Friday, 6 March 2015

First Friday, March 2015: remembering the pierced heart.

Jos Speybrouck : Feest van het Allerheiligst Hart van Jezus, 1934
This week Pope Francis has stressed, once again, the importance of Lent as a time when we look into and purify our hearts and turn to God.  Unless we experience a change of heart we are, he says just hypocrites living a lie.  We say one thing and do another.   In such cases, he says’, in unequivocal terms, our heart does not belong to God, but to the father of all lies, Satan! (Read here.)  Lent is a time for returning to God with all your heart: and the heart is, as he said on Ash Wednesday, ‘the seat of our sentiments, the center in which our decisions and our attitudes mature.’ ( Read here.) In returning to God with all of our heart we may forget to remember that in Jesus, God gives his heart to us : completely and utterly.  This was brought home to me this week when I chanced across an image of the Sacred Heart I had not seen before. Sometimes, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz,  the things we are looking for are to be found right in our own backyards.  This Lent I stumbled across a fascinating bit of Sacred Heart art in a curio shop just a few minutes walk away from my own backyard.  I think that the shop owner did not know quite what to make of it: but I thought it was a very fine example of an art deco/ art nouveau  approach to the image of the Sacred Heart. On closer examination when I got it home, I discovered that the chromolithograph was signed by the Belgian Flemish artist Jos, or Joseph, Speybrouck (1891-1956).   Read more about him here.
Jos Speybrouck 1891-1956

The chromolithograph (above) was one in a series of produced in conjunction with the Benedictine Order at the Abbey of St. Andrew , Bruge (see here) between 1923 - 1940. The series provided a complete calendar of the liturgical year: so this image would have been used in a school to inform students of the feast and its meaning and significance.    I find an astonishing image for its time.  The picture is dated 1934 and is a very graphic portrayal of the moment when a soldier pierces his side with a spear. Unlike the vast majority of Sacred Heart art, it is wholly and completely free of sentimentlism or kitsch. The text underneath informs the viewer that on the feast of the Sacred Heart (Feest van het Allerheiligst  Hart van Jezus) and prompts us to remember the words of St. John's gospel and focus our attention on the blood and water.

Jos Speybrouck  was a highly accomplished  and prolific artist who,
it appears, seems to have worked almost exclusively in the field of liturgical or sacred Catholic art and illustration.  The Sacred Heart chromolithograph (above) was obviously  used in a school or church as instructional material. It is a 'poster' hung on a simple wooden frame and shows signs of being rolled away and stored with other such posters in the series. He also did a very popular series of cards as well as other educational materials ( cards and 'comics') which show that he also produced more conventional images. One card on the Eucharist, for example seeks to show the relationship between the the Eucharist and the Sacred Heart. In other works he shows the relationship between the pierced heart and the birth of the Church  and the other sacraments. He also painted the more traditional image of the Sacred Heart.

Having lived with the image for the past week I have found thought provoking and deeply moving. As the spear pierces the heart of Jesus the artist shows a divine response: as if a great global or cosmic explosion has occurred. In piercing the heart of Christ the whole of created order has now been changed. It brings home in a very vivid way the significance which St. John attached to what he had seen happen. The image helps us to re-connect with the devotion as it developed from the days of the Church Fathers.

All too often the idea of the heart of Jesus has been understood in a rather twee way : Jesus is all neat and tidy and inviting. Such images are a very long way from the cross.  Speybrouck's image, on the other hand, is visually challenging because we are actually drawn into the centre of the picture and confronted  by  the real meaning of the event depicted. We are the fourth person.

In the Speybrook chromolithograph we see Mary on the left and  two soldiers looking on, one with Jesus's robe over his shoulder. We, the viewer,  are standing behind the soldier whose spear is piercing the heart of Jesus.  We are not just looking on at a distance as one usually finds in pictures of the crucifixion: in this image we are in the middle of the action.  We are so close that we are not meant to feel just an onlooker, we seem to be almost participating in the event.  And perhaps that the point of the picture: the force that drives the spear is human sinfulness - our sinfulness.  Hence it is not a pretty picture - it is not a picture of the Sacred Heart we would want on the living room wall, or over our bed.  It reminds us, however,  that sin is not pretty picture.

