Scripture and the Liturgy

Solemnity of the Sacred Heart

And so we arrive again at the Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, which is the last feast day of the year that is tied to the date of Easter and forms part of what we might call the “Easter Narrative” that begins with Ash Wednesday, then Lent, Holy Week, Triduum, Easter Octave, Easter Season, Pentecost, Trinity, Corpus Christi, and finally: the Sacred Heart.  After today’s Feast, we plunge back into the waters of “Ordinary Time” on Sundays. In many ways, to reflect on the love of God symbolized and actualized in the heart of Jesus is a fitting denouement or final meditation on the mysteries we have been experiencing for months now.

In Year B, our Readings are very diverse.  All reflect on the love of God, but from different angles and without the tight vertical unity that is observable in the Readings for other Feasts, or even the Year A Readings for this same Feast.  These Readings are like walking around a sculpture of the Sacred Heart and viewing it from four very different angles.

Our First Reading is from Hosea 11:1, 3-4, 8c-9:

Reading 1

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.

There are several unique features about the Book of Hosea.  Hosea, first of all, was the only prophet sent to northern Israel, and northern Israel alone.  All the rest ministered in the southern kingdom of Judah. Secondly, while a nuptial theme runs through several prophets, including all three great prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel) of the Jewish tradition, Hosea has the strongest nuptial imagery of any prophet, concentrated in Hosea 1-3.  Thirdly, Hosea is the first of the minor prophets.  In the opening chapters of Hosea, we have the enacted parable of Hosea and Gomer, where Hosea marries a promiscuous woman who leaves him, but he takes her back—all this as an allegory of God and Israel.  The point is, God will always seek out bride-Israel and take her back.  This pairs with the end of the Book of the Twelve, where in Malachi we read that “I hate divorce! Says the Lord God of Israel” (Mal 2:16; the translation of this verse is disputed [cf. ESV vs. RSV] but having studied the issues I believe the RSV and NABRE render the verse properly).  In this way the overarching message of the Twelve is that God’s love for his people cannot be broken.

Our Reading for this Solemnity comes closer to the end of Hosea, and is not nuptial but filial. The two most common forms of covenant in both ancient and modern times are marriage and adoption.  Recall that a covenant is the extension of kinship by oath, and both marriage and adoption make a non-relative into a family member. 

Today’s Reading retells the story of God and Israel as if Israel was the firstborn son of God (see Exod 4:22).  The Exodus from Egypt and the early years in the Promised Land are likened to infancy and adolescence of Israel as a boy. God is portrayed as a doting father, full of physical affection, “like one who raises an infant to his cheeks,” a gesture of intimacy.  Hosea calls Israel “Ephraim,” the name of the chief tribe, Ephraim being the younger son of Joseph, but nonetheless the chief heir of Jacob/Israel, who chose to give younger Ephraim the honor of the firstborn among all his sons (Gen 48:13-20).  It was from the tribe of Ephraim that Jeroboam the first king of Israel came, and most of the subsequent kings as well.

Ephraim rejects the love of the LORD his father, but even though Ephraim deserves punishment, the LORD cannot bear to destroy his own son.  No, despite Ephraim’s rejection, the LORD will still save him and bring him back in love. God’s love exceeds his justice.

Our Responsorial Psalm is not actually a psalm, per se, but a canticle from Isaiah 12:

Is 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.

This canticle is a favorite in the Church’s liturgical tradition, and it is frequently used on several occasions, notably at the Easter Vigil.  Isaiah 1–12 is like a summary or precis of the entire Book of Isaiah: almost all the main themes of the book are found already in these first twelve chapters.  The twelfth chapter is a doxology praising God for the salvation that he has promised to bring to his people.  God is portrayed as a fountain who supplies salvation like abundant water.  The natural, geographical source of this image or metaphor was the Gihon Spring, one of the most treasured features of the city of Jerusalem.  This spring, located about halfway down the side of the slopes of the City of David, the royal compound built on a spur off the Temple Mount, ran with fresh water continually, all year long.  It was the only source of “living” (i.e. flowing) water for the Israelites in Jerusalem. Even before David captured the city (2 Sam 5:6-10), the Jebusite inhabitants had built enormous stone fortifications around this spring to defend it in times of siege.  Ancient Israelite tradition connected the Gihon to the Temple, since water was taken from the Gihon to supply the needs of the Temple.  Israelite mysticism saw the Temple Mount, with the Gihon flowing from an adjacent slope, as a kind of New Eden, since the Garden of Eden was a kind of natural temple on top of the mount, and the River of Life flowed out from Eden (Gen 2:10). National ceremonies were held at the Gihon (1 Kings 1:33,38,45) and its waters were semi-sacred: they were a reminder of the waters of Eden and of God’s provision of life to his people by his presence in the Temple. We will see connections later with our Gospel Reading.

Our Second Reading is Ephesians 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 (better: “all fatherhood”)

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.

Paul prays for us that we may have the “strength to comprehend” the “love of Christ which surpasses knowledge.”  In other words, the love of Christ for each one of us is so profound and so great, it is not possible, by our natural powers, even to understand it.  Therefore St. Paul feels it necessary to pray that God give us supernatural power even to comprehend the greatness of Jesus’ love. 

