15 June 2007

Growing a Sacred Heart

Most Sacred Heart of Jesus: Ez 34.11-16; Rom 5.5-11; Luke 15.3-7
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
DECAT Mass (St. Rita)

[NB. This homily was written for and preached to about 250 fifth graders who are finishing up their time in the diocese's DECAT program (a summer program for academically gifted children attending Catholic schools). The sound is weird b/c I was moving around a lot. Also, this is the first time I have ever preached w/o reading my homily. . .]


Having grown up Baptist in the deep south, it took me a long time to get used to this Catholic habit of venerating holy body parts: the arm of Aloysius, the head of Agnes, the chipped up bones of Martin, Dominic, Ignatius. Pieces of clothing or keepsakes like glasses or bookmarks seemed perfectly fine. But taking a saint’s pinkie bone and locking it in a gold trimmed, vacuumed sealed glass case for safe travel around the world…well, that’s just creepy. Spending time in Rome didn’t help me being any less creeped out either. Made it worse in fact! There’s a church there made of nothing but human skulls and thigh bones. It seems like every church has a Holy Body Part in a box and some have the whole body! Now, here we are today honoring the sacred heart of Jesus. What exactly are we honoring? And why?

Let’s answer these questions with this one: what is the link between Jesus’ sacred heart and this morning’s biblical image of Jesus as a good shepherd? To start an answer to this question and the two previous questions, we need to know what the heart is and does in our Catholic spirituality. Historically, the heart for our faith is a symbol of the whole person, the person made whole by God, brought to the fullness of healing, and set right in holiness. All of the various images of the heart bear this out: the pierced heart of Mary, showing us her grief; the crowned heart of Jesus, showing us his triumph over death in heaven, and so on. The heart is also a mystical image of our covenant with God. Think of your heart as a tabernacle, a holy vault where you keep your promises to God and He keeps His to you. Your heart then is that place in your soul where you are closest to God, most intimate with the Holy Spirit; your heart is the center of our very being, the source of your life.

Now, I have to tell you what your heart isn’t, or better yet how the word “heart” gets used in our popular media and why that use doesn’t apply to us here. How many of you have heard Disney characters tell the story’s hero: “Just follow your heart! Feel your way along!” I heard Yoda say this to Obi Wan Kenobi just yesterday afternoon. I groaned out loud and switched the channel back to Mythbusters. At least they were blowing up raw chickens with nitro. The idea that the “heart” rules our deliberations, governs our passions, and serves as an infallible guide to our decision-making isn’t all that crazy if (IF!) we remember that God governs the heart. But Hollywood generally means that we should just do what we want to do and use the excuse “I was just following my heart” to justify whatever mess we cause in acting irrationally.

OK. Back to Jesus’ sacred heart and the Good Shepherd. Here’s what Christ wants for you and from you. What he wants for you is a life of holiness lived in service to others. There is no holiness for the Christian without service to others. Let me say that again: if you do not serve others—help other people when they need your help—you cannot grow in holiness. God loves you and His love for you is perfected (made complete, whole) in you when you use your talents and gifts for the benefit of others. Your job is to become Christ for other people—doing what he did, teaching what he taught, and preaching what he preached. You can do this with your brains, your hands, your back, with music, words, paints, numbers, motherly talents, fatherly talents, with technology, without it, in an office or a church, with song, dance, a poem or a novel, whatever gift God has given you to improve on: use it, use all of them, for others. That’s what Jesus wants for you.

What does he want from you? Christ is the Good Shepherd, his heart is holy, his relationship with His Father is perfect. Everything that Christ is as a person is wholly perfect in God the Father and the Holy Spirit. There is nothing we can give Christ or do for Christ that will add to his perfection. All we can do is multiple his love in the Church. So what he wants from us is to be good shepherds ourselves. To be men and women with strong hearts, clear vision, peaceful souls, and welcoming arms. Sometimes the shepherd has to redirect the flock from danger. Sometimes a sheep wanders away and must be brought back. Sometimes the wolves chase the flock and the shepherd has to defend his sheep. Each of us is responsible for the flock in his or her own way. Make sure your heart, that place in your soul where you keep the covenant, is ready for the challenge, ready to break free and get to work for God’s greater glory!

Paul writes to the Romans: “The love of God has been poured out into your hearts through the Holy Spirit…God [has proven] his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” Notice here: Christ did not wait for us to stop sinning before he died for us. He died so that we might be freed from sin. The Good Shepherd came running after us. We don’t have to find him. He has already found us. Now, we walk around with the tabernacle of God’s love, with hearts brightened by the Spirit’s fire.

Do what you must to perfect your gifts and talents. And a huge part of that perfection will be using your gifts and talents for the benefit of others. Some would say to you that you are too young to be thinking about giving your life to a gift or a talent or a service. I say: now is precisely the time to take on a passion, to pick up a call to do something heroic, to do something holy and to be a saint. When it comes to God perfecting His love in you, why would anyone choose to wait until later?

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