THESE words bring before us the whole subject of the Imitation of JESUS CHRIST. It is not, however, my purpose to set before you the several points of our LORD'S most sacred Life and Passion, but to dwell on some of the principles which lie beneath them. It will be found that in the principles involved, rather than in the exact circumstances themselves, lies the force of our LORD'S example. The Mind which is in Him, speaking to the mind in us, is the moving power. The hidden springs that determine the movements of His Humanity, influence our own inner life.
It is so in our intercourse one with another. The power which influences us in the acts of a relative or friend, does not depend on the precise circumstances of their dealings with us, but on the thoughts and feelings which we know to lie beneath them, which actuated them, of which the outward act is the expression. The influence which the life of our LORD exerts upon us, operates according to the same law.
Before touching, however, on these deeper points, I would endeavour to bring before your minds the striking definiteness, the minuteness of detail, of our LORD'S example,--what we may call its dogmatic character. The practical power of realizing His example rests on this great peculiarity. We all feel how our being craves for clear dogmatic statements of doctrine. We experience a want of effect in indefinite-ness. What we cannot in some measure form into shape, what is altogether unclear, shadowy, unfixed, helps us little. To become a moving principle in our soul, to lay hold of our sympathies, to fill up our cravings, to give a fixed aim,--a doctrine must assume before our inner sight an intelligible form. The idea then becomes part of us, becomes a nucleus around which thoughts grow, and thus influences all the elements of our being. This principle holds good more or less in all religious truth, though we must always allow for the necessary dimness that hangs around the mystery of the Invisible, and leaves much unascertained, even after the fullest grasp possible to our understanding.
As this definiteness is requisite for an idea of the intellect, or imagination, it is equally so for an idea which is to enter into the will, and become a living, life-giving part of our practical nature. The idea must be defined. Definiteness is indeed even more necessary in matters of practical life, than in matters of faith. We crave for definiteness of doctrine, but we shrink from definiteness in action. Our natural tendency is to an aimless life, or, if not without aim, yet without rule. There is sacrifice called for in high saintly actions; our frailty recoils from their exactness and completeness. If there are conflicting duties, we tend to take the middle line. We catch readily at reasons which justify want of decision. The world, society, is always smoothing down what it deems extreme, levelling all unusual efforts, ever pressing for abatements and yieldings of the full strictness of the higher expressions of a devoted life. And what is this but making the forms of sanctity in practice indefinite, uncertain, and, by necessary consequence, lowering them?
But how remarkably definite and clear are the features of our LORD'S life. Let us take two or three illustrations. In what clear detail, e.g., comes out to view our LORD'S meekness. Consider the instance of the blow given to Him on His cheek in the Judgment Hall. The incident is one of the most impressive in that deeply momentous scene. "One of the officers that stood by struck JESUS with the palm of his hand, saying, Answerest Thou the High Priest so? JESUS answered him, If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil; but if well, why smitest thou Me?'" We might have thought the precept which our LORD once gave, "If any man smite thee on the one cheek, turn to him the other also,"--impracticable, never meant to be obeyed, except in some undefined spiritual sense. But here we behold a practical realization of the precept, and under circumstances which might have seemed to call for an exception. It might have seemed right to resent the blow; for to bear it quietly, was to acknowledge to the world around, that His answer to the High Priest warranted it: that there had been really fault in Him. It might have seemed good for the sake of others to punish the miscreant, in order to clear from undeserved blame the injured Man. But the primary thought was of meekness; and that was not to be risked for the sake of guarding against misconstruction, even for others' good. Moreover, observe in this case what makes the meekness perfect--for meekness is not mere endurance, it involves love seeking, while bearing the injury, to win the heart of the injurer,--the manifest thoughtfulness, the longing to touch this soldier's heart, which our LORD'S reply to him displays. The reply was plainly intended to arouse the soldier to the consideration of the injustice of the charges brought against Him, and thus to a sense of the sin of striking one defenceless and bound in the midst of His persecutors. The same loving-meekness was displayed by our LORD towards the Gadarenes, though under far less touching circumstances. He retired at their wish, but left the recovered demoniac with the charge to go among his people, and tell them of the healing which he had received at His hands. The incident exhibits the same earnest desire to influence for good, while meekly yielding to opposition. Or again, consider the whole history of our LORD'S dealings with Judas; the washing his feet; the giving him the sop at supper, an act of peculiar favour; the allowing the traitor to kiss him,--all instances of meekest love, animated by the one thought of touching his heart, up to the last moment of the betrayal. These are instances of a whole class of similar acts towards faithless friends, opponents, enemies, betrayers.
