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King Of The Jews by William T. Stead

CHAPTER X. CONCLUSION.

I. -- THE STORY THAT TRANSFORMED THE WORLD

Written by Mr. Stead at Ober-Ammergau the night after witnessing the performance of the Passion Play.

This is the story that transformed the world!

This is the story that transformed the world!

Yes, and will yet transform it!

Yes, thank God, so the answer comes; and will yet transform it until the kingdom comes!

This is the story that transformed the world. I awoke shortly after midnight, after seeing the Passion Play at Ober-Ammergau, with these words floating backward and forward in my head like a peal of bells from some distant spire. Backward and forward they went and came, and came and went.

This is the story that transformed the world!

This is the story that transformed the world. And then in the midst of the reiterated monotone of this insistent message came the glad response from I know not where, |Yes, and will yet transform it!| And then the two met and mingled, strophe and anti-strophe, one answering the other, |This is the story that transformed the world. Yes, and will yet transform the world!|

[Illustration: He is risen.]

I tried to sleep, but could not. It was as if church bells were pealing their sweet but imperious music within my brain. So I got up and wrote.

All is silent save the ticking of the watch by my bedside; silent as the stars which gleam down from the blue sky above the cross-crowned crag, which stands like some giant sentinel keeping watch over the village, at its foot. Herod, our host, sleeps soundly, and Johannes, wearied by his double service of waiter at the hotel and his role in the sacred play, is oblivious of all. The crowded thousands who watched for hours yesterday the unfolding of the passion of Christ Jesus of Galilee have disappeared, and I am alone.

But not alone. For as real and as vivid as that same crowd of yesterday seem to me the thronging memories of other days, of the centuries that rise between the time when Jesus really lived on earth, and today. Nineteen hundred years have gone since all that we saw represented yesterday was no mere mimic show but deadly tragic fact; nineteen hundred years during which the shaping power of the world has been that story. The old, old, story never before so vividly realized in all its human significance and its Divine import.

Its human significance, for thank God, we have at last seen Jesus as a man among men, a human being with no halo round his brow, no radiance not of this world marking him off apart from the rest of his fellow-men, but simply Jesus, the Galilean, gibbeted on the gallows of his time, side by side with the scum of mankind.

And it was this story that transformed the world. |Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean!| Over how many tribes and nations and kindreds of men?

Oh, the wonder of it all, the miracle of miracles surely is this. That this story should have transformed the world. For after all, what was the passion? Looked at as we looked at it yesterday, not from the standpoint of those who see the sacred story through the vista of centuries that have risen in splendor and set in the glory of the cross, but from the standpoint which the actors on the stage assumed yesterday, what was the passion? It was merely a passing episode in the unceasing martyrdom of man. Think you that of the thirty thousand Jews whom the humane Titus by a mere stroke of his stylus condemned to be crucified round the walls of Jerusalem forty years after that scene on Calvary, none suffered like this! For them, also, was reared the horrid cross, nor were they spared the mockings and the scourgings, the cruel thirst, and the slow-drawn agony of days of death. And among all that unnamed multitude how few were there but had some distracted mother to mourn for him, some agonized mother to swoon at the news of his death? Jews they were, as was he. Hero souls, no doubt faithful unto death, and now, let us hope, wearing a crown of life; patriots who knew how to die in the service of the land which their fathers had received from God, and of the temple in which was preserved his holy law. But their self-sacrifice availed not even to save their names from oblivion. Their martyrdom was as powerless to avert the doom of the chosen people as the bursting of the foam-flakes on the sand is to arrest the rush of the returning tide.

Why, then, should the death of one Jew have transformed the world, while the death of these uncounted thousands failed even to save the synagogue?

Why? That is the question that the Passion Play forces home -- a question which never even comes to the mind of those who are accustomed from childhood to regard this Jew as mysteriously Divine, not so much man as God, cut off from us and our daily littleness by the immeasurable abyss that yawns between the finite and the infinite. This greatest of all the miracles, the coming of Christendom into being, has become so much a matter of course that we marvel as little at it as we do at the sunrise -- which also in its way is a wonder worthy enough. Think for a moment of the many myriads of fierce heathen, worshipping all manner of proud ancestral gods, that have gone down before the might of that pale form. Civilizations and empires have gone down into the void; darkness covers them over and oblivion is fast erasing the very inscriptions which history has traced on their tombs. But the kingdom which this man founded knoweth no end. The voice that echoed from the hills of Galilee is echoing today from hills the Romans never trod, and the story of that life is rendered in tongues unknown at Pentecost. The more you look at it from the standpoint of the contemporaries of the carpenter of Nazareth the more incredibly marvelous it appears.

