THE SACRED HEART OF THE BLESSED SACRAMENT

Eight days after the Feast of Corpus Christi, on the Octave day, the Church celebrates the great Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  Except, of course, most Anglicans have never heard of this celebration and even those churches which realise the Catholic heritage of the Church of England may not recognise this Feast.  This is to our loss for, as Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church of the USA, preached about at the wedding of their Royal Highnesses, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, love is the way; and the one symbol that speaks to all about love is – the heart.  And the Church has the wonder of the Sacred Heart to offer people – a Heart which is not just concerned with the joys of love, but also knows about passion and pain.  It was while she was kneeling in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament that Jesus appeared to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque displaying Hs Heart, “represented as a throne of fire with flames radiating on every side. It appeared more brilliant than the sun and transparent like crystal. The wound received on the Cross appeared clearly: There was a crown of thorns around the Heart and it was surmounted by a cross.”  This is the Sacred Heart of Christ’s Passion which, unlike other images of love, constantly reminds us of its true cost.  This is a gift the Church of England sadly neglects.

At Christmas we celebrate the Incarnation of Love is as Love reveals His Presence among us, a Presence we celebrate in and through each Eucharist.  It’s a Presence which is Real, a Presence which we need to penetrate and which needs to penetrate us if we are to encounter the Heart of God.  At Christmas we behold Love clothed in Flesh, Flesh which suffered, died, rose from the grave and ascended into heaven.  Love left us the sacrament of that Presence, and whilst the eye of the body beheld Jesus within Crib the eye of the heart can now begin to see the wonder of Emmanuel – the Love of God with us abiding in the Blessed Sacrament.  The great Franciscan saint, Bonaventure, wrote these beautiful words: ‘I have found this Heart in the Eucharist when I have found there the Heart of my Sovereign, of my Friend, of my Brother, that is to say, the Heart of my friend and Redeemer. …  Come, my brethren, let us enter into this amiable Heart never again to go out from It.’

In his book The Drawing of This Love the author, Robert Fruewirth, explores aspects of the way the 14th century English mystic, Dame Julian of Norwich, realised how that Divine Love is permeated by compassion.  In one chapter he quotes Julian saying: ‘Here I saw a great affinity between Christ and us … for when he was in pain, we were in pain.  And all creatures capable of suffering pain suffered with him … So was our Lord Jesus Christ set at nought for us, and we all remain in this way as if set at naught with him, and shall do until we come to his bliss…’ (Ch.18)  Divine Compassion lies in the depths of the Sacred Heart – indeed, is the way in which that Heart is to be understood and we can always be present to His compassion when we come before Him in the Blessed Sacrament.  So people have longed to look upon that loving compassion and can do so when the Sacrament is exposed to our gaze on the altar.   There we can be present to Him as He is present to us when the Sacrament is exposed on the altar; if only every church offered times when this practice so that all can sit or kneel in prayer in His Presence.  If churches helped people to come and adore Him who longed – and longs – to be with us!  There we can talk with Him or just rest with Him and know that He is fully present to all who come to Him.  We could just curl up before Him who opens His Heart to us in the Sacrament of Divine Love.

But even if we cannot find an open church where the brilliance of the Host shines out we can always take Him with us in the tabernacle of our heart for, as St Francis of Assisi wrote in his Rule of 1221: ‘We should make a dwelling-place within ourselves where He can stay, He who is the Lord God Almighty, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.’ Dame Julian echoes this theme when later she wrote: ‘Then with a glad expression our Lord looked into his side and gazed, rejoicing and with his dear gaze he led his creature’s understanding through the same wound into his side within. And then he revealed a beautiful and delightful place, large enough for all mankind that shall be saved to rest there in peace and in love.’ (Ch.24)  That ‘place’ is His Sacred Heart, a Heart large enough to contain all of us, a Heart enlarged by compassion.  This is the Sacrament of Love upon which we are invited to gaze, as Julian gazed on what was revealed to her.  It is a wonderful thing that we who have been made part of His Body can gaze on that Body which is lit up with Love – as one might look on a building flooded with light both inside and out, throbbing with all the colours there are against the darkness that surround it – a darkness of both sin and a lack of recognition. This is what we are to realise as we gaze on His Incarnate Body shown to us in the monstrance.

God enables us to fashion an inner-monstrance of the heart which is to be the dwelling-place for Jesus where we can adore Him whenever we visit that place.  Few churches can offer perpetual Adoration but He can always be with us and we can always adore Him whenever we choose to make this visit to our heart.  But wouldn’t it be wonderful if more Anglican churches – cathedrals, certainly – offered this facility?  There is a wonderful Tabernacle House, for example, in Southwark Cathedral (which may come from the Convent of the sisters of the Community of Reparation to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament founded in 1869 and ended with the death of the last sister in the early years of this century).

It’s exquisitely beautiful to come to Jesus in this way and be able to just rest with Him – ‘be there’ with Him who is in all places and fills all things yet who left us this way to realise His presence.  It’s a presence that doesn’t require any words and the only effort is to focus attention on Him and Him alone.  To be able to do this in places like Westminster Cathedral and Tyburn Convent in Hyde Park Place is a joy which all would benefit from realising.  And when that is not possible we can make a virtual visit to adore Jesus through a number of websites which offer that facility.

