Are you familiar with the image of the sacred heart? Maybe you’ve seen a depiction in some church’s stained glass or in a sculpture somewhere. When I was in Catholic grade school, we had a statue of the sacred heart in the corner of our classroom.
I have to tell you: It was a little disturbing.
The image shows Jesus pointing to his heart, which is protruding from his chest. The heart is surrounded by thorns. The heart is bleeding. There’s also fire coming out of the top of it.
Kind of a creepy image, no?
The point of the inelegant image was to remind us that Jesus’ heart bleeds with love for us because he shares God’s heart, which bleeds with unconditional and unlimited love for all of creation. Also, that we, too, must have bleeding hearts since we are God’s children. It’s genetic.
Only when a heart is capable of bleeding profusely can it love greatly.
There are devotions to the sacred heart (you can Google it), prayers asking for some undeserved favor or blessing. Something granted purely out of love. Something that can’t be merited in any way.
The most important word here: undeserved.
The bleeding heart image goes back to the 1600s (I Googled it) and has been common not only among Catholics, but in some Anglican and Lutheran churches, too. There are churches named for the Sacred Heart. People wore sacred heart medals to remind them of the importance of having a bleeding heart.
How all of that has changed, huh?
Many people still aspire to live with a bleeding heart. They help people in many ways all around the world. They work for organizations that try to make people’s lives better. They stand up for those who are oppressed and face discrimination. They offer help and healing to those in pain. They bring love into the world, often at a great price to themselves.
On the other hand, others have turned “bleeding heart” into a pejorative term. They insist we should look after ourselves and no one else. They think that they deserve everything they have – every heartbeat, every breath, even life itself. They’ve somehow earned it through their own efforts.
Love is out. Self-determination is in. It’s foolish to bleed for those who are struggling. Let them bleed all by themselves.
Along this line of thinking, the rich deserve all of the privilege that they have and the poor deserve all of their misery. If we do help the needy, it’s only after they’ve passed some test we’ve concocted to make sure they’re worthy of our assistance. Don’t get too close to them or help them too much, though – you don’t want them becoming dependent upon God’s grace through us.
Even religion has undergone a significant change on this subject. Fundamentalism and the “prosperity gospel” teach that we’re in charge of our lives and our fates. We get on the fast-track to heaven by picking the right theology. We earn our prosperity by living the right way, sort of how lab rats get rewarded for choosing the right button in an experiment.
We don’t need unmerited grace and blessings because we’ve made the right choices all by ourselves. And we certainly don’t want to be conduits of grace or undeserved blessings to others.
Really? What’s happened to us?
To stay with the religion theme: So many people have become just like the older son in the story of the prodigal son. They get their noses bent out of shape when the deadbeat brother returns home and the generous father immediately accepts him back, lavishes him with love and throws a wild party for him.
As it turns out, the older son is just as wasteful as the younger son. Both reject the indiscriminate love from their father’s bleeding heart.
So, where do we go from here?
Maybe a starting point would be to recognize our dependence upon God and upon each other for life and love – all of which are freely given, never earned in any way. And to make a renewed effort to make our hearts available to bleed, too.
Also, let’s reclaim the term as a positive. When someone calls us a bleeding heart, perhaps we can smile and say: “Thank you! That’s the best thing you could have said to me – I’m living in a way that reflects the divine heart beating inside of me.
“It’s genetic, you know.”
And then, let our hearts bleed for them, too. Whether they recognize it or not, they need love just like everyone else. Love that’s freely given and totally unearned.
A love that bleeds for them.