Real symbol and the Sacred Heart of Jesus

This post is in honor of Karl Rahner, whose reflections on the Sacred Heart of Jesus led to one of the most ground-breaking essays in 20th century sacramental theology, “The Theology of the Symbol” (Theological Investigations vol. 4, 221-52). Today, 19 days after Pentecost, is the Feast of the Sacred Heart.

In some sense, Rahner’s goal in this brief essay is to erase the mistaken dichotomy between “symbols” and “utilitarian” objects. We tend to have a standing assumption that a symbol is a symbol precisely because it doesn’t serve any real purpose — a bell is a bell because it performs a function by making a sound, but a bell on a Christmas tree, without a clapper, is merely a symbol. See how quickly that “merely” slipped in there? Already, symbolism becomes minimal when one takes this route!

Rahner overturns this cultural assumption by approaching symbol in three different ways. The first is the doctrine of the incarnation. For Rahner, the Trinity is the ultimate source of all symbolism. Symbols exist because the Word is the image of the unseen God, and because human beings are created to know the world through symbols so that they can come to know that God through the mission of the Word. So somewhere, ultimately, symbols both “are” and “are not”. The early church rejected the notion that Jesus was “like” the Father in being because if the “is not” outweighed the “is”, the Word could not be the image of the Father, and thus God’s revelation does not actually reveal anything about God! If the word is the ultimate symbol of the Father, however, and in the incarnation the Word reveals himself, then the incarnation shows us the true nature not only of the Word, but also of the Father.

The second (much more approachable) way that Rahner approaches symbol is through the image of the body. Your body, Rahner argues, is both uniquely useful (just try getting along without it) and uniquely symbolic (the privileged representation of “you” — for more on this, see the work of Mary Douglas). This is actually quite easy to verify: if your body can do something, “you” can do it; if your body suffers pain, you feel that pain, etc. What’s more, it is the useful functions of your body — eating, drinking, washing, grasping, seeing — that are our most powerful symbols. Combining this with the first approach, we can see that the actions of Christ in the body in the incarnation are the most perfect symbol for God’s love (or the most pure revelation of God’s nature). When Jesus eats with sinners, heals the sick, or dies on the cross, his body tells us (through the two most perfect kinds of symbolism: Jesus’ body as a symbol for his whole self and the Word as the image of the Father) what God’s salvation is.

This brings us to the third approach: the Sacred Heart of Jesus. On my first reading, I felt that here the essay went sideways. “Say what now?” I expected a move to the sacraments (traditionally the extension in time of Jesus’ body into the body which is the church). Instead, Rahner reflected on the Sacred Heart. Slowly, I came to realize how profound this move was. The heart, which we speak of as the seat of the personality, is underappreciated in post-Enlightenment modernism (which privileges the mind or even the brain instead).

In the pediatric intensive care unit in Chicago where my two-month-old son was trying to recover from congestive heart failure in 2006, the gap between useful and symbolic contracted, shivered, and finally disappeared altogether. Those peaks and valleys that showed his heart beating, beating, and his breath coming and going became his life, the seat of his personality, the record of the breath of God that had sealed him at baptism. I watched him struggle against the respirator to breathe on his own and knew it: That’s him. He’s still in there.

In his hours on the cross Christ’s heart, too, became the real symbol (one of Rahner’s preferred terms) for the salvation he had to offer. In its real, physical piercing by the lance, the heart of Jesus really and mysteriously gave for the church his blood and water, the sacramental life of the church. In order for our symbols to remain real symbols, we need to return to their function, because their function makes them symbolic.

This year at Holy Thursday my feet were washed. The priest, visiting from our sister parish in Kenya, not only poured water over my feet but really washed them, with a serious and humble industriousness that suggested that my feet were very dirty. This made me realize how (symbolically) right he was.

That symbol not only represented, but shone. It was, like the Sacred Heart of Jesus, my own body and yours, and the Word of God, a real symbol.

Happy feast!


  1. 🙂 I’ll share your enthusiasm for this article Kim, when you assigned this article I was excited to read it. Seeing your commentary on this article brings more things to life than I originally thought about this article; I actually got lost when I got to the devotion on the Sacred Heart when I originally read the article in class. Your reflection on Thomas though really makes that part of the piece come to live and make more sense for me.
    Rahner’s connection with Marion and the flesh is also really interesting. Rahner focuses on the symbol of the body while Marion focuses on the flesh which feels and gives itself in various activities. For Marion, it’s not as symbolic in my opinion, he thinks it just is, but the combination of Rahner and Marion creates an interesting scenario of thought, which I have to explore the consequences of a bit more. Because if bodily actions are symbolic as they remind us of the Jesus’ actions in his life, then our actions are symbolic as we are in the Body of Christ. So when “our flesh feels” and we respond to stimuli in life, then we can see God’s life in the actions of others. This seems kind of huge, but I have to think about it more.

  2. I just discovered Rahner’s essay on Primordial Words (TI vol. 3) and also Hearer of the Word (TI vol. 4); essays that I found in an anthology of his writings. These articles would seem to be linked to his notion of the Realsymbol, although I haven’t been able to read that essay itself, only around it, because I lack Vol. 4!

    I won’t try to summarize these essays, but perhaps the story in the New Testament surrounding the woman at the well can illustrate what he means by primordial words. Christ asks for a cup of water; a dialogue ensues, and then Jesus says ‘if you knew who I was you would ask me for living water’. More dialogue follows that turns, somewhat comically, on the two senses of the word/symbol water. Jesus and the woman talk past each other: the woman wants to no longer have to come to the well and carry a heavy jug back home; she’s speaking of water in a utilitarian sense; Jesus is speaking of something else altogether. He’s using “water” as a primordial word, in Rahner’s sense. And of course, He’s indicating water as a sacramental element, both as real water and symbol. and more.

    I was gratified to find Rahner quote Rilke in the essay on Primordial words. I happened to be reading the Sonnets to Orpheus when I stumbled on Kimberly’s lecture on the Realsymbol. In sonnet 20 of the first part (Mitchell translation) Rilke uses the image/memory of a hobbled horse and raises it to the level of a symbol in a way that illustrates the notion of primordial words, perhaps. Interestingly, he offers this symbol as a gift to Orpheus, which may be another condition of sacrament, if I understand aright. And I may not!

  3. My grandson, at 9 years and unbaptised ,said to me, ” the heart is the boss and the brain is the manager and the rest of body is the employees. ” made sense to me.

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