The Sacred Heart is a reminder that the motivation for Jesus’ redemptive mission arose from the depths of His heart.
Scripture makes it abundantly clear that we are called to respond in kind.
In 1 Chronicles 22:19, David exhorts the Israelites to, Give therefore your hearts and your souls, to seek the Lord your God. These words are recalled by Solomon in 2 Chronicles 6:38, when he asks God to hear the petitions of repentant Israelites if they return to thee with all their heart, and with all their soul (Douay-Rheims Bible).
Such language permeates the Old Testament. It’s found not just in the historical books, such as the ones above, but also in the Psalms, the prophets, and the Pentateuch. In fact, according to one concordance, there are 772 mentions of ‘heart’ in the Bible, with the vast majority of them—670 to be exact—occurring in the Old Testament. Here are just a few examples from the Old Testament (New American Bible unless otherwise noted):
- The Lord, your God, will circumcise your hearts …so that you will love the Lord, your God, with your whole heart and your whole being, in order that you may live.—Deuteronomy 30:6
- My heart and flesh cry out for the living God.—Psalm 84:2
- I cried with my whole heart, hear me, O Lord.—Psalm 119:145 (DRB)
- I will give them another heart and a new spirit I will put within them.—Ezekiel 11:19
- They have not cried to me from their hearts when they wailed upon their beds.—Hosea 7:14
- Yet even now … return to me with your whole heart.—Joel 2:12
- Rend your hearts, not your garments.—Joel 2:13
As Catholic Christians, it makes sense to us that we ought to respond to God with our hearts, not just our heads: faith in Christ flowers into love, we are taught. But there’s more to this abiding emphasis on love that might at first meet the eye.
Our society tends to associate the heart with affection and romantic love. But in ancient Israel the heart symbolized much more than this: it was viewed as the center of one’s entire being—the source of our physical actions, thoughts, moral reflection, and acts of the will. In the words of the Holman Bible Dictionary, “The heart became the focus for all the vital functions of the body; including both intellectual and spiritual life.” So, when an ancient Israelite cried out to God with his ‘whole heart’ it perhaps meant a great deal more than we might at first think.
‘Burning hearts’ on the road to Emmaus
In the New Testament, there are two particularly vivid examples of heartfelt responses to Christ.
The first comes on the road to Emmaus, in the last chapter of Luke. The story is probably a familiar one to many of us: two disciples are on the road together after the crucifixion of Jesus. Word of the empty tomb has reached them but have yet to grasp its resurrection implications. Jesus, unrecognized by them, draws near to them on the road, rebukes them for being ‘slow of heart’ and then gives them a crash course in Old Testament prophecies and how they were fulfilled in Christ. They pause for a meal, Jesus breaks bread, and their eyes are opened.
After Jesus vanishes from sight, the disciples reflect on what had just happened. “Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us?”
Their response is noteworthy for what is missing. Jesus, according to the account in Luke, offered what sounds like a fairly intense lecture on Old Testament scriptures. But it’s not the minds of the disciples that are set on fire. Nor are their ears burning. The gospel demands a response from deep within our being—from our hearts. As Origen put it, Jesus “inflamed the hearts of the hearers to the love of God.”
Another Church father, St. Gregory the Great, points out that their hearts were burning. “By the word which is heard the spirit is kindled the chill of dullness departs, the mind becomes awakened with heavenly desire. It rejoices to hear heavenly precepts, and every command in which it is instructed, is as it were adding a faggot to the fire,” St. Gregory the Great wrote (as cited in the Catena Aurea commentary).
There’s an alternative way of interpreting this burning imagery, however. In both the Old and New testaments, those who lack faith in God are often described as having ‘hard hearts.’ This is implied in the second half of the verse from Ezekiel quoted above: From their bodies I will remove the hearts of stone, and give them hearts of flesh. The same language is used in the New Testament. After Jesus calms the storm in Mark 6, the disciples are ‘astounded.’ They also had not understood a previous miracle, the multiplication of the loves. Instead, their hearts were hardened. Jesus rebukes the disciples for misunderstanding his words again two chapters later, asking them, Are your hearts hardened?
A heart that is burning—that is alive, soft, and malleable—stands in stark contrast to the image of a hardened heart. Whereas the disciples had hardened hearts before the resurrection, now their hearts are burning. Beforehand, they had had lacked understanding. Now, they have the faith that seeks and finds understanding.
‘Cut to the heart’ at Pentecost
A second dramatic episode in which the gospel meets with a heartfelt response is in Acts 2. It’s interesting to note that here Peter is speaking, rather than Jesus—something that makes sense to we Catholics who understand Peter and his successors to be uniquely representative of Christ.
The scene immediately preceding Peter’s speech is a most familiar one: it’s Pentecost, men are speaking in tongues and fire is dancing above their heads. Observers assume they are drunk. Peter stands up to correct them, and his speech on how the Old Testament prophecies came to pass in Jesus follows.
After Peter reaches the climax of his speech, in which he reveals that the long hoped-for and prophesied Messiah was the same Jesus Christ whom the assembled Jews had crucified, the audience responds: “Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and they asked Peter and the other apostles, “What are we to do, my brothers?” (Acts 2:37).
The phrase, cut to the heart, which appears only this one time in the Bible, is an intriguing choice of words. In Greek, the word cut is katanussó. The Middle Liddell, an abbreviated version of a famous Greek lexicon, defines katanussó, as to be sorely pricked. Strong’s Concordance defines it as I am pierced, stung, smitten. Albert Barnes, a nineteenth century biblical commentator says the word “properly denotes ‘to pierce or penetrate with a needle, lancet, or sharp instrument.’” On a metaphorical level it means “to pierce with grief, or acute pain of any kind.”
The proximity of this phrase to Peter’s brief recounting of the crucifixion immediately calls to mind the fact that Jesus himself was cut to the heart for our sakes, when the soldier’s lance pierced His side. Jesus was “wounded with love” for us. How can we respond except in kind? How can we not be cut to the heart over what Jesus did for us? (Of course, aside from the martyrs, this phrase would have more of a figurative meaning for us.)
Barnes, in his commentary, says the word is synonymous with our term, compunction. He emphasizes the grief-stricken nature of the response. “It implies also the idea of sudden as well as acute grief. In this case it means that they were suddenly and deeply affected with anguish and alarm at what Peter had said,” the commentator writes in Barnes’ Notes on the Bible. (Barnes is a Protestant Presbyterian theologian, but his analysis of this text seems trustworthy and consistent with Catholic principles.)
Barnes sees four possible reasons for the grief of the Jews hearing Peter’s speech. To paraphrase: First, they had sorrow that “the Messiah had been put to death by his own countrymen.” Also, the grief stemmed from “their deep sense of guilt in having done this,” “the fear of his wrath,” and their worry that “what they had done could not be undone.”
In what must have been incredible news to them, Peter says there is opportunity for forgiveness from the very Messiah they have slain (at least in a figurative sense). “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit,” Peter says.
We too should be cut to the heart at these words. Our hearts should be burning as we read through passages like the last chapter of Luke and the second chapter of Acts. These are scriptures that ought to convict us just as much as the disciples on the road to Emmaus or the Jews at Pentecost. They should compel us to truly return to God with all our heart.