Orthodox Devotion to the Sacred Heart
The Western Rite has received the Sacred Heart devotion as an Orthodox emphasis on Christ's Love & Mercy, which (despite common misunderstandings) is grounded in the biblical sense of the heart and flows from the patristic devotion to His wounded side.
In the Antiochian Western Rite Vicariate, we have just celebrated the Feast of the Body of Christ, centred around the reality of the Real Presence of Christ in the Most Holy Eucharist. Flowing from this feast comes its own feast and devotion to His unending love for mankind: the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ.
What’s in a Heart?
This devotion grounds itself first in the concept of the heart in the Old Testament. The heart is constantly used in the Scriptures to refer to the ordering of the total person. For example, after the Fall:
And the Lord God having seen that the wicked actions of men were multiplied upon the earth, and that every one in his heart was intently brooding over evil continually, then God laid it to heart that he had made man upon the earth, and he pondered it deeply.
Genesis 6:5 (Brenton LXX)
On the one hand, man—in his whole person—orients himself as much as he can away from God. On the other hand, God—out of the abundance of His Heart’s compassion for man—wholly seeks out to fix man’s heart. The heart is, in a sense, the entire focus of salvation history. Therefore, salvation will involve bridging the gap between man’s heart and God’s Heart. For example, those who pray the Psalms will be familiar with the call to full obedience to the Lord and the need of His People to constantly trust in His Mercy. This obedience, trust, and love is contained in the call to:
Lead me, O Lord, in your way, and I will walk in your truth. Let my heart be made cheerful to fear your name.
The Scriptures are not literalistically speaking about man’s physical heart. Neither are they dividing the human person by speaking of one part but not the others. Rather, this part of man—his heart—signifies the totality of his person, which is called to be perfectly conformed to God’s heart. This is fully accomplished in the Incarnation.
The Incarnate Heart of God
The Son perfectly unites the heart of man and the Heart of God in His very person through the Incarnation, in which He reconciles all things in Himself. He reveals that in the economy of salvation, the heart of man is united to, divinised by, and conformed to the Heart of God. What is promised to man is simply what has been accomplished in the composite hypostasis—the composite Heart—of Christ in His two united natures.
This is seen in the Blessed Virgin herself who first experienced salvation in its fulness. St. Simeon reveals to her that her path would be like her son’s:
Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.
Here we see again the Scriptures’ theme of the heart: being used in both senses. In the one sense, he refers to the physical piercing of Our Lord’s physical heart, when His side was wounded. However, this serves also as a sign of His redemptive suffering and affliction in His very person. This is why St. Simeon can then turn to Our Lady and say that she, in a similar manner, will be be pierced in her soul, leading to the revelation of ‘many hearts’.
Of course, physical hearts do not contain thoughts, nor did the Lord perform open heart surgery on His enemies. Neither are the Scriptures excluding some parts of people by focusing on the heart or the soul. This is abundantly clear of Our Lady in iconography, which has been inspired by this episode.
Therefore, the Gospel message essentially and primarily concerns the heart. It is the conversion of man’s heart. This conversion of man’s heart, beginning with St. Mary’s, is nothing less than divinisation (theosis). For man’s heart to be wholly conformed to and united to God’s is for the whole person to be united and conformed to the composite hypostasis of the Son and, therefore, enter the life of the Trinity.
The Sacrificial Heart of Christ
The supreme act of Jesus Christ, of course, is His sacrifice of Himself for mankind. This supreme sacrificial love is the ultimate act of the Heart of God for man. The significance of the Sacred Heart and salvation is not lost on the Fathers. The Fathers often reflect on the significance of the wounded side of Christ as the source and means of man's salvation. For example, St. Augustine of Hippo reflects:
And [Noah's Ark] having a door made in the side of it certainly signified the wound which was made when the side of the Crucified was pierced with the spear; for by this those who come to Him enter; for thence flowed the sacraments by which those who believe are initiated.
City of God 15:26:1
Continuing with this analogy that St. Augustine makes between Noah's Ark and the Body of Christ, if the wounded side is the door, where does it go? It could only go to the Heart of God Itself. True salvation is union with and rest in the Heart of God.
This emphasis on the physical is focused on the spiritual: how it reveals God Himself and His love for mankind. This reveals the sacramental framework and mindset of the Scriptures and the Fathers. Constantly in the liturgy—East & West—His mercy and kindness and love for mankind is emphasised. Singling out these divine energies does not exclude the others but simply focuses our attention and provides a unique purpose to our prayer. As St. Ambrose prays:
Hail, noble and precious Blood, flowing from the wounds of my crucified Lord Jesus Christ, and washing away the sins of the whole world!
