When they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem they took branches of palm trees and went forth to meet him. -New Testament.
The fact that we have again reached that portion of time, by many thousands of our fellow mortals called “Holy Week,” is sufficient, of itself, to claim our attention. Whatever else may be thought concerning it, there is an almost universal agreement that it symbolizes one of the most impressive events of human history. Perhaps in its effects upon the world no other event surpasses it in importance. The uncertainty as to the exact date of the occurrence, commemorated by these holy days, need not chill our hearts. It need not rob the event itself of any of its significance. The truth is always greater than its symbol. Appearances become small in presence of the reality.
“Deep love lieth under
These pictures of time,
They fade in the light
Of their meaning sublime,”
When looking at a mountain no one is disturbed because of uncertainty as to its exact height. It is large enough in every way to fill the horizon and eclipse all smaller objects. It is not definitely known when Dante was born nor when he began to write his great poem. But no one is much troubled by this lack of definite information. All curiosity as to date sinks away in presence of the unquestioned fact that, some-time in the thirteenth century, a great genius appeared in Italy and gave to the world an imperishable poem. Thus, in thinking of the occurrence recalled by these sacred days, no one need be embarassed by doubts as to dates. In presence of the one great certainty all uncertainties seem trifling, The variable is lost in the unalterable and enduring.
It is not only pleasant, but it is profitable, at times, to turn from speculation to fact, from philosophy to history, There is no other form of knowledge so valuable as that which comes by way of observation and experience. Example is the best method of teaching. Not only at Gettysburg, as Lincoln eloquently suggested, but everywhere that which is done is more valuable than that which is said. A finished statue or picture is more eloquent than a lecture upon art. Burn’s poem on the daisy is less beautiful than the flower itself; and Shelley’s poem on the lark than the bird itself rising from the English meadows into the upper air singing as it soars. Sheba’s queen had heard of the splendor of Solomon’s court, but, when she saw it, she confessed the half had not been told her. No amount of abstract reasoning concerning how a man would act under certain trying circumstances can be as correct or as impressive as an account of the way in which he actually did conduct himself.
Thus history comes with a power of instruction to which philosophy can never attain. It is not a theory of Mankind; it is mankind itself. It is not a speculation as to the way human beings might act; it is the way in which they have acted and are acting. In the realm of philosophy and abstract theology we are all partial skeptics. It is the unveiling of the actual that removes our doubts and lifts us out of all indifference. Biography is the only correct theory of a life. NQ one can explain why, from among all objects presented to him, Achilles chose a sword; why Angelo chose a chisel and a pencil; why Shakespeare selected poetry; why Beethoven poured his soul out in music. . We may know from chemistry that soil will produce flowers, but no one could have predicted that it would produce them in so many forms and colors. Thus there is no way of foretelling what a life will be in all its details. We must wait for the life to be lived. Seeing is the best ground for believing. Our philosophy must be largely a product of experience.
Therefore it is a pleasure as well as a necessity, at times, for us to turn away from all theories and philosophies of religion to the example furnished by an actual religious life. This period furnishes such an opportunity. In autumn the mountains hold aloft a gorgeous panorama that all may behold and admire it. This is what the life and death of Jesus do for religion. We may turn from philosophy to an event.
Turning toward that scene we may not see all that other ages have seen. Looking toward Olympus, the Greeks saw a mountain enveloped by mystery. It was untrodden by the feet of any mortal. On its unknown heights was enthroned the great Jove surrounded by many smaller deities. Looking toward Parnassus, they pictured it as the home of the muses. These mountains are still there, but the supernatural beings have long since forsaken them. The mountains re-main unchanged, but a great change has come to the minds that contemplate them. Modern man still believes in the existence of divine Powers that hold the destiny of all things in their keeping. The difference is that now he thinks of them as inhabiting, not a single spot alone, but as present in every part of the universe. We still find music and poetry and many other arts in the world, but we no more think of them as borne in the hands of beautiful nymphs down from the wooded slopes of Helicon.
