Low bow'd Thy head convulsed, and droop'd in death,
Thy voice sent forth a sad and wailing cry;
Slow struggled from Thy breast the parting breath,
And every limb was wrung with agony.
That head whose veil-less blaze
Filled angels with amaze,
"When at that voice sprang forth the rolling suns on high.
MILMAN'S "Hymn to the Saviour."
"AND they crucified Him." Simple yet solemn words! telling in this little expression of the most fearful event which has ever taken place upon this globe, since at the hour of its first creation "the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy," as they joined in that glorious jubilee. And how vividly does this short sentence bring before ns that terrible scene--fit conclusion to the long years of self-denial and sorrow--when the Son of God bowed Himself upon the Cross, and with an agony of which no man can conceive, passed the gates of Death! The imagination calls up the mighty crowd which had gathered to that spectacle--the jibe and scorn of the Jewish priests, as they inflamed the bigoted and urged on the shrinking--the whirl and roar of scoffing thousands, as that living flood poured out from the Holy City, and rolled around the sacred Mount. And far above them, "lifted up to be seen of all men," on the only throne which His rebellious subjects gave, was the promised Messiah, hearing even in death their mad ingratitude and cruel tauntings. Yet on that patient sufferer's brow, where the inspiration of the Divinity and the agonies of Humanity struggled together, we may believe, there beamed an expression of the loftiest triumph. He felt, that even in dissolution He was winning the noblest victory, and gaining immortality for the countless tribes of His fellow men. As the hours passed on, popular passion was stirred up to its wildest excess. The rude uproar and furious execration of myriads filled the air, and mingled with the low, deep tones of our expiring Master, while He prayed for His enemies, or commended His soul to God. At length, there rang without the walls of Jerusalem that last, loud cry, which proclaimed to a wondering universe, that all was finished--the mighty offering made--and that "through death our Lord had destroyed him that had the power of death." Then it was, that even inanimate nature seemed to sympathise in his struggle. The sun veiled its face, and darkness covered the land. The earth reeled to and fro, beneath the earthquake's shock. And not on the living only did this day of strange revelations produce its influence. Even the last resting-places of the dead were rent asunder, that on the morning of the first day they too might come forth with their risen Lord. Then, even the bodies of the slumbering saints started from their graves, and glided through the city where once they dwelt. Dim and livid forms, still wearing the cerements of the tomb--bearing yet its fearful impress--in this breathing world, yet not of it--they "appeared to many," as it were, claiming again brotherhood with the living, and teaching them by their own ghastly presence, the earliest proofs of a resurrection. Such were the terrors of the first Good Friday.
Is it strange then, that the members of the early Church, with awed and chastened spirits, kept this holy day, and felt that deep indeed should be their self-abasement at this season of their Lord's mysterious agonies? They considered it as invested with a peculiar solemnity, and even those who might have been negligent during the rest of Lent, religiously observed this day, as the one on which the Bridegroom was taken from them. [See BINGHAM'S Orig. Eccles., lib. xxi., ch. 1, sec. 1.] And in the same 'spirit should we act now. "On this day"--says Bishop Hobart--"all the pursuits of business should be suspended; the service of the Church devoutly attended; and the intervals of public worship devoted to holy meditation on the sufferings of Christ, and to other pious exercises. By abstinence, self-denial, and humiliation, we should seek to testify our sympathy in the sufferings of our Lord, and our lively sorrow for our sins which occasioned His sufferings. There can be no greater evidence of insensibility and ingratitude, than to spend the day sacred to the sufferings of Christ, in the usual pursuits of business or pleasure."
Is he then keeping it as he should, who perhaps only escapes from his usual occupation in the court room or the counting house, for a "single hour to attend the services of the Church? Are his thoughts in a proper state for commemorating his Lord's passion, when he passes at once to the sanctuary from the noise and turmoil of business, with all its restless and disquieting cares about him? And has he profited as he should by these holy services, when he hurries back at once to the anxieties of this working world? No--let the merchant desert for the day, the mart of business--let the professional man close his office--and the world will begin to believe, that this is a season holy to the Lord. Then the words of our Liturgy will come home to them with power, and sink into their hearts, and they will realize more deeply the mighty debt they owe to Him who died for them.
