From George MacDonald, (1824 – 1905) “The Seaboard Parish.”
It was almost 50 years ago that I encountered the writings of George MacDonald…. His “sermon” is far more eloquent than anything I could say. Enjoy!
CHAPTER XIII. THE HARVEST.
….. Then we sang the psalm before the communion service, making bold in the name of the Lord to serve him with “mirth” as in the old version, and not with the “fear” with which some editor, weak in faith, has presumed to alter the line. Then before the sermon we sang the hymn I had prepared–a proceeding justifiable by many an example in the history of the church while she was not only able to number singers amongst her clergy, but those singers were capable of influencing the whole heart and judgment of the nation with their songs. Ethelwyn played the organ.
The song I had prepared was this:
“We praise the Life of All;
From buried seeds so small
Who makes the ordered ranks of autumn stand;
Who stores the corn In rick and barn
To feed the winter of the land.
We praise the Life of Light!
Who from the brooding night
Draws out the morning holy, calm, and grand;
Veils up the moon,
Sends out the sun,
To glad the face of all the land.
We praise the Life of Work,
Who from sleep’s lonely dark
Leads forth his children to arise and stand,
Then go their way,
The live-long day,
To trust and labour in the land.
We praise the Life of Good,
Who breaks sin’s lazy mood,
Toilsomely ploughing up the fruitless sand.
The furrowed waste
They leave, and haste
Home, home, to till their Father’s land.
We praise the Life of Life,
Who in this soil of strife
Casts us at birth, like seed from sower’s hand;
To die and so
Like corn to grow
A golden harvest in his land.”
After we had sung this hymn, the meaning of which is far better than the versification, I preached from the words of St. Paul, “If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead. Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect.” And this is something like what I said to them:
The world, my friends, is full of resurrections, and it is not always of the same resurrection that St. Paul speaks. Every night that folds us up in darkness is a death; and those of you that have been out early and have seen the first of the dawn, will know it–the day rises out of the night like a being that has burst its tomb and escaped into life.
That you may feel that the sunrise is a resurrection–the word resurrection just means a rising again–I will read you a little description of it from a sermon by a great writer and great preacher called Jeremy Taylor. Listen.
‘But as when the sun approaching towards the gates of the morning, he first opens a little eye of heaven and sends away the spirits of darkness, and gives light to a cock, and calls up the lark to matins, and by and by gilds the fringes of a cloud, and peeps over the eastern hills, thrusting out his golden horns like those which decked the brows of Moses, when he was forced to wear a veil, because himself had seen the face of God; and still, while a man tells the story, the sun gets up higher, till he shows a fair face and a full light, and then he shines one whole day, under a cloud often, and sometimes weeping great and little showers, and sets quickly; so is a man’s reason and his life.’
Is not this a resurrection of the day out of the night? Or hear how Milton makes his Adam and Eve praise God in the morning,–
‘Ye mists and exhalations that now rise
From hill or streaming lake, dusky or gray,
Till the sun paint your fleecy skirts with gold,
In honour to the world’s great Author rise,
Whether to deck with clouds the uncoloured sky
Or wet the thirsty earth with falling showers,
Rising or falling still advance his praise.’
But it is yet more of a resurrection to you. Think of your own condition through the night and in the morning. You die, as it were, every night. The death of darkness comes down over the earth; but a deeper death, the death of sleep, descends on you. A power overshadows you; your eyelids close, you cannot keep them open if you would; your limbs lie moveless; the day is gone; your whole life is gone; you have forgotten everything; an evil man might come and do with your goods as he pleased; you are helpless. But the God of the Resurrection is awake all the time, watching his sleeping men and women, even as a mother who watches her sleeping baby, only with larger eyes and more full of love than hers; and so, you know not how, all at once you know that you are what you are; that there is a world that wants you outside of you, and a God that wants you inside of you; you rise from the death of sleep, not by your own power, for you knew nothing about it; God put his hand over your eyes, and you were dead; he lifted his hand and breathed light on you and you rose from the dead, thanked the God who raised you up, and went forth to do your work. From darkness to light; fromblindness to seeing; from knowing nothing to looking abroad on the mighty world; from helpless submission to willing obedience,–is not this a resurrection indeed? That St. Paul saw it to be such may be shown from his using the two things with the same meaning when he says, ‘Awake, thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.‘ No doubt he meant a great deal more. No man who understands what he is speaking about can well mean only one thing at a time.
