AS all active virtues meet in Jesus, so he unites the active or heroic virtues with the passive and gentle. He is the highest standard of all true martyrdom.
No character can become complete without trial and suffering; and a noble death is the crowning act of a noble life. Edmund Burke said to Fox, in the English Parliament, |Obloquy is a necessary ingredient of all true glory, Calumny and abuse are essential parts of triumph.| The ancient Greeks and Romans admired a good man struggling with misfortune, as a sight worthy of the gods. Plato describes the righteous man as one who, without doing any injustice, yet has the appearance of the greatest injustice, and proves his own justice by perseverance against all calumny unto death; yea, he predicts, that, if such a righteous man should ever appear, he would be scourged, tortured, bound, deprived of his sight, and, after having suffered all possible injury, nailed to a post.43 No wonder that the ancient fathers and modern divines saw in this remarkable passage a striking parallel to the description of Isaiah, ch. liii., and an unconscious prophecy of the suffering Christ. But how far is this abstract ideal of the great philosopher from the actual reality as it appeared three hundred years afterward! The great men of this world, who rise even above themselves on inspiring occasions, and boldly face a superior army, are often thrown off their equilibrium in ordinary life, and grow impatient at trifling obstacles. Only think of Napoleon at the head of his conquering legions and at the helm of an empire, and the same Napoleon after the defeat at Waterloo and on the Island of St. Helena! The highest form of passive virtue attained by ancient heathenism or modern secular heroism is that stoicism which meets and overcomes the trials and misfortunes of life in the spirit of haughty contempt and unfeeling indifference which destroys the sensibilities, and is but another exhibition of selfishness and pride.
Christ has set up a far higher standard by his teaching and example, never known before or since, except in imperfect imitation of him. He has revolutionized moral philosophy, and convinced the world that forgiving love to the enemy, holiness and humility, gentle patience in suffering, and cheerful submission to the holy will of God, are the crowning excellency of moral greatness. |If thy brother,| he says, |trespass against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day turn again to thee, saying, I repent; thou shalt forgive him| (Luke xvii.4). |Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you and persecute you | (Matt. v.44). This is a sublime maxim truly; but still more sublime is its actual exhibition in his life.
Christ's passive virtue is not confined to the closing scenes of his ministry. As human life is beset at every step with trials, vexatious, and hindrances, which should serve the educational purposes of developing its resources and proving its strength, so was Christ's. During the whole state of his humiliation, he was |a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief| (Isa. liii.3), and had to endure the |contradiction of sinners| (Heb. xii.3). He was poor, and suffered hunger and fatigue; he was tempted by the devil; his path was obstructed with apparently insurmountable difficulties from the outset; his words and miracles called forth the bitter hatred of the world, which resulted at last in the bloody counsel of death. The Pharisees and Sadducees forgot their jealousies and quarrels in opposing him. They rejected and perverted his testimony; they laid snares for him by insidious questions; they called him a glutton and a wine-bibber for eating and drinking like other men; a friend of publicans and sinners for his condescending love and mercy; a Sabbath-breaker for doing good on the Sabbath day: they charged him with madness and blasphemy for asserting his unity with the Father, and derived his miracles from Beelzebub, the prince of devils. The common people, though astonished at his wisdom and mighty works, pointed sneeringly at his origin; his own country and native town refused him the honor of a prophet: even his brothers, we are told, did not believe in him; and, in their impatient zeal for a temporal kingdom, they found fault with his unostentatious mode of proceeding.44 Even his apostles and disciples, notwithstanding their profound reverence for his character, and faith in his divine origin and mission as the Messiah of God, yet by their ignorance, their carnal Jewish notions, and their almost habitual misunderstanding of his spiritual discourses, must have constituted a severe trial of patience to a teacher of far less superiority to his pupils.
To all this must be added the constant sufferings from sympathy with human misery as it met him in ten thousand forms at every step. What a trial for him, the purest, gentlest, most tender-hearted of men, to breathe more than thirty years the foul atmosphere of this fallen world; to see the constant outbursts of sinful passions; to hear the great wail of humanity borne to his ears upon the four winds of heaven; to be brought into personal contact with the blind, the lame, the deaf, the paralytic, the lunatic, the possessed, the dead; and to be assaulted, as it were, by the concentrated force of sickness, sorrow, grief, and agony!
But how shall we describe his passion, more properly so called, with which no other suffering can be compared for a moment? There is a lonely grandeur in it, foreshadowed in the word of the prophet: |I have trodden the wine-press alone, and of the people there was none with me| (Isa. lxiii.3). If great men occupy a solitary position, far above the ordinary level, on the sublime hights of thought or action, how much more, then, Jesus in his sufferings, -- he, the purest and holiest of beings! The nearer a man approaches to moral perfection, the deeper are his sensibilities, the keener his sense of sin and evil and sorrow in this wicked world.
