David D’Silva explores the mystery of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection through the image of the Sacred Heart
My absolute favourite film—a film I can watch, get to the end of, and immediately re-watch at least twice—is The Librarian: Quest for the Spear. This swash-buckling tale tells the story of thirty-something-year-old Flynn Carson, who is, to put it lightly, a genius. When we first meet him, Flynn has twelve bachelor’s degrees, six master’s and four doctorates. In the film, our nerdish equivalent to Indiana Jones is selected to be the librarian at a very unusual library, filled with books, yes, but also objects like Noah’s Ark, the Goose that lays Golden Eggs, Pandora’s Box, Excalibur, and a fragment—a third—of the spear used to pierce Christ’s side on the cross: the Spear of Destiny.
In the story, a group of international villains steal the library’s fragment in an attempt to reform the spear and use it to take over the world (as many dictators throughout history had attempted to do, figures like Charlemagne and Napoleon). The whole premise of the spear in this story is that because it has come into contact with Jesus Christ, with his very flesh and blood, it has become imbued with his divinity; the spear has been changed, and has become more than just a spear. This should not come to us as a surprise, as the premise is very similar to how both medieval and modern storytellers have treated the Holy Grail; we’ve just got Flynn instead of Indy or Arthur.
But more than that, it’s what we see in the Christian faith. Time and time again in sacred scripture we see that when individuals and groups come into contact with the person of Jesus Christ, fully human and fully divine, miracles occur and their lives are forever changed. Indeed, are relics not a further example of how proximity in this life—even in spirit—to the Godhead through the person of Jesus Christ changes our very bones, our very flesh and blood, the very core of our being? Surely this is the eternal life found in the bottom of every chalice, placed on every altar for the last two millennia? And this is where my favourite film gets it wrong. These changes wrought by Jesus Christ are not about worldly domination, gained at the point of a spear, but acts of love, mercy, and truth.
This is why the spear is so important to us: not because it has given special aid to earthly warfare, but because it revealed to us the seat of divine love and mercy as it hung on the cross, the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The Sacred Heart is one of the most well-known images and devotions in the catholic faith, and takes Christ’s physical heart as the representation of his divine love for humanity, a love which was demonstrated on the cross at Good Friday, a love which flowed from our Lord’s side, his heart having been pierced by the spear.
The Sacred Heart is important because a heart is important to our bodies. The heart has become a symbol for our very selves: it pumps our life-giving blood through our bodies and without it we would die. This is why we talk about putting our whole heart into something, about wanting something ‘with all our hearts.’ And if this wasn’t enough, we further complicate things by not merely treating our hearts as a piece of simple biology, as a very clever piece of kit, a fancy muscle with four chambers, an exit and an entrance. On 14 February the whole world seems to be covered, not with pictures of St Cyril and St Methodius, or even with St Valentine, but with simplified images of a heart. We have made the heart a symbol of love.
And what is love? Love is not something that can be understood through the cold examination of science, it cannot be fashioned out of necessity. It comes and goes without explanation. It is the cause of great excitement and great pain and suffering, for both the object and the holder of this most powerful emotion. Love cannot be quantified, it cannot be weighed, it cannot be measured… except in the case of the love of God and his son, Jesus Christ, who showed the depth of his love when, for our sake, he opened his arms on the cross. The Bible uses the image of our hearts to refer to the very depths of ourselves, the very core of our beings, with which we make the decision to follow God. And it is God who speaks to us through our human experiences, and who has chosen the heart as the symbol of Jesus Christ. Why? Because the heart of Jesus was a human heart like our own, it beat up to 100,000 times a day throughout his earthly existence, and it stopped as he gave up his spirit on the hill of Golgotha. And yet, so complete was his sinlessness, so complete and perfect was he, was his love for us, that his heart, his love, ransomed us from sin and death.
In the Gospel according to St John, Christ says ‘let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’ (John 7.38) That water mixed with the blood, which was released by this evening’s instrument of the passion, was the water of salvation—the Holy Spirit. The spear released a gushing torrent of grace on the Hill of Calvary, which would flood the world with God’s love and mercy. God, from his son’s Sacred Heart, poured forth a flood, not a flood of destruction like that of Noah, but a flood of salvation which healed the divisions of our human sinfulness. And all from a human heart like ours, a heart like ours should and can be.