But to return to the resurrections we see around us in nature. Look at the death that falls upon the world in winter. And look how it revives when the sun draws near enough in the spring to wile the life in it once more out of its grave. See how the pale, meek snowdrops come up with their bowed heads, as if full of the memory of the fierce winds they encountered last spring, and yet ready in the strength of their weakness to encounter them again. Up comes the crocus, bringing its gold safe from the dark of its colourless grave into the light of its parent gold. Primroses, and anemones, and blue-bells, and a thousand other children of the spring, hear the resurrection-trumpet of the wind from the west and south, obey, and leave their graves behind to breathe the air of the sweet heavens. Up and up they come till the year is glorious with the rose and the lily, till the trees are not only clothed upon with new garments of loveliest green, but the fruit-tree bringeth forth its fruit, and the little children of men are made glad with apples, and cherries, and hazel-nuts. The earth laughs out in green and gold. The sky shares in the grand resurrection. The garments of its mourning, wherewith it made men sad, its clouds of snow and hail and stormy vapours, are swept away, have sunk indeed to the earth, and are now humbly feeding the roots of the flowers whose dead stalks they beat upon all the winter long. Instead, the sky has put on the garments of praise. Her blue, coloured after the sapphire-floor on which stands the throne of him who is the Resurrection and the Life, is dashed and glorified with the pure white of sailing clouds, and at morning and evening prayer, puts on colours in which the human heart drowns itself with delight–green and gold and purple and rose. Even the icebergs floating about in the lonely summer seas of the north are flashing all the glories of the rainbow. But, indeed, is not this whole world itself a monument of the Resurrection? The earth was without form and void. The wind of God moved on the face of the waters, and up arose this fair world. Darkness was on the face of the deep: God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.
In the animal world as well, you behold the goings of the Resurrection. Plainest of all, look at the story of the butterfly—so plain that the pagan Greeks called it and the soul by one name–Psyche. Psyche meant with them a butterfly or the soul, either. Look how the creeping thing, ugly to our eyes, so that we can hardly handle it without a shudder, finding itself growing sick with age, straightway falls a spinning and weaving at its own shroud, coffin, and grave, allin one–to prepare, in fact, for its resurrection; for it is for the sake of the resurrection that death exists. Patiently it spins its strength, but not its life, away, folds itself up decently, that its body may rest in quiet till the new body is formed within it; and at length when the appointed hour has arrived, out of the body of this crawling thing breaks forth the winged splendour of the butterfly—not the same body–a new one built out of the ruins of the old–even as St. Paul tells us that it is not the same body “we” have in the resurrection, but a nobler body like ourselves, with all the imperfect and evil thing taken away. No more creeping for the butterfly; wings of splendour now. Neither yet has it lost the feet wherewith to alight on all that is lovely and sweet. Think of it–up from the toilsome journey over the low ground, exposed to the foot of every passer-by, destroying
the lovely leaves upon which it fed, and the fruit which they should shelter, up to the path at will through the air, and a gathering of food which hurts not the source of it, a food which is but as a tribute from the loveliness of the flowers to the yet higher loveliness of the flower-angel: is not this a resurrection? Its children too shall pass through the same process, to wing the air of a summer noon, and rejoice in the ethereal and the pure.
To return yet again from the human thoughts suggested by the symbol of the butterfly – Here let me pause for a moment–and there was a corresponding pause, though but momentary, in the sermon as I spoke it–to mention a curious, and to me at the moment an interesting fact. At this point of my address, I caught sight of a white butterfly, a belated one, flitting about the church. Absorbed for a moment, my eye wandered after it. It was near the bench where my own people sat, and, for one flash of thought, I longed that the butterfly would alight on my Wynnie, for I was more anxious about her resurrection at the time than about anything else. But the butterfly would not. And then I told myself that God would, and that the butterfly was only the symbol of a grand truth, and of no private interpretation, to make which of it was both selfishness and superstition. But all this passed in a flash, and I resumed my discourse.
