Today’s the feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. But what, exactly, does that mean?

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 it 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.

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?

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.

Today, consider Mary’s Immaculate Heart with me.  May Mary hold you close to her heart and lead you ever closer to her Son.

Last year, I wrote a column at Today’s Catholic Woman about the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Enjoy!