And how beautifully appropriate are all the services which the Church has prescribed for this solemn season! The Psalms for the day, composed by David in times of sorrow and distress, have always been considered as having a still higher reference to the sufferings and death of Christ. The first lesson for the morning (Gen. xxii,) by narrating the intended sacrifice of Isaac on Mount Moriah, points with the voice of prophecy to the coming agonies of the Son of God, which ages after were to be endured upon the same spot; while the second lesson (John xviii.,) brings a portion of our Lord's sufferings before us, in the simple yet touching record of the beloved disciple who was himself a witness. The first lesson for the evening (Isaiah lii., ver. 13, and chap, liii.,) contains the most minute and striking prophecy of the passion of our Lord, which is to be found in the whole range of the predictions in the Old Testament, while the second lesson (Phil, ii.,) contrasts the humiliation of Christ with His pre-existent dignity, and from this example inculcates the virtues of unity and humbleness of mind. Such are the truths which are now brought before us, and remembering the inestimable benefits which we have obtained by this one great sacrifice of our Lord, we can not but feel that this fast is appropriately named Good Friday. The recollections which gather around it may be those of sorrow, yet mingled with them is the loftiest triumph, for at this period it was that man's great redemption was wrought out.
The ordinary themes connected with the sacrifice of our Lord are familiar to all who "profess and call themselves Christians," and need not be discussed in a work of this kind. They form the very foundation of all religious teaching. We will therefore endeavor to bring forward one point which is generally less understood--THE WITHDRAWAL OF THE DIVINE PRESENCE FROM THE SUFFERER IN THE HOUR OF HIS GREATEST NEED.
And we have selected this from the belief, that it furnishes the most strange feature in all the array of His agony. Overwhelming as were the sorrows which gathered around the Son of Man in the time of His deepest degradation and shame, there were none that can be compared with this. When His death cry--"My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"--rang in the ears of the astonished spectators, it proclaimed that a new and most bitter ingredient had been added to His cup of misery.
And here we would observe, that we can never fully conceive of the amount of our Lord's sufferings. We have no capacity for comprehending their reality and boundless extent. Our narrow conceptions can never picture to us the unutterable sorrows of an infinite mind. Although of course His Divine nature suffered not, yet its very presence and union with his human nature endowed the latter with capabilities of agony which no mere mortal could ever possess. Even His boundless knowledge--enabling Him to look forward with certainty to all that was at hand--placed Him in a condition for enduring unspeakable anguish of soul. The wide interval then which separates us from our Lord, necessarily renders our view of all that concerns Him partial and defective. "We see but in part," and of course, "we know but in part." It is one of those subjects of a spiritual nature which we can not grasp. As we are unable to attain to an understanding of the inconceivable bliss which our Lord now inherits, so we can as little explain the depth of agony to which once he sank. Much must be left to humble faith. We must look upon it as a mystery which perhaps in another state of being, with enlarged faculties, may be clear to us.
It is for this reason that we are naturally accustomed to dwell most upon the mere physical and bodily sufferings of our Lord. These we can in some measure imagine. We see the Cross erected before us--the torn and agonized body--the parching thirst--the crown of thorns pressed on the bleeding brow--and the spear thrust into the side. All these things a mere mortal might endure, and they come therefore within the range of our comprehension. But beyond this there is a deeper gulf, into which we seldom send our thoughts forward. The soul also had its sufferings, which we believe no words can adequately describe. We gather this from the simple narrative of Scripture. When it speaks of His mental anguish, the writers seem to be aware that all human language is utterly insufficient. How strong therefore are the expressions they select, and what a depth of meaning are they evidently endeavoring to express! Their words signify the greatest possible extremity of sorrow, and anxiety, and distress. "His soul was exceeding sorrowful, even unto death." A dark cloud gathered over Him. His earnest prayer was--"Father, save me from this hour." He seems even deprived of those consolations which good men usually enjoy in the hour of their final struggle, and which enable them to triumph in the prospect of approaching dissolution. But to what can we ascribe this state of despondency to which He was reduced except to the withdrawal of the Divine Presence, by which God has promised to uphold His faithful children in tribulation, and from the enjoyment of which His own Son was cut off, when "the sorrows of death compassed Him, and the pains of Hell gat hold upon Him."
