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The Glowing Heart of Mercy

Hanging on the wall of one of the confessionals at my parish is an image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The unknown artist has opted, as many have, for a soft Jesus, whose features are as bland and inoffensive as possible and whose heart is more of a glowing orb than anything remotely resembling flesh and blood. I know that the image is meant to communicate- that the Lord Jesus is accessible to the penitent and offers in response to even the most grievous of sins the possibility of another chance. This is not a Jesus prone to yelling “You did what?” It is a Jesus before which one would be able to deliver oneself with honesty without fear that what awaited such an admission would be blow to the face.

Comforting? Yes. It is also an image of Jesus that is, from an aesthetic perspective, utterly forgettable. The image lingers there, barely noticed. I think that I recall this depiction of Christ only because I am positioned beneath it with some measure of frequency. When I have mentioned to folks who frequently request the Sacrament of Penance that I would meet them in the confessional that has the image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in it, they look at me as if they will need a map.

Images of the Sacred Heart of Jesus are enduring and ubiquitous in Catholic culture. The emphasis these images place on the approachability of Christ, even to the point of softening his features to effeminacy, is meant to communicate how human feelings and affections have been elevated through the Incarnation. Christ, who loves us, loves us in a way that we can appreciate and understand, and he makes himself available to us in our emotions. Christ can love us, and we can love him in return. Yet the traditional devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus has also stressed that the love of God in Christ is met, more often than not, by our refusal. The Heart of Jesus is not only radiant with love for us, but it is a wounded heart, encircled by thorns, and pierced- this is a Heart that we tried to kill, a love that we tried to extinguish. 

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