Sacred Humanity, Devotion to the
SACRED HUMANITY, DEVOTION TO THE
Devotion to the God-Man, Christ, has two basic forms. First, those devotions whose particular focus of attention (which theologians call the proximate material object) is on the mysteries of the life of Christ, i.e., the contemplation of Christ the Incarnate Word in the mystery of His birth, infancy, Passion, etc. Second, those devotions that focus immediately on the human nature of Christ, on the physical body of Christ as the instrument of our redemption and guarantee of His love, e.g., devotion to the Five Wounds of Christ, to His Precious Blood, the Holy Face, the Sacred Heart. This second form is devotion to the sacred humanity strictly speaking. Neither form, obviously, is totally independent of the other, but they are not the same, and between them a wide spectrum of practices and attitudes is possible. The tendency and tone of any Christological devotion is determined by how directly the humanity of Christ is being stressed, on how sharply Christ's "humanness" or His divinity is being brought into the focus of attention.
Historical Development. Christ in the mysteries of His Incarnation and Redemption is the theme of the New Testament. In the Synoptic Gospels there is emphasis on the humanity of Christ; in Saint John, an underlining of the divinity. In the Epistles of Saint Paul there is explication of the meaning of the Crucifixion, death, and Resurrection of Christ. The Fathers of the Church deal with these same mysteries and, specifically, with the wounds of Christ, especially, the wounded side of Christ, which is seen as pouring forth His grace, giving birth, as it were, to the Church. The Fathers' point of stress is not the suffering of the Lord, but the Lord who triumphed over suffering and death. The focus is on the victorious and glorious Christ. Thus the early Church's consideration of the Passion and death of Christ has an altogether different tone than that developed in the early Middle Ages. The difference can be seen in their way of considering the cross as a Christian symbol and the historical evolution of the crucifix. The cross is found early in Christian art, most often in various disguises to avoid the ridicule of the pagans of the empire who could see the cross only as punishment and degradation. (This is not the only cause of obscurity, however; other problems, both religious and artistic, were involved for the Christian community itself in presenting Christ crucified without irreverence, shock, or offense.) With Christianity's new status in the empire after Constantine and after the finding of the cross by Saint Helena, there was in the 5th century an open presentation of the cross, yet still without the figure of Christ. In the 6th century there was a presentation of Christ on the cross, but He is not represented as dead or in agony. About the 8th century the scene of the crucifixion had the figures of the Passion as reported in the Gospels— soldiers, the two thieves, Saint John, and Our Lady. But Mary was not yet the sorrowful mother of the Stabat Mater. Realism in a grimmer mode appeared in the 10th century, and Christ was depicted crowned with thorns, with blood flowing from the wounds of the nails, and with His body contorted with pain. Whereas the triumphant Christ held the attention of the early Church, the image of the suffering, humiliated Christ came to be preferred in the Middle Ages. This development, which occurred in and was confined to the West, marks a certain difference in outlook between the Eastern and Western Church. The Church of the East generally continued to maintain the first point of view. Byzantine art in its unearthly formalism and hieratic symbolism captured the majesty and otherworldliness of the great Lord Jesus who sits at the right hand of the Father and rules the universe in regal glory.
In the West the shift continued, and with Saint Bernard (1090–1153), it shaped a distinctive approach in Christian spirituality. The convert barbarians of the West were not attuned to Greek speculations and apophatic theology. The concrete image of God become man in Bethlehem, teaching, suffering, dying for them, was better calculated to hold and motivate them. Bernard took the Christian conviction that Jesus is the pattern men must follow in being refashioned in the image of God and pointed out that this was to be done by man's imitation of the human life of Christ. In his treatment of the Christian life there was a new emphasis on meditation on the details of Christ's human life to draw from it implications for one's spiritual life. Christ's life from the poverty of Bethlehem to the starkness of Calvary pointed the way. In a special way the wounds of Jesus speak of His love. However, Bernard continued, this devotion to the sacred humanity of Christ is not the termination of the devotion. The Christian is to go on into the inner life of Christ and mount to His divinity. The devotion to the sacred humanity is a means of arousing an emotional response to the love of Christ—and this is psychologically sound, for men do not grasp love in the abstract—but the Christian is to move beyond the emotional response and reach to mystical union with Christ.
Saint Francis of Assisi (1182–1226) exerted a powerful influence at least as great as that of Bernard in focusing attention on Christ's having become vulnerable for us through love, the motive of the Incarnation. In the turbulence of the age, Francis, preaching the gospel of peace, made visible the meaning of Christ made man.
