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THE BLESSEDNESS OF DEATH.
“I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart and to be with Christ, which is far better.”
LET us never forget whose words these were, and what he was who spoke them. They are the words of a saint and an apostle, at the end of a long life of love and patience for Christ’s sake. After he had suffered the loss of all things,—name, honour, reputation, friends, rest, and home,—and for thirty years had borne stonings and the scourge, shipwreck and the daily peril of death, he could well say, “I have a desire to depart.” With a great sum obtained he this freedom. It is well to remember this, that we be not either cast down at our conscious inability to speak as he did, or, what would be much worse, tempted to use such words 371too soon. For us humbler thoughts are more in keeping. Nevertheless, the same desire which was so ardent in him may be kindled in our hearts. If we cannot burn with love, the flax may at least smoke. In our shallow capacity, and at a distance not to be measured, we may desire with fear what he yearned for with such unclouded longings. His desire is, at least, to us an example of what ours ought to be; and as such we may set it before us as a pattern.
With this view, then, let us consider what are the reasons for this desire. They must needs be quick and powerful, not only to cast out the fear of death, but to change it into aspiration. And in so doing, we will take, not the special reasons peculiar to martyrs and apostles, but such as are universal, and within the spiritual reach of all who are born again through Christ.
Why, then, should departure out of this life be an object of desire to a Christian?
1. First, because it is a full release from this evil world. There is something very expressive in the word we here render by ‘depart.’ It means the being set free, after the breaking up of some long restraint; or the unyoking of the oxen wearied with the plough; or the weighing again of our anchors for a homeward voyage. On every side its associations are full of peace and rest. What can 372 better express the passage of Christ’s servants from this tumultuous and weary world? The longer we dwell in it, the more cause we must see to shrink from its temptations. I speak not only of sickness and pain, of crosses and hardship, bereavements and afflictions, and the bitterness of adversity; these are sensible evils, which all men desire to be rid of. Sometimes they even revile their tardy life, because they are impatient of the rod. To be free from all trial would be indeed blessed. But these are not the things which make true Christians desire to depart. They look on them as part of their Master’s Cross, and count themselves happy to bear so much as its shadow. Their true affliction is the presence of sin; its fiery assaults without, its alluring subtilty within.
Is it not wonderful that men who immoderately fear death, should have no fears of life? To die, is in the last degree alarming to many; but to live, is as free from alarm as if it were impossible to fall from God. This shews us how little we realise the world in which we are, and the sin which dwells in our hearts. Is it possible that we can be so blind to the snares which are on every side? Are the nets of the fowler so frail that we have no fear of them, or so fine that we cannot see where they lie? Is it not certain that no man can promise to himself the gift of perseverance; and that 373all his life long, the enmity of the world, the flesh, and the devil, “the blast of the terrible ones, is as a storm against the wall?”214214 Isaiah xxv. 4. Do we not console fathers and mothers who weep over the early death of children, by telling them that their young spirits are sainted, and that God has, in mercy, come between them and the defilements of this naughty world? We bid them remember, that in a few short years those they mourn might have lost their baptismal innocence, and sullied their fresh purity of heart. We bid them be consoled because now they know that their loved ones are safe, following “the Lamb whithersoever He goeth;” and God alone could foresee what might have been the career and end of a longer life. And what does all this mean but that this is a perilous world and full of evil? Who, then, shall dare not to fear it? Who can say into what he may fall, or how he may be led astray; how he may fall into the snare of the enemy, or under the illusions of his own mind? what declensions, what spiritual deteriorations may wither us from the very root? Indeed, we shall not be safe if we leave off to fear any peril to the salvation of the soul. So long as we are in this warfare, we must be open to the shafts of evil; and who would not desire a shelter where no arrows can reach us any more? What must be the peace of 374 having put off this mystery of probation; when the struggle and the strife shall be over, and breathless, panting hope, dashed by ten thousand fears, shall be changed into a certainty of peace, into a foretaste of our crown! This one thought alone is enough to make death blessed. Let us muse, as we say to ourselves, “I shall then be landed on the everlasting shore, no more again to fear any fall from God. All will be changeless and eternal.” Nay, putting all this aside, who will not yearn to be free from the disorder and contradiction of a world that has rebelled against God, and “crucified the Lord of glory?” Is this a home for any soul that is united with Him in love? So long as He wills, it is our home, not of choice but of obedience, not of desire but of patience. Our Lord has said, “I pray not that Thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that Thou shouldest keep them from the evil.” So long as He wills, we remain content.