Ephesians is considered by some to be St. Paul’s greatest letter, even though it is much shorter than Romans.  However, St. Paul’s thought in Ephesians seems to have matured and become even more mystical in Ephesians over against Romans, and the Apostle sees now a vision of the Church as the mystical Body of Christ and New Temple that is the source of salvation for the whole world. 

Although temple imagery for the Church does not clearly crop up in this Reading, it is important, even central, to the overall message of Ephesians. In the following chapter we read:

19 So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God (an ancient reference to the Temple),  20 built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone,  21 in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord;  22 in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.  

We have italicized the clearer temple references in this passage. St. Paul tells us that the Body of Christ is the same as the New Temple, which is the same as the Bride of Christ, and all of these are the Church.  So the Church is Body, Temple, and Bride of Christ, the source of salvation for all.  This is how “broad and long and high and deep” (architectural dimensions) the love of Christ is for us: he has made us into Himself, made us his own body, which is the new Temple in which the presence of God dwells.  No other religion offers us such intimacy with God. 

All of this is hard to grasp, so with Paul, we pray for God’s insight into the “love of Christ,” which we celebrate today under the image of the Sacred Heart.

Our Gospel is my personal favorite for this Solemnity, and one of my favorite passages of Scripture, period, because the dense symbolism conveys almost the entire plan of salvation:

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.

First, some historical notes. John notes that it was Preparation Day—i.e. Friday, the day before the Sabbath—but there was special urgency about the following day, because literally “the day of that Sabbath was great.” This means, the day on which the Sabbath fell was also a liturgical festival, in this case, the Passover itself.  This is one of the reasons I hold to the calendrical solution for the dating of Passion Week in the Gospels, because it seems that the Synoptics have Jesus observing the Passover earlier in the week—presumably according to the older calendar still in use by the Essenes and other Jews—but John notes that the day after the crucifixion was Passover by the Temple calendar. 

The breaking of the legs was to hasten death.  Crucifixion killed one by suffocation.  One could stay alive on the cross as long as one could push with one’s legs in order to lift the chest for a breath.  But when a man became so exhausted he could not push himself up, he suffocated under his own weight, hanging from his arms.  Breaking the legs prevented pushing oneself up, and so one suffocated within minutes. 

Jesus is already dead, but to make sure, one soldier lances his side.  Out flows blood and water.  This stream of blood and water from the side of Christ is one of the most profound images in all of Scripture. 

For the first-century Jewish readers of John, the first thing that would come to  mind with the flow of blood and water would be the connection to the Temple itself, which flowed with blood and water during festival time, during which thousands of animals were slaughtered in the Temple courts and their blood washed down drains in the Temple floor using water drawn from the “spring of salvation,” the Gihon.  This bloody water flowed under the Temple floor in pipes and out a great exhaust pipe on the side of the Temple Mount, and flowed down the hill into the Brook Kidron, the little stream that Jesus had to cross to get to the Mount of Olives.  Thus, the flow of blood and water from the side of Christ is a sign that his body is the new Temple—an image we saw in Ephesians.  But recall that at the beginning of John, at the Temple cleansing, Jesus had said: “Tear down this Temple and I will build it again in three days … but he spoke of the Temple of his body” (John 2:19-21). Now here, near the end of the Gospel, we pick up that image of Jesus’ body-as-temple once again.

But there is much more.  Blood in the Gospel of John is associated with the Eucharist (John 6:53-56) and water with Baptism (John 3:5).  The blood and water from the side of Christ are a sign of the Sacraments.  They are also a sign of the Holy Spirit: recall that earlier in the Gospel Jesus had said: “The Scriptures have said: ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water’… Now this he said about the Spirit, which those who believed in him would receive” (John 7:38-39). The usual way that the Spirit comes to us is via the Sacraments, so the blood and water are a sign of that sacramental flow which carries the Spirit to us. 

Of course, the Holy Spirit is, in one perspective, nothing other than the personal Love of God.  So St. Paul can say: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us” (Rom 5:5). On the cross we see Christ’s heart flowing with the sacramental signs of blood and water that carry to us the Holy Spirit, the Person of God’s Love.

No less an authority that St. Augustine also notes that the imagery of the piercing of a body and the flow of blood and water also calls to mind the first union of groom and bride on the wedding night, and therefore there is also a nuptial perspective on this event at the cross.  Indeed, the cross is the manifestation of Christ the bridegroom giving his body to his bride even unto death.  The cross is Jesus great wedding feast, and in the structure of the Gospel of John it pairs with the first great sign Jesus performed—the changing of the water to wine at the Wedding at Cana.  These are the only two times in the Gospel that Jesus produces liquid drink by his own power—first the wine, then the blood.  These are both weddings, at which the mother of the groom is present (John 2:1//19:25).

Although God’s compassion was so great he spared Israel, his firstborn son (Exod 4:22) as we saw in our First Reading, nonetheless here he freely gives up his firstborn son, Jesus the Christ, in order to redeem Israel and all the nations. 

It’s too much to comprehend: we have to pray for divine help, as Paul did, in order to understand how, at the cross, the heart of Jesus has become the “spring of salvation,” which flows with the life-giving water (and blood) of the Spirit, the love of God flowing into our hearts, making us fountains of love like Jesus.  Then what Jesus prophesied will be fulfilled: “Whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14). 

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