Today is the First Friday of January and, indeed, the First Friday of 2013. As most Catholics know, our Lord promised to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque that those who piously receive Holy Communion on the First Friday of nine consecutive months will be rewarded with the Grace of Final Perseverance. They will not die in our Lord’s disgrace, but will, if necessary, receive the Sacraments at the end and find shelter in Christ’s Sacred Heart at that extreme moment. Christ also promised eight other blessings for those who carry through this devotion, including comfort in afflictions, peace in their homes, and the graces necessary for their station in life. In addition to assisting at Mass and receiving Communion, many Catholics also strive to honor the Sacred Heart by reciting the Litany of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and praying the Act of Reparation.
While devotion to the Sacred Heart is typically cited to have begun with St. Margaret Mary in the 17th C., it’s important to recall that like most spiritual-devotional practices in the Church, its vintage is much older. The Epistles of Sts. John the Evangelist and Paul speak clearly, and beautifully, of God’s infinite love for humanity, and Saints through the centuries directed their spiritual writings and popular sermons to the theme of this love. Though it is true that only in Western Christianity do we see the emergence of a particular devotion to Christ’s Sacred (or Wounded) Heart as a special symbolization of God’s love, it is wrong to deny that such devotion was absent from the Christian East. The Akathist to our Sweetest Lord Jesus Christ — popular in both the Greek and Russian Orthodox traditions — is one example. This hasn’t stopped the Orthodox, of course, from attacking Catholic devotion to the Sacred Heart, typically through obscuring the nature of the devotion by claiming it is nothing more than “body part worship.” Some Orthodox claim — wrongly — that focusing on one part, or even one aspect, of Christ for devotional purposes is forbidden — a convenient fable which would, if true, cuts against many Orthodox devotional practices toward our Lord.
For instance, almost every Orthodox Christian in the Slavic tradition kisses the side of the Chalice after receiving Holy Communion. Why? Because it is interpreted as a specific devotion to the wounded side of Christ. On Holy Friday and Saturday, Orthodox of almost all traditions prostrate themselves before, and venerate, the wounds of Christ depicted on the Epitaphios while reciting/listening to hymns that focus on those afflictions (not the “whole person” of Christ). Some Orthodox might, again, object that there is something uniquely wrong with focusing on Christ’s Heart, but why? It is not the contours and tissue of Christ’s physical heart that receives veneration, but rather what it symbolizes. Why is this so difficult to understand? Or, to put the matter another way, why is it problematic for Catholics to symbolize Christ’s love through images that put special emphasis on the Sacred Heart and yet acceptable for Orthodox to venerate icons of the Blessed Virgin featuring, among other things, seven physical arrows penetrating her Immaculate Heart? Surely it can’t be the absence of “realism” in such devotions since numerous Orthodox icons of the Blessed Virgin and Child are highly unrealistic or, to put it another way, highly symbolic. Think, for instance, of the numerous icons featuring the Holy Infant “emerging” out of a Chalice on the altar in front of the Mother of God.
Let’s be honest. The Orthodox attack the devotion to the Sacred Heart for the same petty reasons they attack almost all of the authentic devotional practices of the Catholic Church: It’s not “theirs.” In other words, the criterion of “true spirituality” is what is “true for the Orthodox” — end of story. Attend Mass on Friday for nine months in a row as a show of devotion to our Lord’s love for us? Boo! Hit oneself in the genitals with a wooden cane while claiming to see “uncreated lights” after starving oneself for three days doing 1,000 prostrations? Hooray!
Remember folks, once you eliminate context, understanding, and charity, the road to taking polemical potshots at almost all forms of spiritual devotion is as easy as it is wide.
[Note: Edited due to rather shoddy proofreading the first time through. My apologies.]