In art, the heart of Christ summarises the paschal mystery—the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, prompted by that divine love released into the world by the spear. In images, the Sacred Heart of Jesus is pierced by the spear, it is encircled with thorns, light radiates from it, it is set ablaze with the burning love of the almighty, and atop of it sits a cross.
There are many beautiful images of the Sacred Heart, and of Jesus, but one of my favourite images of Christ the King has Jesus crowned in a three-tiered tiara, his left hand holding a sceptre, his right held up in a blessing, and in the very centre of the picture is the Sacred Heart. It is my absolute favourite, and yet there is something missing; there is no orb to go with the sceptre.
The orb, representing the world and held in the hands of an emperor, king, or queen (or indeed, under the foot, which is a bit more ominous) has been a symbol of earthly rule for thousands of years. Here is an image of our Lord Jesus Christ, king not of an island, of a country, a continent, or even an empire, but of the whole universe, and yet this sign of earthly domination is missing. It is not even as if the orb has been abandoned as a symbol of monarchical authority by Christian rulers: after he had a vision, the Emperor Constantine simply adorned the top of it with a cross. It was then that I realised why I loved this picture of the Lord so much—because, my brothers and sisters, the orb is present, refashioned, remoulded in the light of the passion, death and resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ: the Sacred Heart is the orb. The glorious, opulent, bejewelled crown of an earthly ruler atop the world, is replaced by the spiky, wooden instrument of torture which was the crown of thorns. The rays of dazzling light are not created because of the richness of polished gold, but because of the furnace of divine love, burning within it. And all topped with the cross, the true summit, not of the world, but of the whole universe.
The Sacred Heart, then, is the orb, the symbol of Jesus Christ’s dominion over the universe. Yes, ‘dominion,’ but not a dominion of fear, of might, or of power. It is a dominion of love, of perfect, unflinching, unquenchable, divine love, the love of the master and king who came not to be served, but to serve. The love of a shepherd who gave his life for his sheep. That love which was released as a tsunami from a human heart, on a cross, by a spear.
What is it that was released? Blood and water on which Jesus Christ, the bridegroom, feeds the Church his bride. On the one hand, he feeds it with the two Dominical sacraments; Baptism (the water), and the Eucharist (the blood). But there is more to it than this. Just as in Genesis, where from the rib of the first Adam’s side came his bride, Eve, so too from the side of the second Adam comes his bride, the Church. This mystery, so beautiful, so marvellous, so intrinsic to our salvation, is not only made known to us because of the spear, but made a reality through its pointed edge. And if that wasn’t enough for us, the wound, the gaping hole in Christ’s side, reveals to us the great mystery of our salvation, of our sanctification. It reveals to us the seat of divine mercy. The Spear of Destiny allows us to see, to experience Christ’s Sacred Heart.
In the Book of Genesis after the flood, God says to Noah: ‘I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again destroy every living thing as I have done. While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night shall not cease.’ (Gen 9.20–22) What we see being released by the Spear of Destiny is a flood, which as God promised did not destroy mankind and creation as he had done before, but washed it clean with divine mercy, with grace. That’s the tidal wave which pours across the whole of creation.
We see and experience this throughout our daily lives in the Sacrament. These outward signs of inward graces are the flood of redemption which flows from our Lord’s side. The water of Baptism, the water and wine which becomes the precious blood of Christ in which the martyrs bathe. And this, my brothers and sisters, is the key for us, the key to the door of our salvation. But also the key to how we are to respond to this tidal wave of salvation. We must ride on the crest of that wave of righteousness, and in doing so bring it to all the people of the earth. Because, dear friends, the great joy of the spear is that it revealed to us something totally human, flesh, blood, muscle: a heart, something which makes up as much of our own bodies as it did the Lord’s. And this is something which was totally divine in its completeness: Christ’s mercy, his love, his humility.
Father David D’Silva is the assistant priest in the Parishes of St John the Baptist, Edlington and St Jude, Hexthorpe, Doncaster, England