AND now the day of love has dawned, so perfectly the day consecrated to the Divine Eternal Charity by its special teaching, and by the Institution of the Sacrament of love, that it might almost seem to us as if no Shadow could dim the Heavenly aspect of those hours, wherein the LORD showed forth by words and deeds ineffable His undying tenderness for His followers, and for all who should in the ages to come, believe on Him through their word.
"Having loved His own which were in the world, He loved them to the end."
What pain, what grief or earthly trial could outlive these words, if indeed we had in no way forfeited our claim to hold them in everlasting possession as our inalienable inheritance? But fair and gracious as is the Light, which Love would fain have shed on this fifth Passion day, it is obscured and well nigh blotted out by the deep appalling shadow that steals up from the dark garden of the Agony, and teaches us that this manifestation of Infinite Love could only be given to us through the ministry of infinite pain.
"The Master saith, My time is at hand."
The earlier hours of this day, the last on which He should see the sun go down in His earthly life, are veiled in the same mystery as that which shrouded Him throughout the day of His betrayal from all human knowledge; doubtless because they were spent in secret communion with the FATHER; but, "when the even was come He entered into the large upper room with His disciples," and thither let us follow Him beneath the shadow of the most blessed, and yet most awful night that ever fell upon the world of His creation.
Of all that took place between the entrance of the LORD into the guest-chamber, and His departure from Gethsemane, as the willing captive of the foes who had been stricken to the ground by the Majesty of His Presence, it were too presumptuous even to touch in this the faintest, feeblest expression of the thoughts that must be with us on this momentous night. We dare only to fall down with silent adoration before the unsearchable riches of the Divine Eucharist, by which, from that hour every living soul that wills to be redeemed of CHRIST, may be linked to Him in everlasting union. Is it not enough to show us all, what the Sacrament of His Body and Blood must be to our salvation, that He who never so much as breathed a wish for Himself, should now with almost passionate force proclaim, how with desire had He desired to eat this Passover before He suffered, that through the Divine Feast into which it was merged, the destroying angel, in the last dread day might see His Blood sprinkled on the souls of His people, and pass them by when he goes forth to slay His enemies before Him.
So too, we leave untouched that wondrous sacramental act, whereby our Master showed that He, to Whom has been given power over all flesh, that He might give them eternal life, can yet only enable us to have part in Him by washing us in His own Blood; not once alone in the washing of regeneration, but daily, hourly, so that the dust of this corrupting world which clings to our feet as we tread its tortuous ways, may be ever and ever cleansed away. In like manner inspired by His Divine example, He bids us prove that we have truly part in Him, by serving Him humbly and thankfully in the persons of His poorer brethren on earth. While we thus shrink however from dwelling on the great acts of this solemn night, there are some of the sacred words spoken then, when He delivered to the world that which may be called the Gospel of the Agony, that are to us in this rebellious age, so especially the words of Eternal life, that they seem to stand out from all surrounding gloom as though written in letters of light, and to them we gladly turn. The first of those Divine utterances which echo with undying power from that upper room upon our listening spirits, is that which stamps this day with the dazzling yet terrible effulgence of His Love and its claim to our obedience in the Church His Body.
"A new commandment give I unto you--that ye love one another as I have loved you."
As He has loved us! we are to love one another as He has loved us! we with our self-seeking desires, our idolatrous hearts, our violent passions, our strong antipathies, we are to love as He loved,--the Incarnate GOD, Who in ceaseless suffering laid down not only His life for His friends, but also, all the glory that He had with the Eternal FATHER before the worlds were.
How awful a command! high as the Heavens in its exalted comprehensiveness, yet not impossible even for us when joined in Sacramental union with Him our LORD, for before He uttered that commandment He instituted the Sacred mysteries, whereby we can so be sharers in His own Divine nature as to make it possible for us to obey it.
He proclaims the unearthly mandate which gives its name to the fifth Passion day, He creates the Sacrament of essential union with Himself whereby alone it may be kept, and then, as if in His unutterable mercy to lure us to its fulfilment by the most powerful motive, which could sway the souls of His people, He says unto us,
"If ye love Me keep My commandments,"--and this last above all, the last before He suffered.
