Meditation: With Special Reference to the Passion
"Behold, when ye are entered into the city, there shall a man meet you, bearing a pitcher of water; follow him into the house where he entereth in. And ye shall say unto the goodman of the house, The Master saith unto thee, Where is the guestchamber, where I shall eat the passover with my disciples? And he shall shew you a large upper room furnished: there make ready" (St. Luke xxii. 10-12).
OUR Lord Jesus Christ makes the same sort of appeal to us, as we contemplate His Passion. He asks a very little of us: just a place in the common guestchamber, along with others who are accommodated there. He asks that we will not turn Him away altogether, shut the door in His face, and refuse to have anything to do with Him at Passiontide. He stands at the door and knocks, and it is for us to decide whether to open it at all; and if so, what to do with Him Who asks for admission. We may do just what He asks: give Him a corner in the guestchamber, and occasionally speak a word to Him, when we are not busy with other guests who may perhaps interest us more.
We may keep Holy Week and Good Friday with a bare minimum of reverence and decency; do just enough to vindicate our claim to be Christians, but not enough to put ourselves out or to cause ourselves serious pain and discomfort. Or we may be generous in our dealings with Him; give more than He asks; not relegate Him to the common guestchamber, but give Him the large upstairs room furnished and prepared: the chief room in our hearts, where He may dwell by Himself, and not as one of many occupants; and where we may come again and again to hold close, intimate communion with Him; the inner sanctuary of our soul, to be His private room, where none but He may dwell, and where we may kneel at His feet, and learn something of the meaning and power of His Passion. Let this be what we are trying to do this Passiontide; great will be our reward. For, when we have once admitted Christ to this inner shrine, it will make all the difference to our lives. We shall then have a House of Quiet to dwell in; we shall not be continually worried and distracted and upset by the troubles and annoyances of daily life, but shall go about our daily business in perfect freedom of mind. We have got the one thing that matters; nothing can rob us of that; so we can meet all the changes and chances of life with a cheerful face. We have, again, a Stronghold of Defence against temptation; not the power of our own weak wills, but the power of His victorious Love, to be a safeguard and protection. And we have a Shrine of Light, through His presence in us, a divine light to show us the way we should walk in and to illuminate our minds with truth.
These blessings are ours whenever Christ dwells in our hearts; but when He dwells in us at Passiontide, they are ours in a special and peculiar sense. Then the Quiet is the peace of penitence: a penitence in which we renounce all disturbing thoughts of our own rights and privileges and pleasures; penitence which deepens our devotion to Him and makes Him the one supreme object of our love. Then, again, the Stronghold of Defence will be extra strong, when the Christ Who is with us is the Christ Who has encountered all our temptations, and conquered them, in Himself in Gethsemane. Then, too, the Shrine of Light will glow with peculiar brilliance, when a mortified heart, mortified through union with Christ's sufferings, has accepted Him as its guide through life.
Let us welcome Him, then, with generous love; give Him the large upper room furnished and prepared; and make Him the Master of our lives. And let us see to it that our love is a personal love for Christ Himself. The books that we read may help us; but it is He, not books about Him, that we want. When we have read something about the Passion, we may let that which we have read remain in the background of our heart, as giving a general direction to our thoughts and a general stimulus to our affections; then we shall pass into the upper room and kneel in silence before Him. We shall not dwell then on any details of the scenes of which we have been thinking; that has done its work in bringing us to His presence; what we have to do now is to offer Him our repentance and our love and our desire to serve Him.
Here, as in all meditation, there must be a balance between God's action and our own. God does His part and we do ours; we prepare the soil, and God sows the seed. As a rule we find it easy to recognize this principle in regard to the Sacraments. There, God's gift is obvious; and equally obvious is the need of preparation on our part. But in the matter of Prayer it is not so; there, we want to do everything, and leave nothing for God to do.
It may possibly be answered that we do our part in asking for what we want, and God does His in sending it to us. But that is a very crude sort of partnership. We must remember that Prayer does not consist merely, or mainly, in asking God for definite gifts; it is rather the entering into an intercourse with God, an intercourse which is gradually to become closer and more intimate. It is talking to God in language which is gradually to become simpler and less constrained. And in this intercourse itself there is something for us and something for God to do. We ask a question, and He answers; He makes known His will, and we undertake to do it. "Does this mean," we shall be asked, "that we are to expect supernatural experiences, the hearing of voices and the seeing of visions?" No; it just means that God causes an idea to emerge, to grow, to gather strength in our mind, to reveal itself as God's will for us. Or, again, we need not even be asking a definite question; it may be rather that we just present ourselves to God as instruments to be used in His service, and ask Him to show us the way in which He will be pleased to use us. Having thus humbly offered ourselves to Him, we must pause and see what sort of practical suggestions arise in our minds and wills. It may be just the name of someone whom we ought to go to visit.
