Jesus, the Only
William Henry Furness
Berry Street Lecture, 1875
Read before the Berry Street Conference
May 26, 1875
Last winter I accepted the invitation of the New York and Hudson River Conference to address them, the more gladly because Dr. Bellows gave me the kind assurance that my favorite theme would be welcome as well as myself. Now again, friends and brothers, being in like manner assured, I hold myself honored and privileged in the opportunity which you have invited me to use. In our first childhood we never tire of hearing the same story over and over again, in our second childhood we never tire of telling over and over again the same story. Should I seem, therefore, only to be repeating what I have been publishing from time to time for these forty years past, you will pardon something to the infirmity of age. But, indeed, the story that I love to tell keeps constantly opening upon me with new power, and giving forth more and more light. It is always growing new, and the new interest which it creates burns for circulation, just as in our boyhood money used to burn in our pockets.
And, besides, I am rather glad of these tempting opportunities to "define my position.” It is an American weakness, you know. But I think I have a good reason for indulging it here and now. My friend, Moncure Conway, in London, who, you know, professes to stand outside of Christianity, but who, with his best endeavors, has got there only in name, writes me that, after reading a discourse of mine delivered at the dedication of Robert Collyer's church in Chicago, something more than a year ago, he wondered how I could call myself a Christian. I was surprised at his wonder, as I had just received a note from our friend Spear, the Secretary of the British and Foreign Unitarian Association, asking my consent to the republication, there in England, of that same discourse in a cheap form as a tract. The position looks ambiguous. Am I really getting outside of Christianity? Why, I have been trying ever so long to get inside of it, into the very soul of it. I have got but a little way, I know. But I have got so far as to learn that no man yet has counted "the unsearchable riches of Christ.” When we have mastered that wealth and exhausted it, it will be time enough to think of getting outside of Christianity, and exploring other mines. In the meanwhile, we may as well try to get outside of the atmosphere of the globe. One can breathe as freely, I imagine, outside of the one as of the other.
It is only in particular and apparently disconnected passages, and at intervals, that the story of the life of Jesus has been creating in me a very lively sense of truth, changing my traditional kith into personal conviction. Rut now, of late, without design on my part, my delighted surprise, may I say it? the several passages, vividly true but once insulated, are revealing the significance of other passages once dark, and all are coming of themselves to be, connected and harmonized: the separate lights uniting; and tending to orb themselves into one whole, the central fire and light of all our seeing. Thus a continually increasing interest is disclosed in the Gospels. The way in which I read them is harmonizing more of the facts related than any other, and more of the most extraordinary of the facts, and, at the same time, keeping all in perfect accord with the natural truth of things.
The special reason, however, for thus reading the New Testament history is that it is yielding one most important result. Giving us a clear, inspiring idea of Jesus, it emphasizes in him, what is greatly needed at this hour, a pre-eminently Spiritual Fact in Nature, which, commanding our faith, saves us from the dark abyss of materialism, to the brink of which the current of modern scientific thought is drifting so many.
What can be more vague and barren than the prevalent notions concerning Jesus? To how many is he anything more than a formless shadow ? May not our earnest and candid attention well be given to a representation of him, which, while it shows him to be in no respect, either in his being or working, out of the order of nature but in all things as natural as any plant, in fact as the of most natural of all existences, because revealing in himself more Nature, than any other, more of the highest or deepest in Nature, sets him before us as, nevertheless, a person of such singular force as to be above comparison with any other of the great men of the world. As I conceive of him, he is not merely one of that immortal company. He does not barely stand at the head of it. His greatness is positive, not comparative. He stands by himself; alone, far above the highest. His name is above every name.
My purpose now is to state the grounds upon which this representation of Jesus rests.
Nothing is easier than to lavish upon him the unqualified language of panegyric. Even those who regard the accounts of him as fabulous or mythical, use very exalted terms in speaking of him. But their idea of him, lofty as it appears, what more can it be than a vague abstraction, a personification of virtue in general, with no throbbing life in it, no individuality, as expressionless as nearly all the pictorial representations of him are, a mere inference from his great sayings and from the high position which he has obtained and held so long in the history of the world? It is not an idea of him informed by any direct illustrations of his character, the facts that portray him being rejected as fictions.
By the way, is it any wonder that those to whom the person of Jesus is thus a matter, not of direct acquaintance, but of mere inference, class him with Mohammed and Confucius and Buddha? All these have uttered great truths, and, what is more, have taken possession of larger portions of the population of the globe than he. So that thus viewed, he not only may be ranked with them, he must even be assigned a subordinate position.