So far then as we have not loved one another, even as He has loved us, we have proved that we have not loved Him, the dying LORD about to offer Himself in torments inconceivable, a Sacrifice for us! The obligation laid upon us therefore by the very nature of this day, is the deliberate searching scrutiny of our hearts and lives, to drag out of their inmost depths, every evidence of the extent to which we have failed to love our brethren as CHRIST has loved us. What a terrible light will that probing of conscience fling upon our own share, in causing the mysterious agony, which bowed the LORD of Heaven to the very earth that night, beneath the weight of all the world's iniquity! Have we ever so much as given Him any real proof that we love Him, by the perfect keeping of this new, this last commandment? if no other sin of ours were laid upon Him, save those which we have heaped together by its nonfulfilment, we have no need to wonder at the great drops of Blood wrung from Him by His untold anguish.
Truly the warning of this day against uncharitableness in all the manifold meanings of the term, is sharper than a two-edged sword when it pierces into our self-deceiving hearts, and opens up to us the depths of our failure to love the brethren and in them the Elder Brother of the family of man.
Yet this the saddest evening that ever cast its shadow on all time, brings to us through the words spoken by the dying SAVIOUR, consolations more priceless in their value to our fainting struggling souls than any that can come to us on brightest festivals.
We are groping here amid the unsolved problems of this bewildering world, met at every turn by the inexplicable mystery of evil, by the permitted suffering of the innocent and helpless, by the inscrutable conditions of our own being, while all around us, sound the mocking voices of this age of so called progress, telling us that our faith is false, our hopes are vain, that CHRIST is not risen from the dead, and we are of all men most miserable: and surely the whole mental torture of this chaos of doubt and difficulty was foreseen by Him, when, having proclaimed His Deity by bidding us believe in Him even as we believe in GOD, and told us that He was about to prepare a place where we, in unchanged identity, should live for ever in deathless realms, He turned and gave to all future generations the calm assurance, "If it were not so I would have told you."
He, the living Truth, would not have deceived us. He would not have left us one moment in a false hope, Who gave Himself to save us from despair. If He were not GOD, Incarnate for our sakes, He would have told us. If there were no life beyond the grave, no future of immortality, no place for any of the human race in the eternal Mansions of His FATHER, He would have told us. He did not endure an earthly existence of toil and humiliation, and a voluntary death of torture, to mock with baseless fables, those for whom He died. If for us there awaited only annihilation in the dust of mortal corruption He would have told us. In His infinite compassion and tenderness He bids us not doubt Him, though all the world conspire to blot out His Name from the universe of His creation, for He would have told us if He had not Himself been that Eternal Life which He promised to us in the face of His Own Death.
"Because I live, ye shall live also." Then--then when that everlasting day has dawned, we shall know that He is in the FATHER, and we in Him. This strong consolation wherein we may take refuge, is not however the only one afforded to us on that evening. As if still looking forward to the blasts of atheism and false philosophy that should in future ages sweep over this insensate world, the LORD gave us a promise of internal evidence which no outward argument or proof can so much as touch in any sense, for He declares to all who strive to keep His commandments, that He will manifest Himself to them.
"He that hath My commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth Me, and I will love him, and will manifest Myself to him."
They shall see and know Him in their inmost consciousness in such a wondrous certainty of present intercourse, that the negations of science or agnosticism must fall powerless on the spirit wherein He dwells, like the mad waves beating in vain round an impregnable rock.
Thus it is, that the secret of the LORD is with them that fear Him, and that with no vain boast they can affirm to sceptics and cavillers, that they know Him in Whom they have believed, and thus too is the ineffable promise of that evening of the agony fulfilled--
"Ye shall know that I am in My Father, and ye in Me, and I in you."
Nor is this all; it would seem as if in these last hours when JESUS still submitted to the conditions of our mortal nature, He had gauged all the sources of pain or fear which might assail us when we too should face the mystery of death. Even when a sure knowledge of the LORD leaves us no power to doubt that there is an eternal life beyond it, we cannot escape a haunting dread of the unknown conditions of that mysterious future state. The spirit quails before the thought of plunging alone into an unseen immensity, like a fluttering leaf flung out upon the mighty blast, and whirled away through darkness none know whither; and was it not to meet those very terrors that the Dying Voice of the Divine One spoke those words of unutterable blessedness and peace, when He declared, He would come to receive us to Himself--
"That where I am, there ye may be also?"