I come now naturally to speak of what we commonly call the Resurrection. Some say: ‘How can the same dust be raised again, when it may be scattered to the winds of heaven?’ It is a question I hardly care to answer. The mere difficulty can in reason stand for nothing with God; but the apparent worthlessness of the supposition renders the question uninteresting to me. What is of import is, that I should stand clothed upon, with a body which is “my” body because it serves my ends, justifies my consciousness of identity by being, in all that was good in it, like that which I had before, while now it is tenfold capable of expressing the thoughts and feelings that move within me. How can I care whether the atoms that form a certain inch of bone should be the same as those which formed that bone when I died? All my life-time I never felt or thought of the existence of such a bone! On the other hand, I object to having the same worn muscles, the same shrivelled skin with which I may happen to die. Why give me the same body as that? Why not rather my youthful body, which was strong, and facile, and capable? The matter in the muscle of my arm at death would not serve to make half the muscle I had when young. But I thank God that St. Paul says it will “not” be the same body. That body dies–up springs another body. I suspect myself that those are right who say that this body being the seed, the moment it dies in the soil of this world, that moment is the resurrection of the new body. The life in it rises out of it in a new body. This is not after it is put in the mere earth; for it is dead then, and the germ of life gone out of it. If a seed rots, no new body comes of it. The seed dies into a new life, and so does man.
Dying and rotting are two very different things.–But I am not sure by any means. As I say, the whole question is rather uninteresting to me. What do I care about my old clothes after I have done with them? What is it to me to know what becomes of an old coat or an old pulpit gown? I have no such clinging to the flesh. It seems to me that people believe their bodies to be themselves, and are therefore very anxious about them–and no wonder then. Enough for me that I shall have eyes to see my friends, a face that they shall know me by, and a mouth to praise God withal. I leave the matter with one remark, that I am well content to rise as Jesus rose, however that was. For me the will of God is so good that I would rather have his will done than my own choice given me.
But I now come to the last, because infinitely the most important part of my subject–the resurrection for the sake of which all the other resurrections exist–the resurrection unto Life. This is the one of which St. Paul speaks in my text. This is the one I am most anxious–indeed, the only one I am anxious to set forth, and impress upon you.
Think, then, of all the deaths you know; the death of the night, when the sun is gone, when friend says not a word to friend, but both lie drowned and parted in the sea of sleep; the death of the year, when winter lies heavy on the graves of the children of summer, when the leafless trees moan in the blasts from the ocean, when the beasts even look dull and oppressed, when the children go about shivering with cold, when the poor and improvident are miserable with suffering or think of such a death of disease as befalls us at times, when the man who says, ‘Would God it were morning!’ changes but his word, and not his tune, when the morning comes, crying, ‘Would God it were evening!’ when what life is left is known to us only by suffering, and hope is amongst the things that were once and are no more–think of all these, think of them all together, and you will have but the dimmest, faintest picture of the death from which the resurrection of which I have now to speak, is the rising. I shrink from the attempt, knowing how weak words are to set forth “the” death, set forth “the” resurrection. Were I to sit down to yonder organ, and crash out the most horrible dissonances that ever took shape in sound, I should give you but a weak figure of this death; were I capable of drawing from many a row of pipes an exhalation of dulcet symphonies and voices sweet, such as Milton himself could have invaded our ears withal, I could give you but a faint figure of this resurrection. Nevertheless, I must try what I can do in my own way.
“If into the face of the dead body, lying on the bed, waiting for its burial, the soul of the man should begin to dawn again, drawing near from afar to look out once more at those eyes, to smile once again through those lips, the change on that face would be indeed great and wondrous, but nothing for marvel or greatness to that which passes on the countenance, the very outward bodily face of the man who wakes from his sleep, arises from the dead and receives light from Christ. Too often indeed, the reposeful look on the face of the dead body would be troubled, would vanish away at the revisiting of the restless ghost; but when a man’s own right true mind, which God made in him, is restored to him again, and he wakes from the death of sin, then comes the repose without the death. It may take long for the new spirit tocomplete the visible change, but it begins at once, and will be perfected. The bloated look of self-indulgence passes away like the leprosy of Naaman, the cheek grows pure, the lips return to the smile of hope instead of the grin of greed, and the eyes that made innocence shrink and shudder with their yellow leer grow childlike and sweet andfaithful. The mammon-eyes, hitherto fixed on the earth, are lifted to meet their kind; the lips that mumbled over figures and sums of gold learn to say words of grace and tenderness. The truculent, repellent, self-satisfied face begins to look thoughtful and doubtful, as if searching for some treasure of whose whereabouts it had no certainsign. The face