Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Knowing the Love of Christ: Solemnity of the Sacred Heart

This Friday we celebrate the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, a wonderful feast day in which we meditate on the love of Christ for us, symbolized by the icon of his sacred heart. 

The Readings focus on expressions of the love of God.  Our First Reading is Hosea 11:1, 3-4, 8c-9:

Thus says the LORD:
When Israel was a child I loved him,
out of Egypt I called my son.
Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
who took them in my arms;
I drew them with human cords,
with bands of love;
I fostered them like one
who raises an infant to his cheeks;
Yet, though I stooped to feed my child,
they did not know that I was their healer.

My heart is overwhelmed,
my pity is stirred.
I will not give vent to my blazing anger,
I will not destroy Ephraim again;
For I am God and not a man,
the Holy One present among you;
I will not let the flames consume you.

Hosea is the only northern Israelite among the Twelve, and he directs his ministry toward his homeland.  He frequently calls northern Israel “Ephraim” because that tribe was the largest and most central, and provided the kings for the federation of ten tribes.  He ministered during the reigns of Jeroboam II (783-743 BC) of Israel, and the Judean Kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah (combined reigns 783-687 BC).  He was probably active from 750-725 BC, and his written prophecies seem all to have preceded the destruction of northern Israel in 722 BC.
         Nothing is known about Hosea other than the information he provides in his book, which primarily concerns his marriage to his promiscuous and unfaithful wife Gomer, which he undertook by command of the LORD in order to provide a vivid depiction to Israel of her spiritual state in relationship to God.  By Gomer, Hosea had three children, to whom he gave symbolic names.  Afterward, she abandoned him for a time, ending up as a slave, at which point Hosea went to purchase her back, and made her live with him in continence for an indefinite period.
         Hosea’s theological outlook is strongly covenantal, being firmly grounded on the covenant structure of the primary Old Testament historical narrative (Genesis–Samuel), to which he makes frequent and generous reference.  Obviously, he understands the Mosaic covenant as a kind of betrothal between the LORD and Israel, and this dynamic dominates the rhetoric of his book.  In the New Testament, this language is taken up in Jesus’ self-presentation as Israel’s bridegroom (Mt. 9:15; 25:1-10; Mk 2:19-20; Lk 5:34-35; Jn 3:29; Rev. 18:23).
         However, marriage was not the only form of covenant (i.e. an extension of kinship by oath): there was also adoption.  For this reason, Hosea also includes oracles that make heavy use of filial (sonship) imagery, such as in the famous “Out of Egypt I called my son” passage (Hos 11:1-12), which the New Testament applies to Jesus (Mt 2:15) understood as the perfect embodiment of Israel.  Thus, Israel is variously portrayed as either Bride or Son of God throughout the book.
         Hosea, perhaps more than any other major or minor prophet, stresses the enduring love of God for Israel, specifically northern Israel, the so-called “lost Ten Tribes.”  Hosea reminds us that God has not forgotten these tribes of Israel, nor narrowed his concern only to the people of Judah (Heb. yehudim, “Jews”).  In the New Testament, the LORD’s continued solicitude for the northern Tribes will be manifested in his concern for their descendants the Samaritans, both in his earthly ministry (Lk 10:25-37; 17:11-19; Jn 4:1-42) and in the mission of the Church (Acts 1:8; 8:4-25).  The Church’s mission to the nations is undertaken in part to recover the remnants of northern Israel who have become assimilated among the nations.  As St. Paul writes, “a hardening has come on part of Israel, until the full number of Gentiles comes in, and in this way all Israel [i.e. all twelve tribes] will be saved” (Rom 11:26).
         As we read this passage from Hosea 11 in Mass this Friday, we are reminded that northern Israel was God’s unfaithful “son,” an ungrateful people that turned from him to all sorts of idolatry.  We see something similar in the Church today, as Christians in many communities and nations have turned away from God to idols of pleasure, money, sexuality, prestige, etc.  Everything seems more desirable to them than God himself.  And in our personal lives, we pursue these idols as well.  When we come to our senses, like the prodigal son of Jesus’ parable (who, by the way, is a symbol of northern Israel/Ephraim!), we realize that God is still waiting to receive us back to himself, once we realize that all the flash and bling of the world leads only to misery.

2.  The Responsorial Psalm is Isaiah 12:2-3, 4, 5-6:
R. (3) You will draw water joyfully from the springs of salvation.
God indeed is my savior;
I am confident and unafraid.
My strength and my courage is the LORD,
and he has been my savior.
With joy you will draw water
at the fountain of salvation.
R. You will draw water joyfully from the springs of salvation.
Give thanks to the LORD, acclaim his name;
among the nations make known his deeds,
proclaim how exalted is his name.
R. You will draw water joyfully from the springs of salvation.
Sing praise to the LORD for his glorious achievement;
let this be known throughout all the earth.
Shout with exultation, O city of Zion,
for great in your midst
is the Holy One of Israel!
R. You will draw water joyfully from the springs of salvation.