In attempting then to enlarge our knowledge of this mysterious subject, as far as it has been revealed by the word of God, we would remark, that by the withdrawal of the Divine Presence is not meant, that the intimate union between the Divine and human natures was dissolved. When on His coming into the world, the Divinity assumed a mortal body, a union was formed which was indissoluble. It subsisted through all His toilsome wanderings through Judea, in His want, and deprivation, and sorrow, and even on the Cross it did not desert Him. It remained, to give dignity to His sufferings. It rendered the victim worthy to be "a propitiation for the sins of the whole world." [Hooker in one place in a single passage puts this point in a clear light, when referring to some of the ancient controversies with respect to it. "Theodoret disputeth, with great earnestness, that 'God' can not be said to suffer. But he thereby meaneth Christ's Divine Nature against Appollinarius, which held even Deity itself passible. Cyril on the other side against Nestorius as much contendeth, that whosoever will deny 'very God' to have suffered death, doth forsake the faith, which, notwithstanding to hold, wore Heresy, if the name of God in this assertion did not import, as it doth, the Person of Christ, who being verily God, suffered death, but in the flesh, and not in that substance for which the name of God is given Him."--Eccles. Polity, lib. v., sec. 53.] But it was the comfortable assurance of its presence which was withdrawn in that fearful hour when most it was needed.
If however you ask the way in which this was done, we answer, we can not tell. God has not revealed to us the manner in which it was effected. He only informs us, that His crucified Son was for a time deprived of the bright beams of that Divinity which had taken up its abode within Him--that while He still continued to be God as well as man, there was no present consciousness or feeling of his own perfections. It seems as if feeble humanity was left for a time to bear alone, the almost insupportable load which was crushing it down. Beyond this we know nothing. We can not explain the way in which the union, of the two natures was at first formed, nor can we fully comprehend the manner in which the suspension of the Divine Presence took place. We see only its effects, in the mental agony which its departure produced.
The next inquiry then which arises is, with regard to the reason of this withdrawal. It was evidently, we think, to place our Lord in a situation which qualified Him for deeper suffering. While the inspirations of the Divinity were burning brightly within Him, He could not drink to its dregs that bitter cup which was put to His lips. There was a consolation and an ineffable bliss of which He must be deprived, that He might be enabled to reach the very extremity of woe.
This is a truth which scarcely needs to be enforced. We know that God is the fountain of all joy and consolation, and the more nearly we are united to Him, the greater is our happiness. u In His presence is fullness of joy, and at His right hand are pleasures for evermore." It is the enjoyment of this bright vision, which imparts such extasy to the saints in glory, and should, even for a single moment, a dark veil be drawn, cutting them off from its contemplation, they would at once droop in sorrow. To our Lord, therefore, mere "bodily sufferings, grievous as they were, could have been comparatively but of little moment, had He been animated and upheld by the presence of the Divinity within. But this was not allowed Him, for the grief He was to endure was the accumulation of every sorrow which could be heaped upon Him--so fearful was the ransom to be paid for us. God therefore forsook Him, and He was left in the depth of despondency. Such we believe to be the reason of this mysterious event. It was to qualify our Surety, to bear the whole burden which was to be laid upon Him, and to say, in the words of the ancient prophet--"Behold and see, if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow, which is done unto me, wherewith the Lord has afflicted me, in the day of His fierce anger."
