Devotion to Our Lord’s physical heart, as a symbol of His perfect love for us, goes back to at least the 11th Century, but it was in the 1670s that Jesus appeared to a French nun, Sister Margaret Mary Alacoque, and gave her the devotion as we celebrate it today:
The first apparition took place on 27 December, the feast of Saint John the Evangelist, probably in 1673, while Margaret Mary was a nun in the Visitation convent at Paray-le-Monial. There is some uncertainty as to the precise dates of the apparitions, but not their content). She related what happened to Fr. Claude de la Colombiere, who was in charge of the Jesuit house in the town, describing how she had a vision of Jesus during which she was given some idea of the greatness of his love for mankind.
Jesus told her that he wanted her to tell the people of this love, and a similar theme was expressed during the second apparition, early in 1674, when Margaret Mary saw Jesus’ Sacred Heart on a throne of flames, transparent as crystal, surrounded by a crown of thorns signifying the sins of mankind, with a cross above it.
Again Jesus told her of his infinite love for mankind and his desire that he should be honoured through the display of this image of his heart, with the promise that all who did so would be specially blessed.
The third apparition probably took place on 2 July 1674, while Margaret Mary was praying before the Blessed Sacrament exposed, that is the host consecrated during Mass which had become the Body of Christ. She saw a vision of Jesus in glory, with his five wounds shining like suns, and he then showed her his heart on fire with love for mankind, a love that unfortunately was often ignored or treated with contempt.
He asked her to make up for this coldness and ingratitude by receiving Holy Communion as often as she was allowed, and particularly on the first Friday of each month. This idea of making reparation for the sins of others is also prominent in the messages given by Mary to the children at Fatima in 1917.
The fourth apparition, which probably took place on 16 June 1675, was the most important. Again it happened as Margaret Mary was praying before the Blessed Sacrament, when he again showed her a representation of his heart, further complaining of the ingratitude and coldness of mankind towards him, and particularly when this was the case with those specially consecrated to him.
To make up for this he asked that the first Friday after the feast of Corpus Christi (Latin for the “Body of Christ”), should be dedicated as a feast in honour of his Sacred Heart, when people should receive Holy Communion in reparation.
The “Great promise” associated with this devotion applied to those who went to Communion on nine consecutive First Fridays: “I promise you, in the excess of the mercy of My Heart, that Its all-powerful love will grant to all those who shall receive Communion on the first Friday of nine consecutive months the grace of final repentance; they shall not die under My displeasure nor without receiving the Sacraments, My Divine Heart becoming their assured refuge at that last hour.” [From Theotokos Books]
The Nine First Fridays’ promise is just a start. There are further promises for those who consecrate themselves, their families, their religious congregations, or their countries to the Sacred Heart; and for those who act as apostles for the devotion. Details here. If you want to enthrone the Sacred Heart in your home, Fisheaters has the text for an appropriate ceremony.
54. …the Heart of the Incarnate Word is deservedly and rightly considered the chief sign and symbol of that threefold love with which the divine Redeemer unceasingly loves His eternal Father and all mankind.
55. It is a symbol of that divine love which He shares with the Father and the Holy Spirit but which He, the Word made flesh, alone manifests through a weak and perishable body, since “in Him dwells the fullness of the Godhead bodily.”
56. It is, besides, the symbol of that burning love which, infused into His soul, enriches the human will of Christ and enlightens and governs its acts by the most perfect knowledge derived both from the beatific vision and that which is directly infused.
57. And finally — and this in a more natural and direct way — it is the symbol also of sensible love, since the body of Jesus Christ, formed by the Holy Spirit, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, possesses full powers of feelings and perception, in fact, more so than any other human body.
58. Since, therefore, Sacred Scripture and the official teaching of the Catholic faith instruct us that all things find their complete harmony and order in the most holy soul of Jesus Christ, and that He has manifestly directed His threefold love for the securing of our redemption, it unquestionably follows that we can contemplate and honor the Heart of the divine Redeemer as a symbolic image of His love and a witness of our redemption and, at the same time, as a sort of mystical ladder by which we mount to the embrace of “God our Savior.”
59. Hence His words, actions, commands, miracles, and especially those works which manifest more clearly His love for us — such as the divine institution of the Eucharist, His most bitter sufferings and death, the loving gift of His holy Mother to us, the founding of the Church for us, and finally, the sending of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and upon us — all these, We say, ought to be looked upon as proofs of His threefold love.
60. Likewise we ought to meditate most lovingly on the beating of His Sacred Heart by which He seemed, as it were, to measure the time of His sojourn on earth until that final moment when, as the Evangelists testify, “crying out with a loud voice ‘It is finished.’, and bowing His Head, He yielded up the ghost.”Then it was that His heart ceased to beat and His sensible love was interrupted until the time when, triumphing over death, He rose from the tomb.
61. But after His glorified body had been re-united to the soul of the divine Redeemer, conqueror of death, His most Sacred Heart never ceased, and never will cease, to beat with calm and imperturbable pulsations. Likewise, it will never cease to symbolize the threefold love with which He is bound to His heavenly Father and the entire human race, of which He has every claim to be the mystical Head.