Page images
PDF
EPUB

silently at heart, consciously and exclusively concerned themselves and neither of these, as time has shown, were they able to answer right. They connected him with the past by regarding him as the foretold of prophets and the descendant of kings—as the crowning gift for which alone the ages had prepared the way, and whose step of approach pressed its visible trace on the soil of ancient history.

Yet is it now confessed that, when he came, he was not such an one as Isaiah saw or Daniel ever dreamed; that no prediction had spoken of him, no type suggested him; and that it is only his shadow, cast by the fond light of retrospective love, that lies upon the old Hebrew centuries. They connected him with the future, by carrying forward to his account in years to come the visions which his stay, as they supposed, was too short to realize; by assigning to him a a quick return to finish what yet was unfulfilled. The suffering, the scorn, the rejection of men, the crown of thorns, were over and gone; the diadem, the clasion, the flash of glory, the troop of angels, were ready to burst upon the world, and might be looked for at midnight or at noon.

Yet, though a sentinel gazed wherever a Christian prayed, all the watchmen died without the sight; the storm swept down the horizon of time, and for many a century the sky has now been clear. The whole Messianic doctrine, by which the apostles found their master's providential place, was in its very essence the fabric of a dream; a landscape traced upon the clouds by the creative eye of faith and disappointment. To discuss whether Jesus was the Messiah is even more unmeaning than the question whether John the Baptist were Elijah; for Elijah was at least a person, but Messiah was only a conception.

It was from trying Jesus by this conception, and endeavor

Ing to force him into its realization, that Judas was tempted to betray him. And it is by perversely applying the same test, and coercing his spirit into the Hebrew framework-by compelling him to belong to a system, instead of permitting him to be what he is in himself, that divines, with kiss of reverence scarcely less fatal, have delivered him bound, to be defaced by priests and compared with rulers. Seeking Christianity in the creed of the first age, we have necessarily fallen in with this notion, that “ Jesus is the Messiah ;" and have thus set up the chief Judaic error as the chief Christian verity.

Among his countrymen this conception was natural and inevitable; it was the human condition on which alone they could recognize in him what was divine: it was the only key with which their culture supplied them for interpreting the mysterious impression which he made upon their hearts : it was their ideal formula for perfect life, and when he was before them the real and the ideal presence could not but coalesce.

It must be obvious however to every thoughtful reader, how much the story and portraiture of Christ have been deformed by the tyranny of this haunting idea. It is plain that he himself dwelt little, if at all, upon his official claims; it was to be kept a secret what he was—a precaution which could never be reported of him if he had notoriously held and proclaimed himself to be the Messiah and framed his course in conformity with that conception.

The deficiency seems to have been felt by the evangelists, and it is over-compensated by their zeal. Their principle of selection, in the biographical fragments they have left, appears to have been to take what would best identify Jesus with the Messiah; and so his inward struggles of soul are

turned into an official victory over Satan; demons are brought upon the stage to give preternatural witness to his dignity; miracles of blessed healing are spoiled by thoughts and arguments of exorcism; and counterfeit meanings are put on the old poets and prophets to fit the unexpected shape of new events. A Messianic goal is evidently set up in the disciples' mind, and Jesus is exhibited to us as living towards it and nearing it.

Yet beneath this artificial disguise, quite a different life gleams through; a life rather of shrinking and recoil from the very end he is set to reach ; a life not upon system at all; shaping itself forth by the efflorescence of an inward beauty rather than the solicitations of an outward aim; a life of the Spirit that bloweth where it listeth, wandering with the breath of sweet affections over the verdure of good hearts, and carrying the south wind of pity to soften the fallow and bring blossoms from the clod.

That divine life without a plan, that free movement from the determination of love and thought within, that inspired soliloquy in action, is the real soul of the entire religion; and it reaches us, alas ! only in refracted lights, or through unintended openings in the crust of Messianic doctrine. Observe, too, the effect of this Judaic medium upon the titles of honor which disciples apply to Christ-a matter of no small moment, for as the relation is described such will the relative affection tend to be. We are taught, with a tenacity forbidding alteration now, to call Jesus “our Lord;" and the apostles expressly call themselves his slaves. To them these words were natural; exactly describing the relation present to their minds. Their faith was as much political as religious.

As God himself was chiefly conceived of under the image

of absolute sovereignity so was Messiah to them the appointed satrap of this world. When he came, he would come to reign, bearing with him the united powers of administrator, judge, and king. And according to the Oriental type, whatever he ruled that would he possess; and all that his subjects had would be received as favors from his hand and held as fiefs by his investiture.

Under the solemn expectation of the world's immediate end the kingdom of Christ was to take the place of the kingdoms of the earth, and the disciples in looking for this revelation felt themselves citizens of a supernatural state and subjects of a resistless lord. In rude ages and amid feudal customs it has perhaps been no unhappy thing that this image of servitude has been transmitted into the conceptions of faith; it may have touched with some sanctity an inevitable submission and mingled a sentiment of loyalty with religion.

But the external relation of serf and lord is no type of the internal relation of spirit to spirit which alone constitutes religion to us. To God himself, with all his infinitude, we are not slaves; we are not his property, but his children; he regards us not as things but as persons; he does not so much command us as appeal to us; and in our obedience it is not his bidding that we serve, but that divine law of right of which he makes us conscious as the rule of his nature only more perfectly than of ours.

To obey him as slaves in fear, and with an eye upon his power, is, with all our punctuality and anxiety, simply and entirely to disobey him; nor is anything precious in his sight except the free consent of heart with which we seize what is holy to his thought and embrace what is in harmony with his perfection.

Still less can we be slaves to Christ, who is no autocrat to

us, but our freely followed leader towards God; the guide of our pilgrim troop in quest of a holy land; who gives us no law from the mandates of his will, but only interprets for us, and makes burn within us, in characters of fire, the law of our own hearts; who has no power over us, except through the affections he awakens and the aspirations he sets upon the watch.

We have emerged from the religion of law, whose only sentiment is that of obedience to sovereignity; we have passed from the religion of salvation, whose life consists in gratitude to a deliverer; and we are capable only of a religion of reverence, which bows before the authority of goodness. And in the infinite ranks of excellence, from the highest to the lowest, there are no lords and slaves; the dependence is ever that of internal charm, not of external bond; the authority represented and impersonated in another and a better soul has its living seat within our own; and in this true and elevating worship the more we are disposed of by another the more do we feel that we are our own.

This is a relation which the political terms of the expected theocracy are ill adapted to express; and if we have required many centuries to grope our way to this clearest glory of religion, to disengage it from the impure admixture of servile fear and revolting presumption; if it has taken long for us to melt away in our imagination the image of thrones and tribunals, of prize-givings and prisons, of a police and assizes of the universe; if only at the eleventh hour of our faith the cloud has passed away and shown us the true angel-ladder that springs from earth to heaven, the pure climax of souls whereon each below looks up and rises, yet each above bends down and helps, the discovery which brings such peace and freedom to the heart has been delayed by the mistaken identi

« PreviousContinue »