But how are we to know that the idea which arises is really God's message? How are we to distinguish between our own notions and a revelation of God's will?" Surely this is a matter in which we ought not to try to make any absolute distinction. It is not the case that, say, a hundred notions will be entirely unsanctified ideas of our own, and the hundred and first an undiluted message from God. Rather, God is always living and working within us, when we are in earnest with our religion; He is always shaping and directing our thoughts and ideals in accordance with His will. The perfect result of such action would be that "he who is joined to the Lord is one spirit:" a state of things in which every notion and idea would be in perfect conformity with God's will, and a perfect expression of that will. With us, the message is dimmed and adulterated by self-will; but the more humble we are, and the more sincere in our self-oblation, the more plainly will God control and govern and inspire our thoughts. So in meditation we may consider our thoughts as guided by, and gradually conformed to, God's will; or of God's message gradually making its way to us through the obstacles of our own self-will.
This "vocation" is just the opposite of our "choice." We choose the things that interest us most; but here, when we put ourselves at God's orders, things we habitually neglect will come forward. All this means that in Prayer, as intercourse with God, we must be quiet and wait upon Him. It is certainly hard to do this; hard just because it is so simple. We find it extraordinarily difficult to be simple; we cannot wait quietly in God's presence; we must be constantly worrying about things, giving God a great deal of information, explaining what we want Him to tell us to do, formulating reasons for loving and obeying Him, which ought to be as unnecessary for us as for a child in the presence of his mother.
Let us assume that we believe in God and love Him, and think rather of serving Him: "Shew Thou me the way that I should walk in, for I lift up my soul unto Thee." Let us concentrate our attention on the will, as distinct from the reason and the affections; and we shall find that, as we gradually come to serve Him better, we shall also be coming to believe in Him and love Him better.
Prayer, then, is intercourse with God, and requires intervals of silence, in which He may make known His commands; and it is practical in object, being focussed on the service of God.
It follows that in Prayer we are to aim at giving rather than at getting; we are concerned not with receiving even spiritual satisfaction or spiritual pleasure, but with offering ourselves to God's service. A good meditation is not one in which we have experienced most delight, or in which we are conscious of having entertained exalted thoughts, but one in which we have most humbly and contritely committed ourselves to God as instruments to be used by Him at His will.
This does not mean that we are to make our minds a blank, or that we are to try to think of nothing, which is an utter impossibility; rather, we are to think intensely of God, of the coming of His kingdom and the doing of His will. And so, at Passiontide, we shall be concentrating our attention on our suffering Saviour, suffering with Him in honest repentance, and longing to make Him some reparation for His sufferings by the sincerity and fervour of our allegiance.
May our consideration of the Words from the Cross help towards this offering of ourselves as a "reasonable, holy, and lively sacrifice" to His service.
We can think of the Gospel story, and especially the story of the Passion, in different ways, and from different points of view.
(i) We may contemplate the example of a perfect life of unsullied holiness and absolute unselfishness, a life unswervingly devoted to the love of God and man. And we may set this example before ourselves as an ideal, as the goal which we aim at and wish to attain to. The example of Christ shames us and stimulates us; it is the standard by which we test ourselves, and by which we test also the opinions and judgments and ways of thought which are current amongst us. So, particularly at Passiontide, we contemplate the example of His humility and patience, His self-restraint under insult, His endurance of physical and mental agony, the meekness and gentleness in which He was led as a lamb to the slaughter; and we apply this to ourselves and pray the prayer of Palm Sunday: "Almighty and everlasting God, Who, of Thy tender love towards mankind, hast sent Thy Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ, to take upon Him our flesh, and to suffer death upon the Cross, that all mankind should follow the example of His great humility; mercifully grant that we may both follow the example of His patience, and also be made partakers of His resurrection."
Certainly it is a very profitable use to make of the story of the Passion, thus to set before ourselves the example of Christ's patience, and ask for grace to imitate that example. It will make us ashamed of our own impatient, uncontrolled, rebellious, bad-tempered, selfish lives, and help us to set up before us a truer and purer standard and ideal of life. And perhaps in the case of those who are young and self-confident and have been saved by God's providence from bad faults, the story of the Passion will come before them mainly in that aspect, as setting up an example which they recognize as perfect and which they can cheerfully and hopefully set themselves to follow. They are not aware of leaden weights which drag them back, nor disheartened by repeated and disastrous failure to walk in His footsteps. They are thrilled by the glory of that life and are confident that its beauty and its grandeur will sustain them in their attempts to imitate it--to follow the example of His patience till they are made partakers of His resurrection.
