The last devotion of Christ: the Sacred Heart is not devotionism but a gateway to the mysteries of God


For those who know about cinema, the reference to Martin Scorsese's film on Jesus is evident 1988: «The last temptation of Christ». But just to say that, while cinematic fiction can also imagine that Christ was tempted to retreat from his path, the Gospel told us that He went all the way, with a devotion towards his mission that ultimately revealed what was inside his Heart full of love.

- The Theological Pages -


Ivano Liguori, Ofm. Capp.


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The devotion that has spread most among Christian people, at least in the last few centuries, it is the one addressed to the Sacred Heart, that, naturally, he also attracted to himself that due to the Heart of His Mother Mary. With this cult the Catholic Church intended to honor the Heart of Jesus Christ, one of the organs symbolizing his humanity, than for the intimate union with the Divinity, has the right to worship.

Already practiced in Christian antiquity and the Middle Ages, the cult spread widely in the 17th century thanks to Saint John Eudes (1601-1680) and above all of Santa Margherita Maria Alacoque (1647-1690), while the feast of the Sacred Heart was celebrated for the first time in France, probably in 1685. The first of Santa Margherita's famous visions occurred on 27 December 1673, feast of Saint John the Evangelist. Jesus appeared to her and Margaret felt "entirely invested with the divine presence". He invited her to take the place that Saint John had occupied during the Last Supper and told her:

«My divine Heart is so passionate with love for men, who could no longer contain within himself the flames of his ardent charity, you have to spread them. I have chosen you to fulfill this great plan, so that everything may be done by me".

As with all other devotions, so that they would not simply remain such or empty containers of popular demonstrations, theology and then the magisterium did their utmost to offer contents and motivations that could not only keep devotion to the Heart of Christ alive, but that it was also continuously nourished by the sources of writing and ecclesial tradition. As devotionism often happens, which is instead a degeneration of the authentic act of worship, tends to prevail over content, so they struggle to carry out their task, especially nowadays, in which it is easy to brand a devotion as a legacy of a pre-modern past and no longer current, or as they say only good for the elderly or the simple.

Instead, devotion to the Sacred Heart he would have much to teach modern people too, indeed to the post-moderns that are us, because the symbol of the heart and the themes connected to it are spontaneously combined with those of affection and love, that is, that whole world of feelings and emotions that are of great interest to us in our time. When more and more often, also recently, Crime events happen that affect love relationships, we immediately contact the experts who warn us of concern about how our time, especially the younger generations, needs an education of feelings, of how one should be in contact with one's emotions to be able to express them in an adequate and non-violent way. It is that vocabulary that leads us back to interiority and therefore to the human heart, to whom the heart of Christ still has much to teach.

To return to the sources of this special Christian devotion and to make people perceive how it is theologically founded and connected to the entire mystery of the salvation brought by Jesus, I would like to consider, who, a simple one, so to speak, verse of the Gospel that has perfect adherence to this devotion of the Sacred Heart. Since many images represent Jesus in the act of offering his palpitating heart, therefore to open his inner and most intimate world, let's see how the Gospel describes this moment. The Evangelist John does so in the chapter where he himself reports the crucifixion of Jesus, the dying moment he says: "Everything is done"; and immediately afterwards a soldier wounds his side to verify his death. Let's see how St. John describes the scene, which must have been truly significant. Let's note how many times the term testimony appears, addressed to faith and connected to two important scriptural quotations. We are interested in the second, the verse we would like to examine – «They will look at the one they have pierced» – precisely because devotion invites us to look at the Heart of Jesus, but we cannot fail to take into consideration the immediate context in which the scene takes place and its important theological meanings.

«But they came from Jesus, seeing that he was already dead, they did not break his legs, but one of the soldiers struck him in the side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out. He who has seen bears witness to it and his testimony is true; he knows he is telling the truth, so that you too may believe. This in fact happened so that the Scripture could be fulfilled: Not a single bone will be broken. And another passage of Scripture says again: “They will look at him whom they have pierced”» (GV 19,33-37).

The passage cited by John it belongs to a prophetic oracle that announced the salvation and eschatological restoration of Jerusalem (Zac 12-14). In the pericope, 12,1013,1 – it tells of the mysterious death of a shepherd king who represents the future Messiah, God himself perceives himself wounded by this death, so he takes the lead by promising a good spirit and a bubbling fountain for their sin:

«I will pour out upon the house of David and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and consolation: they will look at me, the one they pierced. They will mourn him as one mourns an only child, they will mourn him as one mourns the firstborn."(Zac 12,10).

Further on 13, 1:

"On that day there will be a spring for the house of David and for the inhabitants of Jerusalem to wash away sin and impurity".

