How much more then, since we are now justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath. Romans 5:9
There is a something of fascination even in the ordinary stories of human sorrow. They reach a depth which stories of human triumph cannot reach. They bring with them a deeper pathos, a sublime meaning; and they win for those who suffer, a sympathy too sacred to be lavished on anything less noble than sorrow. Take the lowliest life man ever lived; surround it, if you will, with every mean commonplace that can strip human life of the innate dignity that is in it; place a man in what servile position you will; yet if, amidst all the degradation of circumstances, you throw around him the mantle of many sorrows, he will make his appeal to the compassion of the human heart; and his claim will be allowed, and men who never looked upon his face will drop a tear over the story of his sorrows.
But why, upon a night like this, do I stay to speak of merely human sorrows? How comes it that, with the figure of the dead Christ looming through the shadows of the Church’s mourning, I dare to turn my thoughts and yours to any sorrow less sacred than the sorrow that crowned with a crown of agony, the brow of the expiring Savior? Ah, to me the reason is obvious. It is because the human heart shrinks back instinctively from such a mystery of sorrow as we contemplate to-day. It is because, recognizing in sorrows which, compared to this, shrink into insignificance, a depth we almost fail to reach, we feel the almost hopelessness of bringing home to ourselves with anything like completeness, the history of our Savior’s Passion. We go up the hill of Calvary, as the three disciples went up Mount Tabor; as they, to see Him glorified, so we, to see Him wrapped around, with all the ignominy that came of His self-sacrifice; and we, though crying aloud like the, “Lord, it is good for us to be here,” like them too, veil our faces before the vision, and fall stricken to the earth by the revelation of that stupendous mystery of sorrow.
And yet, it is not in a spirit that is all sadness we come to celebrate the Passion of our Lord. Though the Church has put aside her crimson and her gold, for the robes of mourning; though she has stripped her altars of everything of beauty that might seem a sign of joy; though she pours forth her pathetic lamentation over the blood-shedding by which she herself was purchased; and she cannot but look to the tidings of great joy that lie beneath the surface. She cannot, when she bethinks her of the blessings which it brought, help styling this day emphatically “good’” and when in her processions the cross is raised aloft, she light again the lights upon her altars, and, as she marches on beneath the sacred emblem, she comes to see in it a victorious standard, and her song of sorrow swells into a peal of triumph.
And why should it be otherwise? If Jesus dies, did He not die to save a fallen world? If He lay in agony in Gethsemane, did He not bear up the burden of the sins of men? If hands and feet were dug, and side pierced, was it not that salvation might flow out upon the world” And if He hung three hours of mortal agony upon the Cross, did He not hang there an all-atoning sacrifice for the sins of men? Yes, if the mystery of Calvary be a mystery of infinite sorrow, it is a mystery no less of infinite love.
Passing from the supper-room of Jerusalem, Jesus, with His disciples, crossed the brook of Cedron, and passed up the Mount of Olives to the Garden of Gethsemane; and there He said to His disciples, “My soul is sorrowful, even unto death,” and taking with Him Peter and James and John, He went apart a little and entered into His agony. The night wind faintly rustles through the olives; the white moonlight falls softly on the place; the voices of the day are hushed to silence; night has brought its peace to all the sons of men. To all? Ah, not to all; for there, apart from human consolation, with none to look on him save God and one favored angel, a Man lies prostrate. His whole frame is convulsed, His body racked with deathly agony, moans of anguish break upon the silence, and as the sweat streams down His face, each drop is a red drop of blood. It is a dreadful thing to see a strong man writhe with anguish – a dreadful thing to see a strong man weep; but on! What is it when the tears are tears of blood!
And who is the lonely Sufferer? Ah, but a few short days ago His ears were filled with loud “hosannas,” the palm branches were strewn beneath His feet. He made His entry into Jerusalem as a king. But a little while ago, and He has passed among the people of the land scattering blessings through their homesteads as He went. There had been healing in His touch, and more than once His voice had broken the spell of death. Who is He? A few years ago earth had not seen Him, yet He, the person who lies prostrate in his agony, was from all eternity the eternal son of the eternal Father. Oh, what mystery is here! Who has been able to draw down the Son of the living God from the height of glory to the profoundest depths of sorrow? Who has, to all outward seeming, conquered the Eternal Word? Has the old struggle that Michael crushed, revived again, and, after long waiting, have the rebel angels got the victory at last? Not so. Two things have done this to Jesus-love and sin: love, that would not see the world lost because of sin; sin, that would have ruined the world but for love. Si has done this: as Jesus lies in agony He is crushed to the blood-stained earth, but the weight of all the sins that shall ever blacken the annals which recording angel writes of the fallen world. The sin of Adam – the fountain of earth’s many miseries – the fratricide of Cain, the traitorous kiss of Judas, all the public sins that have branded nations with disgrace and made the homes of peoples desolate, the murders, the robberies, the impurities with which earth shall be defiled unto the end – all press with crushing weight upon the overlade heart of the agonizing Savior. The sins that dim the glory of youth, and those that make unholy the death-bed of expiring age; the secret sins, committed where no eye but the eye of God might see them, unknown as yet, but which, surely as God lives, shall be shown in all their black enormity, before the assembled race of Adam, when the angel’s trumpet of doom shall have quickened the dead world. The treachery of false friends, the slanders of lying tongues, the blasphemies of impious lips, the unholy meditations of impure hearts, the wiles of the seducer, the unspeakable malice of the corrupters of youthful innocence – all the sins of men, were pressing at that hour upon the innocent soul of Jesus. He had taken them upon Himself as if they were His own; He had clothed Himself with them as with a garment – they clung to Him and mastered Him; and but for a miracle of love, a miracle wrought that He might reserve Himself for further suffering, He would have died alone amid the olives of Gethsemane. No wonder that His soul was sorrowful unto death. No wonder the cry should have gone up from His stricken heart, “Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass from me.” What! Does He shrink from the bitter draught? Are the world’s hopes about to be destroyed? Have all the prophecies of the past been made in vain? Ah, no. Sharp and bitter though His sufferings were, keen though the agony, terrible as was the prospect of the sufferings yet to come, in that sublime moment love conquered with an easy victory, and, without a pause, our Savior, now indeed our Savior by solemn acceptance of the sacrifice, cried aloud, “Not my will, but Thine be done.”
