Project Canterbury

Through Fire and Water
And Other Sermons, Preached in St. Ignatius' Church, New York
by the Rev. Arthur Ritchie

New York; the Guild of St. Ignatius, 1898.

The Token of the Rainbow.

"And God said, This is the token of the covenant ·which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth. And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be Seen in the cloud: and I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh."--GEN. IX. 12-15.

It appears to be true that when man comes to recognize the wonderful things of earth and sky as purely natural, they begin to lose for him the spiritual significance they possessed for his forefathers who supposed them to be supernatural. We understand in these days perfectly the nature of an eclipse of the sun, and we are in no wise terrified by it. But our remote ancestors who knew nothing about astronomy regarded it as a fearful portent. The comet has for many people still its mystery, and for all its fascination, yet educated people do not recognize in its wonderful flight any augury of evil. If it could be proved that the star of Bethlehem which guided the magi to the cradle of the Saviour was but a periodic star or comet, which had often appeared before the days of the wise men, and since, it would be nothing to the prejudice of the Bible narrative which apparently intends us to understand that that star had no other purpose of existence than to announce the birth of our Lord. What I mean is that there is no reason why God should not take natural things, and give them supernatural functions in His dealings with mankind.

I. In the case of the rainbow, made by the divine will a perpetual token of God's benignity and of His assurance that the earth should never again be overwhelmed by a universal deluge, it is not necessary to believe that it was created in Noah's day, and that there had never been anything like it in the sky before. Some reverent commentators indeed have taken that ground; and many who discuss the Bible freely and not always reverently have maintained that such is the legitimate understanding of the sacred text. Assuming this as a fact they triumphantly point out that the rainbow is an altogether natural phenomenon, and that even had there been no rain before the days of Noah, nevertheless the perfect bow can often be seen when the sun shines upon the spray from a waterfall or from waves about a ship. In reply to all such allegations the believer says only that the Lord of the universe does what He will with His own and if the rainbow was often seen before the time of Noah, it was the divine pleasure to give to it after the flood its specific and sacred office of assuring trembling humanity that never again need a universal deluge be dreaded.

II. The Greek and Latin word for the rainbow is iris, and it is thought by many to be associated with the Greek word meaning peace, eirene. In any event among all nations the rainbow is recognized as a symbol of peace and reconciliation; of the benignity of God, Who shows His wrath by the storm and then displays His mercy by letting the sun shine forth and fill the departing clouds with glory. St Ambrose says very beautifully that the rainbow declares the clemency of God, because it is a bow without arrows.

1. By the mystical writers it is recognized as a type of the Incarnation. For the coming down of our Lord into the world may well be compared to the throwing of a bridge across the awful chasm which separated sinful man from his Maker, and made his salvation, without such heavenly interposition, hopeless. The bow in the cloud is a poetic symbol indeed of the one giant arch which has spanned the gulf between heaven and earth since the day in which our Lord became man.

2. Again the beautiful rainbow with its prismatic colours is recognized as a figure of our Lord Christ in His humanity. The blue of the spectrum telling us of His celestial piety, His love of prayer and entire devotion to His Father's will; the green denoting the rich and luxuriant virtues and perfections of every sort which made His life lovely even in the eyes of men; the red declaring that at the price of His own life-blood He redeemed the world.

The simplest and most direct significance of the rainbow, however, is that which is expressly taught us in the Bible. It is the pledge that there shall never again be the destruction of the whole human race by a flood. There will no doubt always remain local deluges and inundations, perhaps very fatal to human life and destructive of much property, yet they are plainly to be of very slight moment to the vast majority of the race. It is not to be overlooked that the rainbow is not a pledge that there shall be no further destruction of the earth, but only that such destruction shall not be by water. There is distinctly prophesied in many parts of Holy Scripture the final overwhelming of all things by fire. And the relation of the two great catastrophes to one another seems to be that the destruction by the flood is an instance of the temporal judgments of God upon sin, while the great ruin by fire at the last day illustrates the eternal judgment which is irremediable. It is worthy of note in this connection that the Bible tells us that our Lord's soul after His death upon the Cross went and preached unto the spirits in prison, which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing. In other words those antediluvians who would not believe the preaching of Noah until it was too late for them to be saved in the ark, and yet, before the waters quite overwhelmed them in the last mountain tops to which they fled, cried to God for pardon and mercy, though they could not escape the temporal judgment of the deluge, nevertheless were by their repentance and the great mercy of our Lord saved from the eternal judgment of hell fire. In apt contrast to this is that other picture which our Lord gives us of the nether world, wherein Dives tormented in flame cries in vain for relief. " Between us and you there is a great gulf fixed,' says Abraham. From the judgment of fire there is no redemption, but from the judgment of water there was, for such as repented.