Never did any man suffer more innocently, more unjustly, more intensely, than Jesus of Nazareth. Within the narrow limits of a few hours, we have here a tragedy of universal significance, exhibiting every form of human weakness and infernal wickedness; of ingratitude, desertion, injury, and insult; of bodily and mental pain and anguish; culminating in the most ignominious death then known among the Jews and Gentiles, -- the death of a malefactor and a slave. The government and the people combined against Him who came to save them. His own disciples forsook him; Peter denied him; Judas, under the inspiration of the devil, betrayed him; the rulers of the nation condemned him; rude soldiers mocked him; the furious mob cried, |Crucify him!| He was seized in the night, hurried from tribunal to tribunal, arrayed in a crown of thorns, insulted, smitten, scourged, spit upon, and hung like a criminal and a slave between two robbers and murderers!
How did Christ bear all these little and great trials of life, and the death on the cross?
Let us remember first, that, unlike the icy Stoics in their unnatural and repulsive pseudo-virtue, he had the keenest sensibilities and the deepest sympathies with all human grief, that made him even shed tears at the grave of a friend and in the agony of the garden, and provide a refuge for his mother in the last dying hour. But with this touching tenderness and delicacy of feeling he ever combined an unutterable dignity and majesty, a sublime self-control, and imperturbable calmness of mind. There is a commanding grandeur and majesty in his deepest sufferings, which forbid a feeling of pity and compassion on our side as incompatible with the admiration and deference for his character. We feel the force of his words to the women of Jerusalem, when they bewailed him on the way to Calvary: |Weep not for me, but weep for yourselves and your children.| We never hear him break out in angry passion and violence, although he was at war with the whole ungodly world. He clearly and fully foresaw, and repeatedly foretold his sufferings to his disciples.
And yet he never murmured, -- never uttered discontent, displeasure, or resentment. He was never disheartened, discouraged, ruffled, or fretted, but full of unbounded confidence that all was well ordered in the providence of his heavenly Father. His calmness in the tempest on the lake, when his disciples were trembling on the brink of destruction and despair, is an illustration of his heavenly frame of mind. All his works were performed with a quiet dignity and ease that contrast most strikingly with the surrounding commotion and excitement. He never asked the favor, or heard the applause, or feared the threat, of the world. He moved serenely, like the sun, above the clouds of human passions and trials and commotions as they sailed under him. He was ever surrounded with the element of peace, even in his parting hour in that dark and solemn night, when he said to his disturbed disciples: |Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you; not as the world giveth give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid| (John xiv.27). He was never what we call unhappy, but full of inward joy, which he bequeathed to his disciples in that sublimest of all prayers, |that they might have his joy fulfilled in themselves| (John xvii.13; comp. xvi.33). With all his severe rebuke to the Pharisees, he never indulged in personalities. He ever returned good for evil. He forgave Peter for his denial; and would have forgiven Judas, if, in the exercise of sincere repentance, he had sought his pardon. Even while hanging on the cross, he had only the language of pity for the wretches who were driving the nails into his hands and feet; and prayed in their behalf: |Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.| He did not seek or hasten his martyrdom, like many of the early martyrs of the Ignatian type, in their morbid enthusiasm and ambitious humility, but quietly and patiently waited for the hour appointed by the will of his heavenly Father.
But, when the hour came, with what self: possession and calmness, with what strength and meekness, with what majesty and gentleness, did he pass through its dark and trying scenes! A prisoner before Pilate, who represented the power of the Roman Empire, he professes himself a king of truth, and makes the governor tremble before him (John xviii.37; Matt. xxvii.19, 24). Charged with crime at the tribunal of the high-priest, he speaks to him with the majesty and dignity of the Judge of the world (Matt. xxvi.64); and in the agony of death on the cross he dispenses a place in paradise to the penitent robber (Luke xxii.43). In the history of the passion, every word and act are unutterably significant; from the agony in Gethsemane, when overwhelmed with the sympathetic sense of the entire guilt of mankind, and in full view of the terrible scenes before him, -- the only guiltless being in the world, -- he prayed that the cup might pass from him, but immediately added: |Not my, but thy, will be done,| to the triumphant exclamation on the cross: |It is finished!| Even his dignified silence before the tribunal of his enemies and the furious mob, when, |as a lamb dumb before his shearers, he opened not his mouth,| is more eloquent than any apology. Who will venture to bring a parallel from the annals of ancient or modern sages, when even a Rousseau confessed: |If Socrates suffered and died like a philosopher, Christ suffered and died like a God |?45 The nearer we approach to them, the more we feel that the sufferings of Christ are unlike any other suffering; that he died the just for the unjust, the Holy One for sinners; and washed out with his blood the guilt of a fallen world. We bow down, and adore the atoning sacrifice of boundless love. The mere idea of a merciful divine-human Redeemer of the race from the thralldom of misery and of sin and death, is surpassingly sublime and irresistibly attractive: how much more the actual reality! It is, indeed, a mystery which we can not fully grasp; but a mystery so palpably divine and heavenly in its origin and character, so blessed in its effects, that head and heart are constrained to bow in adoration and praise, and are filled with gratitude and joy. The passion and crucifixion of Jesus, like his whole character, stand without a parallel, solitary and alone in their glory, and will ever continue to be what they have been for these eighteen hundred years, -- the most sacred theme of meditation, the highest exemplar of suffering virtue, the strongest weapon against sin and Satan, the deepest source of comfort to the noblest and best of men.