Sermon for HIGH MASS – Trinity 4 Sunday 9 July 2017
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
‘Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’
The devotional life of the church reveals as much about us as it does about God.
In particualr, the humanity of Jesus has often been a corrective to the drier forms of theology and the harder edges of the church when those have got out of hand.
One of those verses at the end of today’s gospel is also the source of a versicle and response for the Feast of the Sacred Heart, the Friday of the week after Corpus Christi; a feast and a devotion which deserve more attention from Anglicans, as we have always insisted on giving pride of place to the Incarnation in our doctrine of God and the Church.
We may associate devotion to the Sacred Heart with the more baroque forms of western spirituality but we should look behind some of those gory externals. It is there in our tradition too, though muted. One of our favorite Lenten hymns, All ye who seek a comfort sure, contains the memorable verse
Jesus, who gave himself for you,
upon the cross to die,
opens to you his sacred heart
O to that heart draw nigh.
There is evidence from 17th century Oxford of devotion to the heart of Jesus in, for example, Madgalen Chapel, not then a hotbed of popery. Just as Mary is for all Christians, so there is more to this devotion than the denominational fervour which has sometimes overwhelmed it with buildings like Sacré Coeur in Paris.
St Margaret Mary Alacoque, whose modest but popular shrine you can visit at Paray-le-Monial in southern Burgundy, may be credited with popularizing the Sacred Heart devotion, but it predates her by centuries. We hear of it as early as the eleventh century, and it is recorded in the visions and writings of many saints thereafter – Gertrude, Mechtilde, Francis de Sales, John Eudes and others. It is a central plank of the rather intense spirituality of what is called the French School and there is a good reason for that.
Large scale public devotions in the Church often arise to counter a theological position with which the faithful are uncomfortable. When S. Margaret Mary had her religious experiences France was in the grip of the Jansenist heresy, which placed great emphasis on personal responsibility for sin and the difficulty of obtaining Christ’s mercy, while his true humanity was played down. We may quickly think of parallels to that heresy at the puritan end of Anglicanism in many ages, including our own.
In this particular context (and everything about our faith is particular, after the particularity of the Incarnation), S. Margaret Mary saw the wounded suffering heart of Jesus as expressing his love, intimate concern and forgiveness for us. It comes as no surprise that it was suggested to her that the Jesuits should be entrusted with popularizing this devotion, for the Jesuits were the loudest opponents of Jansenism (one of the reasons I’m especially keen on Jesuits).
The fact that the devotion spread like wildfire in the latter part of the seventeenth century says something about how necessary the revelation was for the church. What is called the sensus fidelium, the consensus of the faithful, won out against the hierarchs and dogmatists, something that Pope Francis is trying to encourage in our time.
Public devotion to the Sacred Heart has become more muted in the Roman church since Vatican II. This is not because it was denigrated by the Council: on the contrary the liturgical reforms added to the texts for the Feast. Rather, it is because the Council’s teaching sought to import the core values of the popular devotion into the very heart of the official liturgy of the Church, rather than leaving them as pious add-ons: the celebration of Jesus’ humanity, his suffering and death as an expression of his love for us, and the Eucharist as the most intimate of moments when Christ is broken and poured out in love, so that we produce this pattern of sacrificial love in our own lives.
That shift of emphasis has implications for the whole understanding of the Church and the faith, an understanding which, as it happens, Anglicanism had been seeking for centuries before Vatican II. The humanity of the incarnation, rather than a precise doctrinal account of it, is woven into our Patrimony.
Humanity is not just about sentiment or being nice to people. That is the least of it. Humanity is about scale. The Incarnation, the love of Jesus expressed in Devotion to the Sacred Heart, are a reminder and a corrective. A reminder that God thought humanity already sacred and capable of divinization. A corrective to world-views which prioritise and promote power and might, of which Jesus always displayed a visceral suspicion.
In practice what this means for us is that the important things about our faith, the achievements of it, if you like, are not measurable in great institutions or mass rallies, or even in the size of congregations. Of course we want our churches to be full, because we want people to know Jesus. But the way that works is through particular relationships and real people, not mass movements or grand projects. It is the individual and incremental growth of the kingdom in our relationships and interactions which Christ seeks to build. We see that in so many of our Lord’s parables of the Kingdom. Christianity is a distinctively human-scale faith, because based in a particular incarnation.
Devotion to the Sacred Heart recalls us to that human scale of our faith, to seeing it as something in which we all have a part to play, for we all have a heart in this biblical sense:
Jesus meek and lowly of heart:
make our hearts like unto your heart.