But, as I conceive, we are not left to infer the singular personal power of Jesus from the wisdom of his utterances and the extent and endurance of his influence. We may have more direct personal knowledge of him, and so much knowledge of him, that we shall confess that, in pure force of character, in native greatness, in "quantity of being,” he stands, as I have said, apart, by himself, above all comparison, all special classification, "the bright consummate flower,” not of the Hebrew type only, but of Universal Humanity.
But here the question instantly presses, Whence and how is this personal knowledge of him to be obtained? Whence but from the literary notices of him that have been handed down to us? These it is, the Four Gospels, which alone give us a direct view of the man and of the manner of man that he was.
And how are we to be satisfied that what they relate is true?
Obviously, there is only one thing to be done. We must endeavor, by an examination of these writings, to determine what they are, whether they were fabricated by fancy or woven in the loom of truth. And, certainly, this is a question, which it may be hard but not impossible to decide. We may as well despair of ascertaining the quality of any existing thing as to give up as hopeless the attempt to distinguish truth, the work of God, from the fabrications of men, and very simple-minded men, too.
Believing in the possibility of finding out what the stories told about Jesus are, whether relations of facts or fables, I have applied myself to this question. I have sought to concentrate whatever faculty I am possessed of upon the Gospels themselves.
And the result is that the evidence of their credibility has been shining upon me, from the history itself, year after year with new power. It is continually growing more and more self-evident to me.
The learned theological critics of the skeptical school regard the credibility of the Gospels as depending essentially upon the external, historical argument for their genuineness and authenticity. And they affirm that no reliance is to be put on their truth, since, according to that argument, these writings had no existence, at the earliest, until the second century after the events they profess to relate took place, — a mode of proceeding as incompetent, I conceive, to decide the question as it would be to endeavor to determine the age of the big trees of California by ransacking ancient history for notices of them without ever examining the trees themselves and counting the rings.
To my mind, the documents of which our present Gospels are composed, were in existence, not only in the second century, but in the very first decade of the Christian era. They bear every mark of having been written very early. They are wet, warm, alive, with the impress of the events related. They are the very first stories that were told, put, it would seem, on the spot, without delay, into writing.
But if the history thus brings with it its own evidence, why does not every one feel the force of this self-evidence? Everybody does feel it more or less. Every one gets glimpses of it here and there. Indeed, it is a certain sense of truth irresistibly created by the history itself that keeps it fixed immovably in the faith of men notwithstanding all the assaults that are made upon it. The most skeptical cannot avoid the impression of an air of truth in it. Theodore Parker, and I refer to him as the representative of a large class, says, in his "Discourse of Religion,” that he "does not see how any stress can be laid upon each particular action attributed to Jesus. That he lived a divine life, suffered a violent death, taught and lived a most true and beautiful religion, — this seems the great fact about which a mass of truth and error has been collected. That he should gather disciples, be opposed by the priests and Pharisees, have controversies with them, this lay in the nature of things. His loftiest sayings seem to me most likely to be genuine.” So says Theodore Parker. Thus, notwithstanding his doubts of the truth of the particular incidents in the history, and although he appears to have only a general idea of the divine life of Jesus, an idea based upon no particular facts, yet there are some things in the Gospels which he admitted to be true, and which he could not help admitting. Now I find that a great many of the particular incidents, even of the most extraordinary of them, even the re-appearance of Jesus alive after his death, lie as deeply embedded "in the nature of things” as his violent death, and that it is just as impossible to doubt those as to doubt this.
The reason why the internal evidence of the truth of the history is not fully felt, pervading it as it does, and irresistible as I hold it to be, is because it is not seen. And it is not seen because it is hidden from sight by the mistaken notions, which we have held from our cradles, of the origin, character, and contents of these writings. How can we understand a thing unless we take it for what it is, and not for what it is not? The most familiar substance in the world may be handed us, but we shall make the greatest blunders about it, if it is all wrapped up in paper or cloth. The coverings must all be removed before the thing can be seen and put to its right use. So is it with the history of Jesus. Ignorance, superstition, dogmatism, and skepticism have woven their webs thickly all over it, and have done all they can to hide it. It is not until it is cleared of all these obscurations that it will shine out fully, with its own light, and show itself as it is: a history so remarkable for Simplicity, Naturalness, and Truth that all literature may be challenged to produce finer illustrations of these qualities than are contained in the Four Gospels. The similitude, however, which I have just used is imperfect. It is easy to divest any material thing of the wrappings in which it may be concealed, and bring it out to light. But the errors that prevent us from perceiving the true character of the New Testament narratives have been spun in men’s dreaming minds; and they have been so long there, they have so grown into and affected our mental vision, that, even after we have discovered them to be errors, they distort our sight, or, by a reactionary force, produce new errors just as blinding.
