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Fire and Thorns: Second Meditation
A Heart on Fire
- Symbols of Love
- The Throne of Fire and Flame
- A Wounded Heart
- Crowned with Thorns
- Taking Up Our Cross
- Conclusion & Further Reflection
Symbols of Love
In the conference, we will spend some time reviewing the history of the devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. But right now, we are going to jump into the middle of that history.
In the late 1600s, Jesus gave a series of special revelations to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, who was
a nun in the Visitandine convent of Paray-le-Monial, in Burgundy, France. In one of these revelations, Jesus gave St. Margaret Mary a vision of his heart. Here is her description of what she saw:
The divine heart was represented to me as upon a throne of fire and flames. It shed rays on every side brighter than the sun and transparent as crystal. The wound which he received on the cross appeared there visibly. A crown of thorns encircled the divine heart, and it was surmounted by a cross.
It is interesting to note that in this particular apparition, St. Margaret Mary wasn’t given a vision of Jesus with his heart exposed, but only of the heart itself. It’s as if Jesus wanted to focus all attention just on this, his heart, the central core of his identity.
And each of the four symbols that are connected with his heart in that vision reveal to us different aspects of that core identity. Together, they answer the questions: Who is God? What does he most care about? What is the center of his personality? How can we love him?
So let’s take a look at each of these four symbols that Jesus himself chose to use in order to open his heart, his very self, to us.
The Throne of Fire and Flame
St. Margaret Mary saw the Sacred Heart of Jesus enthroned upon fire and flames. In fact, the heart itself seemed to be on fire, spreading rays of brilliant light, brighter than the sun and as transparent as crystal.
In the Bible, fire is always associated with God’s active, saving love:
When Moses encounters the burning bush; when God reveals his law on Mt. Sinai;
when the pillar of fire leads the chosen people through the wilderness; when fire consumes Elijah’s offering during the drought;
and most especially when the Holy Spirit comes to the Apostles at Pentecost, descending upon each of them as tongues of fire.
And Jesus himself even described his mission of redeeming love as one of spreading a fire when he told his followers:
I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!
– Luke 12:49
What does this symbol, this heart on fire, tell us about our God? That his heart, the very deepest core of his divine identity, is love — burning, passionate, active, transforming love for each and every one of us.
St. John the Evangelist put it like this in his First Letter: “God is love” (1 John 4:8). This is God’s identity: love. This is why God is a singular divine nature, but at the same time a Trinity of Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit united in an eternal exchange and relationship of life-giving love.
Maybe you are used to hearing this; but that doesn’t make it any less amazing. Picture that heart, enthroned on a blazing fire, brighter than the sun, shining out in every direction, seeking to spread its light and warmth everywhere.
Now, here on earth, or anywhere in the physical universe for that matter, fires need fuel. We have to feed a fire with wood, or coal, or something.
Material fires spread and transform whatever they touch, but they will go out if they don’t have enough fuel. Where is the fuel in the fire of the Sacred Heart?
It is the heart itself; the very core of God’s identity is the fuel. This flame can never go out; this fire can never die; the eternal, infinite, everlasting nature of God is this burning love.
When we approach God in prayer and in the sacraments, this is what he wants us to experience, this burning love. We all know what it’s like to sit around a campfire with good friends. The fire keeps us warm and gives us light. We feel its comfort; it cooks our food; it brings us together to enjoy each other’s company.
That’s what Jesus wants to be for us, if only we will let him: he wants to be warmth in this cold world, light in our darkness, comfort in our sorrows and loneliness, nourishment for our needy souls.
This is why one of the Biblical passages most often associated with the Sacred Heart of Jesus is the famous saying from Matthew chapter eleven, when Jesus cries out:
Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and
I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.
– Matthew 11:28-30
A Wounded Heart
The second aspect of his heart that Jesus revealed in this vision to St. Margaret Mary is that his heart is wounded. She tells us:
The wound which he received on the cross appeared there visibly.
Most theologians agree that the wound being referred to is the wound in Christ’s side, given by the Roman soldier who thrust a spear into our Lord’s chest after the crucifixion, to make sure that Jesus was dead.
The Bible tells us that blood and water flowed out of that wound. The Fathers of the Church identify that blood and water as symbols of the sacraments of the Eucharist and Baptism.
And so they make a connection between the Genesis story of God forming Eve out of a rib taken from Adam’s side while he was sleeping (cf. Genesis 2:21-22), and God forming the Church — through the sacraments — out of this wound in Christ’s side while he hangs in the sleep of death.
What does this wound tell us about Christ’s heart, the heart whose identity is love?
It tells us that the love of Jesus is not a weak and sentimental love. It is not just a teddy bear and chocolate Valentine love. It is a tough, strong, self- sacrificing love.
Jesus is the love who throws himself in front of his beloved to save her from the attacks of her evil enemies. The Sacred Heart of Jesus is the heart that fights and struggles and dies for the good of his beloved. The Sacred Heart of Jesus is the heart of a warrior.
It is this aspect of Christ’s love that tamed and converted the pagan barbarians in medieval Europe. When the Roman Empire collapsed, these pagan barbarians flooded Europe and entangled it in devastating tribal violence and ever-shifting alliances.
In that distorted pagan culture, cruelty and violence were taken to be accomplishments: the more people you could subdue by terror and sword, the greater you were thought to be.
