THE sun has risen again, still fair in its springtide dawn, but the Shadow deepens on the second day of the mournful seven. Gone is all semblance even of triumph and of welcome, none hail the Victim now as King or call Him blessed, no triumphal palms are borne before Him or garments spread beneath His weary Feet as in a royal progress. Slowly He returns, spent with vigil and fasting, from His mysterious solitude to the city of His doom, and none are by His side save the few that only for a little time as yet, are faithful to their dying LORD. But we who have entered into the Shadow of the Holy Week are with Him there, and we stand on the wayside path as He draws near. He has seen that which afar off seems a fair and fruitful tree, making a pleasant show with its bright green leaves, and rearing its stately head to heaven as if eager to catch the light and dew which fall from thence. Surely with such rich and fertile seeming it is ready to minister to Him with all its growth, with all its capabilities? He comes hungering to find fruit thereon,--but there is none.
He by Whom all things were made had breathed into it the breath of life, which enabled it to bring forth all those waving branches with their weight of leaves,--but beneath that outward appearance of homage to its Creator all is hollow and barren. Not there shall His hunger for the offerings of living love be stayed,--not there shall He see the travail of His soul and be satisfied. This day in our ear sounds again the mournful sentence, "Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward for ever." Well may we shudder as we hear it, for it may be that in the fair deceptive tree with its goodly show of specious beauty we see the type of our own selves, in the golden prime of life when the careless days of youth are past, and the world allures us with its most subtle charm through the praise and goodwill of our fellow-men. Has not the secret desire to win their admiration and their love been the true motive power that has decked our lives with fairest deeds and robed us in an external garb of all that is most lovely and of good report? May not the very homage and devotion offered to our only LORD have been made sweet to us by the human approbation and applause it has won us in this lower world? Pleasant to the eye has our daily existence seemed perhaps, rich in acts of charity and religious fervour, but shall the LORD find beneath the fruits of the Spirit which He seeks?
Love--pure and unreserved for Himself alone.
Joy--sought and found in communion with Him only.
Peace--such as apart from Him can have no existence.
Longsuffering--practised in likeness of Him Who forgave His murderers.
Gentleness--learned from Him Who when He was reviled, reviled not again.
Goodness--inspired by union with Him Who alone is good.
Faith--by secret knowledge of Him in Whom unseen His own believe.
Meekness--won at His Feet Who trod the lowest paths for our poor sake.
Temperance--because in Him to do our FATHER'S will is all we ask or seek.
Has He found these fruits of a vital union with Himself when He came to us hungering for proofs of our sure eternal blessedness? or is it so with us, despite our fair show in the flesh, that He may justly say even now, "Behold, I come seeking fruit on this fig-tree, and find none .... cut it down, why cumbereth it the ground?"
If our unreal service has hitherto provoked this dreadful sentence, yet in the merciful permission to pass once more beneath the Shadow of this Holy Week we hear the voice of Divine Compassion saying, "I will let it alone this year also, and dig about it ... and if it bear fruit, well,--if not, after that shall it be cut down." Blessed indeed is the renewed gift of these days of our visitation, for is there one amongst us who has not at some time of insidious temptation loved the praise of men, more than the acceptance of a true service by Him Whose unprofitable servants we, at the best, must ever be? Yet a sterner warning against human respect and unreality is given now as we follow Him within the gates of the temple to which He passes on, the consecrated House of GOD. There we behold Him the meek and patient LORD, suddenly manifesting Himself awful and severe in His righteous indignation, as He casts out all earthly treasures from the sacred place which the Eternal FATHER had chosen as the habitation of His Spirit. Surely heinous indeed must have been the sin which provoked the wrath of the Lamb. He Who under cruelest persecution does not strive or cry, Who as a sheep before her shearers is dumb in presence of His murderers, yet now with relentless sternness denounces those who have made that house of prayer a den of thieves. It is our Judge Who speaks. He looks now into our spirit, the temple of the HOLY GHOST which we should have held for Him, immaculate, His dwelling-place undefiled, unshared, whence the pure offering should have risen up continually of a faithful service--an entire surrender of the whole being unto Him our only LORD and Love. What if like that temple of old He sees in the sanctuary of our souls but a den of thieves, of earthly desires and hopes which have stolen away from Him our best affections?--what ambitions and vanities, what love of the world and of self,--what secret sins and unchastened longings may have robbed Him of all the true devotion of our hearts! If it be so, shall we not beseech Him this day to cast out from the temple of our spirit all things, be they what they may, which mar the exclusive supremacy of His reign within us? Dear and precious may be to us the treasures which we have suffered to invade His chosen shrine,--so dear that for their continuance in our possession, rather than for a closer union with Himself, may have ever arisen the petitions that gave it the semblance of a house of prayer, and bitter may be to us the anguish of their rending away from our clinging hold. Yet even with the sharpest scourge of pain let us call on Him to drive them from us. Then shall the special consolation of this second day be ours,--for it is to the soul that flings away all its earthly idols to give itself to Him alone that He utters the blessed words, "I will not leave you comfortless, I will come to you." JESUS Whom we and all men for ever seek unconsciously, will come to us and make His abode within the cleansed sanctuary of our spirit, to be our Life and Love, our everlasting joy.
Upon that very day when He thus manifested His claim to the unreserved allegiance of the human race He knew that His enemies were taking counsel to kill Him,--and as it was then so is it now. While those who do desire, however feebly, to follow Him in life and death are beseeching Him beneath the shadow of His Passion to make their spirits meet for His abode, outside in the garish sunlight of the world men are conspiring to kill Him in the souls of His people, and to brand with the infamy of falsehood His faith and Name. Surely of them as of us that Divine One thought in His undying pity, when the evening being now come He departed without the city to the solitude where through all these prophetic nights, He gazed into the depths of that anguish of sacrifice which could alone redeem the world's iniquity.