Again, take the case of our LORD'S humility. Consider the minutely detailed circumstances of His birth, which was associated with everything neglected and mean; the allowing Himself to be circumcised, which was a sinner's mark, and thus bearing all His life long the reputation of a fallen creature, like the rest of the children of Israel; His sitting, a child of twelve years old, among the doctors, "hearing and asking them questions," not Himself expressing His own mind; and, even when He had revealed to His Blessed Mother His superhuman mission to be "about His FATHER'S business," the immediately renewing His obedience to His Parents, going down to Nazareth to be "subject unto them." Holy Scripture, moreover, dwells on manifold minute circumstances in our LORD'S life, which seem especially intended as manifestations of utter lowliness; as, e.g., the food He was wont to eat, the barley loaves and fishes; the poor garments He wore, for which the soldiers raffled; the chance bed where He slept, having nowhere of His own "to lay His head;" circumstances which, independent of other results, must have provoked contempt and every humiliating remark. I am pointing out these details, not for the sake of the examples which they involve, but as instances of the minute definiteness in which the examples are portrayed.
Once more, to take the case of a finer and more delicate feature of His life, consider the remarkable contrast between the manner in which He met honour on the one hand, and suffering on the other. In meeting honour He ever shrinks back, as, e.g., when they would make Him a King, hiding Himself; when He worked a miracle, bidding the healed sufferer, "tell no man" of it; passing, as in the case of the blind man whom He restored to sight, even out of the sight of the restored man, till it became necessary to comfort him, on his being excommunicated by the Chief Priests; only once accepting any distinction--the triumph of Palm Sunday--and that evidently only in order to manifest something of His real claim on the homage of the elect people, and to make His now nearly approaching Passion more moving to their hearts. Contrast with this shrinking from notice, this hidden life whenever praise might await Him, His forwardness to meet suffering and pain. Witness, e.g., the scene which is described on the last journey to Jerusalem, when the time was now come for the cup of agony to be drunk. "And they were in the way, going up to Jerusalem; and JESUS went before them; and they were amazed; and as they followed, they were afraid." Something there was in His onward movement and the aspect of His countenance, which they had never seen before. It was His forwardness, His fervour, when trial had to be borne, the very contrary to the shrinking backward when honour lay in His path. Another instance, of a still more moving kind, occurs immediately after the Agony. He comes forward. He arouses His slumbering disciples; "Rise, let us be going." Fervid zeal breathes in His words, and could not have failed to impress itself on His whole aspect, as He advanced forward to meet the band of soldiers approaching to seize Him.
I quote these instances simply as illustrations of the truth I wish to press, viz., the striking definiteness, the dogmatic character, of the living forms of grace which the Incarnation assumed, portraying to our mind in such detail the perfectness, the beauty, the saintliness of our LORD'S humanity. Shall we say that this peculiarity is merely the picturesqueness, the vividness of Eastern poetry; merely the style of the language of the writers of the Bible? Surely it was designed of GOD. The style of the Holy Scriptures had from the beginning been formed by the HOLY GHOST for His own ends. He uses the instruments which Himself had fashioned for the very purpose of impressing what He willed on the conscience of mankind. It was the will of our LORD to manifest Himself in minuteness of incident, and it was the will of His Spirit, Who inspired the holy Evangelists, to record this manifestation in human language; and this in order to meet the special wants and instincts of our nature.
But it is not possible to apprehend the full momentous importance of this remarkable definiteness in the example of CHRIST, unless we consider the deeply influential law connected with the principle of example, regulating the formation of human character. The influence of example is one of the greatest mysteries affecting us. It tells all our life long for good, or evil, by a peculiar force. Habits are caught intuitively. It is commonly observed how, in those who live much together, as age advances, even the physical features and lines of the countenance acquire a mutual resemblance. It is the tendency of the human mind to assimilate itself to that which it constantly beholds, and the tendency extends itself even to the outward bodily form.
Now one of the most blessed truths of Revelation is the carrying out of this all-pervading law in the highest sphere of life. It is revealed to us that the perfecting of the being of the elect, will be the result of beholding GOD. S. John says; "Beloved, now are we the sons of GOD, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when He shall appear, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is." The Vision will transform His Elect into Itself according to the universal law of imitation. Our nature, influenced throughout its whole being by the Object which it beholds, will at last take the impress of the Divine Nature, and be like It, as It manifests Itself. O most blessed consummation, and seal of advancing sanctity! O unutterable fulness of the love of GOD! This consummation will be the highest, and most transcendent expression of the law of Imitation.
