Saturday, 16 June 2018

The Sacred Heart and the Tabernacle and Temple.

Pope Francis ’s reference to the Almond tree on the Feast of the Sacred Heart has prompted a fascinating new exploration of the  meaning of the Sacred Heart and of the icon itself.

Elsewhere on this blog we have referenced the importance of the heart in Salesian spirituality and Francis's reference made be think of chapter 23 of St Francis Sales’s , Introduction to the devout life, where we find an interesting  reference to the almond:

It has been said that if one writes a word on an almond, and then replace it carefully in its husk, and sow it, all the fruit borne by that tree will be marked by the word so inscribed. For my own part, I never could approve of beginning to reform any one by merely external things,—dress, the arrangement of hair, and outward show. On the contrary, it seems to me that one should begin from within. “Turn ye to Me with all your heart;” “My son, give Me thine heart; ” for as the heart is the fount whence all our actions spring, they will be according to what it is. And the Heavenly Bridegroom, calling the soul, says, “Set Me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm.” Yes verily, for whosoever has Jesus Christ in his heart will soon show it in all his external actions. Therefore, my daughter, above all things I would write that precious and Holy Name JESUS in your heart, certain that having done so, your life—like the almond tree in the fable—will bear the stamp of that Saving Name in every act; and if the Dear Lord dwells within your heart, He will live in your every action, and will be traced in every member and part of you, so that you will be able to say with S. Paul, “I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.” In a word, whosoever gains the heart has won the whole man.

The almond has an remarkable history as a religious symbol.  Pope Francis in his reflections on the feast of the Sacred Heart  is inviting us to consider the richness of this symbol in the context of understanding the mystery of God’s love for us.

In the Litany of the Sacred Heart we say that it is ‘the holy temple of God’ and the ‘ tabernacle of the most high’.   So as we contemplate an image of the Sacred Heart we might think about the way in which the humble almond tree is given such a special place in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple.  In the Book of Exodus we read:

31 Make a lamp stand of pure gold. Hammer out its base and shaft, and make its flowerlike cups, buds and blossoms of one piece with them. 32Six branches are to extend from the sides of the lamp stand—three on one side and three on the other. 33Three cups shaped like almond flowers with buds and blossoms are to be on one branch, three on the next branch, and the same for all six branches extending from the lamp stand. 34 And on the lamp stand are to be four cups shaped like almond flowers with buds and blossoms. 35 One bud shall be under the first pair of branches extending from the lamp stand, a second bud under the second pair, and a third bud under the third pair—six branches in all. 36The buds and branches shall be all of one piece with the lamp stand, hammered out of pure gold.

The Menorah is one of the oldest, and most revered symbols of Judaism.  So, as we contemplate the image of the Sacred Heart, we might reflect on the meaning that it is the temple and tabernacle of God.  Jesus, like the menorah is the light of the world, and the tree of life. Just as the menorah was the only source of light in the Tabernacle, The flowering of Aaron’s rod with almond flowers (Numbers, 17), prefigures the resurrection from the dead of Jesus and the new life he brings.   Aaron’s staff, of course was placed in front of  the Ark of Testimony, and later on placed inside  the Ark housed in the Tabernacle.

If you visit your local synagogue, then you will find a menorah next to the Ark, when the Torah is stored and displayed. As I understand it, it is there to signify the great power and wisdom of God's holy word. And, of course, it is there because it is such an important symbol of the the Jewish faith, tradition and history.

Why was the little old almond singled out for such a very special place on such a special symbol?  Pope Francis refers to the tradition that the almond tree was the first to bloom after the winter.  God is always first, just waiting and watching for us.  And this sense of it being a symbol of watching for us and over us, and of God who loves us and is ever waiting and watching for us enriches our understanding of the Heart of Jesus. In Hebrew the  name for almond tree is shâqêd. Shâqad also means to be watchful and on the lookout .  So the almond tree reminds us that God is ever watchful,  and so much we be always mindful of the covenant - old and new.   In Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1: 11 – 12) the Lord asks Jeremiah, what does he see?  And Jeremiah’s response is, “I see the branch of an almond tree.” God replies well,  “You have seen correctly, for I am watching to see that my word is fulfilled.”  In Job we read that  God  is a “watcher of men.”  ( Job 7:20).

The moment we focus on the menorah - decorated with that almond motif - and think about the heart of Jesus as the Temple  of God and the Tabernacle of the most high, then the profound mystery of the Sacred Heart comes into a clear perspective.

