Growing up in a typical 1970s home, with its (then) trendy paneling and shag rugs, I was always fascinated by my Nana’s old brick house in the Pennsylvania coal region. From the thick wood of the stair rail to the heavy furniture and drapes, everything at Nana’s seemed solid, unchanging.
That sense of timelessness was deepened by the pictures that hung on her walls: black and white photographs of long-dead relatives, whose names echoed in late-night family remembrances. As a kid, I would gaze at the images, trying to see if I resembled them.
But there was one portrait that actually startled and even scared me: that of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
It wasn’t as if I didn’t know the antique painting depicted Christ; I just wasn’t used to seeing him like that. Our newly built parish church was modern and sparse, and the statues were plain. The Jesus in my catechism book was drawn in soft pencil strokes; he resembled the folk-rock singers popular back then.
Who was this Jesus, pointing to a burning heart encircled with thorns? Why did he gaze at me with eyes filled with both love and sorrow? And what did he want of me?
But those questions would fade as soon as our family packed up and headed home, back to a Jesus whom I began to regard as more of an acquaintance than a friend, and later — in a very dark season — as an enemy.
And sometimes, I didn’t regard him at all. He was, as far as I was concerned, out of the picture.
Years later, though, a broken heart brought me back to the Heart that I’d scorned. Devastated over the loss of a relationship, I found myself in an inner-city church, one much older than that of my childhood, kneeling before a chipped statue of Christ. His head bent tenderly forward as he pointed to what I realized was my only true source of hope: his Sacred Heart.
Over the following weeks, I returned to that statue, aware of how truly barren my own heart had become over the years. In trying to fill it with the things of this world, I’d stretched and torn it. I wasn’t entirely convinced the damage could be repaired.
Seeing me visit the statue so often, the pastor stopped to talk with me one day, inviting me to attend Mass and to volunteer in a few parish ministries. And although my attempts to return to the faith often faltered, in time I found myself more and more comfortable in church.
A few years later, a familiar gaze caught mine as I rummaged through items at a yard sale. Surrounded by a dusty gold frame was a face just like the one from Nana’s hallway. His eyes were filled with sorrow for my lost years, and with love to outlast the eternity He’d won for me.
I bought the picture on the spot, and as I hung it on the wall, I whispered, “Welcome home.”
My glance traced the wounded hand, following its lines as it pointed to the pierced heart, and I sensed a silent reply:
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