The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Browning on the Incarnation: An Address to Those Who Teach.

by Rev. C. V. Gorton.
Volume 10, 1899, pg. 374

Part II.

Let me now pass from "Saul" to a poem which sets forth again in a dramatic form how the preaching of the Incarnation presents itself to the minds of seekers after truth, and how it fills the heart with wonder and awe.

"Karshish," the Arabian physician, picker-up of learning's crumbs, writes to his friend Abib of some strange experiences he had met in his journeyings. These journeyings brought him from Jericho. He suffered much along many a flinty furlong of this land, was twice stripped by robbers and beaten and at last reached Bethany. He there rests and writes to his friend, describes a fever, and strange spider, a gum tragacanth, a scalp-disease which baffles him, and then of a curious case, perhaps of mania superinduced by epilepsy--a man named Lazarus, who declares that he was dead and then restored to life by a Nazarene physician of his tribe. "Of course you say that these cases are diurnal," so he writes. But there is much to interest one. The man is in sound health, "his body's habit truly laudable"; could we, think you, find any drug which could thus bathe the wearied soul and worried flesh and bring it clear and fair by three days' sleep? But this is not all. If not his body, then his soul has risen to new life, his vision is changed; heaven, as it were, has opened on his soul while yet on earth, he sees things in a different proportion; death to him, of those near, leads to scarce abatement of his cheerfulness; a spiritual life folds round the earthly life for him; "for him his heart and brain move there, his feet stay here." He seems to know God's secret, has a strange submission to another's will, waits in patience for that same death which shall restore his being to its equilibrium; he pleases to live so long as God please, and just how God please. The man, you say, is apathetic; not at all.

    "He loves both old and young,
    Able and weak, affects the very brutes
    And birds. How say I? flower of the field,
    As a wise workman recognizes tools
    In a master's workshop, loving what they make."

He is only impatient at ignorance, and carelessness, and sin. Why have I not, you ask, searched out the Nazarene who wrought the cure?

    "Alas, it grieveth me, the learned leech
    Perished in a tumult many years ago."

There was an earthquake, they said--Lazarus says he caused it. Oh, they say things which I am almost ashamed to repeat. Still it is curious. They say, God forgive me, that this leech was who? Why God Himself,

    "Creator and sustainer of the world,
    That came and dwelt in flesh on it awhile!
    Sayeth that such an one was born and lived,
    Taught, healed the sick, broke bread at his own house,
    Then died, with Lazarus by--for aught I know,
    And yet was--what I said nor choose repeat,
    And must have so avouched himself."

But why of this?

    "I noticed on the margin of a pool,
    Blue flowering borage, the Aleppo sort
    Aboundeth, very nitrous. It is strange!"

And so his mind comes back once more. Should he send what he has written? He cannot hide from himself the man has touched him with a sense of awe. He sends the letter by an ambiguous Syrian. But yet the thought pursues him. It is very strange.

    "The very God! think Abib; dost thou think?
    So the All-great were the All-loving too--
    So, through the thunder comes a human voice,
    Saying, 'O heart I made, a heart beats here!
    Face my hands fashioned, see it in myself!
    Thou hast no power, nor may'st conceive of mine:
    But love I gave thee, with myself to love,
    And thou must love me, who have died for thee!'
    The madman saith, He said so--it is strange."

A similar presentment of the fact of the Incarnation is set forth in the poem called the "Sun," in Ferishtah's Fancies.

Here is seen the mind startled by such a thought, and overwhelmed by it, the mind accustomed to deem God One, infinitely Holy, infinitely Might, yet infinitely far, amazed by the thought of God infinitely loving and infinitely near, the mind appalled before

    "Conception unattainable by me
    Who need it most."

We are taught that the first conditions of religion are awe and holy fear. We are ashamed at many a mean representation of our faith which speaks of God as if He were the man who lives across the street, which is so dulled by custom that it accepts without surprise, or wonder, or worship the Revelation--"the Word was made flesh and tabernacled among us and we beheld His glory, the glory of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth."

