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5th Sunday of Lent (18.03.18)
A Heart Divinely Transplanted
Dr. Christiaan Barnard is universally known for performing the world’s first transplant of a human heart. That was fifty years ago! Much, much earlier, in fact six centuries before the birth of Christ, God prompted his prophet Ezekiel to make this announcement to the Chosen People:
“Moreover, (God said) I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.” (Ezekiel 36:26-27)
Through Ezekiel, God revealed the ultimate in catastrophes that can befall the human heart – it can become ‘deadened’, and become like stone, hard and unyielding. While continuing to function as the essential muscular organ pumping blood through the blood vessels of our circulatory system, the heart in the Ezekiel extract has evidently become devoid of love and, in that sense, it has turned to stone! This is why the phrase ‘a heart of stone’ is so arresting and, when applied to a person, so condemnatory.
The heart is universally recognised, metaphorically, as the core of our being. We are made in the imagine and likeness of God and the human heart represents the source of that creative love. It is the universal symbol used to express love. The human heart symbolises where love is recognised and received and also from where love is shared with others.
God’s much loved and cherished people, in their actions and attitude, had offended against his first Covenant with them, the Sinaitic Covenant. Jeremiah interpreted his people’s defeat and subsequent deportation to slavery as a just punishment, which they had brought upon themselves, for their sins. Jeremiah lamented that, his own people, the Israelites, rather than show contrition, had continued to let their hearts remain hardened (turned to stone) and unresponsive to God’s love.
That God was willing to enter into a new covenant tells of God’s undiminished love and also of his power and willingness to heal and resuscitate his people. God’s earlier covenant, mediated by Moses, had been hewn on tablets of stone. This new covenant would be written by God in the human heart – “and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh”. God’s new covenant was to be integrated within the seat of the human intellect and will.
This new covenant would not be shouldered as a heavy burden or a freedom-stifling yoke but as a personal commitment, knowingly and deliberately embraced by each person. God’s new covenant was to be characterised by mercy, because sins would be forgiven, and by a knowledge of God. God’s ‘forgiveness’ was to bring a total amnesty from sin and its consequences. ‘Knowledge’ in the scriptural sense implies a relationship of personal intimacy and profound communion. “All, from least to greatest, shall know me, says the Lord, for I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more.” (verse 34)
There have been enormous advances in medical knowledge concerning the resuscitation and function of the human heart as an essential muscular organ of the body. Meanwhile, over the same period, the spiritual care of the human heart has deteriorated. Unbridled secularity increasingly suffocates the flow of Divine love “to our governing, decision-making, value- judgement centre wherein is our emotional thermostat and our consciousness controller – all of which constitute the human heart” according to authors James Harris, Miles Jones and Jerome Ross in ‘Proclamation, Lent’ (1966)
At each celebration of The Eucharist those gathered remember and experience their ‘knowledge’ of God and the merciful forgiveness of sin obtained for us by Jesus through his life, death and Resurrection as proclaimed by Jeremiah in our First Reading this 5th Sunday of Lent.
While, as believers, we have confidence that God will never rescind his Divine covenant (Psalm 89:34; Romans 11:29-31), we also need continual awareness of our propensity for sin. The season of Lent is an opportune period for appraising the quality of our daily response to our Baptismal promises. Many check their pulse and take their blood pressure on a daily basis. How many, by contrast, practise a daily ‘examination of conscience’, as a form of night prayer, to connect with the continuous gift of essential grace which God makes available for the restoration of holiness and the integrity of our eternal relationship with our heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit?
Three times in this Sunday’s Psalm Response we say or sing: “Create a clean heart in me, O God.” Are these rote words or are we expressing a really heartfelt prayer of intercession?
In John’s Gospel excerpt for this Sunday we hear Jesus announcing:
"The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” (verse 23)
Jesus then voiced his heartfelt prayer to his heavenly Father – his heart being full of the Holy Spirit:
"I am troubled now. Yet what should I say? 'Father, save me from this hour?' But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name."
In response, the voice of his heavenly Father answers:
"I have glorified it and will glorify it again."
Whenever we are troubled or uncertain and more especially when we are preparing to be called to our eternal home, it is good to be reminded of our destiny, to be with God. While we have no expectation of hearing ‘a voice from heaven’ at such a moment, from within the human voices that we can hear, there may well be one speaking on behalf of our heavenly Father, even without realising it.
Whether we are addressing God in the midst of the community or when accompanying one individual at a crucial time in their life, it is vital that we mean what we say for then the audibility of our faith will help sustain that other or those others. This ‘audibility of faith’ is only possible when we have allowed God to have replaced our heart of stone with a heart of flesh.