It requires time and patience and no slight effort to free one’s self from these mistaken views, and to read what is written about Jesus as if, wholly unbiased by any of the popular opinions, whether orthodox or radical, of their character and contents, we had the Gospels just now put into our hands as recently discovered human compositions.
As we succeed in doing this, we shall find that they are, what at first sight they appear, the works of writers for whom it is to be claimed, not that they relate things precisely as they were, but only that, stating in all honesty what they believed to have been said and done, they tell the story with a simplicity so transparent that there is hardly a passage from which, by the way the story is told, we may not easily gather what it was that actually took place. The history of Jesus will thus be found to be like the impression of a seal, made, indeed, upon a rude, coarse substance, which, although it does not give all the forms and lines, yet what it has received from the seal is so sharply cut and of such a character that it indicates very plainly what the device on the seal was.
The truth is, the way the story is told is second only, in interest, to the contents of the story itself. In a mere literary point of view; apart from all reference to our Christian faith, the Gospels, like their great subject among men, stand by themselves among books. Where are there any other writings like them, so perfectly natural, so thoroughly human? What is there artificial about them? They show no trace of art. Or, if such traces there be, the Gospels are nowhere more artless than in their art. Indeed, even the accretions which they have gathered from the enthusiasm of the first reporters, or from transcription, betray their own origin. The Gospels are throughout the very handwriting of Nature, in the strictest sense, inspired, plenarily inspired, not in any preternatural way, but dictated by Nature herself.
I return now to what I proposed at the outset, and proceed to state the grounds upon which rests the idea of Jesus, as of all who have ever lived, the one Person without a peer.
The one thing to which I pray your attention as distinguishing him, and distinguishing him greatly from all others, is the entireness of his Self-abnegation. He had voluntarily parted with self utterly, and was habitually at that elevation at which, as he is recorded to have declared, he could do nothing of himself, being filled full of God to overflowing.
For this representation of him, I do not rely merely upon his own affirmations respecting himself. Neither do I learn how entirely he had renounced self from his death alone and the godlike composure with which he met that horror. But I go back to the first authentic event of his history, to the very first step, by which he was ushered into public life, when he emerged from the deep obscurity in which he was born, and came forth fully before the world, — in a word, to his Baptism. And there I find written, as in legible characters, such a deliberate, unreserved, entire self-surrender as the history of mankind furnishes no other instance of. Would that I could now read it to you, so that he who runs might read!
Consider, I pray you. As he was a rational, human being, how could it be but that he must have meditated the course, upon which he then entered, with the deepest earnestness, long before he came to a decision and took that first step which brought him out fully before the world?
Furthermore, since, as all his recorded utterances show, he had full knowledge of the spirit of the time, — it was this, indeed, that moved him so deeply,— and as, moreover, he knew his own purpose, it must needs have been, that, from the very first, while he was yet in seclusion, it became plain to him, that to publish what was burning within him was to pronounce sentence of death upon himself, sure and swift. The truth that he had to speak could not be spoken without kindling a fire whose first victim would be himself: such was the pride and savage temper of the governing classes, the Priests and Pharisees.
Here, then, was the singularity of his position. Before any critical emergency, created by circumstances, had arisen, such as left him no alternative but to act (such as has made all other martyrs, compelling them to choose life or death upon the spot), while he was yet it private person, uncommitted to the course which he was led to adopt, and no force was bearing upon him but that of his own aspirations, he was, in simple obedience to that, to make up his mind to an early, shameful, and violent death. The decision was entirely in his own hands. No one was then thinking of taking his life. He was to give it up irrevocably of himself, without a thought of the possibility of any better fate.
How, then, could the first movement, the first act, towards putting into execution a purpose that involved his own inevitable destruction, the step that was to commit him irretrievably to so black a fate, — how could it be taken but with the utmost deliberation, with the deepest solemnity? What else could it have been but just what it was, a religious act, a profoundly religious act? When the whole country was moved by the appearance of John, flocking to that prophet on the banks of the Jordan, confessing their sins, to be bathed by him in the sacred river in token of inward cleansing, what could be more natural than that this universal awakening of religious feeling should so touch the young and tender heart of Jesus as to move him to take the occasion to devote himself publicly and irrevocably to that high ideal, which, while it blazed with a celestial light, rayed down darkness and death upon his earthly future? Not merely to do what all the world was doing, oh, no, but with his whole soul in the act, did Jesus take that fatal step and go to the baptism of John.