III. But let us not forget the rainbow. It is lovely enough in the sky after the fierce summer shower, when the lurid lightning and the crashing thunder have made man feel how helpless he is against the forces of nature unless God restrain them from doing him mischief--then the graceful arch with all its wealth of tender colour says plainly enough to every soul that has ears to hear, that the Lord is "gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth Him of the evil." Yet whenever the devout Christian looks upon the pledge in the sky that there shall be no more flood, he ought to be reminded of that great and lovelier iris which eternally overarches the celestial throne above. St. John tells us of it in one of his visions: "There was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald." It seems a strange saying because the very idea of the rainbow is that of the breaking up of the light into all the prismatic colours, while the emerald is only green. Why does he say "a rainbow insight like unto an emerald"? The ancient writers take the rainbow colours simply as three, blue, green, and red. And they say that while the Apostle does not mean that the blue and the red have entirely disappeared from the heavenly iris, they have become less prominent than the green, or that has become so exceedingly magnificent that its glory dwarfs the other colours. And this is because the benignity of God, which the green signifies, appears conspicuous above all His attributes in heaven. One might go on and argue very beautifully from that to prove that the mercy of the heavenly Father at the last is even to overcome the demands of His justice and His purity--that the blue and the red of the spectrum are to be altogether merged in the green. This is the dream of universalism; that the Almighty is too pitiful to allow one single soul of man to be lost. There are some who think they do believe this, there are others who are sure they would like to believe it; and why should they not?

i. God in many places makes it plain in Holy Scripture both that there shall be hopelessly lost souls at the last day, whose eternal condemnation is the unending fire of hell, and also that the cause of the perdition of the ungodly is not any lack of love and benignity on His part, but their wilful rejection of His goodness, their deliberate failure to use their responsibility for the right rather than for the wrong. His judgments are ever meant graciously while this life lasts. The judgment of water, in Noah's time, was sent to regenerate and purify the earth, while every soul which repented was given opportunity of salvation though suffering temporal death. The judgment of fire shall only come upon the hopelessly impenitent after all the treasures of grace have been showered upon them in vain. They are spared in this world, no temporal condemnation overtakes them here, in ordinary instances; they are allowed to go on unhindered save that they are graciously and persistently called to repentance, and entreated to be loyal to their God. The very fact that He expressly declares that all who die wilfully impenitent shall be lost in hell is merciful, because he knows that only by the contemplation of such an awful fate will many be deterred from wrong-doing, and moved in the first instance towards holiness. It were monstrous to suppose that the Creator has endowed certain of His creatures with moral responsibility and enjoined them to refuse the wrong and choose the right, while nevertheless it is His determinate purpose to take them all alike, the sinner as well as the righteous, to the eternal reward of blessedness. That were to put a premium on self-willed wickedness, for manifestly to do right requires self-restraint and hard living in many particulars, yet if it makes no difference in the future, the pains of the righteous in this world are quite superfluous if not supererogatory.

2. Moreover the fathers of the Church do not fail to recognize in the rainbow itself more than the benignity which promised there shall never again be a flood to destroy the whole earth. They point out that the celestial bow is both watery and fiery. As it is the pledge there shall never again be a deluge, it is not less a prophecy that there shall be the great overwhelming of the world by fire at the last day. The fact that the green colour predominates in that bow which is round about the heavenly throne is not a sign that mercy shall so triumph as that wrath and judgment shall disappear, but first that the redeemed shall realize in that day that in spite of all the work of grace in their souls and the zeal of their own devotion, they are still saved only by the all-prevailing love of Christ; and perhaps secondly in order that the universe may perceive at the last what it is impossible for us to recognize here below that hell itself, and all the awful miseries of lost souls, are truly manifestations of the divine mercy as well as declarations of the divine wrath. I do not attempt to explain this, for I say no one can comprehend it here, but I do believe it is a part of the meaning of the emerald hue of the rainbow which is round about the throne.