Isaiah 12 is a very famous and important chapter.  In the structure of the Book of Isaiah, it forms the doxological (praise) conclusion to the unit consisting of Isaiah 1-12, which is virtually a synopsis of the entire message of the prophet.  After judgment has been pronounced on Israel, but the promised Messiah has been prophesied and the universal salvation foreshadowed (esp. in Isa. 11), the prophet bursts into praise for God in chapter 12.  In the context of this Friday’s Mass, the “springs of salvation” are nothing other than the Sacred Heart itself.  To understand why this passage serves as our Psalm, we need to recall Jesus’ statement in John 7:37-39:

“If any one thirst, let him come to me; and let him drink who believes in me. As the scripture has said: “Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.’”  Now this he said about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were to receive.

In the Gospel of John, this statement in 7:37-39 is obviously tied to John 19:34-35, the flow of blood and water from the heart of Christ on the cross.  John is anticipating the crucifixion in what he records already in ch. 7.  Of course, John 19 is going to be our Gospel Reading below.  We should note that his flow of “water” from the Sacred Heart really represents the Spirit, and the Spirit is the substance of God’s love:

Rom 5:5: God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.

To drink the Spirit from the heart of Christ is to imbibe the love of God, which enables us to love in a superhuman way: not only those who love us in return, but also those who hate and kill us, as we hated and killed the Christ.  This is the superhuman love that overcomes hatred.
3.  Our Second Reading is Eph 3:8-12, 14-19:

Brothers and sisters:
To me, the very least of all the holy ones, this grace was given,
to preach to the Gentiles the inscrutable riches of Christ,
and to bring to light for all what is the plan of the mystery
hidden from ages past in God who created all things,
so that the manifold wisdom of God
might now be made known through the church
to the principalities and authorities in the heavens.
This was according to the eternal purpose
that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord,
in whom we have boldness of speech
and confidence of access through faith in him.

For this reason I kneel before the Father,
from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named,
that he may grant you in accord with the riches of his glory
to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in the inner self,
and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith;
that you, rooted and grounded in love,
may have strength to comprehend with all the holy ones
what is the breadth and length and height and depth,
and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge,
so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

As Paul writes to the Ephesians, he makes frequent reference to the concept of “mystery.”  This may be because in Ephesus, as in many other cities in Asia Minor, the various “mystery religions” were very popular.  The ancient “mystery religions” were essentially cults that emphasized the worship of one diety, who was supposed to provide the worshipper with secret knowledge and powers as they advanced further in the mysterious secrets of said deity (e.g. Apollo, Dionysius/Bacchus, Isis, etc.).  Paul contrasts the “mystery” of the Gospel with the pretended mysteries of these pagan cults.  The really “mystery” is not some spell said in the name of Isis, but the fact that God has reconciled the world to himself through Jesus Christ. 

St. Paul knows that we cannot comprehend God’s love, a love so large it could forgive torturers and murderers.  So Paul actually prays that God will grant us the superhuman ability to grasp the love of God in Jesus, that we may know “the breadth and length and height and depth” of the love of Christ.  This Friday, we need to pray for divine assistance to understand Jesus’ love, because it is truly beyond our human capacity. 

4.  The Gospel is John 19:31-37:

Since it was preparation day,
in order that the bodies might not remain on the cross on the sabbath,
for the sabbath day of that week was a solemn one,
the Jews asked Pilate that their legs be broken
and they be taken down.
So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first
and then of the other one who was crucified with Jesus.
But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead,
they did not break his legs,
but one soldier thrust his lance into his side,
and immediately blood and water flowed out.
An eyewitness has testified, and his testimony is true;
he knows that he is speaking the truth,
so that you also may come to believe.
For this happened so that the Scripture passage might be fulfilled:
Not a bone of it will be broken.
And again another passage says:
They will look upon him whom they have pierced.

This is, of course, a very dramatic and decisive event within the Gospel of John.  There is much that we can say, but one of the most important things we must grasp about this passage is the Temple symbolism of the blood and water that flow from Christ’s side.  Jesus identified his body as the New Temple back in John 2:20-21.  During festival season—such as Passover—the side of the Temple flowed with blood and water, as an exhaust pipe drained the blood and water of the Temple sacrifices away from the floor of the Temple, underneath the building, and out onto the hillside of the Temple Mount, where it flowed down to mingle with the waters of the Brook Kidron, the brook Jesus crossed to get to the Mount of Olives.  Jewish readers would be familiar with the flow of blood and water from the Temple, and see the Temple symbolism applied to Jesus’ body.

But what was the Temple?  It was the place where forgiveness and atonement were gained through sacrifice, and thus the love relationship between God and his people were restored.  This now happens in Christ, and in a special way, in the Eucharistic sacrifice of his Body and Blood.  The blood and water are also symbols of the Sacraments (esp. Baptism and Eucharist) and the Spirit, which comes to us through the Sacraments. 

Partaking in the Cup on this Solemnity is particularly poignant, because of the powerful symbolism of drinking the blood of Jesus flowing from his pierced heart, which is “the spring of living water,” the fount of the Spirit of God’s love flowing into us. 

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