But it is an awful sentence: “Every man that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.” This is to tell us that the world is unchangeably at enmity with God. A man need only declare himself on God’s side, to bring the world upon him. But even this power and kingdom of the devil is our discipline of patience and perfection, of suffering and submission. It is the school of 375martyrs and of saints. Nevertheless, to depart from it, by the will of God, is blessed. And besides all this, what is our life on earth at best, but a life of clouds and shifting lights; that is, of trust, and faith in mysteries, of which we see only the outer surface? A veil is spread over the face even of the Church, through which the realities of the hereafter are faintly discerned. There is, indeed, a special benediction on all who believe without seeing; and yet the blessing is still greater of those who, having believed, afterwards behold; for the reward of faith is vision. Strange as it may seem, the greatest earthly solace and the most humbling thoughts come hand in hand. When we are in the sanctuary, there, if any where on earth, we have peace. And yet it is there we are taught, by visible sacraments and a veiled presence, that we are impotent and sinful; unable and unworthy to see His face. Our highest boon is a memorial of our fall. Our own hearts, with many tongues, bear witness of our sin, and of our unworthiness to touch His feet. Even in repentance we tremble, lest our repentance be found wanting; in our most recollected prayers we are half insensible and half unconscious; in our purest obedience our hearts throb with a multitude of thoughts; our faith, hope, charity, are all tinged with emotions of self; our most intent communion, even at the altar, is 376faint and fleeting. We see the outlines and the order of the heavenly court rather by the imagination than by the vision of the spirit. And our whole earthly life, even at best, is weariness and twilight, strife and conscious infirmity, great hopes and greater fears, high intentions and bare fulfilments, dust and ashes, and conscious exile from the enjoyment of God. Well may evangelists say, “Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly;” and souls already martyred, like St. Paul, desire to depart. Even to us it may be permitted to feel our hearts beat thick with hopeful and longing fear, when we wait for the voice which shall say to the least of penitents, “Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away; for, lo, the winter is past:”—sorrow and sin, anguish and cold fear, dark days and lingering nights, penance after sins, and sins after repentance, dim faith and failing perseverance—all these are past; “the rain is over and gone.” “Come with me from Lebanon; look from the top of Amana, from the top of Shenir and Hermon,”215215 Song of Sol. ii. 10, 11; iv. 8. unto the everlasting hills and to the eternal years.
2. Thus far we have spoken of the desire to depart which springs from a longing to be set free from sorrow and an evil world; from the temptations and burdens of mortality, which weigh upon 377the soul. But these are the nether, not the upper springs of such desires. St. Paul thrice desired of the Lord that the thorn in the flesh might depart from him; and yet it was not to leave this behind that he desired to depart. His were positive longings for the fruition of bliss. And in his second Epistle to the Church in Corinth, he has fully uttered his desire. “We know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed upon with our house which is from heaven: if so be that being clothed, we shall not be found naked. For we that are in this tabernacle do groan, being burdened: not for that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon, that mortality might be swallowed up of life.”216216 2 Cor. v. 1-4. His desire was for the spiritual body, raised in power and incorruption at the day of Christ; and, meanwhile, for that personal perfection in measure and foretaste, which is prepared for those who die in the Lord, and await His coming.
What is the misery and the burden of a fallen nature, we know. What a yoke is our own unwillingness to serve God;—that strange self-contradiction, in which we intend what we do not fulfil, and begin what we leave undone, and desire what we 378shrink from. We will, and we will not. We have, as it were, two wills; like the fable of the two serpents which preyed on either side of a man’s heart; a will divided against itself; its superior part decreeing obedience, its sensitive shrinking from the task. What a mystery is personal imperfection, and the image of God upon which it fastens. Who does not desire to be unclothed, and yet still more “to be clothed upon?” Is it not strange that the sick should shrink from perfect health; that they should be so enamoured of decay, that they are unwilling to be whole? Perhaps it is that we do not, and cannot realise the thought that we shall one day be without sin; that, in the kingdom of God, our whole soul and our whole being will be in as perfect and pure a harmony with God as the hosts of angels. It seems a dream, or the imagination of a heated brain, that we who have sinned, as we bitterly remember, who have walked in wilful darkness, soiling ourselves to the very seat of life, and making our whole being an energetic discord with the holiness of God;—I say, it sounds as something of almost presumptuous aspiration, to conceive that, one day, we shall be in body deathless, and in soul without a spot. Verily we are “like unto them that dream;” but it is as the dream of prophets, full of truth and God. We may say to 379ourselves, “Through the tears of repentance, and the blood of the Cross, there will come a time when I shall love God with all my strength, and His saints even as myself; when my whole desire will he His glory, and my whole energy His praise; when the vision of His presence shall be my endless peace, and to adore Him my ineffable delight. In that sphere of bliss all consciousness of self will be extinct; and in the blessedness of others I shall find my bliss. To contemplate the glory of His elect, and to sit beneath their feet, will be more blissful then, than to be exalted is alluring now.” O wonderful mystery of love! To forgive all our guilt is beyond our understanding; to change our corruption into the purity of angels is almost beyond our faith. Who would not desire the struggle of death to be over, that he might be perfect? who would not long, if only he could believe his sins forgiven, to go and to be sinless in the kingdom of God? What thought more intensely joyful, what so inspiring to the holiest of God’s servants? what more full of strength and solace to the tempted and the penitent? If St. Paul had a desire to depart, whose whole soul was under the sway of an ardent and holy will, what ought to be our desire of release from the dominion of corruption? Surely of all earthly sorrows, sin is the sharpest. The heaviest of all burdens is the bondage of a will 380which makes God’s service a weary task, and our homage of love a cold observance.