And the way in which the baptism of Jesus is described, the boldness of the forms of speech by which the ecstasy of that era in his life is represented, reveals to us the profoundness of his emotion. How true is it, as Waldo Emerson has said, that the instant "our speech is inflamed by passion or exalted by thought, it clothes itself in images.” Whence it follows, the bolder the images, the more intense is the flame of passion from which they issue, the more exalted the thought that inspires them.
When it is related that, as he came up out of the baptismal waters, Jesus saw right into the opened heavens, and a dove, the acknowledged emblem of peace, crossing the sphere of his rapt vision, was instantly glorified to his raised imagination, and transfigured into a symbol of the present God, and a passage of ancient Scripture came so suddenly to his mind, that it seemed to come by no volition of his, but from without, like an unearthly voice speaking, assuring him that he was uplifted into intimate, filial relationship to the Highest,— then, then; we see what a deep of heavenly emotion was opened within him, a depth of feeling which could have been reached by nothing less than an entire surrender of himself to the Perfect Will, even when it willed his death.
Thus raised by the greatness and purity of his purpose into Sonship with the All Perfect, the peace of the Perfect, passing all understanding, the natural and inseparable consequence or accompaniment of so exalted a state of mind, welled up and inundated his being, causing an ecstasy that the boldest figure of speech could after all only inadequately express. Conscious as he was of the purity to which he aspired, would he have been exalted to such a pitch, and to the use of such bold imagery, if all had appeared bright and smooth before him, if the blackness of death had not rested on his earthly outlook, if he had not had the deeper consciousness of a perfect triumph over all the mortal fear and weakness through which he had struggled up to that great hour? At his Baptism, that first step towards actualizing his high purpose, the step that costs, he voluntarily and solemnly bade farewell to self once for all and forever.
Afterwards, early and late in his public career, it incidentally but all the more strikingly appears, how fully he had accepted the fearful conditions of his existence, and how irrevocably his mind was made up to meet a speedy and violent death.
Once, when a great crowd was following him, excited by the hope that he would prove to be the magnificent Messiah whom they were looking for, he turned, and said to them, in effect, "If you really mean to follow me, you must hate all that you hold dearest, your own lives even, and take your crosses on your shoulders and consider yourselves under sentence of death and on the way to the place of execution.” Does not language like this undesignedly that he held himself thus doomed?
Again, at an early period, do we not have a glimpse of his conviction that he was soon to die in the answer which he returned to those who asked him why he did not require his disciples to fast? "Can the guests at a bridal fast,” he cried, "when the bridegroom is among them? But the time is coming,” he added, "when the bridegroom will be taken away, and when they will fast.”
As the story moves on, it grows more and more manifest that to him life was a pathway leading straight to a violent death. And nothing, I think, so well accounts for the wonderful self-possession with which he followed that path to the dark end, — nothing so well explains his consummate presence of mind in the presence of his awful fate as the supposition that, having utterly renounced self, trodden it into dust under his feet, he ceased to be distracted by any selfish anxieties. With a death of torture and shame always before him, so far was any self-concern from rising like a cloud to blur his clear, broad vision, he met every emergency, every friend and every foe, hearkening to every cry of the outcast and the suffering, as if he had no thought of anything else. O friends, could we only do the same, —fling self behind us, blessed would be our eyes, for how much that is now invisible to us should we then see, and how keen and far-reaching would be our sight! And from what a host of meannesses and cowardly cares should we at once be delivered!