And this is the great gain of the Passion Play. It takes us clear back across the ages to the standpoint of those who saw Jesus, the Galilean, as merely a man among men. It compels us to see him without the aureole of Divinity, as he appeared to those who knew him from his boyhood, and who said, |Are not his brethren still with us?| It is true that it is still not real enough. The dresses are too beautiful -- everything is conventional. We have here not the real Christ, the Jew, the outcast and the vagabond. For him we must wait till Vereschagin or some other realist painter may bring us reality. But even behind all the despisers of conventional Christian art, we have at least a sufficiently human figure to elicit sympathy, compassion and love. We get near enough to Christ to hear the blows that fall upon his face, to appreciate the superior respectability of the high priests, and to understand the contempt of Herod for the |king of fools.| Not until we start low enough do we understand the heights to which the crucified has risen. It is only after realizing the depths of his humiliation we can even begin to understand the miracle of the transformation that he has wrought.

Nor is that all. It is the greatest thing, but it does not stand alone. For besides enabling us to realize the story which transformed the world, it enables us to understand the agency by which that story effected its beneficent revolution.

I learned more of the inner secret of the Catholic church in Ober-Ammergau than ever I learnt in Rome. Yet there is nothing distinctively Roman about the Passion Play. With the exception of the legend of St. Veronica with which Gabriel Maxs' picture has familiarized every Protestant who looks into a photograph shop and sees the strange face on the handkerchief, whose eyes reveal themselves beneath your gaze, there is nothing from first to last to which the Protestant Alliance could take exception. And yet it is all there. There, condensed into eight hours or less, is the whole stock-in-trade of the Christian church. It was in its effort to impress that story upon the heart of man that there came into being all that is distinctively Roman. To teach truth by symbols, to speak through the eye as much as the ear, to leave no gate of approach unsummoned by the bearer of the glad tidings of great joy, and above all in so doing to use every human element of pathos, of tragedy, and of awe that can touch the heart or impress the imagination -- that was the mission of the church; and as it got further and further afield and had to deal with rude and ruder barbarians the tendency grew to print in still larger capitals. The Catholic church, in short, did for religion what the new journalism has done for the press. It has sensationalized in order to get a hearing among the masses.

Protestantism that confines its gaze solely to the sublime central figure of the gospel story walks with averted face past the beautiful group of the holy women. Because others have ignorantly worshiped, therefore we must not even contemplate. But plant a competent Protestant dramatic critic in the theater of Ober-Ammergau, let him look with dry eyes if he can upon the leave-taking at Bethany, and then as the universal sob rises from thousands of gazers, he will realize perhaps for the first time how intense is the passion of sympathy which they have sealed up, how powerful the emotion to which they are forbidden to appeal. The most pathetic figure in the Passion Play is not Christ, but his mother. There is in him also sublimity. She is purely pathetic. And after Mary the mother comes Mary Magdalene. Protestantism will have much leeway to make up before it can find any influence so potent for softening the hearts and inspiring the imagination of men. Even in spite of all the obloquy of centuries of superstition, and of the consequent centuries of angry reaction against this abuse, these two women stand out against the gloom of the past radiant as the angels of God, and yet the true ideals of the womanhood of the world.

Yes, this was the story that transformed the world! This and no other. This it was which to make visible, men carved it in stone and built it in the cathedral, and then, lest even the light of heaven should come to the eye of man without bearing with it the story of the cross, they filled their church windows with stained glass, so that the sun should not shine without throwing into brighter relief the leading features of the wonder-working epoch of his life and death. Wherever you go in Christendom you come upon endless reproductions of the scenes which yesterday we saw presented with all the vividness of the drama. The cross, the nails, the lance, have been built into the architecture of the world, often by the descendants of the men who crucified their Redeemer -- not knowing what they did. For centuries art was but an endless repetition in color or in stone of the scenes we witnessed yesterday, or of incidents in lives which had been transformed by these scenes. The more utterly we strip the story of the Passion of all supernatural significance the more irresistibly comes back upon the mind the overwhelming significance of the transformation which it has affected in the world.

Why? -- I keep asking why? If there were no divine and therefore natural law behind all that, why should that trivial incident, the crucifixion of one among the unnumbered host of vagabonds executed every year in the reign of Tiberius and the Caesars that followed him, how comes it that we are here today? Why are railways built and special trains organized and six thousand people gathered in curiosity or in awe to see the representation of this simple tale? How comes it if there were no dynamo at the other end of that long coil of centuries, that the light should still be shining at our end today? Shining alas! not so brightly as could be wished, but to shine at all, is that in itself not miraculous?