Again--let us look at this deprivation to our Lord in another respect--its strangeness. It was the withdrawal of that which He had ever before possessed. Before the world was, even through the countless ages of the past eternity, His had ever been "the fullness of the Godhead." He had ever shared in all that inexpressible delight which must be the attendant of Divinity. And even when on earth, we have no reason to suppose, that hitherto its beams had been obscured, or the sensible evidence of its presence taken away. The Spirit, we are told, was poured out upon Him "without measure," and we read in every action which He performed, and in every word which He spake, the proof that it was done through the promptings of His Higher nature. As therefore the manner of His existence during this time is incomprehensible, so also does the bliss which it afforded Him, transcend our utmost thoughts. But now, for a season this was taken away, and the very height of happiness to which it had always before raised Him, now deepened the woe, to which by its loss He was reduced, His feelings could only find utterance in that plaintive exclamation which was wrung from Him--"Eli, Eli, lama, sabachthani, that is to say, My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me!" Yet in this you perceive the strangeness of the deprivation. He who had been God from all eternity, now for the first time felt Himself deserted by the present influence of the Deity.
He felt, that in suffering at least, He was nothing but a man.
But let us illustrate this point by something more within the sphere of our comprehension. Take an angel, who from the moment of his creation, has always rejoiced in the presence of God, and let the light of his Maker's countenance be withdrawn from him. Indescribable would be the wretchedness which in such a case would overwhelm that bright Intelligence, when the beatific vision was removed. Yet we think, that the darkest feature in his sufferings--that which would force him to feel them with the greatest intenseness--would be, the very strangeness of his situation--the fact that it was something which he had never before experienced. Now such, only in an infinitely greater degree, was the case with our Lord. For a brief time, He was left to suffer alone. It was the very climax of His misery--the hour of His deepest humiliation, which was soon however to give place to joy and triumph.
But when he now looks back upon it from His throne of glory, think you, that any thing like regret is felt, for the pain He endured--the fiery trial through which He passed? No--we know there cannot be. As the number of the Elect gather into the Paradise of God, and he beholds in these ransomed spirits the prize for which He contended, widely different emotions must fill His breast. He sees in them "the travail of His soul, and is satisfied." He feels no sorrow that He trod the wine-press of God's wrath. He judges it worth all His trials and suffering, that He should lead up many sons and daughters to glory, and therefore He is contented to have borne all that He did. He finds an ample recompense in the sight of the happiness of the redeemed, and in the glad rejoicings of the unnumbered millions, who but for His sorrows would have been the heirs of eternal woe.
Again--we would look at this withdrawal of the Divine Presence in one other point of view--the greatness of the sorrow it occasioned. We find no record of any alleviation afforded our Master in this hour of intense bitterness. An angel was indeed sent down, but we are told, it was to "strengthen Him." Not a word is said about conferring comfort. It was to endow Him with the ability to suffer. Now the truth is an obvious one, that just in proportion to the degree of holiness we have, will be our delight in the presence of God, and of course, the depth also of distress we shall feel, when it is withdrawn from us. The kingly Poet of Israel would exclaim--"My soul thirsteth for Thee, O God; my flesh longeth for Thee in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is." The individual, whose heart has been sanctified by the Holy Ghost, will feel that the very existence of his spiritual life depends upon the continuance of this comfort, and will mourn its absence in bitterness. How deep then must have been the sorrow of our Lord, who was without sin, when this evil befell Him, and He was no longer cheered by the Divine presence! We, in the midst of our imperfections and blindness, can never realize the emotions of a Being of perfect holiness, at such a change. It was the removal of the sun from the system. It was condemning Him to darkness and despair.
But there was more than the mere withdrawal of God's presence. There was also poured out upon Him, that just retribution of the Almighty, which was merited by the race whose nature He had assumed. "He bore our griefs and carried our sorrows. He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon Him; and with His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid upon Him the iniquity of us all." He had placed Himself to endure the punishment of transgressions, which otherwise would have descended upon us, and therefore He was weighed down by the load of divine justice against sin. He stood up to be a Surety, to pay the penalty due from fallen man--to bear the curse and shame--and He suffered them to the uttermost. The very consciousness then of this, must have immeasurably aggravated His anguish, when He felt its most fearful effect--the Almighty, as it were, retiring from Him, and abandoning Him to darkness.