St. Ambrose's Prayer in the Prayers before Holy Communion
St. Ambrose calls out to the Blood itself (even putting Jesus Christ in the third-person) not to exclude other parts or to worship this part in addition to the person of Christ. Rather, St. Ambrose calls out to the Blood of Christ to worship the unique hypostasis of the Son and call upon His energies of mercy and His work of salvation. This eventually develops into the post-schism western tradition of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Devotion to the Sacred Heart after the Great Schism
While this devotion to the wounded side and the framework of the heart in theosis is certainly biblical and patristic, it was continued in the West after the schism. Of course, being divorced from the Church, gross devotions and practices grew around the Orthodox devotion. However, simple logical conclusions and true devotional reflection was achieved in the West, at least for a time.
For example, Bonaventura sees clearly, from the patristic emphasis and devotion to the wounded side of Christ:
In order that the Church might be taken out of the side of Christ, in his deep sleep on the Cross, and that the Scripture might be fulfilled which saith: They shall look on him whom they pierced: it was divinely ordained that one of the soldiers should pierce his sacred side with a spear, and open it. Then forthwith there came flowing out blood and water, which was the price of our salvation, pouring forth from its mountain-source, in sooth, from the secret places of his Heart, to give power to the Sacraments of the Church, to bestow the life of grace, and to be as a saving drink of living waters, flowing up to life eternal for those who were already quickened in Christ. Arise, then, O soul beloved of Christ. Cease not thy vigilance, place there thy lips, and drink the waters from the fount of salvation.
Book of the Tree of Life, num. 30
Likewise, built on this theological truth which was already present in, and is now embraced again by, the Orthodox Church; the later devotions develop into prayers such as,
O Sacred Heart of Jesus! living and life-giving fountain of eternal life, infinite treasure of the Divinity, flowing furnace of love. Thou art my refuge and sanctuary. O my adorable and loving Saviour, consume my heart with that fire wherewith Thine is ever inflamed; pour from Thy love, and let my heart be so united with Thine that my will may be conformed to Thine in all things. Amen.
Prayer to the Sacred Heart from the Orthodox St. Ambrose Prayer Book
This devotion and logical conclusion of the Fathers also developed within the Church in her Eastern Rite. For example, St. Dimitri of Rostov prays directly to not just the Blood and Side of Christ but also to His Heart!
Rejoice, heart ever-living, which for our sake was wounded by deathly sorrows, sadness, and the lance.
The mention of the lance is especially important, since it shows the organic connexion between devotion to the pierced side of Christ and devotion to His Heart.
It is interesting that the eastern tradition also contains this emphasis on Our Lord's mercy and sweetness with the imagery of fire to describe the love and mercy of Christ for man:
Therefore, reject not my supplication, but hearken unto me in Thy goodness, and strengthen my heart in Thy fear; and let Thy grace be upon me, O Lord, like a fire consuming the impure thoughts within me. For Thou, O Lord, art the Light above all lights, the Joy above all joys, the Repose above all repose, the True Life, and the Salvation that abideth unto the ages of ages. Amen.
But What about the Marie Lady?
It is important to keep the missionary ethos of the Orthodox Church in mind when discussing the reconciliation of lost branches back to the Tree. The Church recognises that schismatics and even pagans can create correct logical deductions from what God has revealed (either in nature or revelation). Therefore, when approaching the post-schism development of the Sacred Heart devotion, it is important to not throw away everything for having come from papists, for even schismatics and heretics can correctly understand the Fathers and come upon an important truth (already present in and stolen from the Orthodox Church).
While popularised by modern apparition and scandalous Roman ‘saints’, the Sacred Heart devotion itself developed in its current form in the West centuries before any supposed apparitions about the Sacred Heart were reported. And it is here that another missionary principle of the Church must be kept in mind: the Church always must evaluate and purify anything she would receive from those being reconciled to her.
Marguerite-Marie Alacoque's supposed apparitions are highly questionable and her life scandalous (as has been written elsewhere). However, the essence of the Orthodox mission of the Western Rite is to restore the western bodies to the Orthodox Church not by a destruction of our heritage but (just like all of us individually) by purification and absolution from all sins and errors. So, when Anglican and Roman bishops, priests, and laymen desire entry into the Orthodox Church, they bring all the treasures of their tradition as a gift to the Church. In turn, the Church elevates those treasures not by destroying them but washing them of all stain, error, and superstition; making them truly pleasing to God.
And this is exactly the situation of the Sacred Heart. Any errors or superstitions which have attempted to pervert the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ are rejected and overthrown. And a true Orthodox devotion is offered to the Most Holy Trinity.