Through all the ages it has shone with varying luster. And still it shines. The dawn of a new day as I write is breaking upon this mountain valley. The cocks are crowing in the village, recalling the apostle who in the midst of the threatening soldiery denied his Lord. And even as Peter went out and wept bitterly, and ever after became the stoutest and bravest disciple of the Master, may it not yet be with those of this generation who also have denied their Redeemer?

Who knows? The transformation would be far less startling than that which converted the Coliseum from the shambles of imperial Rome into the gigantic monument of triumphant martyrdom, far less violent than that which made the German forbears of these good Ammergauers into Christian folk.

But if the transformation is to be effected, and the light and warmth of a new day of faith, and hope, and love, are to irradiate the world, then may it not be confidently asserted that in the old, old story of the cross lies the secret of the only power which can save mankind?

II. -- THE INTERPRETATION OF THE STORY.

Wherein does it modify orthodox opinions? Chiefly in humanizing them, in making the gospel story |palpitate with actuality| to quote the French phrase which Matthew Arnold loved to use. These people on the stage at Ober-Ammergau are not lay figures, mere abstract representations of the virtues or the opposite. They live, breathe and act just as if they were actors in a French or Russian novel. That is the great difference. These poor players have brought our Lord to life again. In their hands he is no mere influence of abstraction, no infinite and almighty ruler of the universe. He may be and no doubt every one of the Ober-Ammergauers would shrink with horror from the suggestion that he was any other than the second person of the trinity. But they have done more than repeat the Athanasian creed. They have shown how it came to be believable. If that poor carpenter's son by getting himself crucified as one part fool and three parts seditious adventurer could revolutionize the world, then the inference seemed irresistible that he must have been divine. If the illegitimate son of a Bengalese peasant hanged by order of our lieutenant-governor in the northwest provinces because of the mischief he was making among the Moslems of Lahore were to establish his faith on the ruins of Westminster Abbey, and install the successor of his leading disciple on the throne of the British empire, we should not wonder at his apotheosis. To do so much, with so little material, compels the inference that there is the infinite behind. Nothing but a God could control such a machine. It needed a fulcrum in eternity to make such a change in the things of time with so weak a lever as the life of this Galilean.

But it is not only Christ himself who becomes real to us, but what is almost as important, we see his contemporaries as they saw themselves, or as he saw them. Caiaphas -- who that has seen Burgomaster Lang in that leading role can feel anything but admiration and sympathy for the worthy chief of the Sanhedrin? He had everything on his side to justify him. Law, respectability, patriotism, religious expediency, common sense. Against him there was only this poor vagabond from Nazareth -- and the Invisible. But Caiaphas, like other men, does not see the Invisible and he acts, according to his lights, as he was bound to act. He is the great prototype of the domineering and intolerant ecclesiastic all the world over. Since the crucifixion he has often changed his clothes. But at heart he is the same. He has worn the three-crowned hat of the successor of Peter; he has paraded in a bishop's miter; he has often worn the gown and bands of Presbyterian Geneva. Caiaphas is eternal. He produces himself in every church and in every village, because there is a latent Caiaphas in every heart.

Perhaps the character who comes out best is Pilate. He is a noble Roman, whose impartiality and rectitude, coupled with an anxious desire to take the line of least resistance and find out some practical middle course, is worthy of that imperial race to whose vices, as well as to many of their virtues, we English have succeeded. Pilate did his best to save Jesus up to a point -- beyond that point he did not go, and according to the accepted ethics of men in his position, it would have been madness to have gone. Why should he, Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea, risk his career and endanger the tranquillity of Jerusalem merely to save a poor wretch like that Galilean? What Englishman who has ever ruled a province in India, where religious ferment was rife, who would not have felt tempted to act as Pilate acted -- nay, would not have acted as he acted without even the hesitation he showed, if the life of some poor devil of a wandering fakir stood between him and the peace of the empire? Would to God that British magistrates, even at home in our own land, would give the despised and unpopular poor man the same number of chances Pilate gave to Jesus. With Downing street eager for the conviction of a socialist agitator, and the whole of society and the mob savage against him, a man would be a fool who would not appeal from Bow street or old Bailey to so just a judge as Pilate. To the last Pilate never made himself the willing instrument of popular frenzy. He argued against it, he denounced it, he resorted to every subterfuge by which he could save the prisoner's life, and it was only when the Sanhedrin threatened to denounce him to Caesar as an enemy of the emperor that he unwillingly gave way. Here and there no doubt there are among our latter day magistrates and judges fanatical believers in abstract right, who would have risked the empire rather than let a hair of Christ's head be touched; but the average English or American magistrate -- especially if the accused was |only a nigger| -- would shrug his shoulders at such Quixotism as folly and worse. It is better, they would say, that one man should die, even unjustly, than that everything should be upset.

