Appeared in Spring 1991, Vol. XVII, No. 1

In this short essay, Fr. de Margerie examines several key references to the Heart of Jesus in the writings of Martin Luther. He sees these passages as capable of providing a framework for future ecumenicaldialogue between Catholics and Lutherans.

It is still common to hear it said that the devotion to the Heart of Jesus was born in the Church with the private revelations of Saint Margaret Mary in 1675. For a long time however, historians have shown how her devotion took root within the spiritual tradition of the Middle Ages.

It is there also that the young Martin Luther – of whom we celebrate the fifth century since his birth in 1483 – derived a whole series of ideas and trends, emotional and spiritual, culminating – which hardly seems to have been emphasized until here – in an anthropology and a theology of the human and divine heart. These trends were expressed in his Catholic period without being repudiated afterwards, and even extended themselves on many points after his rupture with Rome.

In his famous German sermon of 1519 on the “Meditation of the Passion of Christ,”1Luther had emphasized the necessity of prayer for obtaining the grace of compassion: “You must pray to God that He touches your heart and lets you consider in a fruitful way the suffering of Christ because it is not possible that the suffering of Christ be well understood by us if God doesn’t make it penetrate into our hearts.”

Shortly after this, Luther offers us an astonishingdevelopment, ever rich with ecumenical virtualities:

You can excite yourself to begin with, no more to contemplate the suffering of Christ, (because that made his work and frightened you), but to go further, to contemplate his loving heart, full of love for you, love that obliges it to carry so heavily on your conscience and your sin. Thus, your heart will feel sweetness for him and your faith will be fortified in his confidence. Then, through the heart of Christ, climb as far as the very heart of God and you will see that the Christ could just have given proof of this love for you if God, in his eternal love, hadn’t wanted it like this, God, who Christ obeyed in his love for you

It is necessary foremost to recognize, in this beautiful passage, that the word “heart” is used in connection with man, the eternal Father and Christ in the same sense, analogically. It is taken in his metaphoric sense, yet is established in the physical reality. Nothing indicates that Luther had only had in view the heart of flesh of Jesus, pierced by the lance of the Roman soldier and nothing excludes it as a symbol of his love for us.

The step that Luther proposes for us corresponds to that which four centuries later would be taught by Pope Pius XII in his profound encyclical of 1956 Haurietis Aquas in gaudio “you will draw from the water with joy in the sources of salvation.” (Is 12:3) In this document which may be considered as one of the most beautiful, if not the most beautiful of all of the magisterium’s teachings concerning the mystery of Christ, we read in effect:

No one can truly understand the mystery of Jesus crucified if he hasn’t first penetrated the mysterious sanctuary of his Heart … in venerating the Heart of Jesus, the Church adores the symbol, and as the memorial of the divine Charity, which went to the point of loving by the Heart of the Word incarnate the humanity soiled by so many faults … One cannot go to the Heart of God but by the Heart of Christ, who said: `I am the way, no one can come to the Father except through me.’ (Jn 14:6) As Gregory the Great remarked, in the words and the actions of Christ the Heart of God manifests itself”2

In summary, one can say, by the light of these texts, that there is a great convergence between the Catholic devotion to the Heart of Christ, in all the aspects evoked above and whatLuther affirmed in his sermon on the Epiphany of 1526 previously cited above:

This word: “This is my well-loved Son” leads you to see the good pleasure of God and all his Heart in Christ, in all of his words and actions, and you see then the Christ in his Heart and the good pleasure of God in such a manner that the two are joined together in a manner in every way inimitable.3

These sermons of Martin Luther justify the affirmation of his modern disciple Paul Athaus: “At the center of the theology of Luther, there is the preoccupation with salvation. What is the relation of God to me? Luther finds the answer in Jesus Christ. This which is decisive, it is that God has opened for us his heart in the person, the activity and the history of Jesus Christ.”

This is why Luther and Pius XII both see Jesus, in Jn L51, in his loving humanity, and in his Heart, respectively, the ladder that leads us to the Father.