The Crib, the stigmata, the preachings to the beasts, St. Francis's whole life of dedication to his bride, Lady Poverty, were all messages addressed to those great powers who in this fateful hour were struggling in Italy and Europe for the possession of mankind. To the Cathars the message ran: God is not only "pure spirit" but also wholly man, vulnerable, helpless, bleeding flesh, and the blood of His brother men is too precious to be shed in warfare of any kind. To Byzantium and the Eastern Church it said: even in his Transfiguration, Christ still appears to us poor men in His crucified body (Francis's vision on Mount La Verna). To Rome, the Church which claimed to rule the emperors and kings of this world, it said: Christ came to earth to be the servant of His own. The war-mad Italian towns, standing for embattled Christendom as a whole, were reminded that Christians were called to be peacemakers. [Heer, 223, 224]
Devotion to the Five Sacred Wounds and to the Passion of Christ became a theme of meditation for the medieval mystics, and developed later into such forms as devotion to the Precious Blood of Christ and the Stations of the Cross. Gradually one of the wounds was singled out, and the devout began to concentrate on the side of Christ pierced by the lance of the soldier (John 19.33–34). From the open side to the heart exposed by the lance and thence to the love that brought Christ to the cross there was a natural and inevitable progression. Saints Gertrude (d. 1298) and Mechtilde (d. 1303), the Benedictine mystics, were granted visions of the Heart of Jesus beating with love for men. This was the early shaping and development of devotion to the Sacred Heart, which has come to hold the major place among all the devotions to the sacred humanity of Christ. From the 13th to the 15th centuries the devotion was spread among religious of the Benedictine, Cistercian, Carthusian, Franciscan, and Dominican Orders. Little by little devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus became something fully distinct from the devotion to the Five Sacred Wounds. Saint John Eudes (1601–80) was the author of the liturgical cult of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary. His piety, trained in the spirituality of Bérulle, drove him into the core of things, into the depths of the Redeemer. He distinguished three hearts: the physical heart, the spiritual heart, and the divine heart—all united in the person of Christ. Although not in definitive form, this contained the basic elements of devotion to the Sacred Heart. John Eudes was a link in the chain that continued with a nun of the Visitation, Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque (1647–90) who was the great apostle of the Sacred Heart and helped as no other to make the devotion a common possession of all the faithful. She gave the devotion the particular shape familiar to modern times. From her time the devotion was articulated distinctly: Christ's physical heart is the material object of the devotion; it is the symbol of His human and divine love. Devotion to the Sacred Heart for Saint Margaret Mary consisted in recognizing and returning the love of Jesus for men, best symbolized by His heart. In her presentation there was a new note, that of reparation, for she saw Christ's heart, His love, ignored, wounded, ridiculed, sinned against in ingratitude. The saint's mission was fulfilled, but not in her lifetime, nor yet for a good many years after her death. There was much opposition; some of it well taken, because not all zealous presentations of a good thing are necessarily well done; some of it well intentioned but mistaken; some, malicious. In presenting the heart of Christ as an object of worship certain theological issues basic to any devotion to the sacred humanity of Christ were necessarily involved. When the dust had settled the Church had condemned certain propositions of the Synod of Pistoia that denied the legitimacy of adoration of the humanity of Christ in general and devotion to the Sacred Heart in particular (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion symbolorum 1661–62). The devotion spread far and wide thereafter to the point where Pierre Pourrat in his monumental history of Christian spirituality could call devotion to the Sacred Heart the contemporary form of devotion to Our Lord. The devotion has indeed spread widely, though not always in depth. Pope Pius XII in Haurietis aquas (May 15, 1956) called for an examination and rooting of the devotion in its sources in Scripture and theology that it might bring forth in full measure the fruits of holiness it contains for the whole Church.
Theology. Devotion to the sacred humanity, which, unlike any form of devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary or to the saints, includes worship in the strict sense, is justified theologically on the basis of the hypostatic union, that is, the fact that to the one person, Jesus Christ (who shares the divine nature with the Father and Holy Spirit), is united a true human nature (which He does not share with the Father and Holy Spirit). Since there is need for precise understanding of the point, it is worth the trouble of stating the matter in technical language.
On Account of the hypostatic union of Christ's humanity with the Logos, it too is to be reverenced with latria, the adoration due to God, in itself, though not for its own sake. The object of worship in this case is not the God-man as a whole, but His humanity alone, but then only in its connection with the Logos. To understand this proposition correctly, we must not forget that this Church dogma would not have Christ's humanity worshipped for its own sake (propter se ) but in itself (in se ), in its hypostatic bond with the Logos. His human nature is simply the object of worship (objectum materiale ), but not the motive or, in Scholastic usage, the formal object (objectum formale ) of worship. The motive and formal object is exclusively the Logos, the Godhead. It would be sheer idolatry to offer latria to Christ's humanity for its own sake. [K. Adam, 240–41]
The particular value of devotion to the sacred humanity consists in this: it anchors a Christian in the reality of the Incarnation, and the mystery of the Incarnation is the pivot point of his faith. He does not go to God in just any way, but only in Christ and through Christ, since Christ is the revelation of God's plan to bring men to Himself (cf. Eph 3.1–6). It is an appreciation of the reality of the humanity of Christ that makes one aware of Christ as priest and mediator in the liturgy, for Christ is mediator or priest precisely because He took on human nature. Further, the fact that He whom the heavens and the earth could not contain was carried in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary contributes to an appreciation of human nature, which is no small thing in view of the havoc that pessimistic evaluations of man's humanity have wrought in history. The Church has encouraged devotion to the sacred humanity of Our Lord because of these values and because of the benefits that the faithful have reaped in holiness from such devotions. Recognizing the needs of men, she offers in addition to her official liturgy the help of private and popular devotions to aid the Christian in the appreciation and practice of his faith and to help him penetrate more deeply into the saving mysteries of the faith. Such is the function and true value of devotions to the sacred humanity of Christ.
On this point Pope Pius XII wrote in his encyclical on the sacred liturgy, "No conflict exists between public prayer and prayers in private, between morality and contemplation, between the ascetical life and devotion to the liturgy" (Mediator Dei 36). While this is certainly true, it must be noted that the ideal balance between public and private or popular devotions has not always been achieved in the history of spirituality. Whenever there is an imbalance it must be put back in proper equilibrium again, for devotion to the sacred humanity of Christ, or any devotion, achieves its true value only when it is integrated with the totality of the mystery of salvation through Christ [cf. Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Dec. 4, 1963) 13].
Bibliography: p. pourrat, Christian Spirituality, tr. w. h. mitchell et al., 4 v. (London-Westminster, Md. 1922–55). m. a. williams, The Sacred Heart in the Life of the Church (New York 1957). f. heer, The Medieval World, tr. j. sondheimer (Cleveland 1962). k. adam, The Christ of Faith, tr. j. crick (New York 1957).
[j. p. bruni]