On the wall of my study, behind my desk, there is a framed copy of a poem by George Herbert; a gift from a friend as I left Edinburgh to come to be your Minister. The poem is probably one of Herbert’s best-known works.
Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lacked any thing.
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.
On Good Friday, traditionally, many people hold vigil between the hours of noon and three in the afternoon, remembering and honouring the agony of Christ on the cross. My own reflections yesterday took me to the Solemn Reproaches from the Cross which are part of the ancient liturgy of the Church for Good Friday and which I have been accustomed to using in Good Friday services for many years. One familiar stanza reads thus:
O my people, O my church,
what have I done to you,
or in what have I offended you?
I led you forth from the land of Egypt
and delivered you by the waters of baptism,
but you have prepared a cross for your Saviour.
It is rightly said that the Church, not least in the Reformed Tradition, has at times done gross disservice to the Gospel, when it has sought to heap shame upon ordinary folk and to instil a fundamental sense of worthlessness. Dorothy and I watched a YouTube broadcast of a National Theatre production of Jane Eyre on Thursday evening and the scenes from Lowood School bore eloquent witness to that tradition. The love of God was said to be the driving force of that Victorian institution but was cruelly and shameful experienced as brutality and heartlessness; sadly, an all too familiar tale, even today.
Today is Black Saturday; commemorative of the long hours of darkness and despair felt most acutely by those who longed to go to the tomb to wash and anoint the body of Jesus; an emotional necessity which was stronger even than the urge to give way to utter despair. The bereavement of a friend and saviour lost, and of hopes and dreams apparently crushed, must have been overwhelming but it did not conquer the love which drove them to rise before dawn and to go to the tomb without any sense of how they would gain access.
Today is a day, above all days, for honesty. As we endure the isolation of lockdown we can perhaps move a little closer to understanding the terrible isolation of Christ; suffered for us.
“He descended into hell” as the creed affirms. On Good Friday, it is right that we fix our gaze on the cross and that we do not turn away from its horrors. Part of that horror is our own complicity in the crucifixion of God; for honesty demands that we recognise that every time we reject God’s love as the supreme rule of our lives; we cruelly reject and abuse God, who is perfect love. This is sin.
Yet it is equally true that we stray from the path and misunderstand God, if we somehow wallow in the shame and remorse to which such reflection leads us. Even more do we misrepresent what God in Christ has done for us, if we imagine that our salvation lies in our remorse and in our efforts to overcome sin through self-will and discipline. George Herbert reminds us that “Love bids us welcome” as we are. Despite our lack of gratitude, our selfish unkindness, the ways “we mar the very gifts of God” as we abuse them, the perfect Love, which is God, insists upon our taking our place at His table. God calls us to “taste my meat” which is perfect and unconditional acceptance. It is only when we embrace that truth into our very selves, as did the women who stood vigil at the cross and went, beyond reason, to express their love through the anointing of a corpse, that we can truly discover the freedom of service to Christ. It is the freedom of being held, despite ourselves, in the grace of God.