Project Canterbury

The Altar; or Meditations in Verse on the Great Christian Sacrifice

By Isaac Williams

London: Joseph Masters, 1849.

XVII. Pilate Washing His Hands


"When Pilate, therefore, heard that saying, he was the more afraid."

But e'en the Governor, arrayed in might,
Is moved within by an unwonted fear,
Trembling before his lowly Prisoner;
A soldier used to every murderous sight,
The very heathen, in his own despite,
Feels judgment greater than his own is near,--
The judge doth like the guilty one appear;
The Roman quails before an Israelite:
I deem that fable strong in mystery,
That lions of the forest will pass by,
Cowering at sight of virgin purity;
And thus the world, e'en in her fiercest mood,
By envy onward urged to deeds of blood,
Still trembles while it persecutes the good.


"Though thou wash thee with nitre, and take thee much soap, yet thine iniquity is marked before Me, saith the Lord God."

Many would wash their hands from Thy dear Blood
With Pilate, unabsolved by self within;
The accuser sits behind them, and therein
Mocks them in doing ill with thoughts of good,
Leaving the hollow front of fortitude
To cover craven spirits he would win.
And what avails the loud-tongued multitude
Against that still small Voice which speaks of sin?
The earthquake and the thunder are soon gone,
And that dread whisper then will plead alone:
Nor can the breath of crowds, more guilty still,
E'er chase away, like a fresh-blowing wind,
The noxious vapours it hath left behind,
Or rectify the sin-perverted will.


"Thou shalt wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow."

Thou, Lord, must bring Thyself the absolving stream;
Thyself alone canst wash away the stain;
The streams of Paradise would flow in vain--
In vain a sea of tears on the sad theme;
In vain would costly sacrifice redeem
One guilty spot;--yea, this release to gain,
Hath all creation groaned so long in pain,
Striving, as if in some guilt-haunted dream,
To cleanse the stain; the ingrain'd spot remains:
For this hath Superstition raised her shrines,
And 'mid her countless victims inly pines.
One drop of Thy dear Blood is more than all;
Thy word of power, that bursts death's prison-chains,
Alone can cleanse the will, lost power recall.


"While I held my tongue, my bones consumed away."

First the all-trembling consciousness of ill
Deems earth and heaven have eyes, and the sick mind
Would fain herself unbosom to the wind,
But shame-struck back recoils; then soon the will,
With Satan's cords yet more and more entwined,
Adds to the load, and leaves her labouring still;
Till to the headlong stream at length resigned,
She hastes of crime the measure to fulfil,
In recklessness of conscience ill at ease.
But bless├Ęd they to whom 'tis timely given
At God's own mercy-seat to seek release,
And find a refuge in the absolving keys,
Which ope heaven's door, pour in celestial air,
And lead anew to penitential care.


"Their soul should be as a watered garden; and they shall not sorrow any more at all."

Thus have I known, when on a sultry noon,
Beneath the vapour-loaded atmosphere,
All creatures hung their head, like guilty fear;
Nature breathed thick and faint, and out of tune;
Big drops descended one by one, and soon,
As with a momentary quick surprise,
Around, far brighter than the autumnal moon,
The vivid lightnings bathed the o'erhanging skies,
The clouds unlock'd the fountains of their tears,
The heavens expanded; then released from fears,
Earth looks up for renewal of their love;
The trees with all their little leaves rejoice;
The mountains and the valleys find a voice;
One multitudinous song fills all the grove.


"His flesh shall be fresher than a child's, he shall return to the days of his youth."

Oh, peaceful calm of guilt and doom repealed,
As when before the priest the leper stood
With ulcerous contagions all subdued,
And to the faithful eye in hope revealed:
Then the meek dove pronounced the leper healed,
Slain o'er the running stream,--the stream of blood
Went down to Jordan's blest Baptismal flood:
He from his sickness cleansed, and freedom sealed,
Walked in the Holy City once again.
Thus when the golden keys retrieve the stain,
What if the mingled stream of blood and tears
Flows to the Baptism of our earlier years;
And the regenerate soul, by sin defiled,
Come from the stream again a healthful child.

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