anxious, wrinkled, peering, troubled, on whose lines you read the dread of hunger, poverty, and nakedness, thaws into a smile; the eyes reflect in courage the light of the Father’s care, the back grows erect under its burden with the assurance that the hairs of its head are all numbered. But the face can with all its changes set but dimly forth the rising from the dead which passes within. The heart, which cared but for itself, becomes aware of surrounding thousands like itself, in the love and care of which it feels a dawning blessedness undreamt of before. From selfishness to love–is not this a rising from the dead? The man whose ambition declares that his way in the worldwould be to subject everything to his desires, to bring every human care, affection, power, and aspiration to his feet–such a world it would be, and such a king it would have, if individual ambition might work its will! if a man’s opinion of himself could be made out in the world, degrading, compelling, oppressing, doing everything for his own glory!–and such a glory!–but a pang of light strikes this man to the heart; an arrow of truth, feathered with suffering and loss and dismay, finds out–the open joint in his armour, I was going to say–no, finds out the joint in the coffin where his heart lies festering in a death so dead that itself calls it life. He trembles, he awakes, he rises from the dead. No more he seeks the slavery of all: where can he find whom to serve? how can he become if but a threshold in the temple of Christ, where all serve all, and no man thinks first of himself? He to whom the mass of his fellows, as he massed them, was common and unclean, bows before every human sign of the presence of the making God. The sun, which was to him but a candle with which to search after his own ends, wealth, power, place, praise–the world, which was but the cavern where he thus searched–are now full of the mystery of loveliness, full of the truth of which sun and wind and land and sea are symbols and signs. From a withered old age of unbelief, the dim eyes of which refuse the glory of things a passage to the heart, he is raised up a child full of admiration, wonder, and gladness. Everything is glorious to him; he can believe, and therefore he sees. It is from the grave into the sunshine, from the night into the morning, from death into life. To come out of the ugly into the beautiful; out of the mean and selfish into the noble and loving; out of the paltry into the great; out of the false into the true; out of the filthy into the clean; out of the commonplace into the glorious; out of the corruption of disease into the fine vigour and gracious movements of health; in a word, out of evil into good–is not this a resurrection indeed—”the” resurrection of all, the resurrection of Life? God grant that with St. Paul we may attain to this resurrection of the dead.
“This rising from the dead is often a long and a painful process. Even after he had preached the gospel to the Gentiles, and suffered much for the sake of his Master, Paul sees the resurrection of the dead towering grandly before him, not yet climbed, not yet attained unto—a mountainous splendour and marvel, still shining aloft in the air of existence, still, thank God, to be attained, but ever growing in height and beauty as, forgetting those things that are behind, he presses towards the mark, if by any means he may attain to the resurrection of the dead. Every blessed moment in which a man bethinks himself that he has been forgetting his high calling, and sends up to the Father a prayer for aid; every time a man resolves that what he has been doing he will do no more; every time that the love of God, or the feeling of the truth, rouses a man to look first up at the light, then down at the skirts of his own garments–that moment a divine resurrection is wrought in the earth. Yea, every time that a man passes from resentment to forgiveness, from cruelty to compassion, from hardness to tenderness, from indifference to carefulness, from selfishness to honesty, from honesty to generosity, from generosity to love,–a resurrection, the bursting of a fresh bud of life out of the grave of evil, gladdens the eye of the Father watching his children.
Awake, then, thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ will give thee light. As the harvest rises from the wintry earth, so rise thou up from the trials of this world a full ear in the harvest of Him who sowed thee in the soil that thou mightest rise above it. As the summer rises from the winter, so rise thou from the cares of eating and drinking and clothing into the fearless sunshine of confidence in the Father. As the morning rises out of the night, so rise thou from the darkness of ignorance to do the will of God in the daylight; and as a man feels that he is himself when he wakes from the troubled and grotesque visions of the night into the glory of the sunrise, even so wilt thou feel that then first thou knowest what thy life, the gladness of thy being, is. As from painful tossing in disease, rise into the health of well-being. As from the awful embrace of thy own dead body, burst forth in thy spiritual body. Arise thou, responsive to the indwelling will of the Father, even as thy body will respond to thy indwelling soul.
‘White wings are crossing;
Glad waves are tossing;
The earth flames out in crimson and green:
Spring is appearing,
Summer is nearing–
Where hast thou been?
Down in some cavern,
Death’s sleepy tavern,
Housing, carousing with spectres of night?
The trumpet is pealing
Sunshine and healing–
Spring to the light.'”
With this quotation from a friend’s poem, I closed my sermon, oppressed with a sense of failure; for ever the marvel of simple awaking, the mere type of the resurrection eluded all my efforts to fix it in words. I had to comfort myself with the thought that God is so strong that he can work even with our failures.