To this verse you can add the text on living water from the next chapter: «On that day living waters will flow from Jerusalem and flow partly towards the eastern sea, part towards the western sea: there always will be, summer and winter. The Lord will be king of all the earth. On that day the Lord will be one and his name will be one." (14, 8-9).

The application of these texts to Jesus on the cross it is clear. Jesus had announced that rivers of living water would flow from within him, in GV 7,38, and the Evangelist explained that he was saying this about the Spirit (7,39)[1].

In summary, the open source for the inhabitants of Jerusalem is the open side of Jesus; the living waters that come out of Jerusalem (Zechariah) for John they are the living waters that flow from within him, which is the new temple; these waters bring purification and life to the East and West. Here we have the theme of the universality of salvation, reported, in the story of the Passion, also from the title of the cross that said: «King of the Jews». Yet the writing was in Hebrew, Greek and Latin: therefore a kingship proclaimed to the whole world. Zechariah's last prophecy was also verified in this way where there is no longer any mention of a pierced shepherd, but of the Lord and his universal kingship in eschatological time: «He will be King of all the earth» (Zac 14,9). John therefore gives the scene of the cross a very broad salvific historical meaning, in full agreement with the other great theological times that are linked to this one verse 37 taken into consideration.

We could also cite two other passages of Scripture where we talk about the New Covenant. In the first, (Gives 31,33-34), this will no longer be reported on external stone tablets, but rather inscribed in the heart:

«This will be the alliance that I will conclude with the house of Israel after those days - oracle of the Lord - I will place my law within them, I will write it on their hearts. Then I will be their God and they will be my people. They will no longer have to teach each other, saying: “Know the Lord”, because everyone will know me, from the least to the greatest - oracle of the Lord - for I will forgive their iniquity and will no longer remember their sin".

In the second, (This 36,25-27), reference is always made to the alliance, but sanctioned by the gift of a spirit, similar to water that purifies, hence also the gift of a new heart:

«I will sprinkle you with pure water and you will be purified; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols, I will give you a new heart, I will put a new spirit within you, I will take away the heart of stone from you and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you and will make you live according to my laws and will make you observe and put into practice my rules".

All this scriptural background it makes us understand what John meant when he reported the prophetic phrase: «They will look at the one they have pierced»; which is found only in his Gospel, at the end of a text that, as we have already highlighted, it is the favorite reference when we talk about devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. These words summarize recognition and understanding[2] through the faith of that which dwelt in the depths of the heart of the dying Christ who "Having loved his own... to the end" and having now accomplished everything, expresses the internal desire to give the Spirit. Those who direct their gaze towards Jesus can no longer be the bystanders or soldiers who witnessed the crucifixion, but it is now the believing souls who penetrate and faithfully preserve the mystery of the love of Jesus, in a word his Heart.

Let's try to understand all this better, letting ourselves be guided by the literary structure of the Johannine passage which describes the moments before and after the death of Jesus on the cross. Of course we can only summarize so much. It allows us to highlight the presence of three binomials: «everything is finished» and «I am thirsty» al v. 28; "it is finished" and "he gave up the Spirit" of v. 30; finally «blood and water» of v. 34. Two thematic lines branch off from these three, towards which we need to direct our gaze of faith.

The first line we will call Christological it is drawn by expressions: "everything is done", "it is finished" and "blood". They represent the compendium of the saving work of Jesus. In this case the gaze turns backwards, to what has passed, to grasp in these words the total obedience of Jesus to the Father: he completed his work, until blood flows. But it is also a vision of the fulfillment of that saving love for us, that "until the end" of GV 13,1. So let's see here, in the open side of Christ, be his perfect oblation, that love to excess for us.

The second thematic line it is instead aimed at the future, to the life of the Church which, as we have tried to describe in a previous article, he is present there in the person of the beloved disciple and the Woman, the Mother of Jesus, called to a new spiritual motherhood towards believing disciples. This line, pneumatology, it is outlined by words: «On set», «gave up the Spirit» and «water».

The water that flows from the side of Christ it is a symbol of the gift of the Spirit and comes from Christ himself: it is he who "gave the Spirit"; it is from him that this desire originates: «On set». In fact, we note a significant difference between Zechariah's quote and the way John reports it in the Gospel. For John it is no longer a question of looking towards God, but towards "he", Christ, who was pierced. All the attention, that is, the believing gaze, she is focused on him and on the moment of the blood and water coming out of his underwear. Furthermore, the ancient prophecy spoke of repentance, which is left unsaid by Giovanni who prefers to concentrate on seeing.

There are many studies which confirm the different ways of seeing in the fourth Gospel and how, for John, the most perfect one is the seeing that understands the revealed mystery with faith and preserves it in the memory. We add that this seeing is aimed at the participation of the readers of the Gospel in the same experience, as John himself confesses in the first finale of his work: "These (signs) they were written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and why, believing, have life in his name" (GV 20, 31)[3].