This law is acting even now in the same direction. The forms of life, manifest in the earthly life of JESUS CHRIST, are intended to produce the first stage of impressions in the order of our transformation. The Apostles dwell continually on this momentous influence of the vision of the Life of CHRIST. "That which we have seen, which our eyes have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of Life, declare we unto you. For the Life was manifested, and we have seen It, and bear witness, and show unto you that Eternal Life, Which was with the FATHER, and was manifested unto us; That which we have seen and heard, declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the FATHER, and with His SON JESUS CHRIST." S. John speaks of this vision as a perpetual recollection to his soul, by feeding on which he grew into his LORD. "The Word was made Flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His Glory, the Glory as of the Only-Begotten of the FATHER, full of grace and truth;" "full," not so much as regards Himself, but as regards those who behold Him, to whom He gives out of His fulness, as the Apostle expresses the same truth afterwards, "of His fulness have all we received, and grace for"--in advancing gradations of--"grace." S. Paul again speaks in like manner of the transforming power of the same unearthly Vision; "Beholding as in a glass the Glory of the LORD, we are changed into the same Image, from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the LORD." The term "Glory," as it is here used, evidently means the Godhead shining through the forms of grace in the Human Nature of JESUS CHRIST; and the being changed "from glory to glory" is the gradual assimilation of our nature, by acquiring one grace after another, while we pass into the evergrowing similitude of the Divine Humanity. The Object to be revealed to us hereafter, will be GOD "as He is," whatever those wondrous words may mean. The Object revealed to us now, is GOD in human form. The One precedes the Other, and prepares for It. Our vision is limited at present to the Divine Humanity, and through It we apprehend GOD. And as we grow in character into the same mind which is in CHRIST, we are through this first stage of our redemption growing into a meetness for our future assimilation to the Eternal Godhead, which will be the final consummation and bliss of this ever-advancing life.
Think now of the way in which, in days gone by, your minds have fed on forms of interest and beauty, on various representations of life which struck your imagination. What would it have been, if with the same intentness, the same deep interest, you had fed in spirit on the forms of life of your Divine Master, ever pondering them in heart! What if your imagination had been filled with views of life, grand and touching in the extreme, such as constitute the expressive passages of the life of JESUS! If we weigh the relative value of things, what in all created existence can compare in momentousness and personal interest to man, with the living Form which the Incarnation of GOD assumed! How inexpressibly does it swallow up in importance all other conditions of created life! And what, if we pass it by? What, if we seek not to impress it on the inner sense? And if, as I have endeavoured to show, it is expressed with such peculiar definiteness and clearness, where can be our excuse before GOD for the negligence? And how assuredly must we be missing the very purpose of our being, if such negligence continue!
It is a rule in the Divine life, that sanctity is more surely shown in doing ordinary things with extraordinary devotion, than in doing things which are in themselves extraordinary. This rule holds good not merely because of the far greater frequency of ordinary details, but because it is the law of our nature to advance only by little degrees. The law of our spiritual transformation is the same as the law of our growth in childhood. "For precept must be upon precept, line upon line; here a little, there a little." And therefore our advancement depends on our care to bring each detail of life under the pressure of the true ruling principle. We profit by our LORD'S example, only if we live as the student, who succeeds in copying a picture by observing, and transferring to his canvas more and more perfectly, the finer tints and more delicate lines, which give the real tone and character to the original. Our LORD has taken the human form to embody before our eyes a perfect Humanity; what must be the result, if we neglect wilfully any portion of the Eternal Truth, which at such a cost He has revealed?
O Sacred Heart of JESUS! of all the wounds that Thou hast received since Thou hast ascended into the Heavens, none has cut so deeply as the neglect of Thy most holy life by those who profess religion. "He came unto His own, and His own received Him not;" was the most touching instance of shame and grief that the Apostle S. John could express, when he speaks of the love of the Incarnation. They, of whom S. John speaks, knew Him not. We know Him, and have seen Him. But thou sayest, 'I am following Him.' It is the law of our nature, the law of His own Revelation, that union, intimacy and constant beholding, lead to a growing likeness. Try thyself, then, by this test. Is the form of His most holy life growing upon the form of thy own nature, so that thy nature is being swallowed up of grace? In the last great day, when we shall see Him, face to Face, what might He then say to us, if we have failed to copy His example? 'I left My eternal rest, the unchanged Glory of My Being, and subjected Myself to change and time, to pain and violence, ceasing to be only GOD, and assuming the nature and conditions of a creature. I clothed Myself in the garments of thy mortality, fed upon thy food, shared the same home, made Myself familiar with all men. And this I did for thy sake only; yet thou heedest Me not, and passest Me by, and I am to thee as a dream when one awaketh, and My Life on earth is as though it had never been, leaving no impression on thy heart, making no change in any portion of thy life. But I came that thou mightest follow My steps, and following Me, be as I am, that so thou mightest be with Me for ever.' It was one who lived before the Incarnation, who said; "When I awake up after Thy likeness, I shall be satisfied with it." What will be the unutterable loss of those who have lived to "see," and "look upon," and "handle" the Divine Life, and yet shall hereafter awake up, and in them no trace of Its likeness be discerned!
It requires a close and familiar intercourse with a fellow-creature to learn and understand his inner tone of character, his distinctive features of mind. We gain this knowledge by constant watchful communion, by observing the changing features of his countenance, his passing words, his habits of thought We dwell on these, and they grow into a settled vision, which for ever lives in the mind. In like close and intimate communion the life of our LORD is to be studied. Its features will come out more and more to our view, as we thus cherish and love the blessed Vision. He came, that "we should no longer live unto ourselves, but unto Him Who died for us, and rose again." He surely with Himself will give us this grace, if we thus seek to live more and more in perpetual recollection of His life, that "we may grow into Him in all things, Who is the Head," to Whom with the FATHER and the HOLY GHOST, be all praise and thanksgiving for ever. Amen.