IV. As the celestial bow of emerald radiance proclaims the clemency and love of the Most High towards all who seek His will, so also does it inspire with undying hope every believer who is truly in earnest about living the Christian life. And I would have you dwell with me for a little while longer upon the meaning of that devout earnestness and how it ought to manifest itself in our lives if it truly exists there. I do not suppose any one who calls himself a Christian at all would dispute the statement that whatever else God may require of us, He must certainly and in every instance insist upon religious sincerity. For if religion be not sincere it is nothing, or it worse than no religion because it is either hypocritical or it is frivolous, and one cannot fancy the Almighty looking with indifference upon either hypocrisy or frivolity on the part of His creatures in their professed service of Himself. Furthermore I do not believe that any professing believer will dispute the necessity of the three chief characteristics of religious earnestness which I would now bring before you. r. The first is fidelity to all known obligations of the Christian life. There is an immense diversity of opinion as to what are the obligations of the Christian life, and I do not mean to go into that subject here; only to insist upon this however, that every man is bound to try to live up to everything he believes to be a part of God's will for him. The Quaker does not believe in Baptism; it may not be in the divine eyes of obligation for him to be baptized. Howbeit that fact does not affect my duty and yours concerning Baptism for we do believe in it. The Presbyterian may not believe in Confirmation; therefore his Maker may not require Confirmation of him for salvation. We who do believe our Lord instituted this sacrament may not ignore it without peril. I suppose there may be some Christian people who are honestly blind to the fact that our Lord requires His followers to eat His flesh and drink His blood in Holy Communion. God is their judge not you nor I. What however shall we say of ourselves if we fail to be devout and regular partakers of the Saviour's feast? Can it be said that we are faithful to what we know? And observe, I pray you, that in such matters as the using of the sacraments, we can determine very definitely and positively whether we are loyal to the Master's commands or not, for they are outward acts, not feelings. We may not be able to feel devout, but we can do what our Lord bids us do, and perhaps His benignity of which the emerald-hued rainbow tells us, may supply our lack of feeling, where there is found fidelity of action. If one shall say, I long to go to the celestial feast but alas, I am not worthy; why then unworthy? Because of my sins, is the reply. The Lord has answered that objection by the mouth of St. John : "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." Still do you say, I have tried to quiet my conscience, and yet I have not succeeded. Surely the Prayer Book directs one what to do under such circumstances; "If there be any .... who cannot quiet his own conscience ... let him come to me," the priest is bidden to say, "or to some other minister of God's Word, and open his grief." The Church provides in her sacraments for all the spiritual needs of men, and if we would demonstrate our earnestness in the service of our Master we must first of all take heed to live faithfully in accordance with our spiritual obligations. This is the blue of the spectrum.

2. And the second characteristic of Christian earnestness is penitential living. It is noticeable that while persons who have not made much progress in the spiritual life sorrow with vehement self-reproach and many tears for this or that particular sin in their own experience which they loathe, they are not apt to be bearing about with them constantly the sense of personal un-worthiness and the need of the divine mercy. Those who have the clearer spiritual insight which penitential experience brings, come gradually to a state of mind which never loses the consciousness of one's own personal unworthiness. That ever present consciousness in the soul keeps one not only gentle in manner and humble among his fellows, but very full of compunction in the divine presence, very ready to acknowledge that he deserves always far more of trouble and pain in this life than he has ever been called upon to bear; therefore he is always contented with his lot, and grateful even for his adversities. Without penitence and patient contentment under our circumstances we cannot be truly in earnest in our service of the Master. This is the red of the spectrum.

3. Yet another characteristic of Christian earnestness is the constant longing to do for God and His cause in the world, a hungering and thirsting after righteousness. And it seems to me that this is something which is especially and most mournfully lacking in the religion of our day. We are ever trying to escape from things, to get dispensations as we say, to find satisfactory excuses for not doing what we ought to do. We appear to grudge everything in Christ's service which requires any self-denial on our part; we put ourselves in the attitude of unwilling slaves compelled by the lash to live up to a certain standard of piety, while all the time bewailing the hardness of our servitude. Our aim would seem to be to ascertain the minimum of faith and works which can secure us entrance into heaven, and to stop quite short at that. That which ought to be the green ray in the spectrum of our lives, the enthusiasm to be engaged in the service of God, is sadly wanting.

Yet what could be more reasonable for those who believe as we do than to aim to develope ever more and more in themselves the sort of Christian earnestness of which the characteristics are fidelity to religious obligation, penitent humility in the consciousness of one's own unworthiness, and an eager desire to be more completely enlisted in the Master's service? So should the fair sunlight of God's love and goodness shining upon the humid clouds of our lives in this vale of tears gradually bring out into sight the beauteous rainbow, a faint reproduction of that lovely one wherewith He spanned the chasm between heaven and earth when the Word became incarnate. A rainbow in which the blue ray of loyal obedience shall more and more be merged in the green ray of love for the Master's service--for faithful service gradually grows to be very dear to one; a rainbow in which the red ray of penitence and humility shall be unconsciously transformed into the viridity of eager enthusiasm for participation in His passion as well as in His works, until as the pilgrim soul goes on to the confines of the celestial country the wondering angels shall behold in it the reflection of that which is round about the throne, a rainbow in sight like unto an emerald.

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