Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. And they parted His raiment, and cast lots. St. Luke xxiii. 34.
NONE can doubt what is the first lesson from the Cross: that of love, of unbounded charity to all. Love was the subject of the angels, who sang, the night when Jesus was born, "Peace, good will to men." Love is almost the last word which Jesus spoke when He passed away from us in death. Thus the work of our redemption, from first to last, displayed the charity of God, and His pity and love for the children of men. Even they who nailed their Saviour to the Cross were the objects of His divine compassion: "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do."
Ever since, the teaching of the Cross has been a teaching of the power of love. There was nothing like this of old. The world was a hard and cruel place; its records are but annals of the triumph of force, of the successful career of tyrants, the oppression of the weak, the taking vengeance on enemies. The history of far-off days takes shape in four or five great empires, each built upon the overthrow of its predecessor. A prophet, in his vision by night, beholds the four winds of heaven striving upon the great sea, and then great beasts come up from the sea, each strong and fierce, till one appears, dreadful and terrible, and strong exceedingly, which devours and breaks in pieces. This is the world force consolidated for grinding down and destroying the weak, and its maxims are hate, jealousy, revenge. And this force, as is its wont, gathers itself up and strikes at God when He comes here to help and save; and it is met by the spirit which thinketh no evil and hateth nothing that God has made. Of love, the infinite, the amazing love of Christ, the Cross speaks to us as the day of the Passion ends and deep stillness holds the land.
That lesson! The Cross has gone on teaching it nearly two thousand years. Has it been taught in vain? Yes, apparently so; it is neither soon learned nor easily learned. Two thousand years of instruction from this Master, and how little progress we have made! Do not fall into the error of thinking that Christ expected the world to follow Him, to adopt His principles, to keep His laws, to take upon it His yoke. The world has never done that--has never thought of doing that. The whole world still lieth in wickedness, although the Son of God is come. The passions of the natural heart, still active everywhere, attest that in it there is no change. None should be looked for, except as here and there a particular heart is touched, a special and elect soul is converted to God. The world is still a hard and cruel place. The spirit of the age is not a spirit of love, or, if of love, then of love of self, not love of God or of man, for God's sake and in God. The Cross stands among us, as it stood in that evening of the First Age, rebuking and convicting of sin. It watches the indifference of the rich to the sorrows of the poor, the hatred of the poor burning against the comfortable and luxurious rich. It watches the revival of the spirit of brutality among us, shown in the passion for dangerous sports. It watches the diabolical cruelties practised on innocent animals in the name of scientific investigation. It watches the packing of men, women, and children into great cities, where they can scarce breathe or move, and cannot be said to live, for this degraded and deplorable condition scarce deserves the name of life. It watches upon the multiform shapes of envy, malice, rivalry, competition, under which men afflict and grieve one another and make one another unhappy. Do you blame the Cross for looking on all this so calmly--for not serving as a talisman to exorcise all the foul spirits of the time? If so, you expect of the Cross what you have no right to expect. Nowhere is the conversion of the world promised. Nothing on record by Him or His Apostles leads us to expect a general and radical change in man, by which the earth shall be turned to Paradise, and its tenants to lovely and angelic beings devoted to one another in the love of their Lord. Christ has done great things for us. His teachings and example have to a large extent ameliorated the condition of mankind. There are earnest efforts here and there to follow Him, to realise His life, to be, so far as may be, like Him. But the world, as such, is not reached; now and again the old passions break out, the worst of the dreadful past comes back; and the value of the Cross is this: that it keeps the divine ideals before us, while society denies their beauty and sets up its idols in their place. We are before the Cross, not as if to look for some sudden miracle to be wrought through it, but simply to study it, to muse of what it means, and to save ourselves from the sin and loss of forgetting the truth and taking up with a falsehood in place of it. Know this, that apart from the doctrine of the Cross there is no remedy for the evil done through want of charity. There is no change in the hearts of men between the old days and our own, save what divine grace may have wrought. We need the teaching of the Cross to assure us that no change will ever come on us by any other instrument or in any other way. That is the first lesson from this symbol, for society as for us each apart. Love is the greatest thing of all, the first thing needed to make the world better. The Cross has taught that lesson widely, and yet, take the world all through, the men who have learned it are but a handful. To the masses it is an unknown tongue, a speech not understanded of them. Nothing but divine and holy love will help the world; and yet men love themselves first, and their neighbours afterwards to such extent as may not prove inconvenient, and God not at all. One of the most discouraging of the signs of the times is the extent to which the divine Saviour is left out by those who profess to be trying to help and comfort the poor. In such comfort as they give, the Saviour who loved us and bought us with His Blood is never mentioned. It is an alien speech, a foreign language, that they talk. They shun the Cross as an evil and sinister omen. To put the Cross away, out of sight, out of thought, is the object, that they may be free to teach a gospel of their own, stimulating the natural desires of the flesh. And the longer this goes on, and the further this Christless propaganda shall be pushed, the more surely shall society be turned back into the old darkness; and if the time should come when Christ and the Cross shall cease to influence the race and draw men out of the world and up to them, that hour will see the world a hell once more, as cruel, as hopeless, as any tract where barbarism reigns triumphant, and where love, mercy, and truth are dead. Nothing can stay the flood of sin, lust, envy, wrath, but that strong barrier which Christ built in His time and whereon He planted the image of the Cross. Fear not. Whatever changes are at hand, whatever course the ungodly may run, the Cross can never be removed from sight. It stands in the gathering twilight of modern heathenism, just where it did of old, preaching of many things necessary for these times, and, first, of the love of Christ which passeth knowledge, without which whatsoever liveth is counted dead before God.