A Mary Moment Monday post
Light streamed in through the stained glass windows, creating halos around everyone’s heads. The smell of lilies and hyacinths mingled among the crowded pews. Everyone seemed to be smiling.
I was attending my first Easter Mass with the man who would later become my husband.
I had been attending Mass with him for some months before that Easter, getting up uncomfortably early to join his family for the 8:30 AM Mass at the little church that was down the road. It was the very picture of a country church: tiny enough to feel crowded with fifty people, wood-framed, glorious in its simplicity. There were plenty of secret cubbyholes and stashing places, and even a vestibule and a sacristy, both approximately the size of postage stamps. The stained glass windows seemed to glow during those Sunday morning Masses.
Sacred Heart Church was built by the sweat of the folks in the countryside who felt strongly enough to put their muscles to the test. Looking around it, at the wood floors and the carefully painted details, I see proof of someone else’s love for a building, and I know I’m not alone or crazy for feeling such a pull for a place.
In 1899, when Sacred Heart Church was built, it was the main parish church, with a mission church twelve miles down the road, in the next small town. By the time I was attending and feeling the pull to become Catholic, Sacred Heart was the mission church and the parish was having a hard time justifying keeping it open.
In a strange nook in the ceiling at the church, there was a stained glass window that I always assumed was the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It captured my attention, because it seemed weird. It was unlike anything I had ever seen. There was a crown over the heart, with thorns around it. If it was daylight, that window seemed to glow, and on that Easter morning when I was overwhelmed by my experience, it seemed on fire.
As it turns out, the window is supposed to be of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. I learned, by virtue of working with the parish priest and hearing the lore of the parish, that the wrong window was shipped all those years ago. The window that was shipped was of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. It was installed and beyond easy replacement when someone must have looked up and pointed out the difference.
I wonder if they laughed then as we do now. There’s comedy, after all. But there’s also something so appropriate about having Mary’s Immaculate Heart looking down from that pinnacle in the roof, in a church named Sacred Heart.
Devotions to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary are companions, one leading to the other and back again. The Sacred Heart of Jesus is often shown encircled with thorns, with flames coming out of the top, rays flowing from all around it, and a cross at the peak of the flames. In it, we see Jesus’ love for us represented in the heart, and the pain He endured in the thorns. His love is so powerful, so all-encompassing, that it comes out from His heart in rays. We must not forget the cross — the suffering, of course, but also the victory — as the pinnacle of our faith.
The Immaculate Heart of Mary also has rays surrounding it in a halo of light, but there are a few variations on the image itself. Sometimes it is shown surrounded with roses, with flames coming out of the top. Other times, in addition to the roses and flames, there is a sword piercing the center of the heart. There may be a rose growing out of the flames on top of the heart, or, instead of roses ringing the heart, there may be thorns.
In all of these variations, we are reminded of Mary’s sorrows throughout Jesus’ life. In the prophecy of Simeon at the presentation of Christ in the Temple, she’s told that a sword will pierce her heart. Then the Holy Family flees to Egypt to escape Herod’s killing spree. Later, Mary’s heart experiences sorrow when Jesus is lost in the Temple. Imagine her pain and sorrow when she met Jesus while he was carrying the cross; imagine again the torture of watching Him die on the cross. Holding His body once it was taken down from the cross, Mary must have felt anguish, and then, burying His body, more of the same.
Mary’s Immaculate Heart has a rich tradition, with hints in the Gospels as we hear about Simeon’s prophesy at the Temple. Though the early Church Fathers, from Augustine, Ephrem, and Leo, venerated Mary greatly and hinted at the importance of her heart, it is not until the end of the eleventh century that we see any kind of a regular devotion in place. Saint John Eudes is credited with propagating the Immaculate Heart of Mary. He celebrated the first feast in honor of the Heart of Mary in 1648 and established many religious societies whose goals were to uphold and promote the devotion. He wrote a book, Coeur Admirable (Admirable Heart), published in 1681, that served as a summary of the devotion.
In 1830, the Immaculate Heart of Mary became more widespread after the apparitions of Mary to Saint Catherine Labore as Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal. More recently, at the apparitions in Fatima, Portugal, in 1917, Mary asked for an increase in devotion to her Immaculate Heart and for the world to be consecrated to it.
Devotion to Mary’s Immaculate Heart always leads us to consider her Son in the most intimate way, at those times when His mother was grieved and in pain. When we find ourselves there, with Jesus, we can pause to reflect on His Sacred Heart, which explodes with love for us.
In Christian tradition, the heart is symbolic of the state of the soul. The heart is the seat of our emotions; we describe them as broken and sorrowful, kind and generous, hard and bitter. From the heart, we have the origin of love, the source of our passions. They are on fire with love, yet tender and gentle.
Devotion to the hearts of Jesus and Mary, then, is as natural for Christians as saying “I love you” to both of them. We look to Jesus as our Savior, as the face of God made real. We look to Mary as His mother, as the vessel by which He chose to become human. She was without sin, worthy of the title Immaculate. She had to be without sin, or how could she bear the Messiah, who would Himself be sinless?
Mary’s heart must have been broken many times during Jesus’ life. In addition to the seven sorrows described earlier, she must have felt just as much of the pain of daily life as mothers today do. When He pinched His fingers in the door, when he fell and scraped His knees, when He walked away, at age 30, to begin His ministry. How must she have grieved when she saw Him bear the insults and tricks of the Pharisees? What must her prayers have been as she watched His Passion unfold? Did her heart break even as she knew the ending, the unending hope of Providence?
When we consider the Immaculate Heart of Mary, we are find ourselves led, again and again, back to Jesus. As we hug her, we see that our arms are touching Someone on the other side of her. As we cry to her for help, we find that it is Jesus who is with her, unable to ignore His mother’s requests. As we deepen in our love for God and Jesus, we find her encouraging us — though we may not have seen her beside us.
Mary’s innocent heart is free from all sin. Its simple focus on God’s will is childlike, a beautiful prompt to continue to adjust my own focus back to where it should be. We see her Immaculate Heart in flame with love for us and for her Son. As it was prophesied, it’s pierced with a sword, and through the pain, Mary smiles at us. She knows the hope that lies beyond the pain, and her straightforward faith moves me to embrace God’s will more fully each day.
In Mary’s Immaculate Heart, I see a world I couldn’t have hoped for, a love I wouldn’t have believed, a faith I can’t help but want to imitate. From the woman who held her innocent Son after His crucifixion, I see a tender glance. Within her open arms, her heart, crowned with thorns and pierced with a sword, shows me that my pain is not my own, is not the end of the road. She has felt my pain and is waiting to carry me, so gently, to her Son, who will heal me.
* * *
This piece originally appeared on Catholic Exchange, and in the time since I wrote it in 2009, Sacred Heart Church has been torn down. The memory of it is very sweet for our family.
* * *
* * *
Want more on the Immaculate Heart of Mary? I just happen to have something from the archives:
- From 2010: The Immaculate Heart