“. . . are your hearts hardened?”
This question of Jesus to His disciples is ironically apt for Valentine’s Day. We are up to our eyebrows in a literal flood of hearts, mostly soft though, and perhaps even mushy. In 2011 the National Geographic Magazine featured a celebration of the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible, highlighting particularly its effect, not on our hearts so much as on our language: phrases such as “beat their swords into plow shares”, “set thy house in order”, “from time to time”, “a man after his own heart”, which are so common and familiar that we have forgotten that no one spoke that way before the King James translation. And that was just a translation!
So, more surprising still, is the realization that the very notion of heart is itself biblical, quite independent of how it may be translated. The word “heart” occurs 550 times in the Old Testament, 128 of these in the Psalms alone. And it doesn’t stop with the Old Testament. Jesus used “heart”, as in today’s reading, over 50 times. Never once in the New Testament (and almost never in the Old) is the reference to an anatomical organ located in our chests.
For the ancient Hebrews, and for the entire Western world (the conceptual heirs of the Jews), “heart” stands for the very core of a person’s being, his/her character or deepest self. No other culture had this image and usage. It is for us one of the “gifts of the Jews”. Think of just a few of the phrases using heart: we’re soft-hearted when we’re kind and compassionate, hard-hearted when we’re mean and uncaring. We’re faint-hearted or stout of heart; we get to the heart of the matter. When we’re disappointed, our hearts are broken; and when we’re happy, our hearts are bursting for joy. Where our treasure lies there will our hearts be also. God told Ezekiel that he would replace the stony hearts of his people with hearts of flesh. And Luke tells us that Simeon told Mary, at the presentation of the infant Jesus, that through her the (evil) thoughts of many hearts would be revealed. And after her two visits to Jerusalem with her Son, we read that Mary kept these things in her heart. How natural that seems!
Saint Valentine got displaced from the Church’s calendar in 1969, largely because so little was known about him (there were probably at least three martyrs with that name). How St. Valentine’s Day came to be associated with affection – and so with hearts – is uncertain, but is said to relate to the fact that medieval romantics noticed that birds began to pair around the middle of February. So the association with affection was with the date, rather than the Saint. In any case, we have something better as an explicit religious celebration of love – the Feast of the Sacred Heart (on the first Friday after the octave of Corpus Christi). Once again HEART! – the core of Jesus’ own being poured out in endless self-giving – the best imaginable valentine gift of all.
And the best valentine we can give those we ourselves love is to image, to embody Jesus’ love in our own lives. Hard as that may seem, our baptisms make it possible. Jesus has given us a heart transplant – His own!