Another masterpiece in theology is Browning's "Death in the Desert." One of the fortresses of the faith is the fourth Gospel. The sceptic thinks if he can disprove the Johannine authorship of the fourth Gospel, he has gained the day. So Charles Voysey exclaims, "Fight not with small nor great, but with St. John only." Now here is a case where literary perception, where gifts of intuition are of the utmost value. It is not the grammarian's acumen, but the poet's insight, which will reach the truth. There is no work on scriptural exegesis which I know as well as I know Bishop Wescott's "St. John." It is a life work and a masterpiece. But where Wescott ends, there Browning begins. None so ready to acknowledge this as our great scholar-bishop. As Ruskin may say in art, all I have written in forty pages Browning has expressed in forty lines. So not once or twice, but again and again, Wescott pauses--"in reference to his see Browning's noble realisation in the 'Death in the Desert.' " But Browning's attitude to the Incarnate Son of God is not an intellectual appreciation only.

In "Pauline" come the impassioned and devout words--

    "Oh thou pale form,
    Oft have I stood by thee,
    Have I been keeping lonely watch with thee
    In the damp night by weeping Olivet,
    Or leaning on thy bosom, proudly less,
    Or dying with Thee on the lonely cross,
    Or witnessing thy bursting from the tomb."

The Pope, in "The Ring and the Book," declares the conception of God as only all-powerful and all-wise is an isosceles deficient in the base.

    "What lacks then of perfection fit for God
    But just the instance which this tale supplies
    Of love without a limit."

Let love once be limitless in its self-sacrifice,

    "Then is the tale true, and God shows complete."

In the exquisite poem, "Christmas Eve and Easter Day," which deals with the Incarnation and Resurrection, Christ is He who trod

    "Very man and very God,
    The earth in weakness, shame and pain,"

dying on the cross but to come again the one God, All in all, King of kings and Lord of lords.

In "Caponsacci" we must learn not only "from the comet's rush but from the rose's birth, not only by the grandeur God but by the comfort Christ." And of the grace of Jesus the soldier-priest says--

    "No one ever plucked
    A rag even from the body of the Lord
    To wear, and mock with, that despite Himself
    He looked the greater and was the better"--

and in the epilogue which I have read for years, and which as I read gather ever from it fresh truths and fresh help I see Christ set forth, the fulfilment of all worship, the conqueror over doubts, Christ is seen through the changing ages as the Man, conquering sin, saving man.

Let me take this poem in conclusion. Here are three speakers, the first as David, the second as Renan, the third Browning. They represent attitudes of mind and worship. The first is absorbed in the pomp and joy of worship. It is jubilant in the splendour of the Temple. It is the feast of feasts. Levites and priests stand round the altar in robed array.

    "When thousands, rear and van,
    Swarming with one accord,
    Became as a single man
    (Look, gesture, thought and word)
    In praising and thanking the Lord;
    When the singers lift up their voice,
    And the trumpets make endeavour,
    Sounding, "In God rejoice,'
    Saying, 'In Him rejoice,
    Whose mercy endureth for ever.' "

Then in the glory of the cloud there is the shrouded mysterious Presence which fills the house of the Lord. Here is a religion of type and prophecy and symbol. It is an expectation. Here is a presence, but no person; a cloud, but not a Face.

The second section is a lament, a cry of one who would believe and cannot. The light has shone, a very star of heaven. It was not a star, but a Face--truth personified--but this has vanished, no prayers retard it; it is gone, lost in the night. Ah! why did it end? Did men fail to beat breast, and shriek, and throw the arms protesting wide when a first shadow showed the star addressed itself to motion? Now we are left, lone and silent through centuries. We try to probe again the darkening vault "bereft of all now save the lesser lights"; there is ruby here and here amethyst; stars there are, but not the Star. The stars fade and we are left watchers in twilight. We speak, and know not we are heard, we act and suffer but none knows of the act. Leaders occupy in turn the dizzy post, the crown falls on repugnant brows, our Christ is gone! Renan's is the bitter cry, "They have taken away my Lord and I know not where they have laid Him." Is Christ gone? Browning speaks in answer:--

    "Witless alike of will and way Divine,
    How heaven's high with earth's low should intertwine.
    Friends, I have seen through your eyes, now use mine."

He tells us of some magic rock in the Arctic seas round which the waves dance, but this is only a mimic monarch of the whirlpool, king of the current for a minute, for the waves soon wring it up by the roots, and, oversweeping the thing, hasten off to play again elsewhere the same part.