So, Once again, the Evangelist writes to direct the reader from history to mystery. We see a pierced side, of the blood and water that come out and one contemplates the entire interior world of Christ and great themes, great theological depth, ecclesial and spiritual, nothing but magical-esoteric devotionism. The water from Jesus' side is a symbol of the Spirit that flows from his side, He becomes the new eschatological temple (cf.. This 47). At the same time the blood refers to his self-giving gift to the Father, to his finished work and his love for us. The gaze of faith that contemplates is the desire to participate in this entire interior world of Christ who is manifested.

In this passage Johannine there is no explicit mention of the heart, rather than the interiority of Jesus. It will be medieval mysticism that will identify this interior world as the heart of Christ and will make this passage of the pierced side the biblical text par excellence of the theology and spirituality of the Divine Heart of Jesus. Saint Ambrose said:

«Let the Church be introduced into the secret room of Christ...; the secret room of the Church is the Body of Christ; the King introduced it into all (its) mystery» (Sant'Ambrogio, In Ps. 218, 1,16 RUSE 62,16).

And William of Saint-Thierry:

«That through the open door we enter, all in one piece, into your heart, o Jesus... up to your holy soul"; asking the Savior: «To open the side of his body so that those who desire to see the secrets of the Son may enter» (William of Saint-Thierry, Meditative prayers, 6; PL 180, 226A).

Today, thanks to modern accurate exegesis, let's give these beautiful affirmations a solid evangelical basis and appreciate them better.

Having, Once again, summarized themes that would have needed a longer and more in-depth treatment, the intent of this contribution could be to arouse, after tasting, a real taste and interest. The intelligence of faith never ceases to delve into issues that are dear to the Christian people, even a devotion can become a door towards an ever broader and deeper understanding of the mysteries of God and faith. When the month of June approaches, traditionally dedicated to the Heart of Christ, let's give a new meaning to this devotion, to the prayers we will choose or the images we will share on social. For instance, the practice of the «first nine Fridays», after what has been said here, it is no longer simply the prayer and devotion of the individual, but should be thought of in the broader context of ecclesial communion and the Christian mystery, as we discovered when reflecting on the Gospel, thinking back to Jesus' gift of his life and his Spirit for all, not just for the individual soul.

These aspects were grasped by Pope John Paul II who expressed them in a public hearing. Twenty-five years have passed since those words that I now report below:

«The Evangelist speaks only of the spear blow to the side, from which blood and water flowed. The language of the description is almost medical, anatomical. The soldier's spear certainly struck the heart, to check if the Condemned Man was already dead. This heart – this human heart – has stopped working. Jesus ceased to live. At the same time, But, this anatomical opening of Christ's heart after death - despite all the historical "harshness" of the text - pushes us to think also on a metaphorical level. The heart is not just an organ that conditions the biological vitality of man. The heart is a symbol. It speaks of the whole inner man. It speaks of the spiritual interior of man. And tradition immediately reinterpreted this sense of John's description. The rest, in a sense, the Evangelist himself gave the impetus to this, When, referring to the testimony of the eyewitness who was himself, it was reported, at the same time, to this phrase of Holy Scripture: “They will look at him whom they have pierced” (GV 19,37; Zc 12,10). Like this, in reality, look at the Church; This is how he looks at humanity. And here, in Pierced by the Soldier's Lance all generations of Christians have learned and are learning to read the mystery of the Heart of the Crucified Man who was and is the Son of God". (Saint John Paul II, General audience of 20 June 1979).

I titled this contribution: The last devotion of Christ. For those who know about cinema, the reference to Martin Scorsese's film on Jesus is evident 1988: The last temptation of Christ. But just to say that, while cinematic fiction can also imagine that Christ was tempted to retreat from his path, the Gospel told us that He went all the way, with a devotion towards his mission that ultimately revealed what was inside his Heart full of love.

Sanluri 27 February 2024





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1 reply
  1. orenzo
    orenzo says:

    L’uomo nasce fuoriuscendo dall’utero materno assieme ad acqua e sangue.
    L’Uomo nuovo nasce fuoriuscendo dal costato di Cristo assieme ad acqua e sangue.

    A Gesù, on the cross, εἷς {one} τῶν {of the} στρατιωτῶν {soldati} λόγχῃ {con una lancia, un’asta di legno armata con ferro} αὐτοῦ {the} τὴν {the} πλευρὰν {costato} ἔνυξεν {trafisse, forò totalmente}.
    A Maria il vecchio Simeone predisse che τὴν {l’} ψυχὴν {anima} διελεύσεται {trafiggerà, passerà attraverso} ῥomphaea {un giavellotto usato dai traci, un’asta di legno armata con un ferro di ugual misura usata sia di taglio che di punta}.

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