Passion week is here again and if you are like me, sometimes assistance is needed in order to engage in fruitful meditation on Christ’s pathway to the cross. Let me offer a suggestion that I have found to be moving and profound in this regard. It is the poem entitled Sacrifice by the 17th century poet and pastor George Herbert. The text of the poem may be found on the internet here: http://www.ccel.org/h/herbert/temple/Sacrifice.html
But let me warn you at the outset: light reading this is not. To begin with, it is 252 lines long and its cadence is intentionally ponderous: creating a virtual Via Dolorosa in words. Add to this the challenges for the modern reader of wading through old English words and phrases, as well as our impatient reading habits – we tend to skim texts to get through them quickly rather than slowly digesting words and phrases in meditation - and the poem can seem rather daunting for most today. But for those who make the ‘sacrifice’ (pun intended) of time and effort, the poem will yield up rich spiritual rewards.
In reading the poem one enters the mind of Christ as he plods each step of the path toward betrayal, arrest, courtroom trials, torture and ultimately death. The sense of plodding is accentuated by the repeated refrain (every 4th line and the end of nearly every stanza) “Was ever grief like mine?” By the time one reaches the end he will have trudged through nearly every detail of the passion story as processed through the mind Christ Himself yielding fascinating psychological and theological insights. For example, in reflecting on Judas Iscariot’s betrayal, He ponders the fact that:
For thirty pence he did my death devise
Who at three hundred did the ointment prize (lines 17-18)
The reference is to the story of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet (John 12:1-10) in which Judas balks at the waste of 300 denarii worth of ointment. I had never connected in my mind the incongruity of the relative values reflected in those two incidents. Yet how often do our actions reflect similar valuations.
Often the lines reveal some stunning paradox, as when Herbert depicts the approach of the soldiers at Gethsemane to arrest Jesus with these words:
Arise, arise, they come. Look how they run.
Alas! What haste they make to be undone!
How with their lanterns do they seek the sun! (lines 33-35)
The mental image of foolish soldiers seeking he who is “the rising sun” (Luke 1:78) with lanterns is almost comical and yet profound at the same time. Yet the poem is loaded with similar enlightening paradoxes.
Many of the stanzas also make subtle references to other passages of Scripture which are easily missed. So for example in lines 161-163 Christ connects the crown of thorns to a passage in Isaiah 5:6-7 which speaks of Israel/Zion as a vineyard planted by the Lord that yields only briers and thorns. The text of those lines reads:
Then on my head a crown of thorns I wear:
For these are all the grapes Sion doth bear,
Though I my vine planted and watred there:
A similar Old Testament allusion occurs in lines 201-201 where Herbert connects the cross of Christ to the tree of life in the Garden of Eden:
O all ye who pass by, behold and see;
Man stole the fruit, but I must climb the tree;
The tree of life to all, but only me:
The plodding refrain that runs through the poem is interrupted only twice: once at the last line of the poem and once at that critical moment when on the cross Christ cried out “My God, My God why have you forsaken me?” In Herbert’s poem the unfinished cry is followed not by the expected question “Was ever grief like mine?” but the positive assertion “Never was grief like mine.” (line 216)
In the end the poem explores the incredible mystery of the paradox of Christ’s suffering captured beautifully in lines 229-231:
Betwixt two thieves I spend my utmost breath,
As he that for some robbery suffereth.
Alas! What have I stolen from you? Death:
I hope I have whet your appetite for more – and so much more is there. May it lead many of you into ever deeper reflections on the mysterious love of God that we reflect on at this time each year…