The Catholic Encyclopedia states this about the object of the devotion to the Sacred Heart
The question lies between the material, the metaphorical, and the symbolic sense of the word heart; whether the object of the devotion is the Heart of flesh, as such, or the love of Jesus Christ metaphorically signified by the word heart; or the Heart of flesh, but as symbol of the emotional and moral life of Jesus, and especially His love for us. We reply that worship is rightly paid to the Heart of flesh, inasmuch as the latter symbolizes and recalls the love of Jesus, and His emotional and moral life. Thus, although directed to the material Heart, it does not stop there: it also includes love, that love which is its principal object, but which it reaches only in and through the Heart of flesh, the sign and symbol of this love.
Devotion to the Heart of Jesus alone, as to a noble part of His Divine Body, would not be devotion to the Sacred Heart as understood and approved by the Church, and the same must also be said of devotion to the love of Jesus as detached from His Heart of flesh, or else connected therewith by no other tie than that of a word taken in the metaphorical sense. Hence, in the devotion, there are two elements: a sensible element, the Heart of flesh, and a spiritual element, that which this Heart of flesh recalls spiritual element, that which this Heart of flesh recalls and represents. But these two elements do not form two distinct objects, merely co-ordinated they constitute but one, just as do the body and soul, and the sign and the thing signified. Hence it is also understood that these two elements are as essential to the devotion as body and soul are essential to man. Of the two elements constituting the whole, the principal one is love, which is as much the cause of the devotion and its reason for existence as the soul is the principal element in man. Consequently, devotion to the Sacred Heart may be defined as devotion to the adorable Heart of Jesus Christ in so far as this Heart represents and recalls His love; or, what amounts to the same thing, devotion to the love of Jesus Christ in so far as this love is recalled and symbolically represented to us by His Heart of flesh.
The treatment of the question is — alas — philosophical. The author seems to be convincing himself that the relationship “heart of Christ” –> “flesh of Christ” is both “physical” and “spiritual”, yet he would later on state that the real object of the devotion is “spiritual”, the Love of Christ as symbolized by the “heart of flesh”. But of course, the article is from a 19th century edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia.
I would suggest that the embarassment of having Christ’s physical heart as the object of the devotion to the Sacred Heart can be set aside so long as we think of the “heart”, not simply as an emblem of “love” but of the whole “I” as the new Catholic catechism would now point out. Thus, the Sacred Heart which Jesus showed to Margaret Mary Alacoque was his most “intimate self” presented to humankind as one that loves and loves beyond all measure.
Another point to deepen is the philological connection. “kardia” (the Greek for “heart”) is the equivalent of the Hebrew “leb”, which can also mean “flesh”. That Jesus shows a heart broken and wounded is a reminder of His Passion and the memorial of the covenant forged under the sign of the Cross, i.e. the Eucharist. “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood will not taste death,” he says about the bread of Life. The devotion to the Sacred Heart was also a rekindling of the devotion to the Eucharist. The eucharistic flesh of the Risen Lord — if we are going to take the miracle of Lanciano seriously — is flesh that comes from His heart. Though this can never become a basis for faith, it does however strongly underline the connection between the Heart of Jesus, the Eucharist, and the New Covenant.
The new covenant. The idea has not been incorporated in sermons recently. The fact that Jesus revealed Himself to one who called herself “Sponsa Christi” and who represents the feminine figure of the Church should make us think of the spousal love between the Lamb of God and the New Jerusalem. Surely, the reminder that Jesus loves the Church strongly revealed in the vision of His bleeding heart, is a reminder of the covenant by which He claims for Himself all of those who have been regenerated by the blood and water that was shed on the cross.
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