And now I will ask each of you a very solemn question – What sins of y ours weighed heavy on the heart of Jesus; what drops of bitterness have you poured into the chalice of His sorrows? Who dare answer – who dare rise up and tell aloud the crimes of his, that swelled the torrent of the sorrows of Gethsemane? Well, be silent, if you will; but enter into the secret chamber of your own souls, that dark spot where sin has buried the past in a grave so unholy, that even memory fears to visit it again, and there, weeping contrite tears, let them fall into the chalice, and sweeten the bitter draught which Jesus emptied to the dregs.
But hark! The silence of the night is broken by the tramp of hurrying feet. Lights strike through the distant shadows is; the lonely agony is done; and Jesus, rising from the blood-stained earth, goes forth to meet His enemies. One foe outstrips the rest, and hastens to his prey. Nearer he comes and nearer. A foe, did I say? Ah, surely not a foe! There is a smile upon his lips. Is not this Judas, one of the twelve chosen by Him who read the human heart like an open book – Judas, who, but a few short hours ago, assisted at the first Mass, and partook of the most sublime mystery of love that even the heart of the Man God could devise? Yes, it is even Judas; but, alas for human gratitude and human faith, Judas has sold his Master – has put away the memory of three blessed years of companionship with his God – has trampled on the countless graces of a call to the apostleship. He began the night with the first bad Communion, and now, O God! The traitor’s lips are on the lips of Jesus. And He – He whose eye discerns the blackness of the treacherous heart - never thinks of shrinking from the traitor’s kiss. The eyes that look down to the very depths of the traitor’s heart, are eyes of mercy still. The lips fresh from the defilement of the traitor’s kiss, open to call the traitor “friend.” What! Judas called a friend by lips that never lie! Ah! A mystery; is here of long-suffering love, which narrow hearts like ours can never compass. “Friend, for what hast thou come!” Men would call it irony; but irony, the child of scorn, never found a place on the lips of Jesus. He pauses, as it were, upon the threshold of His public suffering, to give voice to a thought that must have risen in our hearts at the spectacle of His lonely agony – that, black though be the traitorous heart, and though the smile upon the sinner’s lip may be a lie before high Heaven, yet there is no hour while the lifeblood flows, and while the sinner’s heart throbs on, in which Jesus is not ready, nay, yearning, to take him to His heart again.
Jesus is led unresisting before the High Priest, and stands, with all the sublime patience of a determined purpose, bearing the jeer and the jibe and the buffet – hurried from Caiphas to Pilate, and from Pilate to Herod, through the streets where those who mocked Him now in what seemed His fall. But even the malicious ingenuity of those who thirsted for His blood, fails to bring against Him proof of a single crime. Pilate, a stranger to the local prejudices of the Jews, can find no cause in Him, and publicly declares Him innocent. But they hunger for His life: and voices, that but a day or two before had cried “Hosanna,” shriek hoarsely now, “Away with Him, away with Him; crucify Him, crucify Him.” And Pilate, the unjust judge, worked upon by a skillful appeal to his personal interest, yielded to their outcries. Yielded, but not without a struggle, for he who was not noble enough to fight for justice against personal interest yet felt remorse enough to make him stoop to artifice. He brings before them Jesus and Barabbas. One of them must needs be put to death: which it is to be, let the people judge. Who Jesus was, we know; but, who was Barabbas? A notorious malefactor, a robber and a murderer, one who had outraged every law, human and divine, and trampled on every ordinance that keeps society together. His hand had been against every man, and every man’s hand against him, till at length, wearied by his crimes, men had risen against him, as against some savage beast: he had been hunted to his lair, and all Jerusalem had rejoiced when he was led fettered to her prisons. And yet, impelled by the demon passion of mad cruelty and furious injustice, they have taken Barabbas, and rejected Jesus, and in words that thrill one in the reading, even after eighteen hundred years, they invoked on themselves the curse that has worked so visibly ever since – “His blood be upon us and upon our children, it would seem that, even the far-reaching wisdom of God was well-nigh exhausted in devising every circumstance that could invest the passion with unexampled bitterness. But, while we reprobate the conduct of the Jewish rabble, and turn with horror from the story of their injustice, lo, a question that must be answered, starts up from the depths of awakened conscience – Can it be possible that we, even we, have sometimes rejected Jesus, and taken to our hearts the Barabbas of some vile passion?