In the same way and for the same reason, those who now look toward Calvary may not be able to see all that their ancestors thought they saw. It is a well known law that everything takes a part of its meaning and character from the mind that beholds it. A landscape cannot be the same to a farmer it is to an artist. A lumberman and a poet place a very different valuation upon a forest. Thus the statesman, the warrior, and the theologian will each give a somewhat different interpretation to a historic occurrence. It is often said that those who are the principal actors in making history are not the best judges of what is being done. There is needed the perspective that the centuries furnish in order to form a correct estimate of events. For this reason, perhaps our era is better fitted to interpret the meaning of the tragic Palestine event than were some of those lying nearer it in point of time.
The fact that some of our ancestors thought that the crucifixion was a sacrifice to appease the wrath of Jehovah does not prove the truth of the theory. Many of our ancestors believed that earth was a plain instead of a sphere; believed that the universe was made from nothing in six days; believed that the world is only six thousand years old. Sincerity is no protection against error. Not only mistakes have been made, but crimes have been commited by those who were sincere. When Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter, to appease the wrath of Diana, he thought he was doing a divine thing. After ages regarded that act as a crime. Nor can apparent results be justly cited to prove the righteousness of an act. Sometimes that which may, at first, appear to be an effect is only a coincidence. The claim that Diana was appeased, because, soon after the sacrifice was made, a favoring breeze arose to waft the Greek fleet toward Troy, falls to the ground when confronted by the logic of the modern mind which insists that no such goddess as Diana ever existed outside of the Greek imagination, The wind that arose was not the result of the sacrifice, but of a natural law which makes calm and storm alternate like the rhythm of a great poem.
Thus the belief that the transaction on Calvary was a sacrifice to placate the anger of God must pass into decline in presence of that reasoning which displaces the foundation of the belief. It is now impossible for a rational mind to think of Deity as one who would demand that kind of satisfaction. It is scarcely possible to conceive of a God as cursing his world. It comes much nearer satisfying the modern mind and heart to think of Calvary not as taking ferocity out of God, but taking a part of it out of man. Its moral effect was, not to change the character of Deity, but to change the character of humanity.
Sometimes we hear it said that, if an atonement by substitution was not made, the life and death of Jesus have no meaning. If he were not God, offering himself for the sins of mankind, there is no reason for remembering him. His name should be permitted to pass out of religious history. Sometimes young per-sons are told, in the Sunday Schools, that if they do not accept him as a God they should denounce him as an impostor. It is hardly necessary to point out the absurdity of that kind of teaching. The common-sense of most young people is quite equal to the task of correcting such false instruction. Its foolishness would only be equalled by those who should say that, if the sun of our solar system is not the only sun of all the universe, it is a fraud and we will have nothing more to do with it. We will sing no more hymns in its praise; we will not welcome its return in spring; we will no more rejoice to see it shimmering down through apple-blossoms in spring or ripening t h e summer harvests. Meanwhile the sun keeps on its way, through the years and through the ages, regardless of what may be thought of it by any hasty and illogical mortal. So, unaffected by all false views of his personality or character, Jesus continues to hold his true place secure and sheds a noble influence upon each new generation of mankind. Between thinking of him as a God and thinking of him as an impostor there is ample room for many exalted meditations and many holy emotions.
Unprejudiced by traditional theology, looking intently upon the scenes lying in the earlier years of the first century of our great era, what do we see? In the first place we see an age ready for a change. The old order of things was ready to pass away. The philosophy of Greece had begun to decline. Its art had ripened and been reaped. The sun of Roman Imperialism had passed the zenith of its power, was rapidly westering, and the shadows were growing long and dense. Judaism had spent its force as a nationality and the country in which it had flourished had be-come a mere province of the Caesars. The last act of the great drama in which Greece and Rome and Egypt and Palestine had been the principal actors was drawing to its close.
