THE shadow deepens yet more on the third of the mournful Passion days. The LORD returns from His lonely watch, to speak for the last time within His desecrated Temple to the people who hated Him, and for whom He was about to die; and as He journeys towards the city the first sight that meets His sorrowful gaze is the fig-tree withered away. It is the emblem of His dread prerogative of justice and of punishment. He Whose very Being is essential Love, Who yearns to gather all that have ever drawn the breath of human life into His compassionate arms, is yet of purer eyes than to behold iniquity, and even from His tender lips must fall the awful sentence, "Depart, ye cursed."
Dark lies the shadow then upon the bare distorted branches of the withered tree, type of the judgment to come, and thence He passes on to utter His final warnings within the sacred walls where never again shall His Divine Voice be heard in human accents.
Even as the LORD was visibly present then within His chosen temple, so is He present now within His Church on earth, and as then He spoke, so does He speak to us now in the commemoration of this sacred week.--With the eight Beatitudes His ministry on earth began,--by those heavenly words of blessing breathed as it were from the very heart of the love of GOD, He ushered in the teaching of the gospel of peace; but now with the shadow round Him of that voluntary Death, in which so many for whom it was consummated would fail to see their only life, He closes His public testimony, by pronouncing the eight awful woes on all self-seeking and hypocrisy.
Woe unto us if by an example of worldliness or an unworthy use of the gift of influence, we hinder the efforts of those who are aiming at a height we would not have them reach, because we have not sought ourselves to attain unto it.
Woe unto us if we have sought the accomplishment of our own desires at the expense of others and have loved ourselves more even than GOD'S own poor, while unto their FATHER and ours we cease not to turn in unfelt prayers.
Woe unto us if we seek to proselytize to our narrow views, those who hold the Truth in ways distasteful to our vanity or our party spirit,--if we will not have them live severely while we dwell in luxury, or turn from a world that is dear unto ourselves, or seek to serve their GOD save at our bidding and in our measure, because we would have them careless and frivolous even as we are.
Woe unto us if we exalt external forms of religion above the secret heart-service of Him Whose indwelling Presence in our souls, alone gives them value or reality.
Woe unto us if we have made our Christianity to consist in trifling observances, and clung with vehemence and angry defiance to matters of detail, while we neglect utterly the true worship of GOD in mercy, judgment, and faith.
Woe unto us if while we use all Sacramental ordinances for the cleansing of our souls in the sight of GOD and man, we yet fail to purge them inwardly of the evil thoughts and passions that defile them in secret.
Woe unto us if we appear to be white and fair in all the beauty of holiness, while by a subtle hypocrisy, scarce known to ourselves, we are concealing many a hidden sin that lies corrupting within us.
Woe unto us if while we adorn the House of GOD and show all reverence to the memory of His departed saints, we yet persecute those of His living people who differ from us, or despise and neglect them because they are humble and of low estate.
Thus it was that throughout the whole of that last day of the LORD'S ministry on earth, the burden of His teaching was ever against that hidden deep-rooted self-love which fatally destroys the Love of GOD within us, however specious an appearance of it we may wear even in our own eyes.
When the eight Woes had been pronounced, falling dread and solemn on the air as the strokes of a funeral bell sounding the knell of criminals approaching to their doom, then did the LORD begin to speak to His people in parables. Each one while it foreshadowed His own swift coming death for our redemption, told also how we and many in the generations yet to come would crucify Him anew, by giving to the world and to our chosen idols the love and fealty He bought to be His own at the cost of His priceless Sacrifice. "This is the Heir, come, let us kill Him, and the inheritance shall be ours."
We long to enjoy the sweets of life rather than to labour in His vineyard through heat and cold, in pain and thirst and hunger,--and it may be that we have acted as though we had said, "Let us kill Him in our hearts, that the inheritance of this fair world and all its joys may yet be ours."
"Then said He to His servants, The marriage is ready." We have seen how He has spread a table for us in the wilderness of this world, with the Eucharistic Feast whereby we are bound to Him in the power of that resurrection life which shall merge into eternal union, when we drink with Him of the new chalice at the marriage supper of the Lamb; but have we come to the foretaste, at His earthly altar, of the hour when He shall raise us up from the dead, without having probed the secret depths of our spirits, only perhaps to find them yet so filled with human hopes and desires that there is no room for Him to take up His abode within us in sacramental fulness?
"Then shall the kingdom of Heaven be likened into ten virgins, which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the Bridegroom."
We have ostensibly been going forth to meet Him from that first hour when His name was given us in the baptismal waters, and through all the years that we have lived since then, we have borne our lamps with their flickering uncertain light before the world's eyes, but how shall it be with us when the midnight cry is heard of His dear coming? Did not the LORD say centuries before He came to us on earth, that He would only accept the offering of "oil for the light and for sweet incense," which is given willingly with the heart? and if ours has been but a scanty grudging supply, surely the oil will fail and the Light fade out in our lamp before the brightness of His unveiled Presence.
"A certain nobleman .... called his ten servants, and delivered them ten pounds, and said unto them, Occupy till I come."
So too of the gifts which He entrusted to us each one according to our several ability, that we should use them for the increase of His kingdom upon earth, and the winning of many helpless souls to enter with us into His eternal joy. What if we have held aloof from His erring wanderers, the ignorant, the poor, the sinful, wrapt in our own pride and selfishness,--preserving His gifts intact, but all unfruitful, so that when the hour comes to render them back we can but come before Him alone with empty hands and say, "There Thou hast that is Thine."
Finally, the teaching of that sad day culminates in the most awful words that ever sounded from the Divine lips on earth,--the words truly in which are summed up all promise of undying joy, all warning of unutterable pain: the beatitudes of His first utterances contending again with the woes of His last, in the ineffable summons, "Come, ye blessed," and the dreadful sentence, "Depart, ye cursed."
"When Jesus had finished all these sayings, He went out of the temple." And well may we believe that the only faint gleam of light which relieved the dark shadow of that day for Him, was in the crystal purity of that clear shining love which enabled the poor widow to offer to her GOD not of her slender substance only, but all that she had, "even all her living."
If the warning of this day against self-seeking in its most subtle forms cuts deep into our very heart, striking at the root of our most hidden desires, yet is there a consolation waiting on our acceptance of that searching pain, which transcends in its unspeakable sweetness, far as the heavens above the earth, the worst agony we can endure,--for when the soul is emptied of self, then, and then alone, will CHRIST come to abide within it in fulness of possession, and the bitter pangs of renunciation give place to rapturous peace, when we hear stealing on our consciousness the words that seem to echo from the very Throne of GOD, "Lo, I am with you always."