(2) But as we grow in the knowledge and understanding of ourselves, we see that the matter is not so simple as that. We come to share the insight of St. Paul into the complexity of human nature. We recognize with him that the law, the law of Christ's example, is holy, and the command that we should follow it holy and just and good. But then this law is spiritual, and "I am carnal, sold under sin. For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law [of Christ's example] that it is good. ... To will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not. For the good that I would I do not: but the evil that I would not, that I do. ... I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me. For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: but I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord."
In these words we are brought face to face with another aspect of Christ's work, and especially of His Death and Passion. It is not enough for us to set up the example of His holy life and perfect obedience, and then cheerfully and confidently set out to imitate it. That example appeals, indeed, to all that is best and noblest in us, and we delight in it after the inner man, recognizing that the law of that life is holy and just and good. But we find--all of us in some measure, whilst those who have had most experience of evil feel it most keenly--that we are powerless to attain to that which we admire, to be loyal to that which we delight in, to act up to that which we believe in. There is the other law, the law of sinful impulses and ingrained habits, the law of a carnal nature sold under sin, the law which makes us the bond-slaves of iniquity at the very time that, after the inner man, we enthusiastically accept the ideals and the laws of the Christian life. The Greeks in their lighthearted optimism had declared that as soon as a man knew what was right, he always performed it; that virtue was knowledge; that you only had to set the true ideal before a man and he would follow it; if he acted differently, wrongly, it was only through ignorance of the good. And on that view the sole significance of the life and death of Christ would consist in the true example which He set; and the sole work of the Christian Church would be to paint with glowing colours the picture of that example, in the certain hope that all who recognized its goodness would surely and instinctively and consistently follow it. But St. Paul knows better than that; he knows that a man may intellectually, aesthetically, spiritually even, recognize and accept all the truth and all the glory of Christ's life, and yet through the power of sin be dragged back from following it; "for what I would, that I do not; but what I hate, that do I."
Now, this means that Christ's work has another, and an enormously important, aspect: it is not only an example to be imitated by us, but also a deliverance effected for us, a deliverance which is to be thankfully accepted, and which will set us free to return to God with loving and loyal hearts. And this work of deliverance is what we call Redemption. We are carnal, sold under sin, and must be redeemed, or bought back into freedom at the price of Christ's blood. We are not to press the metaphor of buying and selling unduly; the simple and deep meaning is that Christ, at the cost of unimaginable suffering and self-sacrifice, has delivered us from the bondage to evil. So when we feel tied and bound with the chain of our sins, when we are appalled by the strength of temptation and disheartened by the memory of past failures and relapses, the mere contemplation of Christ's example will not be a message of hope but rather a message of despair to our souls. That is just what we should like to be, what we might once have been, but what it is now for ever impossible for us to become. What at such times we want to find, what it will comfort us to find, in Christ, is not simply a holy example but a strong Deliverer, a Saviour, a Redeemer. Perhaps to no one has the Passion of Christ meant more than it meant to the penitent thief, but it would have meant nothing, less than nothing, it would have been a lesson of despair and not of hope to him, if he had seen in that sinless sufferer only an example to be followed by himself, since it was physically impossible for him to go out and follow it. And so as we kneel to-day before the Cross and listen to the words of Christ, we are to think not only of the example of His sinlessness and patience, but also of that act of Redemption which in a divine, mysterious way He is accomplishing by means of those very sufferings.
How do His sufferings redeem us? Because they are a great act of reparation for human sin--"a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world." No repentance of ours apart from Christ could have made this act of reparation; because our repentance could never have expressed that wholehearted hatred of sin which a perfect act of reparation must contain. We can struggle against sin, but we have allowed it to gain such an influence over our hearts that we cannot unreservedly hate and abhor it. We have a secret love of it all the time that we are fighting against it. The only perfect act of reparation for sin could be made by One Who was absolutely sinless, Whose will and affections had never received a traitor into the camp, but had remained pure and steadfast in their allegiance to God, and Who therefore could feel the sinfulness of sin and hate it with a holy hatred. So we get the strange paradox that the satisfaction is due from sinners, but can only be made by the sinless. By a supreme act of self-sacrificing love, He Who knew no sin is made sin for us, feels sin in all its horror and defilement, hates it utterly and unreservedly, and bears all its penalties and consequences in Gethsemane and on Calvary.