He willed not to reveal to us in any degree the nature of our being in that further life, but enough--enough beyond all power of language, to express its depths of consolation, is the certainty bequeathed to us in His hour of agony, that howsoever, wheresoever we are, we shall be with Him. It is His Will, what room can there ever be again for doubt or trembling in face of death?
"Father, I will that those whom Thou has given Me, be with Me where I am."
These were among the words spoken by the LORD, when having lifted up His Eyes to Heaven, He entered into that last communion with the Eternal FATHER, of which the awful sanctity seems profaned by any approach in human language, therefore we dare not touch any further on what has been vouchsafed to our knowledge of that supreme hour; only let us say, "May GOD be praised for ever," that He has allowed the record of these unearthly utterances to remain with us, for the Divinity of the Godhead is so stamped upon them, that they alone have had power to smite with irresistible conviction, souls that else had remained for ever lost in lowest depths of unbelief. Yet although we may not speak of that wondrous Intercession, let us remember, whatever be our trials, our temptations, our struggles, our failures, our almost despair, that He prayed then for us, for us poor fainting sinners that should believe on Him through His written Evangel.
And now the rayless shadow of that last Passion evening so deepens around the Sacred Victim, that we seem unable to dwell any longer on these heavenly consolations, for Judas has gone out to do that which he had to do quickly and--"it was night!" words of terrible significance!
It was night indeed, profound, unfathomable for the traitor and for all who to the end of time depart in any sense from the Light of the world; and it was night for Him, the Lamb of GOD, Whom all creation shall behold hereafter as the sole Light of Eternity, when "He went forth over the brook Cedron, where was a garden into the which He entered."
Gethsemane! how can we venture to rest the eyes of mental vision on that mysterious scene when in superhuman agony the LORD of all wrestled with Eternal Justice for the redemption of the human race?
"My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death." Not the hosts of heaven who watched in silence there around their King, thus made a spectacle to angels and to men, nor any who have ever lived, could sound the depths of suffering expressed in these gentle, pathetic words, for on that Innocent Head the Almighty Hand has bound the sins of all humanity, and laid Him prostrate beneath their weight on the dust of this defiled earth, while the Divine Heart breaks under the awful sense of the FATHER'S wrath for all the transgressions of the guilty race whom He, the only Sinless, represented there.
"Thy rebuke hath broken My Heart."
It is not for us to dwell in open words on a theme so sacred, thankful only may we be if we are permitted in this Holy Week to lie under the Shadow of dark Gethsemane in mute abasement, and make that dread vigil a stern preparation for the hour of our own death, since then for the first time were heard the accents of that sad reproach, which must re-echo again on the soul of every one departing from an existence which has not been truly given to GOD.
"Could ye not watch with Me one hour?" This little hour of life! how shall we bear it fainting in dissolution, if through all our years of strength and power we have left Him unheeded in His anguish for our sins, and taken our pleasure in self-willed ease or cold indifference?
"Sleep on now," the sleep of death, till we see Him coming with clouds to judge the world. It was night, night black with a darkness that may be felt, for the traitor has come and given to the Master, Who was about to die for him, the kiss, which represents all the evil that ever has been done in the name of CHRIST, all human passions indulged under a profession of religion, all unreal, hollow service simulating the perfect way of life.
"Friend, wherefore art thou come?"
The Divine LORD called Judas still by that dear title, hoping, perhaps, for the traitor's own sake to rouse some lingering spark of affection in his heart; but we know how Judas delivered Him to His murderers, and bade them hold Him fast.
"Ye are My friends," He had said to His disciples with yet deeper, tenderer meaning: His friends, His own whom He had loved and did love even to the end, and now in His hour of utmost peril, of agony, of certain swift-coming death--
"They all forsook Him and fled."
In the entire desolation of that moment there fell upon Him Who has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows, a bitterness of misery into which we with our clinging affections can enter with special comprehension, and which in our measure we may ourselves have known in stern reality.
If in our life's journey we have experienced the cruel piercing of our hand by the support on which we leant in fondest confidence, if change and forgetfulness have passed on the love or the friendship that was dearest to us on earth, if our hearts have been wrung by faithlessness where most we trusted, by desertion where we would have clung most strongly, if now we are alone and desolate who could once have said with joy to those we cherished most, "Ye are my friends,"--then let us rejoice, for in no other way could we have won so fully the sympathy of Him Who more than any that ever walked this earth has loved, and more than any other that ever lived has been forsaken,--"and it was night."