Another person who comes out better than might be expected is Judas. The conception of his character is very fine and very human. Judas, as the treasurer of the little band, naturally felt indignant at the apparent wanton extravagance which led Mary Magdalene to pour ointment worth 300 pence upon the head of her master. There is real human nature and sound practical common sense in his reply to those who told him not to worry about the money, when he retorted, |Who is there to take care about it if I don't?| Judas never really from first to last meditates betraying his master to death. The salves which he lays to his conscience when consenting to identify Jesus at night are very ingenious. Judas was a smart man who calculated he stood to win in any event. He got the indispensable cash; all that he did was to indicate what could perfectly well have been discovered without his aid; if Jesus were what he believed him to be he could easily have baffled his enemies; if he were not, well, then, he had deceived them. But the moment Judas learns that he has really endangered his master's life, his whole demeanor changes. He flings back the blood money at the feet of those who had given it to him, and in the madness of despair he hangs himself. So far from Judas being callous to Christ's fate, his suicide was a proof that his penitence was far more agonizing than that of Peter.

Simon Peter also comes in for a share in the general rehabilitation. It was impossible not to feel sympathy for the hasty old man, hustled from side to side by a pack of violent soldiery. Knowing moreover that he had cut off one of their ears but a few hours before, and that if they recognized him his own ears would have been cropped, even if he didn't share the fate of the crucified, his denial is so natural under the circumstances that you cease to marvel that even the cock crow on the roof failed to remind him of his master's warning.

The Passion Play has at least done this -- it sets us discussing the conduct of Caiaphas and Pilate and Judas, as if they were our contemporaries, as if they were statesmen at Westminster or at Washington or administrators in India or Canada. And this, no doubt, is no small service, for these men are types of human character who are eternally re-embodied among us.

III. -- THE RELIGION OF THE FUTURE.

The story of the Passion Play has ever been real to me in another than a Catholic sense. It has been the perpetual re-incarnation of the divine story in the history of our own times that has absorbed my attention. These ancient figures on the stage of New Testament history were but of importance in so far as they lived again in our own life. Of their mystical theological significance I am, of course, not speaking. This is a thing apart. But the perpetual re-incarnation of God's Messiah in the great causes of justice, freedom and humanity, it is that which has made the gospel story ever new to me.

Leaving Ober-Ammergau I returned by Switzerland to London. At Lucerne while waiting for the train, I turned over the book in the waiting-room that describes the construction of the Gotthard railway. About one thousand tons of dynamite, it is said, had sufficed to pierce the tunnels through the mountain barrier that separated Italy from Switzerland. Blasting powder could never have done the work. That helped to level the military roads for the legions of Suwarrow. It needed dynamite to tunnel the St. Gotthard -- dynamite directed by science -- and as I read this I fell a-thinking. The old story, that mediaeval Christ in magenta and pearl gray, with his disciples in artistic symphonies of harmonious and contrasted color, no doubt transformed the world. But a new world has arisen which sorely needs transforming again, and is it not possible that the conventional Christ, who no doubt did mighty things in the past, may have become as obsolete as blasting powder. May we not hope that if the conventional Christ did so much, the real Christ may do much more; that the realization of the Christ as he actually lived and died among us may be as much superior in its transforming efficacy as the dynamite of the modern engineer is to the powder sack of the soldiers who marched under old Suwarrow? Of one thing we may at least be certain, and that is, if everyone of those who call themselves by the Christian name would but say one Christ-like word, and do one Christ-like deed between every sunrise and sunset, it would lift a very Alpine mass of sorrow and anxiety from the weary heart of the world. What then might not be done if in very truth, and with all sincerity, we, each of us, tried to be a real Christ in his or her sphere, the sent of God in the midst of those with whom we pass our lives?

One more word and I have done. The actors play different parts as they grow old. They begin with being children in the tableaux and they pass in turn from one role to another. The Judas of 1890 was the apostle John in 1880. When the Christ was selected in 1870, he was chosen out of four competitors. One of the unsuccessful today plays King Herod, the other Pontius Pilate. So it is ever in real life. Few, indeed, are those who are always Christs. When Christians ceased to be martyrs they martyred their enemies. The church came from the catacombs to establish the inquisition. In our own lives we may be Christs today and atheists tomorrow. Power and authority destroy more Christs than the dungeon and the stake. And perhaps one reason why the Ober-Ammergauers have been able to give us the Christ we see this year is because in their secluded valley they have remained poor and humble in spirit, and have never ceased to remember the story that transformed the world.

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