The night before he dies, Jesus calls his disciples “friends” (John 15:13–15). Jesus has already made himself known to his followers as teacher, healer, master, Savior. Isn’t that sufficient? Why now, in the fateful moment of the Last Supper, identify himself as a friend?

Because any god who fails to give himself to us as a friend can never be god enough. Friendship is what we crave as human beings. We need Jesus to say to us “I call you friends” because we are hard-wired for a God who loves us as his intimate companion, a God who wants to walk with us in the cool of the evening (Genesis 3:8).

The late renowned theologian Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete used to say that if Christianity doesn’t connect profoundly with what we care about — addressing the deepest needs of the human heart — then “you can substitute the Great Lizard for Christ.” But I don’t know anyone who wants to worship the Great Lizard. And the reason is because Great Lizards don’t make great friends.

Friendship, wrote Servant of God Luigi Giussani, is every relationship in which the other’s need is shared in its ultimate meaning. If I don’t have a friend, then I’m alone in my need, and I don’t even adequately understand that need. My need can even begin to blackmail me.

To free us from this, Jesus promises: I am your friend; I share your need in its ultimate meaning; I know it, love it, get to the root of it, provide for it, cherish it, die for it.

This offer of exceptional friendship is what the Church celebrates on the solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus (June 11 this year). Note that the Church does not observe a feast in honor of the Sacred Mind of Jesus to venerate Christ’s consummate wisdom, or of the Sacred Spleen to honor his incomparable courage.

Rather, there is something unique about the Sacred Heart of Jesus — it “denotes the entire mystery of Christ, the totality of his being and his person considered in its most intimate essential” (Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy, 166).

This makes perfect sense once we reflect on the singular importance of our own heart, which the Church describes as our hidden center where we live, a place deeper than our psychic drives that only the Spirit of God can fathom and know fully (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2563). In revealing himself as our friend, Jesus is declaring his desire to do just that. The entrustment of his Sacred Heart to us in friendship signals how the Lord is mindful of the main human misery: loneliness. 

The author of “The Friendship of Christ” (St. Athanasius Press, $9.99), Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson (1871-1914), insists that “the supreme longing of Jesus’ Sacred Heart is that he should be admitted to that inner secret chamber of the soul where the human being is most himself, and therefore most utterly alone.”

Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson was an English Anglican priest who converted to Catholicism. (Wikimedia)

But the debilitating experience of our aloneness can make us suspicious and even cynical about such an offer. That is why each year, with the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart, the Church liturgically woos us away from our lonesomeness and into an embrace that gives us our heart’s desire. 

In the words of Father Hans Urs von Balthasar, “God stands in our way, he haunts us with a love that runs after us, pulls us out of the pit, casts aside our chains, and places us in the freedom of divine and now even human love.”

It is wonderful beyond words that Jesus multiplies loaves, casts out demons, cures the sick. But our hearts are restless until Jesus gives us his Sacred Heart. In our misery we are waiting for what only friendship can provide, for “a friend is a lighted coal, and if placed beside it, it can rekindle a dead one” in the words of 14th-century Bl. Simon Fidati of Cascia. And how many of us feel like that?

Even more, it is the encounter with Jesus as friend that galvanizes the disciples of Christ, transforming them to become evangelizers who set the world on fire as friends to others. 

“Friendship consists of loving a human being like one would want to be able to love each and all of those who compose the human species in particular” (Simone Weil). Our union with the Sacred Heart of Jesus is what makes that kind of friendship possible in the world.

Some years ago I gave a retreat in the Rocky Mountains to a couple of dozen young people. At the end of our days together, the retreatants were invited to share with the others some grace they had received. One young woman got up, stood in front of the group, and said simply, “I know that God loves me because he gives me friends.” Then she went back to her seat and sat down. 

That little witness overwhelmed me because it captured an immense mystery so eloquently. The friends I have I don’t deserve — they are a direct gift from God’s own heart. And when I recognize that truth as such, my whole life begins to change.

Msgr. Benson expresses it poignantly in a poem, “This is My Friend”:

He often seemed to want my friendship, but I remained cold. / I was homeless, and wretched, and starving, and in peril every hour; / and he offered me shelter and comfort and food and safety; / but I was ungrateful still. / At last he crossed my path and, with tears in his eyes,

He besought me saying, Come and abide with me.

Let me tell you how he treats me now. / He supplies all my wants; / He gives me more than I dare ask; / He anticipates my every need; / He begs me to ask for more. / He never reminds me of my past ingratitude. / He never rebukes me for my past follies.

Let me tell you further what I think of him: / He is as good as he is great; / His love is as ardent as it is true. / I am in all things his debtor, but he bids me call him Friend.