The sentence has been passed, and Jesus has been handed over to a brutal soldiery. Who can tell the story of that long night of anguish! We may not pause to mark the stages of that agony; a life time would not suffice to realize a tithe of the bitterness that was in it. We may not pause to detail how the scourge tore and hissed through His sacred flesh, and left such disfigurement upon Him, that even Mary, save by the unerring instinct of mother’s love, would scarce have known the son whom she had borne; how the thorny crown pressed heavy on His aching temples, each thorn a very passion in itself; how the soldiers mocked and spat upon Him, and vexed His overborne heart with words of bitterest insult; how His disciples fled from Him in His sorest need; and how one, the one whom He had distinguished above the rest, frightened by the sound of a woman’s voice, thrice denied Him with an oath.
Laden, at length, with the heavy cross, Jesus goes on to Calvary. Thrice did He fall upon that last sad journey, and thrice the brutal soldiers dragged Him to His feet again. Never since the world began was seen, and never shall be seen again till the world shall end, a journey such as this. Amid the yells and curses of a furious crowd, uncheered save by the tears of a few women of Jerusalem, He goes onward to the doom which men had pronounced against their God. At length He comes to Calvary. And, oh! Surely now, there has been suffering enough: surely God will stay the arm of His vengeance against Him Who is laden with the self-imposed burden of the sins of men, surely God will be as merciful to His only begotten Son as He was of old to the son of Abraham, and will provide another victim. But no; there comes no voice from heaven to stay the sacrifice – the Lord of Hosts must die.
Stripped violently of His garments, which cling to His wounded flesh, He is laid upon the cross, and the execution commences. The rough nails tear and crash through bone, and sinew, and muscle; the heart grows sick with agony, the frame convulses, and through the tortured body a wave of anguish surges, as if upon each straining nerve there hung a separate agonizing life. The cross is lifted up, and dropped into its place with a shock that strains each nerve, and opens every wound again. Three hours - oh! What hours agony unutterable - He hung upon the cross, and then, amid the darkness of an affrighted world, bowing down His weary, wounded head, crying out with a loud voice, “All is consummated,” Jesus died. Yes, it was consummated – the mysteries of three-and-thirty years have found an explanation in that death-cry. The chains have fallen from the race of Adam – the world has been redeemed.
And now, standing sadly beneath the cross, looking up through blinding tears on the face of the dead Christ, we ask – Who has done this? Is there one who listens whose soul is stained with deadly sin? To him I say, thou art the man. Thou is was, and not another, who pressed the chalice to His lips amid the olives of Gethsemane; thou it was, and not another, who kissed Him with the treacherous kiss of Judas; thy hand hath plied the cruel scourge, hath pressed upon His aching brow the crown of thorns; thou hast preferred to Him the robber, Barabbas, hast made His cross so heavy and so heard to bear. Yes; God though He was, sinless though He was, thy sin hath killed Him.
And is there pardon any more for sin, since sin has done a deed like this? Ah! Look up into that dead face, and see, if even death has had the power to banish the lines of deepest tenderness. Who dare stand beneath the cross and say that, it is hard for sin to be forgiven? Who, in those hours of agony – hours the most sacred and most solemn that the world can ever witness – who stood by Him in His agony? Mary might well be there, for she was His mother, and she was sinless; John might well be there, for Jesus loved him for his purity: but Magdalene - she, who but a little while ago had lifted an unblushing brow of sin the streets of Jerusalem – should such a one as she be there? Oh! Dear Jesus, Thou wouldst have it so; and what sinner can hesitate to approach Thee, when he knows that the last look of love from an expiring Savior was shared alike by Mary the sinless and Mary the sinner.
But, one thing is necessary – sincere repentance. With it Judas had been saved, without it Peter would have perished. All powerful in its efficacy though the blood of Jesus be, there is just one thing it will not do. It will not, may not, cannot save the unrepentant sinner. Let us ask Him by all the memories of which this night is full, to turn on us such a look as that with which He looked at Peter. Let us ask Mary - whom, in His hour of bitterest anguish, He forgot not to leave us as our mother – to turn her eyes of mercy on us. And oh! When we, too, come to die, when the pale lips tremble in the agony, may those sweet names be last to linger on them. And when our weary heats throb on to the great silence of death, may every throb go up to God, laden with the two acts we learn from the mystery of the Cross – an act of sorrow and an act of love. Amen.