 As we contemplate an image of the Sacred Heart we should always remember the words of St John’s Gospel (John, 19-31-5) .  He sees a direct and vivid parallel between the pierced heart of Jesus and the blood and water that flowed from the altar in the Temple in Jerusalem at the time of Passover.   At the time of Jesus the flow of  the  blood of many thousands of lambs washed down  from the Temple Mount to the brook in the Kidron valley would have been a familiar sight.  John asks us to look  Jesus as the Temple of the living God. His heart is the altar from which flowed blood and water.  When we look at the heart of the saviour we should see the Temple Mount, and the blood and water flowing down into the Kidron Valley, and  on the other side of which  is the Mount of Olives where he taught and from where he ascended to heaven, and Garden of Gethsemane where he spent the night with his apostles.

Now, thanks to Francis’s reference to almond flower, when I look at the Sacred Heart I also see the Temple and the Tabernacle, and the light of the menorah  signifying the presence of God.   Brant Pitrie puts it so well in his  great book The Case for Jesus:

Once you ‘ve got this first century Jewish context in mind, all of a sudden John’s emphasis on the blood and water flowing out of the side of Jesus makes sense. …He is not just the messianic son of God; he is the true Temple.   In other words, Jesus is the dwelling place of God on earth.  Given this  first century context, the piercing of Jesus’s side after his death reveals that he was the presence of God on earth…. And if Jesus is the true temple of God - the living presence of God on earth - then that means  that his death on the cross was  not just now more bloody execution.  If  his body is the true Temple of God, the true place of sacrifice, then the true altar from which the blood and water flow is his heart.   That is what makes the crucifixion redemptive.  ( Pitrie The Case for Jesus, pp 171-2) 

You can hear Dr Pitre explain all this here.

Perhaps,  I'm thinking, next to an icon of the Sacred Heart we should also place a menorah to light and remind us of  the heart of Jesus as the Holy Temple of God, and the Tabernacle of the Most High?  And in so doing enter more fully into the mystery of the pierced heart of Jesus and the Eucharist. I have to look out for one with plenty of almonds! 

Friday, 8 June 2018

Feast of the Sacred Heart, 2018

Today is always a special day.  Pope Francis reflecting on the meaning of the feast of the Sacred Heart during his Santa Marta mass reminds us of how it is really a feast which calls us to celebrate God's love. As reported by Vatican Radio, Francis tells us  that:

“It is not us who first loved God,” it's the other way around: “it is He who loved us first” he said.

The Pope said the prophets used the symbol of the almond blossom to explain this reality highlighting the fact that the almond blossom is the first to bloom in spring.

“God is like that: he is always first. He's the first to wait for us, the first to love us, the first to help us” he said.

 Francis continued, it is not easy to understand God's love as is narrated in the passage from today liturgical reading in which the Apostle Paul speaks  of“ preaching to the Gentiles the inscrutable riches of Christ.” “It is a love that cannot be understood. A love that surpasses all knowledge. It surpasses everything. The love of God is so great; a poet described it as a “bottomless sea without shores…” This is the love that we must try to understand, the love that we receive” he said.
The Pope said that throughout the history of salvation the Lord has revealed his love to us: “He has been a great teacher.” Recalling the words of the prophet Hosea, he explained that God did not reveal his love through power but “by loving His people, teaching them to walk, taking them in His arms, caring for them”.
“How does God manifest his love? With great works? No: He makes himself smaller and smaller with gestures of tenderness and goodness. He approaches His children and with his closeness He makes us understand the greatness of love” he said. Finally, Pope Francis said, God sent us His Son. “He sent Him in the flesh” and the Son “humbled himself until death”. This, he said, is the mystery of God's love: the greatest greatness expressed in the smallest smallness. This, he said, allows us to understand Christianity.

Reflecting on what Jesus teaches us about what kind of attitude a Christian should have, he said it is all about “carrying on God’s own work in your own small way”:  that is feeding the hungry, quenching the thirsty, visiting the sick and the prisoner. Works of mercy, he said, pave the path of love that Jesus teaches us in continuity with God’s great love for us! Not words about love, but concrete gestures. Pope Francis concluded saying we do not need great discourse on love, but men and women “who know how to do these little things for Jesus, for the Father .' “Our works of mercy, he said, are the continuity of this love.”

The image that has captured my imagination is the blooming almond tree.   It is not an image we tend associate with the Sacred Heart, and yet as we reflect on it, that symbol of the almond is very powerful and suggestive. Francis has given us much to think about by referencing the almond tree! I shall spend the next few days thinking about it!