Into the midst of these conditions there suddenly comes the form of a young man. He is about thirty years of age. Prior to this appearance, but little is known of him. He is seen as an infant and again at the age of twelve. There are eighteen years of his life that have fallen completely out of history. What manner of life he lived during those years cannot be known. The probabilities are that the eighteen missing years were lived in the normal way of Judean youth in that period. But, when the thirtieth year was reached, he is seen going with a multitude out to hear the impassioned hermit of the desert who was preaching the speedy coming of a new and better or-der of affairs. Ardent, sensitive, poetic by temperament, he was deeply impressed by the eloquent words of John the Baptist. They opened up a vision of new possibilities to his expectant soul. Unchilled by the discipline and disappointments of experience, which alas! so often, by turning one idea after another to dust, drives into perpetual banishment the enthusiasm of so many mortals in later years, he threw his life unreservedly into the new movement. He put him-self in training to become its apostle. As was not unusual in the Orient, for those who felt themselves called to perform similar tasks, he went apart and communed with the higher Powers that, if possible, he might find the ultimate meaning of existence. He came in contact with cold and hunger and loneliness and all inhospitable phases of life. Then he came back to the haunts of mankind and began to teach. At first his message was almost identical with that which he had heard by the Jordan. But soon a deeper meaning began to interfuse and glow within his words. His soul was on fire with a great thought:The sole worthy aim of human existence is spiritual. Tried by this test, governments, temples, kings and priests were mere passing phenomena. Meanwhile, the forerunner who had kindled this sacred and consuming ardor in his breast, had been arrested and cast into prison because he had dared to denounce wickedness in high places. But, undaunted, he kept on his way. Once kindled, the fire within him was self-nourishing. When the head of John the Baptist rolled from the block to please a dancing girl, with undiminished zeal this young apostle maintained his doctrine of the sovereignty of the spirit and was unsparing in his denunciations of present wrongs. He boldly declared his belief in the near destruction of the old order and the speedy coming of the new. Oppression must give way to benevolence; enmity must be succeeded by brotherhood; formalism must be supplanted by a religion of the free individual heart; the human soul is more important than the most venerable and most splendid temple. A revolution was impending that would sweep the Herods and their shameless luxuries, the priests and their soulless rituals from the earth. Perhaps no more sweeping indictment was ever framed against an age.
With varied fortune and incidents he moved through those three notable years. Sometimes speaking to a multitude on the hill-slopes or by the lake-side, at other times, in company with a few friends, he spoke of the deeper things of life. Now dining in the homes of the rich, again he is seen sitting at a meal with his humble friends at Bethany. A gentle, gracious man, it was easy for his friends to find a reason for loving and hard for his enemies to find a reason for hating him.
But a crisis was drawing near. He was making his last pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Apparently at the height of his popularity, yet the shadow of his impending doom had fallen over his pathway. Passing northward along the base of Olivet, near Bethphage, by the Garden of Gethsemane, then down across the brook Kedron, then up the hill and through the East-ward gate of the city he advanced like a conqueror. Every step of the way he was accompanied by a jubilant multitude, some waving palm branches, others, in their uncontrollable enthusiasm, carpeting the road with their cloaks, while, at intervals, all shouted
Bless him that comes in the name of the Lord:
Bless the approaching kingdom of David our father;
Hosanna in the highest!”
This was only a few days before his death. The human heart is sometimes very fickle. Perhaps some of those who, on that triumphal day, waved palm branches and sang hosannas, on the following Friday were of the mob that cried: “Crucify him!”
Into the sad details of that week we may not en-ter. To every reader of the Testament the story is painfully familiar. One who had been with him as a companion and perhaps, at times, had been thrilled by his spirit and had caught glimpses of his high purpose, for some reason plotted against him. Following his arrest came the trial. He was passed back and forth between the ecclesiastical and civil authorities, receiving insults at every step. The priests hated him because he opposed their institutions. Pilate regarded him as a harmless dreamer, but from fear of the priests and the mob consented to put him to death. Condemned by the ecclesiastical law, he was executed by the civil power. The Jewish high priest struck him in the face; a Roman soldier thrust a spear into his side. Caiaphas and Pilate each probably intended that the responsibility for the crime should rest upon the other. They were unsuccessful. For eighteen centuries both have been blamed and will most likely continue to be blamed as long as the crime is remembered by mankind.
