History of the Sacred Heart of Jesus

Copyright © Peter N. Névraumont

[in progress]

Unless otherwise noted, all biblical quotes are from the Douay-Rheims version.

ca. 27 A.D. Early in his ministry after hearing news of John the Baptist, Jesus tells his disciples, “Take up my yoke upon you, and learn of me, because I am meek, and humble of heart….” (Matthew 11:29) This is the only recorded instance in which Jesus indisputably speaks of his own heart.

ca. 28. The Gospel of John, which the majority of biblical scholars agree was the last of the gospels to be formalized ca. 90 A.D., quotes Jesus as instructing his disciples, “…If any man thirst, let him come to me and drink. He that believeth in me, as the scripture saith: Out of his belly [koilia] shall flow rivers of living water.” (John 7:37–38) The Greek word koilia has been variously translated as the belly, the bosom, the entire cavity of the torso, the gullet, the womb, and the soul or heart. In fact, an alternative translation of this passage found in surviving writings of Origen (ca. 185–254) reads, “…if any man thirst, let him come to me; And let him drink, who believes in Me. As the Scripture says: Streams of living water shall flow from his bosom.” And the Revised Standard Version Bible has it “…’Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” However translated, this passage has become an especially important touchstone in the emerging devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

ca. 30. Another event described in the New Testament that in succeeding centuries found at echo in the experiences of visionaries who reported encounters with the Sacred Heart of Jesus took place during the Last Supper. “Now there was leaning on Jesus' bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved. Simon Peter therefore beckoned to him and said to him: ‘Who is it of whom he speaketh?’ He therefore, leaning on the breast of Jesus, saith to him: ‘Lord, who is it?’” (John 13:23–25) This scene has been the subject of numerous paintings, particularly from the Late Middle Ages and Early Renaisssance, including ones by Fray Nicholás Borrás (1570), Andrea del Castagno (1447), Jacopo Bassano (ca. 1546), Daniele Crespi (1624–1625), Vallentin de Boulogue (1625–1626), Giotto di Bonone (1320–1325), Daccio di Buoninsega (1308–1311), Albercht Dürer (woodcuts / 1510–1511), Taddeo Gaddi (ca. 1360), Lorenzo Ghiberti (“The Gates of Paradise” doors, Baptistry of the Florentine Duomo / 1403–1424), Domenico Ghirlando (1476), Jaume Hugutet (1470), Jaume Baço Jacomart (ca. 1450), Pietro , Lorenzetti (ca. 1320), Monaco Lorenzo (1394–1395), Master of the Housebook (1475–1478), Pieter Pourbus (1548), Jaume Serra (1370–1400), Luca Signorelli (1502), Alonso Vázquez (1588–1603), and an anonymous ca. 1350 polychromed and gilded wood statue Jésus et Jean. Later in the Garden of Gethsamane it is recorded that “Peter turning about, saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved following, who also leaned on his breast at supper and said: “Lord, who is he that shall betray thee?’” (John 21:20) The “disciple whom Jesus loved” has been identified variously as Philip, Judas Thomas, Judas Iscariot, and Lazarus, though traditionally as John the Evangelist.

ca. 30. The Gospel of John reports that one of the Roman soldiers who crucified Jesus, seeing that he was dead, “with a spear opened his side: and immediately there came out blood and water.” (19:34) This act, like many of the events in Jesus’ life, was seen as fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, in this case one found at Zechariah 12:10, “…and they shall look upon me whom they have pierced….” Not surprisingly, from early on artists who illustrated this event and theologians who expounded on it, assumed that the spear that pierced Jesus’ side rent his heart. Commenting on this passage, Pope Pius XII (1876–1958) in his 1956 encyclical Haurietis Aquas (On Devotion to the Sacred Heart) concluded, “What is here written of the side of Christ, opened by the wound from the soldier, should also be said of the Heart which was certainly reached by the stab of the lance, since the soldier pierced it precisely to make certain that Jesus Christ crucified was really dead.”

ca. 62. Paul of Tarsus (ca. 9–67 A.D.) is accepted by almost all biblical scholars to be the author of the Philippians, an epistle to the church at Philippi, located at the head of the Aegean Sea at the foot of Mt. Lekani. Paul writes, “For God is my witness how I long after you all in the bowels [splanchna] of Jesus Christ.” (1:8) Splanchna generally meant the upper viscera?the heart, liver, and lungs?so that this verse has been reasonably interpreted to refer to Jesus’ heart.

ca. 150. The oldest surviving explicit mention of Jesus’ heart outside the Bible is found in the writings of Justin the Martyr where he writes, “As, therefore, Christ is the Israel and the Jacob, even so we, who have been quarried out from the heart [koilia] of Christ, are the true Israelitic race.” (Dialogues with the Jew Tryphon, Chapter 135)

ca. 180. An implied mention of Jesus’ heart is found in Adversus Haereses (Against Heresies) by Irenaeus (ca. 120–202). In this attack on Gnosticism, especially that of Valentinus (ca. 100–160), he writes, “For where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church, and every kind of grace; but the Spirit is truth. Those, therefore, who do not partake of Him, are neither nourished into life from the mother’s breasts, nor do they enjoy that most limpid fountain which issues from the body of Christ….” (Book III, Chapter 26) The reference here is certainly to John 7:37–38.

ca. 204. Hippolytus (130–235) in his exegesis on the book of Daniel writes, “This stream of four waters flowing from Christ we see in the Church. He is the stream of living waters. And he is preached by the four evangelists. Flowing over the whole earth, he sanctifies all who believe in him. This is what the prophet heralded with the words: ‘Streams flow from his heart [koilia].’” (Book I, Chapter 1) The “prophet” is John the Evangelist, purported author of the Gospel of John, and the reference is again to John 7:37–38.

ca. 255. Another early reference to the Johannine verse is made by Cyprian of Carthage (died ca. 258): “The Lord cries aloud, that ‘whosoever thirsts should come and drink of the rivers of the living water that flowed out of His bosom.’" (Epistle LXXII, 11, To Jubianus, Concerning the Baptism of Heretics)

ca. 390. Again harkening back to John 7:37-38, Ambrose of Milan (ca. 340–397) in his exegesis of Psalm 33 exhorts his readers to, “Drink of Christ, for he is the fountain of life. Drink of Christ, for he is the stream whose torrents brought joy to the City of God. Drink of Christ, for he is peace. Drink of Christ, for the streams of living water flow from his bosom.” (Enarrationes in xii. Psalmos Davidicos)

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