I, Paul have been entrusted with the grace of proclaiming to the pagans the infinite treasure of Christ (Eph 3:8 - JB translation).
In his letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul sets himself to unfold for us the mystery of Christ. In Christ, Paul cries, God’s eternal plan, God’s loving purpose, God’s saving will is perfectly fulfilled, brought to completion, made manifest: for our good, and his glory. So full is this mystery that Paul knows it must remain forever beyond adequate expression. Yet Paul also knows he has the task of communicating it; of making people understand truly, if never fully, what Christ has done. So in this letter especially Paul piles up words and expressions, often exceeding the normal bounds of grammar. He urges us to grasp something of the greatness of this mystery, directed indeed to each of us as individuals, yet also set on a cosmic scale; rooted in all eternity; affecting both the angelic and the demonic powers. One of St. Paul’s favourite metaphors here is that of riches, or treasures. In wonder and joy he exclaims how superabundant, how unfathomable, how unsearchable are the riches of Christ, the riches of his grace, the riches of his glory, the riches of divine mercy, the riches of God’s love.
This language about Christ’s riches is picked up in the alternative Collect for today’s liturgy. “O God, in the Heart of your Son, wounded by our sins, you bestow on us in mercy the boundless treasures of your love...” We find the same theme echoed in the litany of the Sacred Heart. “Heart of Jesus, in whom are hidden all the treasures of Wisdom and of Knowledge: have mercy on us. Heart of Jesus, rich for all who invoke you: have mercy on us.” In our recent Pentecost Lectures we were presented with another potent symbol of the riches of Christ. An anonymous work stemming from the very early Church of Syria speaks of a Cave of Treasures. The treasures of this Cave symbolise above all God’s mercy- his mercy towards Adam, towards humanity, towards us - in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Today, on the Feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Church invites us to pause and gaze into this Cave of Treasures; to consider, on our knees, what are the unsearchable riches of Christ. Today’s Feast draws us once again to encounter Jesus Christ directly; specifically in his love for us; to allow ourselves to be astonished by that, caught up in it, transformed by it. We can do that, as St. Paul says, with bold confidence, knowing that in Jesus, the all-holy and infinite love of God has come to wear a human face, and to have a human heart. There it becomes for us accessible, warm, knowable; and there we find it, we know it to be full of compassion, goodness, tenderness, and mercy.
If the first half of today’s Ephesians reading summarises St. Paul’s proclamation of the Mystery, the second half encapsulates his prayer for us. This prayer of Paul is for our highest good: that our hearts too may be conformed to the Heart of Jesus. Paul prays that Christ himself may live in our hearts through faith. And that, he says, will be the necessary condition for our knowing his mystery, not just notionally, but really, directly, in true mystical union with him.
Paul is well aware that all this must be far beyond our strength; also that it will take no little courage for us to enter it. So he prays for power for us, from the Holy Spirit, and for the gift of wisdom. May you have the strength, he cries, to comprehend what is the breadth and length and height and depth.
How can we not think here immediately of the shape of the Cross? Its upright stretches or points to heaven, its roots to the depths of hell. Its arms stretch out to encompass in an embrace of love the whole world, and the whole of time. And at its centre, at its nodal point is positioned Christ’s Heart, pierced through by the soldier’s lance. From that Heart there flows power to wash away all the sins of the world; to reconcile us to God; to fill us with divine life.
Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta profoundly contemplated that scene, especially as narrated in St. John’s Gospel, and she decided to model her life on it. The Institute she founded was to do the same. Typically then she would insist to her Sisters:
“The slap on the face of Jesus, the spitting, the crowning with thorns, the scourging, the removing of his clothes, the crucifixion, the burial in someone’s grave: all these and many other things - especially the terrible longing to be loved - the terrible loneliness - the terrible feeling of pain for his Mother - all, all these are the love with which he loved you and me.”
Part of the purpose of today’s feast is to remind us all of our need to pray for those who do not know Christ’s love, or who knowingly reject it. Unfortunately here in the West very many people are alienated from Christ’s love because of the influence of our secular culture, which has no time for it at all. Some of the values of this culture might at first seem to sit quite comfortably with the Gospel. There is nothing wrong, after all, with wanting to promote personal freedom, or to be inclusive, and non-judgmental. But when pressed to become absolutes, the values of modern secularism soon fall into incoherence, merely creating new forms of intolerance and exclusion. They cannot anyway satisfy our deepest needs, or aspirations. They know nothing of authentic love. They shun pain, yet they create a sick and broken society.
Christ’s love by contrast imposes austere demands on us. It requires self conquest, and self gift. It demands that we become conformed to it, in purity of heart and of life, and in unselfish generosity, even until it hurts. But we freely and deliberately choose this love of Christ, rather than any other good whatever, because we see it’s better than anything. It’s our hope, our consolation, our joy, our life. Through it, says St. Paul, we will possess God himself, in his utter fullness. Now we do that in mystery; in eternity, face to face.