3. And this leads to another reason why to depart is blessed. It unites us for ever with the new creation of God. It is for this that the world has waited, and the whole creation groaned and travailed in pain together. What is this new creation, but the new heavens and the new earth, in which are gathered the whole order and lineage of the second Adam; all saints from Abel the just, of all ages and times, in the twilight and the dayspring, in the morning and the noontide of grace; all made perfect, whether on earth or in rest, by the omnipotence of love? This is our true home; where all our reason, all our desires, all our sympathies, and all our love, have their perfect sphere and their full repose.
In this life, even the best things are crossed and marred with imperfection. We are sensibly in exile from some state for which our souls are craving, though still unprepared. What is the fastest friendship, the most intimate union, the fondest love, to the unity of saints? What is our best earthly state, but the sum of our individual imperfections? and what the condition of the blessed, but a perfection in which all are, therefore, perfect? Can we think, without an awful feeling of delight, that we shall enjoy the vision of those friends of 381God who are exalted in the hierarchy of His love; that we shall not only behold, but love them with a love we as yet have never known for friend or child? It makes our hearts thrill even to read their names and their deeds in holy writ; what will it be to converse with them, to hear the very tones and accents which were heard in the wilderness and on Carmel, at Bethlehem and by Jordan, at Philippi and at Ephesus? If the savour of their lives, their words, their writings, even while they were imperfect here on earth, be so sweet to us, what shall their presence be when they and we are without spot or blemish? What a fellowship, and what grace that we may share it! We are bidden to that marriage festival. In all that host of hallowed souls, there will not be so much as one motion or inclining of the will from the will of God. All will be harmony. As the countless voices of the great deep unite in its majestic swell, so in the depth of life all living spirits shall be several, and yet one eternally. What shall it be to behold those who have been chosen of God to work together with Him in the salvation of the world; as witnesses and forerunners, as types of sanctity and the Cross, as stones of foundation,—yea, even to minister, under the shadow of the Holy Ghost, as she the ever-blessed Mary of her very substance to the incarnation of the second 382Adam? We believe these things, and we confess them in chants and creeds; but how little do we lay to heart, that one day, if, through the adorable passion of our blessed Lord, we guilty may behold His face, we shall dwell among them in a fellowship of direct vision and love, as we dwell now among our kindred here on earth. O miracle of peace! How majestic and how glorious must be that heavenly court, in which the Blessed Virgin, Mother of God, and all His ancients, patriarchs and prophets, apostles and evangelists, martyrs and saints, are gathered in sanctity and love! We cannot but shrink with fear at the thought of their perfection and our sin; and feel that, if we were suddenly called, we should have no sympathy with them, nor they with us. And yet there would be sympathy with us, and love—even there, even in the presence of eternal glory, among the hosts of the blessed. For will not every redeemed soul live each in the other’s joy? Will not our own lamented and beloved be there, in the array of happy spirits? Will they not hail, if we reach the shore, our coming with delight? Do they not remember us now, even in the sight of God? For to see His face does not extinguish but perfect all holy loves. God’s love gathers up and perfects all pure love like His own, all love that is for His sake. When we meet our beloved in Him, we 383shall both know and love them so as we have neither loved or known before. Even earthly happiness will be renewed in its absolute perfection, and made eternal in the fruition of God. If to dwell among the holy and loving, the wise and tender, be blessed; then most to be desired is that change which shall carry us thither, where the lowest is an angel of God. We do not enough realise this blessed mystery, “the communion of saints.” If we meditate upon it, we shall see that the highest force of the second great commandment of love must bind us above all to love the saints departed. For they are the holiest, the most endowed with grace, the nearest, the most familiar with God. On them, next after Him, our love, by the law of its own perfection, must repose. Blessed exchange, to pass from the tumultuous imperfection of the visible Church, to the stillness and perfection of the Church beyond the grave.