Our sins are real and they cut and tear, hurt and wound: sin draws blood. Sin destroys life. Sin is ugly.  It does not make for comfortable viewing. In Speybrouck's image we look on the one we have pierced.  We look for mercy from God, who is love. We look and see that the heavens have opened to us in a burst of light.  After all the wounding and cutting and stabbing we have done in our life - to others and ourselves - God can forgive us if we seek His mercy. Our hearts must be wounded if we are to enter more fully into the heart of Jesus.  This idea was brought home to me during a recent Stations of the Cross where  we used the excellent publication by Fr. Dominic Allain. At the 12th station Fr. Allain prompts us to reflect on the moment when the heart of Christ was pierced.

'Then at last the head stoops and falls..Now the immense horror of the lance.  His heart which once beat with her blood in the depths of her being is pierced and there flows  out blood and water, the stuff of dying and being born.  The lance, and the sword which  has pierced Mary's soul tell us that  the human heart  must in some way be breached, opened up, to allow something even greater to quicken  and sustain our existence.  The Passion means being emptied out , so that something else may fill that emptiness: the eternal love of the Father.'  Allain, Stations of the Cross. Family Publications,  Oxford  2009. 

The picture  has also served to remind me this week of the emphasis on the pierced heart of Christ that we find in Benedict XVI's teachings.  In his Angelus address in 2007, for example,  he said this:

This year, the Lenten message is inspired in the verse of John's Gospel, which in turn goes back to a messianic prophecy of Zechariah: "They shall look on him whom they have pierced" (John 19:37).

The beloved disciple, present with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and the other women on Calvary, was an eyewitness of the thrust of the spear which pierced Christ's side, so that blood and water came out (cf. John 19:31-34). This gesture of an unknown Roman soldier, destined to be lost in oblivion, was imprinted on the eyes and heart of the apostle, who recounted it in his Gospel. In the course of the centuries, how many conversions have taken place precisely thanks to the eloquent message of love that he receives who contemplates Jesus crucified! Therefore, we enter the Lenten season with our gaze fixed on Jesus' side. In the encyclical letter "Deus Caritas Est" (cf. No. 12), I wished to underline that only by gazing on Jesus, dead on the cross for us, can we know and contemplate this fundamental truth: "God is love" (1 John 4:8,16). "In this contemplation the Christian discovers the path along which his life and love must move" ("Deus Caritas Est," No. 12).

Contemplating the Crucified with the eyes of faith, we can understand profoundly what sin is, its tragic gravity, and at the same time the incommensurable power of the Lord's forgiveness and mercy. During these days of Lent, let us not distance our hearts from this mystery of profound humanity and lofty spirituality. On contemplating Christ, let us feel at the same time that we are contemplated by him. He whom we ourselves have pierced with our faults does not cease to shed over the world an inexhaustible torrent of merciful love. May humanity understand that only from this source is it possible to draw the spiritual energy indispensable to build that peace and happiness for which every human being is ceaselessly searching. (25th February, 2007) 

Again, in Benedict's Spirit of the Liturgy he asks us to direction our attention to the moment which is so dramatically captured by Speybrouck.

After the tearing of the Temple curtain and the opening of the heart of God in the pierced heart of the Crucified, do we still need sacred space, sacred time, mediating symbols? Yes, we do need them, precisely so that, through the 'image', through the sign, we learn to see the openness of heaven. We need them to give us the capacity to know the mystery of God in the pierced heart of the Crucified.
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, 2000, p61

In the pierced heart of the Crucified, God's own heart is opened up; here we see who God is and what he is like. Heaven is no longer locked up. God has stepped out of his hiddenness. That is why St John sums up both the meaning of the Cross and the nature of the new worship of God in the mysterious promise made through the prophet Zechariah (cf. 12:10). 'They shall look on him whom they have pierced' (Jn 19.37). Joseph Cardinal Ratizinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, 2000, p48

Perhaps, I think,   that is what Speybrouck is trying to convey: the pierced heart of Jesus is the source of the great spiritual energy that we see exploding from the cross!   As the spear pierced the heart of Christ, Heaven  is open - it is no longer locked up  - the Divine love is seen bursting out in a flash of light and a stream of blood and water. In the pierced heart of Jesus the great mystery of God's mercy is revealed.

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