Wednesday 2 June 2021

The human face of God’s love

We have two truly beautiful statues of the Sacred Heart here at the Oratory. One is in the entrance hall of the Oratory House, welcoming all who enter. The other is above our new Sacred Heart altar, consecrated last summer, and has been the focus of much devotion and prayer since the church was built. Most traditional pictures of the Sacred Heart, however, are somewhat off-putting, being a little too sickly sweet, or effeminate, or just a bit kitsch really. But it is an image that really is enduring and ubiquitous in Catholic culture. The emphasis these images place on the approachability of Christ, even to the point of softening his features a bit too much, is meant to communicate how human feelings and affections have been elevated through the Incarnation. Christ, who loves us, loves us in a way that we can appreciate and understand, and he makes himself available to us in our emotions. Christ can love us, and we can love him in return. Yet the traditional devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus has also stressed that the love of God in Christ is met, more often than not, by our refusal. The Heart of Jesus is not only radiant with love for us, but it is a wounded heart, encircled by thorns, and pierced — this is a Heart that we tried to kill, a love that we tried to extinguish.

But our attempts were frustrated by the willingness of Christ to love us even more.

In this respect, the Sacred Heart of Jesus is itself an image of the totality of the Incarnation, the totality of our God made man. The Incarnation is the revelation that God is love and that this love, resisting all our attempts to make it into something that serves our own selfishness, our own ego, will always look in this world like Jesus. What we did to this love, and continue to do to this love, is irrefutable evidence of how unlovable we are — at least from our vantage point. However, seen from the vantage point of God, our failure to love him enflames his passionate love for us all the more. If, in the narrowness of our human hearts, we fail to understand why God’s love in Christ would resist the usual human standards of justice — of tit-for-tat, an eye for an eye, revenge and retribution, standards that we all too readily impose — this might mean we actually begin to appreciate just how mysterious God’s love actually is.

God does not love us as we are accustomed to love each other. God does not love us because we deserve it or because we have earned it or because we have something that God needs that he lacks in his own nature. Instead, God is love. The Sacred Heart of Jesus is trying to make this point visually as its verbal expression seems at times harder to understand. Understanding all this is one thing. Accepting it is another.

The temptation to try to make God love as we love is particularly strong, especially given that if God loved us on our terms it would also mean that he would be just as inclined to hate on our terms as well. If God loved like we do, then he would be as harsh, and as judgemental, and as cruel, and as self-centred as we are — and as many people imagine him to be. It is hard to consider that humanity’s refusal of God, of love, which is shown in the cross, might be interpreted as the punishment we impose on God for not loving on our terms. That God in Christ transforms the punishment we impose on him into the means to love us even more, to save us and to draw us to himself, makes His love even more difficult to comprehend. And so we have the Sacred Heart, as it were, the human face of God’s love, God’s love shown to us in a way that is easier to grasp.

When we look at the image of the Sacred Heart, be it saccharinely sweet or artistically beautiful, French repository plaster, or delicately carved and painted like our own statues, we need to find in it a quiet, gentle reassurance that in all that I have done and all I have failed to do, in all of my refusals and failures to love, God is love, and in his Sacred Heart, he still loves me.