Another necessary consequence of this withdrawal was, that it left Him exposed to the efforts and temptations of the fallen spirits. We find, that when Satan first assaulted Him in the wilderness, he was easily repulsed, for then our Lord was animated with a consciousness of the presence of Divinity, and His communion with God was uninterrupted. But when this change passed over His soul, and He was forsaken by the Father, then He was left open and exposed to all the arts of the Evil One. The malice and subtlety of that fallen spirit---still powerful even in his apostacy--were exerted to the utmost, and thus literally, "His soul became an offering for sin." It was this which He himself intimated, when He said to His enemies among the Jews--"When I was daily with you in the temple, ye stretched forth no hands against me, but this is your hour, and the power of darkness." As if he had told them--"During the former part of my ministry, I was shielded by divine power. You could effect nothing against me. But now, that aid is withdrawn, and you and the powers of darkness have your hour to tempt and try me. Yon can wreak your vengeance on my body, and my spiritual enemies on my soul." We can not indeed tell the extent of influence which these apostate spirits are able to exert, but we know that it must be great. And we may well believe that all the strength of our Great Adversary was put forth in his last, decisive struggle with the Son of God. Once he had been foiled, but now the contest was renewed, in the very crisis of this world's fate, when its salvation was on the eve of completion, and all the dearest interests of the countless tribes of man were at stake. We may be sure then, that no weapon which the Great Enemy of our race could wield, was left unemployed. Alone our Redeemer passed through the fiery furnace, "and of the people there was none with Him." Alone He baffled his foes, and wrought out that triumph in which through all ages His followers are to share.
Such then we believe is the reason, why this also was added as the most bitter ingredient in the cup of our Master's sorrows--the strangeness of the change to Him--and the greatness of the suffering which it caused. Can not we perceive therefore in this particular, how widely the agonies of our Lord are separated from those which could be endured by any mere mortal? With the early martyrs, the pain was confined to the body. The mind was at peace--nay, more than this--was cheered and elevated by the sensible comforts of the Spirit, so as to be able, even with exultation, to encounter death in its most fearful forms. It was the mortal frame convulsed with agony, but the spirit departing in hope. Yet our Lord was left, desolate and forsaken, and' in no other way can we account for the exceeding sorrow which weighed Him down, than by referring it to His agony of mind under that additional affliction of which we have endeavored to speak. We see then, how utterly impossible it is for us to measure the length and breadth of His sufferings, when we compare them with human feelings and affections. There is an unfathomable depth in His mysterious sorrow, which places it far beyond our comprehension. We can no more understand it, than we can the Divine nature. And it was this view of the subject which probably induced the ancient Greek Church to insert among the prayers of its Liturgy, the appropriate petition--"By thine unknown sufferings, O Lord, have mercy upon us."
But yet this consideration should only awaken us to greater gratitude. If His sorrows were infinite, how great the wonder and amazement which should fill our minds, when we remember, that they were for us! They were the speaking and powerful evidences of that "love of Christ, which passeth knowledge." Let us endeavor then at present, when the services of the Church especially calls us to this duty, to meditate upon these things, until our holiest affections are kindled into exercise, and the voice of praise breaks forth from our lips. This will be the subject of our contemplations in that coming world of bliss to which we trust we are hastening forward. There, where the treasures of Divine love are unfolded before us, we shall find in the sufferings of the Son of God, a theme to which the heart will ever return with deepened interest as the ages of eternity roll by. Let us begin then now, to anticipate the employments of the heavenly world. We can (to use the beautiful imagery of Bunyan,) ascend the Delectable Mountains, and from afar, by the strong eye of faith catch a glimpse of the portals of the Celestial City, and as the anthem of its shining inhabitants floats softly to our ear, strive even now to add our voices to their glorious melody. We know the burden of that "new song," and while still in our earthly state, may familiarize our minds with it. As the years of our pilgrimage pass away, and the time of our final retribution draws nigh, we can learn to meditate with delight upon that sacrifice, through the unspeakable agonies of which, we have attained all our hopes of pardon here and of glory hereafter.
