One summer while I was teaching at a Catholic-style Vacation Bible School, we were all in the church getting ready for daily Mass. The children were sitting quietly in the pews, alternating boy-girl-boy-girl, as we waited for Father to appear in the back of church, signaling the start of the opening song. But Father wasn’t coming. One of my teammates went to the back and discovered the dreaded news: Father was running late.
I was standing in front of 50 under-twelve year olds, faced with the budding realization that their awe at being the only ones in church with no other parishioners would not keep them silent much longer.
I stood up in front of them, still not entirely certain how to occupy this group of children while still maintaining the reverence of the Church. But suddenly I had inspiration: it was June, the month of the Sacred Heart. I would teach them about the heart of Jesus. What I didn’t anticipate, though, were the insights I would discover about my own heart as I tried to teach these young children about Christ’s Sacred Heart.
I asked them to imagine a heart—a big red heart.
“And children, what did they put on Jesus’ head before they crucified Him?”
“A crown of thorns!”
“And why a crown of thorns?”
“They were teasing him, they wanted to embarrass him.”
“Yes, and so around the big red heart I want you to imagine the crown of thorns.”
Every homeless person I have not acknowledged or even looked at out of embarrassment or fear becomes a moment that I too humiliate Jesus.
“After Jesus died, boys and girls, the guards did something. Does anyone remember?”
“They took a spear and jabbed him in the side.”
“That’s right, the guard used his lance, sort of like a spear, and cut it in his side to make sure he was really dead. And so I want you to imagine that big red heart, with the crown around it, with a big cut from the spear.”
That time that I rejected the calls and ignored the text messages from a friend because I was mad not only pierced my friend, but also pierced the side of Jesus.
“Okay boys and girls. Who can tell me, how did Jesus die?”
“On a cross!”
“Yes. On a cross. So this heart that we have in our heads: big, red, crown of thorns around it, big gash from the lance, I also want you to imagine a cross on top of it.”
When I decided to not to participate in a service project simply because I was feeling tired that morning is a cross that I chose not to bear, a cross I chose not to carry with Jesus.
“But the most important part of the heart of Jesus is that it is ON FIRE! Jesus loves us so much that his heart is on fire for us!”
I could see the lack of understanding and shadows of terror creeping upon faces of the first and second graders as they imagined this gory heart on fire. So I tried a new angle.
“Do you know the warm feeling your heart gets when you love someone? Maybe when you see Mommy and Daddy after school, or when you are playing with a friend and really having fun? Our hearts feel a little warmer, don’t they? Well, Jesus’ heart gets so warm from loving us so much that it starts burning!”
And in this burning heart of Jesus I have found so much comfort. There have been times I imagined myself curling up into the wound, immersing myself in the pain of the situation, but finding comfort in the warmth of His love. Despite all of the ways that I have caused his heart pain, he is still there to warm me with his love.
But in many of the images of the Sacred Heart, Jesus has one hand pointed at his heart, the other outstretched. As a friend pointed out, it is as if Jesus is saying, “I’ll trade you. Give me your heart and take mine.”
What does that look like, living with the heart of Jesus? Trading my heart for his changes things, in a very real way. Life looks different.
I can no longer make excuses to avoid uncomfortable things. I can’t just say I’m tired, or that I have so many other things to do, or that it’s awkward to look a stranger in the face. Stepping out of my comfort zone even when it’s not convenient is necessary to create the crown of thorns that will wrap around my traded heart.
And the really deep wounds of true sacrifice—bigger than giving a dollar to a beggar or saying prayers at night—will be there too, deepening the wound in the side of the heart.
And ultimately some of me is going to die on the cross. Probably at first, it will mostly be the way of life that I am used to living, which gives me lots of free time and the ability to say no to those uncomfortable things.
But despite all of these things, this heart that I have traded mine for will be ablaze with love. And all of the sacrifice and pain will be enveloped in the warmth of that love. The cost will no longer matter, for everything will be transformed in love.
Last year Pope Francis said in his homily for this Feast day:
Jesus wanted to show us his heart as the heart that loved so deeply. …I am thinking of what St Ignatius told us…. He pointed out two criteria on love. The first: love is expressed more clearly in actions than in words. The second: there is greater love in giving than in receiving.
And so I remember all of these things this year, and think again about what I can do with my newly traded big red heart—what I can give to feel pain and sacrifice and suffering that are ultimately acts of deep love.