The power of the Gospel changed that, little by little, over the course of the centuries. In Christ, these warrior cultures were exposed to a new scale of values, a new kind of power — the power of self-sacrificial love, of Christ-like love — and it changed them.
The pagan warriors, immersed in this gospel, in the
fire of the Sacred Heart, were gradually forged into Christian Knights, who solemnly vowed to use their physical strength and prowess not to assert their own passing glory, but to serve and protect the innocent, the poor, and the helpless, to defend truth and goodness, for the everlasting glory of God.
The Sacred Heart is wounded because Jesus is the first Christian warrior, who courageously laid down his life for us when we were helpless against sin and evil, as he continues to do every single day, in the Eucharist.
Crowned with Thorns
The problem with opening our hearts to other people is that we make ourselves vulnerable. There is no guarantee that the other person will listen to us, understand us, or even respect us, let alone welcome and help us.
When God created human beings, and invited us into
his friendship, he too made himself vulnerable. There was no guarantee that his human creatures would accept his offer — and in fact, our first parents didn’t: they abandoned God, spurning him by eating the forbidden fruit.
And when Jesus came to redeem us, he took that same risk: He made himself vulnerable. He revealed the heart of God, without any guarantee that the people he loved so fiercely would love him in return. And in fact, many of them didn’t, and many of them still don’t. And that’s why St. Margaret Mary saw the Sacred Heart encircled by a crown of thorns.
Can you think of anything more painful than the tender flesh of an interior organ like a heart being pierced by a crown of thorns?
That’s the image Jesus uses to reveal to us how much it hurts him when the sinners he loves and wants to save reject him. In another revelation to St. Margaret Mary, Jesus explained it like this:
If they gave me a return, then all that I have done
for them would appear but little to my love. But they entertain only coldness towards me, and the only response they make to my advances is their rejection of me.
We have the power to cause Jesus pain, sadness,
and even “distress and agony,” as the Gospel writers describe it when they show Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Sometimes, we think that God is so
far away and so perfect that the little concerns and decisions of our daily life really don’t matter that much to him.
Other times, we fall into the trap of thinking of God as if he were a harsh and cruel judge who scrutinizes us from a comfortable distance. Nothing could be further from the truth.
God cares; God is close to us; so close, in fact, that when we scorn him, or ignore him, or rebel against him, it is as if we were driving a thorn into his heart.
Taking Up Our Cross
But there is another side to that. If we have the power to hurt the Sacred Heart, we also have the power to delight that heart, to fill it with joy, to give it the deep satisfaction that comes from being loved.
This thought brings us to the fourth and final symbol that appeared in that wondrous revelation to St. Margaret Mary: the cross that surmounts the Sacred Heart.
On fire with love, wounded for love, pierced by the thorns of unrequited love, the Sacred Heart is also surmounted by a cross. Certainly the cross makes us think of Christ’s passion, and of all the sufferings he endured, out of love, during those horrible, glorious days. The Crown of Thorns that surrounds his heart is also a reference to his Passion.
But the cross is not only a symbol of Christ’s suffering love. The cross is also a renewal of the Lord’s invitation, of the Lord’s offer of friendship. Before his passion began, here is what Jesus said about the cross:
This is another reason why Pope Pius XI called devotion to the Sacred Heart “the epitome of our religion”
and by Pope Benedict XVI called it “irreplaceably important.”
In the Sacred Heart, we experience in a fresh way God’s love for us, and it makes us want to love him in return; it makes us want to follow him more closely. This experience and response of love is the essence of Christianity.
Conclusion & Further Reflection
What exactly can we do to follow Jesus? What practical forms should our response of love take? What does it look like, in our daily lives, when we take up our cross and walk with the Lord?
Those are some of the questions we will try to answer in the conference. But for now, take some time to ponder these symbols of God’s love for each one of us, letting them conquer your heart: the throne of fire, the wound of the warrior’s heart, the piercing thorns, and the cross.
Questions for Personal Reflection or Group Discussion
Which symbol in the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus speaks most significantly to me and why?
￼￼￼￼Then he [Jesus] said to all, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me”
– Luke 9:23
Here is the secret to causing the Sacred Heart joy instead of sorrow: following Jesus.
All God really wants is our friendship, because he knows that only friendship with him can give us the deep, lasting fulfillment that we all desire. After all, that’s what he created us for, to live in communion with him, in friendship with him. That’s the purpose of our lives. And how do we say yes to that offer of friendship? By following Jesus.
The cross has always been a symbol of the followers of Jesus. By planting the cross on his Sacred Heart, our Lord is symbolically renewing his invitation: “Follow me.”
1. Which attitude towards sin seems to have more influence in my own mind, Christ’s or the world’s?
￼2. Make a list of the ways that God has shown his love to me personally. Take some time to thank him for those gifts, and to enjoy his love.
3. Why do sins cause so much pain to the Sacred Heart? What does the world around me think of sin?
Biblical Passages to Help Your Meditation
￼￼The designs of his heart are from age to age, to rescue their souls from death, and to keep them alive in famine.
– Psalm 33:11, 19, NABR
Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.
– Matthew 11:28-30, NABR
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 stopped to feed my child, they did not know that I was their healer.
– Hosea 11:1, 3-4, NABR
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God. Whoever is without love does not know God, for God
is love. In this way the love of God was revealed to us: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him. In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also must love one another.