For Roman Catholics, and indeed for some Anglicans, this is a weekend of hearts. On Friday, they celebrated the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and on Saturday the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
Growing up in a Highland Manse, neither feast loomed large in my childhood. I only began to ponder them when I was a Curate in East London. My parish was dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The Catholic church across the road was dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. What, I wondered, were these feasts about? What did they have to teach me?
I noticed these feasts were most popular with people who had little in the way of status and economic security, . The stories of Jesus and of Mary – stories of homelessness and persecution, exile and bereavement – found an echo in their lives. And, crucially, they recognized Jesus’ extraordinary and practical compassion – that is, his heart of love.
In contrast to so many other spiritual leaders, Jesus is not the author of a single book. His message is conveyed, first and foremost, by his deeds as he heals the sick, raises the dying, speaks truth to power, overturns the tables in the temple. Throughout the Gospels, we see Jesus’ filled with emotion – moved to compassion, certainly, but sometimes also to anger. Christianity is not about a detachment from the world around us. If we are to follow Jesus, we too must respond with passionate and practical engagement. We are missing something, failing to see something, unless we are also moved when we encounter suffering and injustice.
Mary’s ministry shines forth with these same qualities. It full of passion. Think of her joy as she visits her cousin Elizabeth, and sings God’s praises in the words of the Magnificat. Think also think of the courage it must have taken to say “yes” to God’s purposes in Christ – purposes which led her fiancée to consider sending her away; purposes which forced the young family to flee as refugees to Egypt; purposes which took her to the sorrow of the cross and tomb. The fate of a woman in first-century Palestine who lost both husband and son was a pretty awful one, combining bereavement and isolation with economic ruin. In Mary’s case the fate would be compounded by the shame and horror of her son’s execution. We must, then, imagine Mary’s “yes” to God as a matter of passive obedience. Like her son, Mary’s “yes” was one of passionate engagement.
The lives of Jesus and Mary are passionate, but they are also prayerful. Their engagement has a very different quality to the shallow and noisy activism so common in our own day. Mary reflects deeply upon her experiences, seeking to discern God’s loving purposes. In a much-quoted verse, Luke writes of her “pondering all these things in her heart”.
“Pondering these things in her heart” – it is an interesting turn of phrase. For the Christian, the heart does not stand in opposition to the intellect. Mary’s heart, like yours and mine, is the place where intellect and emotion are united. The heart is both the seat of our motivations, and a source of knowledge; where we hear the voice of conscience, of compassion. The heart is where we are deeply moved beauty and goodness, and these are important windows onto truth.
But the heart is also a place of conflict, for we have a range of (often unconscious) motivations. We do not know our own hearts – and while God can speak to us through our emotions and experiences, they can also lead us very seriously astray. That is why Mary ponders things deeply, and why even Jesus sifts and discerns his emotions – wrestling in his forty days in the desert with the temptation to simply be a miracle-worker; refusing to allow his understandable fears to deflect him in the garden of Gethsemane.
God may well speak to us through our emotions, but his voice is hard to hear above the clamour of temptation and desire. Alongside passion, we also need reflection and discernment.
Today, more than ever, Christians need to learn how to hold together emotion and intellect, action and reflection. To divorce theology from spirituality, to separate our beliefs about God from our experience of him, impoverishes both. The Orthodox theologian Andrew Louth makes the point well, warning that theology must never be “cut off from the movement of the heart towards God.” And just as theology needs spirituality, so he argues, spirituality needs theology. As he writes:
Cut off from theology, prayer loses its objectivity, its concern with reality. For Christian prayer… is engagement with the object of our faith, an object which is in some way apprehended or known… We do not just feel something in prayer, we know something.
What does this mean for us today? How can we hold emotion and intellect, action and reflection, together in our lives as Christians?
Firstly, we need to remember that Christianity is above all an invitation to relationship. As this weekend’s feasts declare, God is passionate about us. He burns with love for us, and he wants to set our hearts on fire, with love for him and for our fellow creatures. We must not be too British about this. The Christian Gospel is, after all, a foreign import, and it calls us to passionate engagement, rather than serene detachment.
Secondly, our relationship with God needs to be enriched by Christian theology. We need to engage with theology, not simply as an intellectual exercise but as a spiritual discipline. Otherwise, there is a danger that our spirituality will become an exercise in wish-fulfilment. Scripture and Tradition speak to us of the work of the Spirit among God’s people over many centuries. We need this if we are to distinguish the work of the Spirit in our own life from our own preferences and projections.
Thirdly, our theology needs to be shaped by the experiences of the poorest and most marginalized. It is no coincidence that those on the margins of society, those who experience its injustices most keenly, often have the deepest sense of Jesus’ great heart of love.
How the world looks depends on where you are standing. Jesus stood among – not merely for – the poorest of his age. Where he stood is part of what he reveals. And, just as it is the poorest who seem to respond to the Feast of the Sacred Heart, it is the poorest who responded to Jesus’ ministry, and to the preaching of the first apostles. As Paul writes to the church in Corinth:
Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.
This is why Pope Francis warns against wealthier Christians becoming detached from the experience of their poorest brothers and sisters:
The gentrification of the heart paralyzes us … The poor, the abandoned, the sick, the marginalized are the flesh of Christ.
In his words, theology is not something we can ‘discuss calmly over tea’ – rather it must emerge from, and speak into, this context of engagement with those in greatest need.
All too often, the language in which the Church speaks of engagement with the poorest – in running Night Shelters, Foodbanks and the like – implies that it is about the ‘haves’ giving something to the ‘have-nots’. But, as Pope Francis reminds us, the real gift flows in the opposite direction. When those of us who live in comfort open our hearts and lives, it is we who are converted, we who encounter Christ anew.
This is the invitation made to us all as we reflect on this weekend of feasts – a threefold invitation to respond with out heart and soul to God’s great heart of love; to nourish that response from the deep wells of Christian wisdom, and to show it forth in lives which are open to the needs of others.
Let me finish by quoting Francis once again:
To love as Jesus loved us… this leads us not to retreat into ourselves, into our own problems, into our own ideas, into our own interests in this little world that has done us so much damage, but to get up and go to meet those who need care, understanding and support, to bring the warm closeness of God’s love through gestures of delicacy and sincere affection and love.
- This blog is based on Angus’ sermon this morning at Worcester Cathedral, where he is an Honorary Canon