Recently I had the honor of attending an ordination to the priesthood in my diocese. It was a moving liturgy from start to finish and a reminder of what a blessing it is to have men dedicated to serving Christ by serving His people in such a way. One of the most dynamic moments was when the presiding Cardinal quoted Pope Francis in challenging the new priests by asking the question, "How is your first love?" * The Cardinal asked the question repeatedly, interspersing it throughout his homily. He reminded the men who would be ordained shortly that they would be serving the Lord in a unique way and that it would be challenging, but that the most important thing for them is to keep their eyes on Christ as their first love letting all they do flow from that. I was very touched, not only because of his challenge to the priests, but because his question is appropriate for anyone who identities themselves as a Christian. We are all loved by God beyond our comprehension and the most important thing we ever do is love Him back. It is imperative that we keep asking ourselves the same question keeping our minds and hearts attuned to the health of our relationship with the Lord.
In this month of the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus it is appropriate to focus our meditation on what it means to love and be loved by God. In the last few weeks there have been many beautiful, mystery-filled feasts such as Pentecost, the Feast of the Holy Trinity, and Corpus Christi. In each of these feasts we celebrate the fullness of the gifts God has given us in sending the Spirit to empower us, but also we celebrate who God is as Father, Son, and Spirit. God is gracious and the giver of all good gifts; God is a Trinity of Persons, as St. Augustine puts it, who is an eternal exchange of love which is extended to us. We are included in the very love of God which is who He is! And this love is given to us every day in the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ which is the source and summit of the sacraments and the source and summit of all loves.
The Feast of the Sacred Heart which comes at the end of this month is very appropriately timed after all these important Sunday feasts. As we are propelled back into Ordinary Time liturgically we are reminded again and again of the indescribable love our God has for us that He would do everything He has done throughout salvation history simply because He loves us. His love is so great that He continually saves us from ourselves, forgives our sinfulness which at times has been rather egregious to say the least, and continues to find new ways to love us. Not only did He send His Son to live among us and die for us, but His Son left us His presence forever in His body and blood given in the Eucharist. And the Son, Jesus Christ, left us the Advocate who is the Holy Spirit to continue to guide us until the day comes when Christ returns. We are never alone. We always have the love of God to guide us, empower us, and save us. The gift is offered with no expectation of return, though God desires our happiness as well as our presence with Him in eternity simply because He loves us so much. (See Romans 8:28-39)
So what's with all this love? Why do we even need a Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus when it seems obvious that God loves us anyhow? First of all, love is who God is, therefore it is important for us to realize that we can never celebrate this enough. It is mysterious because it is a greater love than we can ever imagine. We should not spend time trying to understand it; trying to understand why or how He could ever love us so much simply will get us nowhere because it is too far above us to know the nature of who God is. Just as trying to understand why or how another person can love us is a misplacement of our attention, so too, it is with trying to understand God. What we should be doing is enjoying that love, living in that love, and responding to that love.
God intends for us to be loved and to know we are loved. His greatest gift of love was to send His own Son into the world so that we would be able to put a human face upon this love and to receive in a tangible way of the mystery of His love. Jesus taught us about love in His words and deeds, and most especially when He left us His body and blood in bread and wine, literally as food and drink to nourish, empower, and sustain us spiritually along the journey of life we each need to tread. The love it took to leave Heaven and enter into this life of brokenness and suffering is beyond any comprehension. No matter how much we try to understand what it took for Jesus to suffer and die for us, we can never fully know, nor can we know the depth of the love that beat in His heart as He walked this earth. To have been close to the beating heart of Jesus must have been incredible for those who encountered Him whether in a fleeting moment or as followers. But that heart still beats with love for us and has passed through death in the ultimate triumph of love. We still encounter the Sacred Heart of Jesus every time we encounter Him in sacrament or in prayer. The love of Christ never ceases and it is offered over and over for each one of us.
Therefore we do need a feast to celebrate the Sacred Heart of Jesus. We should reflect on His love, not with the intent of trying to understand it, or why He should love any one of us, but to simply rest in that love and allow it to flow over us and through us. If we want to respond to that love and to serve others we need to let that love enliven our own. All loves come from and are perfected in His love. It is what drives us to act in the way Jesus taught us to act. We will never love perfectly since we are not perfect, but we can go to the font of love and allow Him to continue to perfect us. We can ask Him to help us to love better, to forgive more readily, to act more selflessly, and to be more generous in our love of Him. We can do the small things that may go unnoticed, but which are done with great love. And we can make a change in the world around us by living in the joy and peace of that love and moving outwards to others with it.
It is very important to the Lord that we spend time with His Sacred Heart in the love He wishes to share with us. We need to spend time in prayer not so that we can tell Him things He does not know, (since He already knows everything about us), but in order to hear our own thoughts and words in light of His love and to allow His love to permeate us and change our own heart. If we do not pay attention to our relationship with Jesus daily, we will lose sight of His love for us and its sanctifying power. We will grow cooler in love without realizing why, until we begin to only go through the motions because we know we are supposed to do "Christian things" but without the power to really savor them. Being human we will struggle with loving the way He wants us to know love and love others, but we can always reclaim it since His love is never ending. We will not always feel this love; a mistake people often make is to expect to feel something. Often His love for us is so deep that it is beyond our ability to feel it, therefore we need to trust it and rely upon His promise to us.
With the Pope, and with the Cardinal at the ordination, I repeat the question: How is your first love? This is a question that is not just for priests. It is one that all of us should ponder. Our first love is the love of Christ poured out to us daily from His Sacred Heart which so desires us to return that love to Him. He should be our first love so that all other loves we give find their source in Him. And since we have so great and unfathomable a source of love, it is also a source of joy and peace. That is indeed a cause for celebration.
May we find a home in the Sacred Heart of Jesus! May our first love be the motivation for all our loves! May the love of the Sacred Heart of Jesus enliven our hearts! May we enjoy the love of Christ for us so much that we are moved to share it with others in word and deed! May we have a heart for the poor, the marginalized, the sick and the lonely! And may we have gratitude for the love with which we are loved from so beautiful a Heart as the Heart of Christ! Let us continue to meet in the Sacred Heart of Christ the Lord! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
* Pope Francis' homily can be found at http://en.radiovaticana.va/news/2014/06/06/_pope_at_mass_priests,_never_forget_your_first_love/1101441
The photos are mine. The first is of an ordination, as mentioned in the first paragraph. The second is of my parents wedding rings on my Bible.
The two icons are the work of Fr. William Hart McNichols. The first is La Sangre de Christo and can be found at http://www.fatherbill.org/all-categories/product/44-la-sangre-de-christo.
The second is The Most Sacred Heart of Jesus and can be found at http://www.fatherbill.org/all-categories/product/54-the-most-sacred-heart-of-jesus
Heart Speaks to Heart