With a phrase well known to us—“They were of one heart and soul”—Luke summarizes the full agreement existing in the primitive community (Acts 4:32). Yet, in the history of the church, tensions and contrasts as strong as those that occurred in the early decades are rarely recorded. The Christians of Jewish origin—jealous custodians of their people’s religious customs—demanded that they continue to comply with the requirements of the law, as a sign of loyalty to God. The more open-minded spirits instead were conscious that “the traditions of the ancients” had fulfilled their task (to bring to Christ). Continuing to impose them constituted a serious obstacle to the Gentiles who wished to adhere to the gospel.
Peter—with a conservative upbringing, though not fanatic—tried to mediate between the two groups of the community, but all were a little discontented. Paul—a fanatic traditionalist—had departed from the more rigid positions of the Jewish religion. He had come to a radical break with the past, to the point that he became intolerant of those who—like Peter—had not the courage to make radical choices. A day in Antioch of Syria, he publicly insulted Peter by calling him a hypocrite (Gal 1:11-14).
As a result, relations between the two apostles were restored. Peter, in a letter, calls Paul “our beloved brother” (2 P 3:15). Together they gave their lives to Christ and today we celebrate their feast together. Through different paths—and very slowly—they have come to recognize in Jesus the Messiah of God.
Peter met for the first time the man who was to become his master along the Sea of Galilee. Earlier he identified him as the carpenter from Nazareth. Then he realized that he was a great prophet. Later, in Caesarea Philippi, he finally discovered his true identity. He declared: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:13).
He professed a formula of perfect faith. However, to believe in Christ does not mean to adhere to a pack of truth but to share the life choices that he proposes. The dreams that Peter cultivated was not the Lord’s. “You are thinking not as God—he said—but as people do” (Mk 8:33). He began to understand only in the light of Easter. He timidly confessed his fragile faith: “Lord, you know everything, you know that I love you” (Jn 21:17).
Paul has traveled a different path. At first, he considered Jesus as an opponent to fight with, a wrecker of the messianic hopes of Israel, a blasphemer who preached a God different from that of the spiritual leaders of his people. He had known him, “according to the flesh” (2 Cor 5:16), according to the religious, political and social criteria of this world. Based on these parameters, he could not but judge him a criminal, a subversive of the established order, a heretic.
On the road to Damascus, he received the light from above and understood: Jesus, the crucified one, is God’s Messiah. From that moment everything that he considered a profit, he now reckons all as garbage (Phil 3:7-8).
If our experience of faith is less painful than that of the two apostles, whose feast we celebrate today, perhaps it is not equally authentic.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“The roads are different, but all lead to the Lord.”
Before entering a street, one must pay attention to the signs. It is necessary to determine whether, by chance, no one has ventured in a wrong way.
When observing the direction of travel in which other people move, the disciple of Christ has the immediate and sharp feeling of driving against traffic. If he chooses the paths of renunciation, the sharing of goods, unselfish love, pardon without limits, keeping one’s word, he sees the traffic moving in the opposite direction. He realizes that, no matter how much he proceeds with caution and prudence, the clash becomes inevitable. He will always be the one to suffer, to be considered out of place, to be accused of breaking the rules accepted by all.
The wicked views the righteous as a “reproach to our way of thinking” (Wis 2:14), “creates embarrassment” (Wis 2:12); annoying “because he does not live like others and he behaves strangely” (Wis 2:15).
In times of persecution, doubt of taking the wrong direction can arise in a Christian.
After checking if he is really following the directions of the Master, he must not let himself be caught by fear. That is the right direction; it is he who guides with open eyes and proceeds in the light.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“We will not be asked if we won or lost, but if we have fought for the right cause.”
Devotion to the Sacred Heart has very ancient origins. It has spread in the church especially starting from the seventeenth century through the work of a French mystic, St. Margaret Mary Alacoque. In her autobiography, this Visitation sister tells the revelations she had and refers to the famous twelve promises of the Sacred Heart from which the pious practice of the nine first Fridays of the month was derived. It is on the inspiration of this saint that the feast of the Sacred Heart was established.
