The Agony

Continuing through the Lenten series of poems and meditations, I came this morning to “The Agony”, by the wonderful 17th century poet George Herbert, who died in his parish just outside Salisbury at the age of only 39, only three years after having been ordained.  All his surviving poetry is on religious themes, and perhaps the best known of his poems is Love Bade Me Welcome.

I’d not noticed previously “The Agony”.  It probably isn’t to 21st century tastes, even among Christians.  And yet I think we miss something important if we skip over it, something that speaks of the dark reality of sin, and the costly love that paved the bloody way to our salvation.  Here’s the text.

Philosophers have measured mountains,
Fathomed the depths of seas, of states and kings;
Walked with a staff to heav’n, and traced fountains:
But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove;
Yet few there are that sound them—Sin and Love.

Who would know Sin, let him repair
Unto Mount Olivet; there shall he see
A Man so wrung with pains, that all His hair,
His skin, His garments bloody be.
Sin is that press and vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruel food through ev’ry vein.

Who knows not Love, let him assay
And taste that juice which, on the cross, a pike
Did set again abroach; then let him say
If ever he did taste the like,
Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as blood, but I as wine.

There are all sorts of knowledge in our world.   Herbert, highly-educated and someone who moved at Court and served (briefly) in Parliament, had been exposed to much of it.  There is nothing necessarily wrong with that knowledge.   But Herbert points us, his readers, to a deeper knowledge, which we learn best as the contemplate the cross.

The imagery he introduces –  that of the winepress –  draws from Scripture, creatively extended (in a tradition dating back to the early church fathers) in a meditation on the shed blood of Christ –  gushing out when the spear pierces the side of the dead Jesus – that becomes for us the eucharistic wine. (Some art along these lines is here.)

The closing words of the poem make for an image of power, beauty, and humility.

Love is that liquor sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as blood, but I as wine.

This life-giving blood/wine cost Jesus no less than everything, and makes for us the revivifying path to life.

I don’t suppose there was any direct connection between the two, but as I contemplated Herbert’s poem the words that came to mind were those of the pioneering English pastor hymn writer Isaac Watts.  Unlike Herbert, Watts was a Nonconformist, who refused the opportunity of an Oxford education because it would have required ascription to the Anglican church.    He wrote a century or so later, but would have been united with Herbert is his devotion to the Saviour broken for him and for us.  We typically sing “When I survey the wondrous cross” on or around Good Friday.  Watts didn’t write it just for that season, but rather (one of 25) to aid devotion, “prepared for the holy ordinance of the Lord’s Supper”.

  1. When I survey the wondrous cross
    On which the Prince of glory died,
    My richest gain I count but loss,
    And pour contempt on all my pride.
  2. Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
    Save in the death of Christ my God!
    All the vain things that charm me most,
    I sacrifice them to His blood.
  3. See from His head, His hands, His feet,
    Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
    Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
    Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
  4. Were the whole realm of nature mine,
    That were a present far too small;
    Love so amazing, so divine,
    Demands my soul, my life, my all.

It was the third verse that Herbert’s poem particularly brought to mind.

Words to contemplate as we approach Holy Week 2019.   The same Saviour, the same (once for all) shed blood, the same (ever new) love…..for you, and for me.

As another of the seasonal hymns ends, Hallelujah, What a Saviour.

And thank God too for the rare talents of the great Christian poets and hymnwriters.   May their words by used by God to strengthen and deepen our devotion, something of heart and head, hands and feet. The costly discipleship we too are called to.


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