If only the heavy consciousness of guilt were lifted off, what should make us tarry here? What hopes or what hereafter, what aspirations or what schemes, what powers or what gifts of life, would make us rather linger for one day than enter the home of the redeemed, the rest of the saints of God?
4. But lastly, and above all, let us take St. Paul’s full words. He did not only say, “I have 384a desire to depart;” but also, “and to be with Christ.” This is the true fountain of heavenly joy. “To be with Christ;” that is, with Him who is “altogether lovely,”217217 Song of Sol. v. 16. and beautiful before the sons of men:—to be with Him who loves us; whom also we love again; who loves us with a love above all human intensity, and whom we love in turn, if we dare so speak, with a love before which all human affections melt away. If, indeed, we could say this, if only we dared to think that we could leave all and lose all for love of Him:—if this were so, then the thought of departure would be blessed. Then we might say, “Life and God’s world are beautiful: the light of the sun is sweet, friends are dear, and home is more sweet than all; but there is One more beautiful, more sweet, more loved; and to Him I desire to go, with Him to be.” If we could say this, if we could feel it in the inmost soul of our heart. To be with Him, to see His face, to follow Him whithersoever He goeth; to be conscious of His eye; to hear, it may be, His words of love; to see the gathered fruit of His Passion in the glory of His elect; to be filled with a living consciousness that the work of His love has been for ever made perfect in ourselves: what, if not this, is heaven? It is only our dull love of this 385world, or our blindness of heart, or, alas, our consciousness of penetrating guilt, which makes this desire of saints a thought of fear to us. We fear the meeting of our darkness with His light, not knowing what may be revealed both in us and against us. But for this, how blessed to go to dwell in Him for ever.
What, then, shall we do to make ready for that hour? There is one thing which is enough. Let us go to Him now. Let us live in Him by holy obedience, and by continual prayer. It is prayer that makes us love and desire His presence unveiled. If we knew that He was on earth, sitting “at meat in the house,” should we dare to go to Him? What should we do? should we not desire and yet fear to go? Would not our hearts beat backwards and forwards, with a trust in His exceeding tenderness, and a “horrible dread” of our own guilt? Should we not desire, and, at last, should we not dare to go and stand behind Him,—not to meet His eye, as unworthy to come into His sight, but to draw near to Him in shame and tears? Would it not be a consolation to be in His presence? Should we not feel ourselves half forgiven, shielded altogether from the power of sin, if it were only by being where He is? It is strange what relief we feel from fears when we come into the presence of those we dread. It seems to take 386off half the terror, by taking away all the waiting and foreboding. Would He cast us out? He has said Himself, “Him that cometh unto me, I will in no wise cast out.” Would He say, Thou art a sinner? Would He say, Touch Me not? Would He not rather say, “Come unto me. Thou art heavy laden, but thou art wounded with fear and sorrow. Thou art sincere at last; come, and sin no more.” So may we trust it will be hereafter. Perhaps the poor Magdalene little thought to kiss His feet, when she first drew near to Him. She came to anoint them in reverence; but His love cast out her fear. So it may be with you, when the word is brought, “The Master is come, and calleth for thee.” At first, thick bursts of fear beat full upon the heart, and life seems to come down like a waterflood, in an overwhelming consciousness of sin; it seems impossible that you should see His face and live. But we may trust that He will so inspire us with the persuasion of His love to sinners, that we may insensibly draw near, until we are bold in faith to touch, even to embrace, His feet, in silent and imploring faith. Let this be your daily preparation for departure. Strive to live in a perpetual readiness to die; and this you shall attain, if you learn to love His presence now. If you go to Him even saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord;” or, 387“I am not worthy that Thou shouldest come under my roof:” or if you come day by day, trembling, to “touch so much as the hem of His garment,” He, of His tender compassion, will breathe into your hearts an abasing trust in His forgiveness, and a fervent desire of His presence. What but sin makes you to shrink from the thought of your departure? and if your sin were blotted out, what could make you endure to linger here?388
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