Here then is our trust. Our Lord hath met the King of Terrors--hath died--hath passed the portals of the tomb. "Through death He destroyed him that had the power of death." It was breaking his sceptre, and depriving him of all claim to the countless millions who else would have been his prey. Why then should human nature shrink back in dread from the path, over which the Master hath trodden? Why should we so often stand "shivering on the brink, afraid to launch away?" Why should we array the Last Messenger who releases us from our warfare, with every attribute of terror, till the heart quails at his approach? Even from the twilight knowledge of an ancient and heathen philosophy, we may learn a better lesson. There he was represented as but the twin brother of Sleep, as if he only called us to a slumber deeper and longer than that which each night overtakes us. There, in the lands in which this mythology prevailed, on many a mouldering tomb is still found the sculptured image of the Angel of Death, and we behold him in the form of a youth, his wings folded in repose, and his torch inverted. All is serene, peaceful and beautiful.
Surely then the Christian, to whom all is certainty, may well say, "Death is swallowed up in victory." Trusting in no dim speculations, he "knows in whom he has believed, and that He is able to keep that which he has committed to Him against that day." Standing by the Cross on Calvary, the darkness rolls away from, the landscape which stretches out before him, and he sees his path plainly marked. It passes indeed through the wilderness, and down into the dark valley of the Shadow of Death, and over the troubled waters of Jordan, yet he traces it up to the gates of the New Jerusalem--the Eternal City of his God. This then is his hope, which should enable him to greet the Monarch of the Tomb with a calmness which no earthly philosophy could ever give. He realizes that "through the grave and gate of death he shall pass to his glorious resurrection, for His merits, who died, and was buried, and rose again for us, Jesus Christ our Lord." [Collect for Easter-Even]
But yet, all our thoughts are not those of joy and triumph when we dwell on the great Sacrifice. Sorrowful emotions also mingle with them. If every promise of eternal life is bound up in the crucifixion of our Lord, then what must we think of those, who seek no interest in His Redemption? In vain for them were the sufferings--the scourge--the nails--and the Cross--for they have rejected the precious inheritance which thus was purchased for the fallen sons of men. "In vain" did we say? It was more than this. These thrilling scenes will add a deeper horror to their condemnation, for in this manner the means of safety were placed, within their reach, but they rejected it, and trampled the blood of the covenant beneath their feet. As they contemplate then the sorrows of our Lord, let them think whether that misery can light, to redeem from which He consented to suffer so fearfully. Let them remember the intensity of His agony, when He uttered the plaintive exclamation--"My God! my God! why hast Thou forsaken me!"--and the view may awaken them from their deathlike apathy.
In a different spirit indeed, this same cry has often been uttered since, by thousands in their dying hour. This bitter lamentation has quivered on the lips of many a sinner, as the shadows of the grave gathered around him. It was not, as with our Lord, the temporary withdrawal of God's favor, but his everlasting departure. He forsook the infatuated mortal who had sinned away his day of grace, that he might reap the retribution his own deeds had worked out. With him, this agonizing cry was the wail of a lost spirit, as its ceaseless woe was commencing. It was quenching the last ray which brightened his path, leaving the desolate immortal to begin the travel of Eternity in darkness and despair.
Thus it is, that from every side of us there comes a voice of entreaty and of warning. Not from the word of God alone--not from the Cross of His Son--are the only incitements to Christians' earnestness to be drawn. The wakeful, spiritual eye may read their solemn appeals in many a scene which meets us as we journey on our daily path. From the parting agonies of each careless wanderer from his Lord, as he enters eternity "not knowing the things which shall befall him there," is heard the startling warning--"Be watchful, O pilgrim through an evil world--gird up thy loins and hasten onward--be earnest, be diligent--for the work to be accomplished is great, while the day is passing away, and the shadows of the evening are stretching forward."