Across all the flood of time one can still clearly see the scenes enacted in that far past,scenes that have sufficed to make one Friday of each year to stand as symbol of what is so sad and dark in human experience. One may picture the dismal procession filing out through the gate, across the ravine, and up the hill-side beyond to the fateful spot; the jeerings and buffetings of some in the crowd; Roman soldiers trying to keep the mob in check; the little company of friends, among whom were some sobbing women, following afar off; the halt at the chosen place and the planting of the cross; the indescribable anguish when it seemed as if God had forsaken him; the more than mortal agony which preceded the fatal moment; and, then, death itself. Neither can that Thursday night in the Garden be forgotten by one who has himself suffered, alone, or has a heart that can be touched by human grief. Life was dear to him. His affections were strong. He had the Jew’ s patriotism. He loved his native village. He was proud of Jerusalem. He was bound by a hundred ties to nature. He had father and mother and brothers and sisters. He was young and his life work only begun. All these ties he must sunder. With what gracious dignity he bore himself.
Insulted, he maintained silence. Misrepresented, he made no defense. Falling beneath the burden of the cross, no complaint escaped his lips. Presented the drugged potion, he refused it as if he wished to go in-to the great eternity with an unclouded mind Emptying his heart of all bitterness, he asked forgiveness for his enemies. Recalling the whole scene, the saying of Rousseau seems fitting: “If the death of Socrates was like a philosopher, that of Jesus was like a God.”
There is no need to magnify anything. The simple narrative is sufficiently wonderful without the introduction of the unnatural and miraculous. Concerning the event we need cherish no superstition. But, going back of all the legends that have grown around the event, and approaching it as rational beings we cannot avoid the impression that something of tremendous import for the world occurred in those days lying between the triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the sad retreat to Calvary. They gave birth to a new era in the history of mankind. It was the Renaissance of the spirit. Here was a conqueror who did not destroy; a sovereign without a sword; a revolutionist without violence. Here was loss that was gain; a de-feat that was victory; a death that was life.
It is often said that Jesus failed in accomplishing his purpose. The kingdom of God was not established on earth. We are told that it is too impracticable ever to be established. If so, then his work was a partial failure. But the question arises whether it is not more valuable to be a partial failure in some, than to be a perfect success in other undertakings. It may be better to die seeking liberty than to live contentedly in slavery. Perhaps it is better to be mastered by a great idea than to be master of some trifling custom. To be grandly mistaken may be more praiseworthy than to be meanly correct. It is nobler to stir the heart by a spiritual impulse, until it will attempt the impossible, than to lull it to slumber in the midst of wrongs by repeating to it some soothing and prudential maxims. When on the cross it was said of him in scorn: “He saved others, himself he cannot save.” Spoken in contempt, those words are now his greatest praise.
“Though love repine, and reason chafe,
There came a voice without reply,’
Tis man’s perdition to be safe,
When for the truth he ought to die.”
Thus, even if Jesus did fail to realize his dream, he is worth more to mankind than many of those who seem to have been successful. He stands forth as representative of those who see existence on its superior side. Under his hands the mysterious life-harp gave richer music. Striking the chord of duty, a clearer note was heard. Striking the chord of suffering, it gave back a note of triumph. Striking the chord of sacrifice, it responded with a tone of victory. Touching the chord of sorrow, it trembled into joy. Dying on the cross, forthwith it was made glorious and now, for centuries, has been made a symbol of triumph. Meeting death, he disarmed it of its ancient terror. Passing into the grave, from its dust have sprung the unfading flowers of a boundless hope and trust.
Far away is Jerusalem. Long since its material splendor all disappeared. Far away the day on which the Son of Man entered its gates attended by waving branches and hymns of welcome. Under different skies, of a different race, amid different laws and different customs our life is passing. But, recalling what he was and did in that far-off time, remembering how tried and purified and triumphant he is perpetual example and motive to mankind; we cannot go amiss if we help celebrate the name and fame of him who once in victory rode into Palestine’s gorgeous Capital. We may turn our hearts into a holy city to receive his advancing spirit. We may wave palm branches and shout our hosannas of welcome, well assured that we never have received and never shall receive a nobler guest.