We tend to know Psalm 22 from its beginning; rarely do we hear how it ends. Today that has been rectified. The cry of desolation we know so well – ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ which we will immediately recognise as Christ’s last question from the Cross in Mark’s Gospel and which we will probably have heard echoed in our own minds when in deep adversity – is answered with consolation: ‘…he did not hide his face from me , but heard when I cried to him..’
One thing we all know is that our lives go through phases as articulated so beautifully but simply by the book of Ecclesiastes. But one thing we, as Christians, need to pay attention to is what is at the bottom of it all. Is this just a cycle we have to go through – one where joy and contentment come to be replaced by sadness and grief before returning, in due time, if we are fortunate – and which we just need to embrace?
At one level I think that we do. The Buddhist notion of impermanence accepts that everything changes – or as Bertie Wooster put it: ‘It’s always just when a fellow is feeling particularly braced with things in general that Fate sneaks up behind him with the bit of lead piping.’ But I think that is certainly an improvement on the idea that life is just one hard slog through a vale of tears.
Mark’s Gospel, where Jesus urges his disciples to pick up their individual crosses and follow him, can be taken to exalt suffering as a good thing in itself. This way of thinking has caused a lot damage, particularly where those in power have bullied or abused others with the justification that the victim is being somehow ennobled. Slave masters and abusers have used this twisted logic.
Christianity proclaims the conviction that love is the foundational reality of existence. But just as the love we have for others, or the love we are shown by others, can’t protect against the tragic element of existence, God’s love has to operate within the context of an intransigent universe, which is no longer Eden.
I picked out a couple of poems by George Herbert this week because he was one of the wisest voices that has blessed the church by speaking honestly of the realities of what it is to be a human being, whilst simultaneously celebrating the consolation of knowing that God is loving, concerned and calling us to a joyful and purposeful life, which has significance beyond its fame or success.
Herbert, who died in 1633, before the age of 40, and probably of TB, was someone who came of age at the time the Church of England was finding its feet. His understanding of faith was shaped by a profound understanding of the riches of Scripture, the liturgies of the church and even the architecture of parish churches. His influence on our church has been so extensive that the 27th February was set apart as a day to remember him. It strikes me that that is very fortunate as we continue to allow ourselves to be encouraged by the themes of the season of Lent. And I am not sure that anyone has captured the heart of faith better than he did in the poem, ‘Love bade me welcome’, which you can all read here:
Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guiltie of dust and sinne,
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lack’d any thing.
A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkinde, ungratefull? Ah my deare,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My deare, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.
Herbert’s poem is a meditation on the Eucharist, where we are invited by God into his presence and acknowledge our frailty and need, but where we are also reminded that Christ bade sinners welcome, having taken the price of sin upon his own shoulders. Love bids us welcome and receives us with open arms whenever we return.
The poem, ‘The Call’ echoes this same idea in the second verse, but also gives shape to the spiritual life. The call to carry our cross is framed in a way drawn from St John’s Gospel. This is a way to respond to God’s love and call to us that enriches our life, rather than saddles it with crippling anxiety.
Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life;
Such a Way as gives us breath,
Such a Truth as ends all strife,
Such a Life as killeth death.
Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength;
Such a Light as shows a Feast,
Such a Feast as mends in length,
Such a Strength as makes his guest.
Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart;
Such a Joy as none can move,
Such a Love as none can part,
Such a Heart as joys in love.
I suggest that you use both poems for meditation. Please don’t let yourselves be put off by the antique language or the exalted status of ‘poetry’; just see what the words have to say to you.