In this way what we could never do was done for us by Christ. We who could never have broken our bonds find them struck off for us. Christ's all-comprehensive sorrows and all-atoning sufferings do for us what could never have been done by any despairing remorse or half-hearted penitence of our own. They are the sacrifice and satisfaction for our sins, freeing us from the burden of their guilt.
(3) But there is one last aspect of the Passion still to be considered. His death is not simply an external transaction accomplished in our stead; it is also an internal process to be enacted in our lives. Christ did not suffer that we might be spared all suffering. He suffered that we might be enabled to suffer and to be really penitent. He hung upon the Cross, that the Cross might be set up in our hearts and the sin of our nature crucified on it. His sufferings and His sacrifice are to be re-enacted in us by our reception of Him. He is to work within us, and so to mould us after His pattern. We must not, therefore, isolate the redemptive aspect of Christ's sufferings any more than we must isolate their aspect as our example. If we think only of the example we may be reduced to despair; if we think only of the Redemption we may be tempted to apathy and indifference, in the idea that everything has been done for us and nothing is left to be done. The sublime transaction of Redemption, by which Christ did for us what we could never have done for ourselves, must not be abstracted, as though it contained in itself the whole meaning of His work. It is carried on and completed by becoming a transforming power of penitence and devotion in our own lives. The forgiveness is to be taken up and carried forward into a new life--"He died that we might be forgiven; He died to make us good."
Thus, besides Christ our Example, and Christ our Redeemer, we have to consider Christ our Life, as we contemplate the scenes of the Passion, and listen to the words from the Cross. And when we think of Christ crucified as our Life, the other two aspects of His work are brought together: His redemptive sufferings work within us as a power enabling us to follow His example. The example ceases to be an impossible ideal filling us with despair as we look at it; by the power of Christ's Passion working in us we are enabled to tread in His footsteps. And those redemptive sufferings of His are no external transaction in which we are destitute of part or share; they are re-enacted in us and become our imitation of our Master.
It is, of course, in Holy Communion that the sufferings and sacrifice of Christ are, by divine ordinance, brought within our own lives. The Body and Blood which we then receive are the Body broken and the Blood poured out upon the Cross. That must be so, because it is only as the sin-bearer that we can receive Him; it is only Christ crucified, crucified for our sin, Whom we sinners can receive. It is the sacrifice of Christ that we receive as the food of our own souls. Thus the redemptive work and the sacramental work of Christ are indissolubly connected; the sacrifice on the altar is the continuance and the application to us of the sacrifice upon the Cross. Always we must think of the Sacrament in relation to the sacrifice; the Sacrament as making the sacrifice a reality to ourselves, a power in our own lives; making the sufferings of Christ the life of our own souls, and thereby enabling us to feel and to suffer and to repent. Our meditations on the Passion are not merely to stir the emotions of sympathy and gratitude for a work done by Christ for us, they are to prepare us to be worthy recipients of the Sacrament in which Christ does His work in us, as each one of us is led to feed his soul on Christ crucified, and thereby to appropriate that hatred of sin which is the essence of repentance and which Christ can communicate to us.
So, as we follow the story of the Passion, we think of Christ, first, as the perfect Example of humility and patience and love, shaming us, stimulating us, and perhaps in the end (if there were no other aspect of the Passion) driving us to despair.
But we think of Him, secondly, as our Redeemer, making for us the great act of reparation that sets us right with God, feeling the results of sin as we can never feel them, hating it as we can never hate it, and paying its penalty to the full that we may be liberated from our bondage and become God's freemen.
We think of Him, thirdly, as our Life, dwelling in us through the Blessed Sacrament, communicating to us the power of sharing His sorrows and making them our own; giving us the death unto sin, the life hid with Him in God, the life that can imitate His example because it is His own life working and acting within us.
If Calvary, then, is to have its full meaning, it must be followed by Communion. Christ hanging on the Cross as our substitute is followed by Christ dwelling in our hearts as the source of penitential life. Let us remember that whenever we come to make our Communion, it is Christ the Victim, Christ in His sorrows and sufferings that we come to receive as the rule and principle of our own lives, Christ as the power of penitence and the source of sanctification. When we come to Holy Communion we come as sinners who are sorry for their sins, and who come to join their poor half-hearted sorrow to His unspeakable, all-comprehensive sufferings which will purify, deepen, and strengthen it. Christ on the Cross becomes, in the Sacrament, Christ in us, our Life, our Purification, our bond of union with the Father, our power to follow the example of His life.