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EASTER OCTAVE, DAY SIX (Good Friday): "Was Ever Grief Like Mine?

EASTER OCTAVE, DAY SIX (Good Friday): "Was Ever Grief Like Mine?"

By Stephen Noll
April 18, 2019

Today's meditation for Good Friday comes from three poems by the Anglican poet George Herbert (1593-1633): "The Agony," "The Sacrifice," and "Love." These three themes sum up the words and work of our Lord on the Cross that first Good Friday.

I became a Christian 53 years ago. Among those who witnessed to me at that time was a college friend, Ken Hovey, who shared with me the love of the English poet George Herbert (1593-1633). Ken devised a dramatic reading of Herbert's long Good Friday poem, "The Sacrifice." I have performed this dramatic reading on several occasions in church.

I am going to bracket "The Sacrifice," with two other poems by Herbert that bear on the theme of the day. The first is titled "The Agony." Herbert was highly educated in the Greek and Latin classics and was elected Orator of Cambridge University, a post he gave up in order to enter the parish ministry where he served in the village of Bemerton, outside Salisbury.
"The Agony" expresses his evaluation of worldly wisdom in the spirit of St. Paul: "For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God" (1 Corinthians 1:22-24).

Philosophers have measured mountains,
Fathomed the depths of seas, of states, and kings,
Walked with a staff to heaven, and traced fountains:
But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behoove:
Yet few there are that sound them: Sin and Love.

Who would know Sin, let him repair
Unto Mount Olivet; there shall he see
A man so wrung with pains, that all his hair,
His skin, his garments bloody be.
Sin is that press and vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruel food through every vein.

Who knows not Love, let him assay
And taste that juice, which on the cross a pike
Did set again abroach; then let him say
If ever he did taste the like.
Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as blood; but I, as wine.

In this brief poem, Herbert moves from the mysteries of the cosmos, examined by scientists and philosophers, to the central Christian mystery signified in the Eucharist: the twin mystery of sin and love. We do not truly understand the comprehensive bondage of Sin until we have looked at the Son of God sweating blood in Gethsemane, nor do we understand the depths of divine Love until we have seen that same blood oozing from his dead body. By choosing these two moments -- Gethsemane and the side-piercing moment of death -- Herbert suggests that Jesus' last agony -- agony meaning struggle or contest -- was not so much with his enemies as with his own divine nature, more than this, with his heavenly Father. (see my meditation on Day Four).

The second poem, arguably his greatest, is "Love" (III). It is a dialogue between the soul and an enigmatic figure called "Love." In one way, it represents preparation for taking Holy Communion, relatively infrequent in Herbert's day but preceded by a lengthy exhortation to the people to "search and examine your consciences as you should come holy and clean to such a godly and heavenly feast." In another poem ("The Reprisal"), Herbert admits the hopelessness of success at such a task: "I have considered it and find there is no dealing with thy mighty passion: For though I die for Thee, I am behind; My sins deserve the condemnation." Nevertheless, Herbert concludes, "by confession I shall come into the conquest." Hence the great Reformation theme of justification by faith is ultimately a confession of the Savior, "who loved me and gave himself for me" (Galatians 2:19).


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 anything.
"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.

In this brief poem, we follow the movement of the Triune God from creation, sin, redemption and communion. For "Love" we can substitute "Jesus" just as we can in St. Paul's great hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13.

Let us now move to "The Sacrifice." This poem essentially tells the story of the Passion from Gethsemane to Jesus' Death. My college friend Ken discovered there are two voices in this poem: a narrator and a commentator. The two-fold character of this poem reflects the full significance of Jesus' saving work. The narrative voice tells the story the way the synoptic Gospels themselves tell it. After Gethsemane, Jesus no longer speaks in parables about fulfilling prophecy. Strengthened through the "agony" of prayer, He sets his face to the Cross and remains silent in the face of unjust accusations. The commentator's is the voice of Deity held back, the voice of Prophecy falling into place, the voice of Wisdom speaking from the whirlwind in a cloud of Paradox, what St. Paul will call the scandal and folly of the Cross.

In this retelling of the Passion story, you in the [online] congregation are asked to participate by joining in a chorus, asking rhetorically "Was ever grief like mine?" By joining the chorus, you may recall that Jesus' death is not simply an historical fact of 2000 years ago -- it is that to be sure -- but beyond that, it is an event with ongoing significance and power, which we are called to participate in. By joining the interrogative chorus, we also remember that the Gospel is a continuing mystery for us to ponder for ourselves and to proclaim to all peoples.

At two points, you will notice a change in the refrain to: "Never was grief like mine!" The first of these emphatic statements comes after the cry: "My God, My God..." The second comes at the end when "all is finished." These are the moments of deepest mystery, when the Son expresses his utter alienation from the Father; and when with His dying breath He explains why such alienation was His chosen business: "My woe, man's weal." It is all for us and it is enough.

Let us now go to the Garden of Gethsemane on Maundy Thursday evening after the Last Supper where Jesus is praying.

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