Like all forms of popular piety, this too entered into crisis after the Vatican Council II. The traditional image—the one showing the Sacred Heart “on a throne of flames, radiant as the sun, with the adorable wound, surrounded by thorns and topped by a cross” is in conformity with the description given by St. Margaret Mary to whom He appeared. This image, too, first exposed in every home, was gradually replaced by others that expressed a new theological concept and a new spiritual sensitivity.
In the post-council period, many devotional practices have been abandoned. That of the Sacred Heart instead received a decisive boost by the conciliar spirit that led to seeking the solid foundation of every form of spirituality not in private revelations, to which—rightly—a more relative value has been given, but in God’s word.
The mystical experiences of St. Margaret Mary had, for three centuries, a great importance and significant repercussions on the life of the church. They nourished the spirituality of God’s love and fostered a virtuous and committed moral life. However, theologians put forward reservations on these revelation reported by the saint. Today, they no longer are the foundation of devotion to the Sacred Heart, which instead is solidly rooted in the word of God.
Bible study led to some interesting discoveries. It was immediately realized that the devotion to the Sacred Heart was different from the others. It does not emphasize one of the many aspects of the Gospel message, but took the center of Christian revelation: God’s heart, his passion of love for people that became visible in Christ.
In the Bible, the heart is not only intended as the seat of physical life and feelings, but it designates the whole person. It is primarily considered as the seat of intelligence. We may find it strange, but the Semites think and decide with the heart, “God has given people a heart to think”—says Sirach (17:6). He relates even some perceptions of the senses to the Israelite heart. Sirach, at the end of a long life during which he accumulated the most diverse experiences and has gained much wisdom says: My heart has seen much (Sir 1:16).
In this cultural context, the image of the heart has also been applied to God. The Bible, in fact, says that God has a heart that thinks, decides, loves and can also be full of bitterness. This is exactly the feeling that is invoked when, at the beginning of Genesis, the word heart appears for the first time: “The Lord saw how great was the wickedness of man on the earth and the evil was always the only thought of his heart.”
What does God feel in the face of so much moral depravity? “The Lord regretted having created man on the earth and his heart grieved” (Gen 6:5-6). He is unfazed—as the philosophers of antiquity thought—; he is not indifferent to what happens to his children. He rejoices when he sees them happy and suffers when they move away from him because he loves them madly. Even if provoked by their faithlessness, he never reacts with aggression and violence.
The designs of the Lord, the thoughts of his heart are always and only projects of salvation. For this—the Psalmist says—“Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord” (Ps 33:11-12).
Until the coming of Christ people knew God’s heart only by “hearsay” (Job 42:5). In Jesus, our eyes have contemplated it. “Whoever sees me, sees him who sent me” (Jn 12:45), Jesus has assured his disciples. In his farewell address at the Last Supper, he reminded them of the same truth: “If you know me, you will know the Father also…. Whoever sees me sees the Father” (Jn 14:7-9). We can come to know the Father’s heart by contemplating his heart.
When we speak of the heart of Jesus, we refer not only to his whole person but also to his deepest emotions. The gospel refers often to what he feels in the face of human needs. His heart is sensitive to the cry of the marginalized. He hears the cry of the leper who, contrary to the requirements of the law, comes up to him and, on his knees, begs him: “If you want to, you can make me clean.” Jesus—the evangelist notes—gets excited from the depths of his bowels. He listens to his heart, not to the provisions of the rabbis who prescribe marginalization. He stretches out his hand, touches him and heals him (Mk 1:40-42).