Luther, in his meditation of 1519 already cited, invited us (we had emphasized the expression) to “excite ourselves to contemplate the loving heart of Christ, full of love” for us. We have here an important part of the Catholic devotion to the Heart of Christ which had characterized the Middle Ages, particularly in Germany. One notes the force of the expression: excites oneself to contemplate. Isn’t this essential in a devotion?

One can’t conclude from this that Luther made himself the advocate of a devotion proper to the Heart of Jesus. Because a devotion supposes periodic exercises: nothing of the sort is inculcated in the texts cited. Not even the act of consecration to the Heart of Jesus, which was already practiced during this era.

Nevertheless, with Luther, the contemplative orientation of the love carried to the Heart of Jesus culminates in an eschatological and trinitarian perspective. This is clearly seen in a sermon on Christmas 1515, when the Augustinian monk still exercised his Catholic priesthood; we translate here the text from the original Latin:

We hope to look in the future at this word, when God will open his heart to us, best, when he will not pour out his word but introduce us in his heart, in order that we will have the vision of the goods of the Lord in the land of the living, when we will see his pure truth and wisdom; while waiting he shows us his hands and his feet, but also his eyes, his ears and his side. But then we will also see his heart with all the happy ones. His word will not be confined, like that of our heart, but infinite and eternal, offering to all a spectacle and very content joy.4

Such is the culminating point of a homily that had long insisted on the Word of the Heart of God, that lives in God and is God (Jn 1:1 commented here in the light of Ps 44:2). Down here (on earth), thinks Luther, Christ shows us his side (Jn 20:20), while still concealing in a way, his Heart; above (in heaven), God shows his Heart, the infinite Word, eternal and full of the happiness of his love.

The opposition between the hidden heart and the discovered face is at the same time very human and very biblical. It recalls numerous passages in the Old Testament.

It is true that here below the witnesses of the wounds of the risen Christ have not seen his heart of flesh; and they’ve had only an inkling of the luminous mystery of the faith in the riches of the human heart and divinity of the Eternal Word.

We could say, in synthesizing the riches contained in the Christmas sermon of 1515 and in the meditation of 1519 on the Passion, that it’s precisely in our “exciting ourselves to contemplate the loving Heart of Christ, full of love” while adoring the glorious wounds of his hands, of his feet and of his side, all this in the faith, that both Lutherans and Catholics together can dispose themselves to receive the vision of his Divine Heart which is the manifestation of the Heart of the Father.

Without a doubt it is true that the meditation of 1519 contains some points which are difficult to reconcile with the Catholic Faith. One can no more deny that there still exists today some grave divergences between the Catholic Church and the evangelical churches, divergences pertinent to the Incarnation and the Redemption, as Vatican II recognized, in its Decree on Ecumenism (Section 20). Also, Lutheranism doesn’t resound the need that has the baptized make reparation to and satisfy the Heart of Christ.

But it is no less true that the texts cited from Luther show to which point already Catholics and Lutherans can be in communion in the love of the Heart of Christ, leading to the Heart of the Father, in the Spirit.

These texts merit all the more to hold our attention in that Luther himself had, as Marc Lienhard observes5, taken the initiative to publish his meditation of 1519 on the Passion, with a deliberate purpose of making it “an instrument to bring to the awareness of a vast public his opinions about the subject of the Gospel.”

Luther invites us in this fifth century of his birth, to see in the pierced Heart of Christ glorified the place par excellence of the ecumenical encounter and in the mystery of this Heartforever opened, the unifying theme of an authentic dialogue “that all may be one” as He is himself one with his Father.




1WA 2,131-142.

2Section 82, 67, 70 and 39 in the unnumerated edition of the Typogr. Vatic.

3WA 20, 229; a little before (20, 228), Luther had mentioned “the depths of the paternal heart of God, of his eternal love for us.”

4Luther’s Werke, t.v., p. 411: Gruyter’s ed., Berlin, 1933.

5Luther, witness of Jesus Christ, Paris, 1973, p. 100.