Thankfully even though we may not be able to visit those places, He dwells in the hearts of all who turn aside to Him and unlock the door to this inner sanctuary.  That Sacred Heart is like a door leading into the very soul of Christ, towards complete conformity to Him.

“Devotion to the Sacred Heart has a twofold object: it honours first with adoration and public worship the Heart of flesh of Jesus Christ, and secondly the infinite love with which this Heart has burned for us since its creation, and with which it is still consumed in the Sacrament of our altars.” (St. Peter Julian Eymard)

CHRIST THE IMAGE OF THE INVISIBLE GOD – some thoughts on the Incarnation

I wonder if you have an image of God? Many people do, even if it’s one they can’t believe in – that old man with a long white beard, the heavenly schoolmaster, the dictator who rules the world. Maybe a doting father – or even a loving mother. Or perhaps a painting you saw has left an impression on you – a painting of an ancient figure elevated above Jesus with a white dove between them. With such a plethora of images, some highly questionable, no wonder all three great monotheistic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, forbid the depiction of God. “But”, you might say, “what about all the images of Christ in churches?” Well, in a sense, they’re not images of God; they represent the human form in which Christians believe he clothed himself and as Orthodox Christians know, if God chose to reveal invisible things in visible matter then we honour God by doing the same.

In the end God remains a mystery beyond our comprehension so to say ‘I don’t believe in God’ begs the question – well, what is it exactly that you don’t believe in because it’s likely that the Church doesn’t believe in that either. Once you begin to define what God is then God, in a sense, slips through your fingers.  Nowhere in the Jewish scriptures (the ‘Old Testament’) is there a definition of God – the closest one gets is that remarkable statement when God said to Moses: “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be” or whatever the original Hebrew words mean. Now that seems to suggest God is not so much a ‘thing’ as a state of existence that cannot be named. One might say that God is the is-ness of is, pure being or becoming. Some speak of God as an ‘ocean of love’ or the heart of a mystery and so on. But none of these expressions seek to define what, in the end, is and always has been beyond our understanding.  I know some object to saying that God is a mystery but that’s how it’s always been. It’s not a ‘cop-out’ but, as St Ephrem the Syrian back in the fourth century realised, only something greater than God could possibly define God and there can be nothing greater than God …  So perhaps we might say that ‘God’ is a useful three-letter word to identify what is unidentifiable but which men and women down the centuries and around the world have believed in. I know we like to name things as it gives us the ability to identify them but – whoever or whatever God is – it would seem God clearly doesn’t want to be identified because as the Little Prince in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry  beautiful little book of that name said: “What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Yes, there have been other ways of trying to identify God – the Holy, Faithful or Wise One for example – but these are merely attributes people have used to speak of God. Then there are metaphors: God is the potter, we the clay; the nursing mother or loving Father; God is light and in Him there is no darkness etc. Two of the most common ways of speaking of God are as the ‘most Compassionate’ and ‘all-Merciful’ One or the Holy, Faithful or Wise One, attributes which lie at the heart of both Christianity and Islam. Then there are metaphors: God is the potter, we the clay; the nursing mother or loving Father; God is light and in Him there is no darkness etc.  But you cannot say God is this or that. God is not this baby any more than God is that old man. What you can say, and what the Church says, is that God clothed Himself in our flesh and wore the garments of this baby who grew into a 33 year-old Palestinian man. He on whom we gaze with the eye of faith is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation. And then you would be able to say that what we see in Him reflects the nature of that which He contains leading Charles Wesley to sing:

            Jesu, thou art all-compassion,
           Pure unbounded love thou art.

But, more wonderful still, what we see in Him is a bright reflection of what lies within us.  We can reflect aspects of that diamond-studied divine compassion and love that dwells in Him; our being contains a reflection of the wonder He incarnates and which we are to reveal. If you behold glory in this child, that glory can be reflected in us, as the Turkish writer, Elif Shafak, has said: “How we see God is a direct reflection of how we see ourselves. If God brings to mind mostly fear and blame, it means there is too much fear and blame welled inside us. If we see God as full of love and compassion, so are we.” Perhaps, them, we might say that the aroma of ‘God’ invites us to seek the ultimate depth of all our being, the creative ground and meaning of all our existence. Maybe, then, it cannot be said that God ‘exists’ as you or I do, and that simple, three-lettered word offers the way we can express the inexpressibleness of life – that which painters and poets also struggle with. The great silence where a Word echoes; the expression of all that is, has been and will be. The silence of love.. The eternal darkness in which light shines.

If, then, the baby in the manger distracts you
from seeing what lies in the Cave of Bethlehem;
that reflection of the depth of human life,
then look beyond and realise the potential present in yourself,
the mystery that lies in the recesses of your own heart,
Perhaps, the importance of this Feast isn’t just that we celebrate God’s incarnation –

it is the Feast of what our humanity can become.