him and took up the cross. He chose to obey the Father for us. His is love his tender but it is also decisive. The warmth of his love is sure but the wounds of his obedience also speaks of a love that is strong and enduring unto the end.

Sentiment has it’s place, but (perhaps because I am a man) I need more. On this feast of the Sacred Heart I am glad to point to a love that is strong, obedient, loyal and sacrificial. A love that engages the battle on my behalf and summons me to follow. A  love that is not just visceral but is of the true and deep  Heart of Christ, a heart tender but also strong.

This video has many images of the Jesus, (some better than others). Sacred Heart of Jesus, Have mercy on us!

25 Replies to “From Simply Sentimental to Strong and Sure: Pondering the Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus”

  1. The increased connection over the years between the Sacred Heart and the Good Shepherd (in other words, priests and vocations), is a good thing.

    In many ways, the “lenient Jesus” feast has been transferred to Divine Mercy Sunday. The old Sacred Heart devotions have been upended by Divine Mercy chaplets.

    I tend to think of this as a “vocations day” for priests. Lord, give us more shepherds with the same burning love as your Sacred Heart.

    Plus, let’s face it–Ordinary Time is boring. I’ll take what I can get to break up the green boredom.

  2. “The thoughts of his heart last through every generation, that he will rescue them from death and feed them in time of famine.” (Ps 32:11,19)

    Jesus heart thinks and makes decisions based on his Father’s will. Is a heart that goes all the way to death on the cross to show that the Father’s thoughts are stronger than death. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are totally committed to our salvation. Or like St. Paul so beautrifully discovered through the course of his life: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depht, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

    Wil we choose this Heart or reject it in favor of some other design, some other “junk food”?

  3. Oh, how fascinating that you can read all these different Bible translations. Thank you for sharing the evolution of the meanings with us. Yes, there’s the gut, then the heart, then the mind. When I became aware of a God-shaped hole — it was neither in my mind or my gut, but my heart. Nothing could fill it, not family or work or pretty flowers. It is Jesus who makes me complete.

  4. In today’s homily on this Feast of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, we acknowledge that when the blood and water flowed from the Heart of Jesus, the Church was formed as Jesus hung asleep on that rugged cross. Today we remember that God’s mercy and love are greater than our sins. God is love, and he who lives in love, lives in God, and God is in him. 1 Jn 4:16

    1. I bet the grandchildren have the key to grandpa’s heart. Tom-thank you for your simple, vivid, and eloquent post. This entire discussion is very helpful and informative.

  5. Yeah, I find the standard Sacred Heart picture kinda creepy…
    My mother always referred to the Sacred Heart statues as the “flaming turnip” statues 😉

  6. I also was “turned off” by the imagery of and language used to describe the Sacred Heart of Jesus. And, as you have also discovered and related so well in this article, the reality is much much different and deeper than we incorrectly-perceived in our younger days. I pray frequently that all may properly understand the religious truths and realities we Christians imperfectly (by dictate of our limited and fallen human nature) attempt to communicate.

  7. I used to work in a religious bookstore where we also sold statues. A man came in and asked why we “..sold things as ugly as having His heart stuck outside His chest!!!”

    I asked him if he was a father, and he nodded, said “of 5”, And had he’d attended his children’s births, “yes”. I spoke of the out-flowing of immense tenderness and love he felt towards his newborns as they were placed in his hands. I spoke of the protectiveness that swarmed his heart, he nodded all the while. I told him that God loved us so much, like newborns that He became a newborn Himself and grew to manhood and HIS heart felt that way of love for us all the time, every minute of His human life but also all the time of Time itself.

    That’s why we remind ourselves of His love because He revealed this to a woman who asked. And so His Love sits out there taking a battering from our sins. Imagine your children doing that to you. Imagine if one of your children was born and the doctor said “Oops” and he dropped him, or if your child was born with a defect. You’d LOVE that child even more so with such a fierceness that nobody better dare attack your child, and he nodded saying “one child was retarded.”

    “Now do you understand why Catholics have such a statue, as a reminder of God’s love?” I was startled as he instantly bought the statue and carried it from the store in his arms like it was a precious child. For over 15 years I have thought about that man.

  8. Thanks, Ned L. . Yes, seven grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren hold the key to my heart. God has blessed me. God Bless you too! Remember, love and patience can overcome all evil.

  9. I’m very appreciative of your explanation of the biblical notion of the heart. What you describe is something I’ve long had a sense of as very important but didn’t have an official name for. It seems to me that one cannot progress in any sort of spiritual life without continually checking in with one’s own heart (in the sense you describe) in relation to God. Likewise, this biblical notion of the heart provides a better & deeper understanding of the Sacred Heart of Jesus — very helpful to this new Catholic.

  10. Please excuse a long technical post, but the Greek word splangknon (pl. –a) as used in the Pauline passages cited (Phil.1:8, etc.) does not mean “gut” or the viscera – the contents of the abdomen – or what Mgr. Pope calls “down one level [from the heart]”.

