The Sacred Heart and the Three Loves of Jesus

June 27, 2014

In his encyclical, Haurietis Aquas, issued in 1956 on the centenary of the Feast of the Sacred Heart, Pius XII offers us several metaphors for the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It’s the “mystical ladder” which we climb to “embrace God Our Savior.” It’s also a “most precious shrine” which contains the “unlimited treasures of His merits.” The encyclical itself takes its name for yet another metaphor for Christ’s heart in Isaiah 12:3: “You shall draw waters with joy out of the savior’s foundations.”

All three are images that invite us to draw near and contemplate the Sacred Heart. As we do so, it becomes apparent that the Sacred Heart speaks to the ‘threefold’ love of Christ, as Pius XII puts it. There is, first of all, the trinitarian love among Jesus, the Father, and the Holy Spirit. But then, there is also the love that Christ, God made man, has for us.

This love, in turn, has two aspects to it. Because Christ was wholly divine and wholly man, His heart was not only divine, but also human. “And finally—and this in a more natural and direct way—it is the symbol also of sensible love, since the body of Jesus Christ, formed by the Holy Spirit, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, possesses full powers of feelings and perception, in fact, more so than any other human body,” Pius XII writes. (Of course, Christ’s human and divine hearts, like His human and divine natures, must always be understood as united to each other.)

Love of the Trinity

Jesus’ entire ministry can be seen as an expression of the trinitarian love, because it is carried out in obedience to God the Father. But Christ’s love for the Father is particularly apparent in several distinct moments.

One is the cleansing of the money-changers from the temple. “His Heart beat with love for His Father and with a holy anger when seeing the sacrilegious buying and selling taking place in the Temple,” Pius XII writes. The Gospel of John speaks directly to the passion Jesus had for the temple of His Father when we are told that the disciples recalled this Old Testament verse: The zeal of thy house hath eaten me up. Such dedication is also on display earlier in His life, when Jesus, unbeknownst to Mary and Jesus, stays behind in the temple, conversing with the teachers.

The beginning and the climax of Jesus’ public life contain two profound moments of trinitarian love. First, in Matthew 3, after Jesus is baptized, we witness an extraordinary exchange of trinitarian love:

And Jesus being baptized, forthwith came out of the water: and lo, the heavens were opened to him: and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, and coming upon him. And behold a voice from heaven, saying: ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’

Then, at the climax of His ministry, as His Sacred Heart was beating its last on the Cross, Jesus yields the Spirit back. In Luke 23, Jesus cries out in a ‘loud voice’: Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.

Divine love for sinners

Pius XII specifically associates the divine heart what he describes as three of Christ’s greatest gifts: the Eucharist, His Mother, and the priesthood. In fact, each of those three gifts is a different way in which we receive the greatest gift of all: Christ Himself.

As Catholics, we understand how the Eucharist constitutes Christ’s literal gift of Himself to us. But the other two gifts reflect a similar spirit of self-sacrificing giving.

The existence of the priesthood is a concrete example of how God, in His plan to completely restore man, willed that we become cooperators in our own salvation: we are not mere rag dolls who receive God’s grace as if struck by a burst of lightning, as Reformed Protestants would have us believe. Rather, Scripture and Tradition teach that we are meant to be active participants in our salvation, which we work out with “fear and trembling” as Philippians 2:12 states.

In the case of the priesthood, specifically, Christ has chosen to “share” an office He holds with us. This extends not just to the formal priesthood, but also to the informal priesthood, exercised by all Christians. 1 Peter 2 explains: “Be you also as living stones built up, a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.”

And finally, Jesus has not hesitated to share his own human mother with us. As Christians we understand that through Christ we become adoptive sons of God the Father. But the adoption process is a total one: we not only get God the Father, but also get Mary as our Mother, as Christ made clear to the disciple John on the Cross. There is no part of Himself that Jesus will not share with us.

Only a divine love could be strongest when it was at its breaking point. Indeed, it was on the Cross that the Sacred Heart was literally torn apart for us, when the soldier’s lance pierced Christ’s side. Out poured blood and water, miraculous symbols of the Eucharistic wine and baptismal waters—and the Church was born, recalling how God fashioned Eve from Adam’s side.

A fully human love

“On the other hand, the love which breathes from the Gospel, from the letters of the Apostles and the pages of the Apocalypse, all of which portray the love of the Heart of Jesus Christ, expresses not only divine love but also human sentiments of love,” Pius XII writes.

One of the clearest signs that Jesus cared for us with a truly human heart is those gospel accounts where He is recorded as visibly crying. For example, in Luke 19:41, as He approaches Jerusalem, Jesus is suddenly overcome with emotion: And when he drew near, seeing the city, he wept over it. And then there’s this verse, one that has been quoted by probably every Christian parent trying to console a crying child: And Jesus wept. (This is Jesus’ reaction to word that Lazarus has died in John 11.)

Perhaps the most dramatic expression of Jesus’ human emotions is also the one passage where his heartfelt obedience to God was also on display: the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. Here’s how it’s recorded in Luke 22:

And he was withdrawn away from them a stone’s cast; and kneeling down, he prayed, Saying: Father, if thou wilt, remove this chalice from me: but yet not my will, but thine be done. And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in an agony, he prayed the longer. And his sweat became as drops of blood, trickling down upon the ground. And when he rose up from prayer, and was come to his disciples, he found them sleeping for sorrow.

We can only imagine what Christ felt in the depths of his heart, while on the Cross. Scripture indicates that he experiences a storm of emotions. “And when the divine Redeemer was hanging on the Cross, He showed that His Heart was strongly moved by different emotions—burning love, desolation, pity, longing desire, unruffled peace,” Pius XII writes.

Such emotions are indicated through Christ’s last words on the Cross, according to the pope: Father, forgive them; they know not what they do!My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me? Amen, I say to thee, this day thou shalt be with Me in paradise. I thirst. Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit.

The following column was written by Stephen Beale, and it originally appeared at Catholic Exchange. It is reprinted with permission.

Guest Contributer


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Reader Interactions


  1. Josephi Verbum says

    That photo is actually the background to my phone. Threw me off for a second seeing it. Good post.

  2. Stephen Doran says

    Some of my greatest issues in faith is comprehending how Jesus is fully man and fully God. This post has helped me begin to see how He encompasses both. I can trust in His teaching’s completely with the knowledge that He feels and has experienced emotions like every other human yet holds within Him complete divinity. Simply astounding.

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