Last time, we looked at the window above the side altar to the left of the sanctuary. That window depicts (as we said) the Annunciation. Today, we’ll look at the window behind the side altar on the other side of the sanctuary.
In his Gospel account of Our Lord’s crucifixion and death, the apostle John gives eyewitness testimony that, after Our Lord had died, “one of the soldiers pierced his side with a lance, and at once blood and water came out” (John 19,34-35). Ancient writers saw in this piercing of Christ’s side, God’s opening up of the fountain from which flow all the graces the Church now receives. Saint Augustine, for example, described that opened wound in Our Lord’s side as ‘the gate of life out of which flow the Church’s sacraments, without which we cannot enter into that life which is the true life’. Augustine went on to liken that opened wound to the door God commanded Noah to open up in the ark’s side (Genesis 6,16) – for just as the animals were able to enter the ark by that door, and were thereby saved from the Flood, so through the wound in the side of the crucified Christ, his faithful disciples now enter into redemption from sin and death.
Later writers penetrated through that wound, as it were, to contemplation of the very Heart of Jesus. Jesus, of course, is God the Son who assumed our human nature. In ancient times, God appeared on Mount Sinai to the Israelites, but his presence then was most forbidding: it was accompanied by ‘thunder and lightning … thick cloud … a blast of a trumpet so loud that all the people were in the camp trembled … the mountain wrapped in smoke, which went up like the smoke of a kiln … the whole mountain shook violently’; the people were warned ‘not to break through to the Lord to look; otherwise many of them will perish’ (Exodus 19,16-21, & Hebrews 12,18-19). In Jesus, however, there is a great contrast. In Jesus, God’s inexhaustibly merciful love now comes to us through one who relates to us in the unique way one human being does to another – God’s wondrous love is mediated to us, in other words, through a human heart like our own. This is the Mystery of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Contemplation of the Sacred Heart spread far and wide through the Church – but to establish its worship fully and entirely, God chose for his instrument a humble Visitation nun who lived in seventeenth century France: Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque.
Margaret Mary showed signs of holiness from her earliest years – especially in her burning love for the Blessed Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. She endeavoured to realize the performance of the Christian virtues in her daily life. She would spend continuous hours in prayer and meditation upon the things of heaven. In every adversity she was humble and patient, and practiced bodily penance. She was remarkable for her charity towards the poor. While still a young girl she dedicated her virginity to God, and entered the Visitation Order, where her life straightaway became a shining example to others.
Our Lord appeared to Margaret Mary many times in visions, but the most famous of these took place one day while she was praying before the Blessed Sacrament. On this occasion, opening his breast, Our Lord revealed to her his divine Heart glowing with flames and encircled with a crown of thorns. Our Lord complained that, in return for his unbounded love, his Heart met only with outrages and ingratitude from mankind. But he asked Margaret Mary to work for the establishment in the Church of a new feast day, each year on the Friday after the Octave of Corpus Christi. On this feast day, his Sacred Heart was to be venerated with the honour it is due – that the insults offered him by sinners might be expiated by worthy satisfaction. Our Lord promised to enrich this devotion with treasures of heavenly grace.
In striving to carry out Our Lord’s command, Sister Margaret Mary experienced many obstacles. Vexations, even bitter insults, were her lot from some who maintained her ‘visions’ were merely a symptom of mental illness. She not only bore these sufferings patiently, but offered herself up in her anguish and reproach as a sacrificial victim, bearing all things as a surer means of accomplishing her purpose. The Lord himself endowed her with strength, and she was assisted by her spiritual directors – most notably Father Claude de la Colombière, a priest of great holiness. Up until the time of her death in 1690, she never ceased faithfully to carry out the duty entrusted to her by heaven.
At length, in the year 1765, Pope Clement XIII approved the text of the Mass and Office in honour of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, and Pope Pius IX later extended the feast to the whole Church. From then on, the worship of the most Sacred Heart, like an overflowing river washing away all obstacles, poured itself forth over all the earth. When Pope Leo XIII proclaimed the Jubilee year at the dawn of the new century, he dedicated the whole human race to Our Lord’s Sacred Heart. Pope Pius XI later raised the feast to that of the highest rank, with an ‘octave’ (i.e. commemorated with prayers at Mass and the Office for the whole of the week following). That the sins of the nations might be bewailed, he also ordered that on that same feast-day annually, there should be recited an expiatory form of prayer in all the churches of the Christian world.
In our window, we see Sister Margaret Mary on the left, at prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. She is robed in her black nun’s habit, kneeling in the convent chapel, in front of the altar with its Tabernacle, her prayer book open before her on the altar step. Our Lord has just appeared in front of the altar – standing, not on the step, but above it on a cloud – a sign that he is God. His hands still bear the wounds he permitted the nails to make in them for our redemption. One of his hands points to his Heart. As Margaret Mary described in her vision, the Heart is glowing with the flames of his love, and is encircled with a crown of thorns – emblem of the Passion his love willingly bore for us.
Here at Saint Mary’s, we’re blessed to have each morning an hour’s Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. There are a few days each year when, from where I kneel in church, the sun is in just the right place as Exposition begins, to shine directly through Our Lord’s Sacred Heart in that window. You can imagine what a glorious effect it is.
Besides the windows we’ve looked at so far, we have eight very fine windows along each side of the nave, depicting various events in Our Lady’s life. These were unveiled in 1931, a gift from Archbishop Curley of Baltimore and Washington, USA – Archbishop Curley’s cousin, Father Hughes, was parish priest here at the time. Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll look at each of those windows in turn. By then, maybe, the lockdown will be over, and you’ll be able to see them for yourselves again!