    The splangkna were those internal parts which were reserved from bloody sacrifices to be eaten by the priests: especially the heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys – what we might call the “vitals”. The intestines, by contrast, were the entera, or koilie. By extension, both entera and splangkna can mean “the insides” generally (in the LXX, Joseph is moved in his entera: Gen.43:30 – a passage cited by Monsignor).

    Some of the Old Testament citations in the article (Jer.31:20 and Lam.2:11, for instance) further confuse the situation: I cannot speak to the Hebrew, but in the LXX the relevant word is kardia (heart). Clearly, in some places the changes are rung for stylistic reasons – e.g., Phil.7f.:-

    “It is right that I should think this way about all of you, because I hold you in my heart [kardia] . . For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the affection [splangkna] of Christ Jesus.”

    The point, I think, is that the discontinuity between the ancients and us over the seat of strong emotion is more apparent than real. The physiological term “splangkna” (which has the extended meaning of the seat of strong emotions such as love and pity) includes the heart. In Greek, “heart” itself (kardia) has an extended meaning which is of much wider range than splangkna but overlaps it: the disciples in the Emmaus encounter (Lk.24:32) recalled how they were deeply moved (kardia).

    Arndt and Gingrich (Greek Lexicon of the NT) tabulate the following uses of kardia:
    a. in the all-inclusive sense, the centre and source of the whole inner life of man (e.g., 1Pet.3:4);
    b. the organ of thought and understanding (equivalent to “mind”, e.g., Mt.13:15b);
    c. and d. seat of the will and its decisions (equivalent to “making up one’s mind e.g., Lk.21:14; 2Co.9:7 – including moral decisions: Jas.4:8);
    e. and f. seat of the emotions, of wishes and desires (e.g., Jn.16:6; Ac.2:26; Ro.1:24 – love especially: e.g., Mt.22:37= Mk.12:30; 2Co.7:3; Phil.1:7);
    g. the locus of dispositions (e.g., Mt.11:29; Eph.6:5);
    h. the dwelling-place of heavenly powers and beings (e.g., Eph.3:17 – of the Lord).

    Monsignor makes a very striking and important point that the Sacred Heart denotes not just the emotion of love, but also the decision to give effect to the emotion.

    1. How about the the Hebrew? My teaching comes from Old Testament theology back in seminary days and hence the Old Testament texts are really the key reference point. It may or may not be true that Paul et al. had discarded these notions when they used the Greek terms. My guess is that they were speaking in an Hebraic manner and thus may have used Greek in a Jewish manner. Hence I am not sure a truct Greek Dictionary approach to the issue is fully sufficient.

      I was also taught that the precise references to the abdominal region were less percise than we are today. Hence, the viscera could really refer to anything in that region not necessarily the digestive organs only. Hence even the womb of a woman could be included in this notion. eg. in the Latin Antiphon O magnum Mysterium the womb of Mary is refered to as “cujus viscera” So I agree we are talking of more than stimach and intestines here.

      At any rate, like most things scriptural it would seem the debates continue and, as you have presented there are almost always other ways to see it. To me this debate about the NT texts centers more on the ancient Jewish notion and how Paul may have used the Greek in reference to that.

      As per the distinction between Heart and Mind this can get very murky. I remember taking a course on Pauline anthropology back in seminary and coming away utterly confused since scholars have such vast differences. Likewise Paul often uses terms in various senses (like we all do) and this makes it difficult to say he always means “this” when he uses “that” term. A further complication is that we live in a post-Cartesian world and, whether we like to admist it or not, this vastly affects how we are able to grasp Biblical anthropology.

      By the way, if you or any other readers know a good book on Pauline and or Biblical anthropology I would be grateful for a tip. I have always been fascinated by this topic.

      1. I have no Hebrew, so I can only speak to the OT usages in the LXX. It would be interested to know precisely which physiological part in Deut.6:5 is translated “heart” (the source of the saying in Mt.22:37=Mk.12:30=Lk.10:27 which falls under A&G item e. as I summarised it above).

        There is an article online (restricted access, tho) from the Journal of Biblical Literature (1998) which (from the title and first page) seems to bear out the point I made with reference to the Greek texts: even in Hebrew it is NOT the case that strong emotions are expressed by reference ONLY to the organs below the abdomen. See the 9 page article “The Heart and Innards in Israelite Emotional Expressions: Notes from Anthropology and Psychobiology” by Mark S. Smith (then of the Jesuit St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia).

        I quite agree that “viscera” is unspecific (in Latin and English) – and can include the brains or womb. In modern English, its more usual (but not exclusive) reference is to the larger and the smaller intestines. We can add “visceral” to your list of English words that reproduce the ancient idea of emotions residing elsewhere than in the heart.

        Since the purpose of your article is to re-direct attention to the freightage of “heart” in Sacred Scripture, we are in substantial agreement. The pressing problem (with regard to devotion to the Sacred Heart) is that moderns have sentimentalised, trivialised and devalued our emotional currency – especially when it comes to “heart” and “love”.