The heart of Jesus is moved when he meets pain. He shares the disturbance that every person feels in the face of death; he feels sympathy for the widow who has lost her only child and is left alone. At Nain, when he sees the funeral procession advancing, he comes forward, comes close to the mother and tells her: “Stop crying!” And he gives her the son. No one asked him to intervene; no one has asked him to perform the miracle. It is his heart that drove him to move closer to those in pain.
The gospel relates also a heartfelt prayer of Jesus. A father has a child with serious physical and mental problems: he stiffens, foams and is thrown into fire or water. With the last glimmer of hope that remained he goes to Jesus, and, by appealing to the feelings of his heart, directs him a prayer, simple but beautiful: “If you can do anything, have pity on us and help us” (Mk 9:22). “If you can!” (Mk 9:23). It is not an expression of doubt about his feelings, but it is a pointer to a consoling truth: he is always listening to those who suffer.
In Jesus, we have seen God crying for the death of his friend, and for the people unable to recognize the one who offered salvation; we have seen God excited for the tears of a mother, touched by the sick, the marginalized, those who hunger.
The God who asks us confidence is not far away and insensitive. He is the one to whom everyone can shout: “Let yourself be moved!” The God who revealed himself in Jesus is not the impassive one the philosophers talked about. He is a God who has a heart that is moved, rejoices and grieves, weeps with those who weep and smiles with those who are happy. An anonymous Egyptian poet wrote, towards 2,000 B.C.: “I seek a heart on which to rest my head and I cannot find it, they are no longer friends.”
We are luckier: we have a heart—that of Jesus—on which to lay our head to hear from him at all times, words of consolation, hope, and forgiveness. Today’s feast wants to introduce us, through the meditation of the Word of God, in the intimacy of Jesus’ heart, so that we learn to love as he loved.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Give us, Jesus, a heart like yours.”
The cult of the Virgin Mary began to rise and develop in Jerusalem in the V century. A century earlier, in the IV century, the cult of John the Baptist was so widespread as to be considered universal.
The people paid tribute with an extraordinary veneration to this saint. He is the most represented in the art of all ages; there is no altarpiece, no group of saints in which he does not appear. He is covered with the characteristic camel’s hide, the belt around his waist and holding a stick that ends in the shape of a cross.
He is the patron of countless dioceses; shrines and churches are dedicated to him, beginning with the “mother of all” churches, St. John Lateran, founded by Constantine. The name John—translated in every language—is the most common name in the world. Many cities and countries were named after him (128 in Italy, 213 in France).
The Baptist is also loved by the Muslims. They named the famous Umayyad Mosque of Damascus, a symbol of interfaith dialogue, after him. How do we explain this sympathy?
The Baptist is not renowned as a miracle worker—this is, in general, a prerogative, which makes the saints popular. Whoever wants to obtain graces does not appeal to him, but to more powerful intercessors. So there are other reasons for such devotion.
The first reason is certainly Jesus’ praise of him: “When you went out to the desert, what did you expect to see? A reed swept by the wind? What did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? People who wear fine clothes live in palaces. What did you really go out to see? A prophet? Yes, indeed, and even more than a prophet. I tell you this: no one greater than John the Baptist has come forward from among the sons of women” (Mt 11:7-11).
Then, the simple people admired his austerity of life and his courage not to bend his head in front of the powerful. He defended the truth and justice with his life.
Finally, it should be said that it was mainly the monks who popularized his figure. Since the beginning of the fourth century, they populated the Judean desert where the Baptist had spent his life. They considered him one of them, a model of ascetic life and for this, they spread the cult.
The choice of his feast day—celebrated, since the time of St. Augustine, on the 24th of June—is linked to the summer solstice, the day when the sun reaching its zenith begins to set along the horizon. To believers, the decline of sunlight recalled the availability of the Baptist to disappear, to give the place to one who was greater than him. After recognizing in Jesus the expected messiah, he confided to his disciples: “My joy is now full. It is necessary that he increases but that I decrease” (Jn 3:29-30).
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“Great are those who know how to step aside after fulfilling their mission.”