So we see nature dance about each man of us, retire, advance, but, having gained somewhat, they move elsewhere and find another whom they may worship, follow another as a guide. Phases of worship change, temples perish; men have their day, "they have their day and cease to be," but it is not thus with the Face.

I cannot but think that Browning had in his mind the words of the great Napoleon speaking of what he knew at St. Helena. "Can you tell me what Jesus Christ was? Well, then, I will tell you! Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne and I myself have founded empires, but upon what? On force; Jesus alone founded His empire on love, and millions to this very day would die for Him. I think I understand something of human nature, and I tell you all these were men, and I am a man; none else is like Him--Jesus Christ was more than a man. I have inspired multitudes with such enthusiastic devotion that they would have died for me, but to do this it was necessary that I should be visibly present with influence of looks, words and voice. Christ has alone succeeded in so raising the minds of man to the unseen that it becomes insensible to barriers of time and space. Across the chasm of 1800 years Jesus makes a demand which is beyond all others difficult to satisfy. He asks for that which a philosopher may seek in vain from his friends, a father of his children, a bride of her spouse, a man of his brother. He asks for the human heart. He will have it unconditionally--and it is granted. Wonderful! In defiance of time and space, the soul of man becomes an annexation of the empire of Christ. This is unaccountable. Beyond the scope of man's creative powers. This it is which strikes me most, and which proves to me convincingly the Divinity of Jesus Christ." So, Browning says, Christ is no mimic King of the whirlpool. He is no star which fades--no glory in the temple, but a Presence, a Person. Renans may cloud our sky with a little of their critical smoke. The later criticism may cast doubt on this word, on this witness; phases of worship may change--interpretations of Christ's words may change also--but for me that Face remains--

    "That one face, far from vanish, rather grows
    Or decomposes, but to decompose
    Become my universe which feels and knows!"

When the Son of Man cometh shall He find faith on the earth? This is a question which haunts our memory as we turn over the pages which our men of literature and science give us. There is the tone of the Welt-Schmertz [Romantic pessimism] heard first in England in Byron and Shelley echoing on through the century. There is want of defined faith, giving an undertone of sorrow in Matthew Arnold and touching Tennyson, rendering the message uncertain, casting a deep gloom over Carlyle, making him oftenest a bitter pessimist: there is the spirit which makes them withdraw from among men. But here is one whose intellect has searched all subjects, who has ransacked the ages, spoiled the climes, but who has come forth and mingled among men, a man vigorous in body, healthy and happy in mind, who has a faith--faith in himself--faith in his fellow-man because he has a living faith in God Who does not shun to search into evil, or listen to every phase of doubt, but who stands magnificently strong and joyous. Pain to him is welcome as a spur to action, bidding not sit, nor stand, but go! Even death for him has no note of disaster. "Never say of me," he wrote, "that I am dead; failure means future triumph."

"There shall never be one lost good, what was shall live as before The evil is null, is nought--is silence implying sound. What was good, shall be good, with for evil so much good more, On the earth the broken arcs, in the heaven the perfect round."

And this robust faith enables him to face life, and interpret life. He handled no lute like Tennyson, but he, first in the fray, blew blasts on a silvern trumpet, bidding men follow, and with this to his lips he passed, faithful and heroic, to the end. Where rests he? Does he rest?

    "At the midnight, in the silence of the sleep-time,
    What you set your fancies free
    Will they pass to where, by death, fools think, imprisoned
    Low he lies who once so loved you, whom you loved so--Pity me?
    Oh, to love, be so loved, yet so mistaken!
    What had I on earth to do
    With the slothful, with the mawkish, the unmanly?
    Like the aimless, helpless, hopeless did I dwell.
    One who never turned his back, but marched breast forward,
    Never doubted clouds would break,
    Never dreamed, though right were worsted, wrong would triumph.
    Held we fall to rise, are baffled to fight better.
    Sleep to wake.
    No, at noonday in the bustle of man's work-time
    Greet the unseen with a cheer!
    Bid him forward, breast and back as either should be,
    'Strive and thrive' cry, 'speed--fight on, fare ever
    There as here!' "

Proofread by LNL, May 2020