  11. As for the aesthetics of various representations of the Sacred Heart, Monsignor is guilty (as I am sure he will admit) of gender stereotyping. The lover in The Song of Songs is described in a decidedly non-butch way (wavy hair, deep red lips and all), but this does not feminise him (Sg.5:11-13, 16a):-

    11. His head is pure gold;
    his locks are palm fronds,
    black as the raven.

    12. His eyes are like doves
    beside running waters,
    His teeth would seem bathed in milk,
    and are set like jewels.

    13. His cheeks are like beds of spice
    with ripening aromatic herbs.
    His lips are red blossoms;
    they drip choice myrrh.

    16a. His mouth is sweetness itself;
    he is all delight.

    For a truly rugged representation of the Jesus striding against the blast with His Sacred Heart exposed from under fluttering drapery (distant by several leagues from the vision of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, canonised as recently as 1920), see the bronze (?) full-length statue above the entrance to the national Shrine of the Sacred Heart in Manila. Since I cannot embed my own photo of the statue in this post, I give this link:

  12. Thanks so much for your explanations. I’ve never really understood it very well, but as of late because of the Divine Mercy Feast, I have gotten to appreciate the Sacred Heart so much more.

  13. Whew, Monsignor. You gave me quite an assignment for the weekend (gladly undertaken, since Friday was the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus).

    [A] The extended range of meanings of “kardia, -ie” in the New Testament can also be found in Homeric (where spelled “kradie”) and in classical Greek.
    Liddell & Scott gives:-

    (1) the interior organ;
    (2) the seat (a) of feeling, passions and dispositions such as rage, fear, courage, sorrow, joy and – especially – love, and (b) of inclination, desire, and purpose (volition); and
    (3) the mind (or better, the understanding: see the citation from the Corpus Hermeticum, “if you look with the eyes of the “kardia”), although the Homeric citations are not particularly compelling and neither is the Lucan passage (24:38 where “dialogismoi [an accounting term] . . en te kardie” seems to mean something like “privately reckoning” or “quietly pondering”).

    [B] My amateur online research has disclosed that the Hebrew word translated as “heart” in Deut.6:5 (the second part of the shema) is לֵבָב lebab (Strong’s 3824) a cognate form of לֵב leb (Strong’s 3820 – where explained as the heart; also used very widely for the feelings, the will and intellect).

    The word “lebab” is explained as the heart; used also like “leb”, including the sense that it is (1) the seat of courage and of other emotions and appetites, as well as (2) the centre of the various cognitive and determinative processes of what we call the mind – including memory, conscience, understanding, and volition. I read that ancient Hebrew has no distinct word for “brain” or “mind”.

    [C] On this basis, there seems to be no fundamental difference between the Greek and Hebrew psychophysiological use of kardia and leb/ lebab.

    Eichrodt (see below) contends ” . . every survey of the linguistic evidence has shown that there is hardly a spiritual process which could not be brought into some connection with the heart. It is made the organ equally of feelings, intellectual activities, and the working of the will. The fact that Accadian shows an exactly corresponding usage for the cognate word “libbu” suggests that the employment of the term forced itself on primitive man as axiomatic.” (op. cit. p.143).

    [D] As for your bibliographical request, may I offer:- Eichrodt, “Theology of the OT” (1967), chapter 16, esp. at pp. 142-147 (body organs as the seat of mental and psychic activity, confirming what I have written at [B] above); and Hans Walter Wolff, “Anthropology of the Old Testament”, Fortress Press, Philadelphia (1974), cited in chapter 77 of the New Jerusalem Biblical Commentary. For Pauline anthropology see ibid., chapter 82:101 and the references given there.

    Harder to come by, will be:- H.W. Robinson, “The Christian Doctrine of Man”, T&T Clark, Edinburgh (1911); A.R. Johnson, “The Vitality of the Individual in the Thought of Ancient Israel”, University of Wales Press, Cardiff (1949, 2nd edn. 1964). The most recent study seems to be:- C. Ryder Smith, “The Bible Doctrine of Man”, Wipf & Stock, Eugene, Or. (2009).

    Of all this, I have personally read only Eichrodt’s chapter and the two chapters in the NJBC which I have referred to above.

  14. corr.

    chapter 16 of Eichrodt, “Theology of the OT”, is in vol. 2 (the passage I quoted is from that chapter).

    C. Ryder Smith, “The Bible Doctrine of Man” (2009) is a reprint of a work originally published in 1951.

    Wolff’s book was republished in 1996 by Sigler Press.

  15. I once saw the Divine Mercy image referred to as the “Maybelline Jesus” and can’t get that out of my head.

    Sacred Heart Devotee

  16. I appreciate the devotions of Divine Mercy and Sacred Heart of Jesus but because of the terribly effeminate portraits used in these devotions I have never really felt it would be wise to place these images in my home with my husband and sons being turned off …I have the Madonna of the Street as my only piece of art in my living room…and icons and crucifixes. However we do First Friday devotions and celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday.

  17. The heart is the essence of a being (body and soul). And it’s through the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary where ‘a sword will pierce your soul too so that the secret thoughts of many may be laid bare’ [Luke 2:35]. Hence, it’s through the two inseparable Hearts that God shows us His unending Divine Mercy and Love. Thanks be to God.

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