As the history proceeds, the impress of truth upon its details goes on deepening and deepening to the end. And upon no part of it is it more luminously visible than upon that which records the latter portion of that great life. The reason is at hand why it should be so. As Jesus advanced, as the opposition to him grew more bitter, as the fire he was kindling became fiercer, a force, which was at the first, in his early and secluded years, necessarily in reserve, came forth into action with extraordinary power, the native force of his great personality. Then it was, as the excitement that he caused grew ever deeper and wider, that he was put to a severer, and ever severer test. A young man, all alone, confronted with a ruthless, ecclesiastical authority, with all that was held to be respectable and religious in arms against him, face to face with brutal violence and a horrid death, then his personal strength came into play, —yes, it may be said, came into play,— for he bore himself through it all with no apparent effort, but with an ease, with a grace, that betokens a measureless exuberance of power, -- with a new and original simplicity, the simplicity of Nature herself, at once moved to the very inmost of his being and yet in full possession of himself, -- with such tenderness and such dignity: in a word, with such transcendent greatness of mind, that it was utterly impossible that such a phenomenon should be let die, leaving no trace in the memory of mankind. Let die! It must have gone like the lightning of God into the hearts of many of those to whom it was given to behold the spectacle, and kindled them into a flame. Such an impression as it must have made could not be made, and those who received it, not be prompted, irresistibly prompted, to give it expression, and communicate to others in an enduring form what had affected them so mightily. Why, the personal disciples of Jesus, poor fishermen as they were, were ready to affront the most imposing array of human power, the most ferocious opposition, to suffer the worst that could be done unto them, to die, to die in flames of fire and on crosses, rather than hold their peace and refrain from making the world ring with his name. It is incredible, therefore, that some, that many among the multitude who saw and heard him, should not have been impelled to record in writing what was so powerfully moving. Had men forborne, the very stones would have leaped to shape themselves into legible characters in record of the wondrous story.
Do we not begin here to get some insight into the way in which the Gospels first came into existence, —how it happened, as Luke tells us, that many, many, took it in hand to write an account of Jesus? Not from the fancy of man, but from the irresistible force of Truth and Nature, sprang those first written narratives as a plant springs from the seed.
And what at first sight would seem to be an unfortunate circumstance proves to have been directly the reverse. The persons who undertook to put into writing the stories about Jesus evidently had but scant qualifications for the work. They were no rhetoricians. Their vocabulary was very limited. They knew nothing of the art of turning sentences. They had command of only the simplest forms of speech. They could not color the story only after the rudest fashion. They could jot down barely such prominent particulars as caught the attention of such unpracticed observers. Thus, what they wrote, I reiterate, was the product of Nature rather than Art. The events narrated wrote themselves, finding in the writers only instruments, rude instruments, indeed; but on this very account, because they were rude, the working of Nature is only the more manifest. Why do we need to know when and by whom the Gospels were written, since they thus show the unmistakable hand of Truth? Must we know when and where a flower grew before we can tell whether it be a flower or not?
But I am talking again of the Gospels rather than of their subject. It is difficult to keep the two topics apart. I think I will not try.
A short time before his crucifixion, we find Jesus on his way from Galilee to Jerusalem. But observe, not a word is said of his purpose in going thither. We are left to infer it. All that we read is that he went to Jerusalem, and that he told his disciples that he should be put to death there. But of his motive or object in going there not a syllable is whispered. So silent are the narratives on this point, so entirely in the dark are we left, that the French biographer of Jesus, whose book created such an interest some ten years ago, finding no hint of the purpose of that journey, suggests the very French surmise that Jesus went to Jerusalem for dramatic effect, to provoke his enemies to kill him. The only word that intimates that he had a purpose, a high resolve, in going to the metropolis is where it is said in Luke (ix. 51) that he "steadfastly” set his face to go to Jerusalem, implying that it was a settled thought, from which he was not to he diverted.
Is it not, however, plain, that, although his purpose is not mentioned, he went to Jerusalem just as the Apostle Paul afterwards went there, upon the same errand: to publish the truth? Mark how Paul declared his purpose: "And now, behold,” said Paul to the elders of Ephesus, "I am going, bound by the spirit (that is, impelled from within), to Jerusalem, not knowing what is to befall me there, save that in every city through which I have passed, friends, moved by the spirit of truth, have warned me that imprisonment and trouble await me there. But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I may finish my course with joy, and the service to which I have been called, to publish the glad intelligence of the grace of God.”
"There is something exceedingly majestic,” says Sydney Smith, "in the steadiness with which the Apostle points out the single object of his life, and the unquenchable courage with which he walks towards it; I know I shall die, but I have a higher object than life, the zeal of a high duty. Situation allows other men to think of safety. I not only must not consult it, I must go where I know it will be most exposed, I must hold out my hands for chains and my body for stripes and my soul for misery. I am ready to do it all?” "These,” continues Sydney Smith, "are the feelings by which alone bold truths have been told to the world, by which the bondage of falsehood has been broken and the chains of slavery have been snapped asunder. It is in vain to talk of men numerically: when the passions of a man are exalted to a summit like this, he is a thousand men. If all the feebleness and fluctuation of his nature are shamed away, you must not pretend to calculate on his efforts. Under the influence of sublime feelings, sometimes of liberty, sometimes religious, men have sprang up from the dust to shiver the oldest dominions, to toss to the ground the highest despots, to astonish ages to come with the immensity and power and grandeur of human feelings.”
If the high spirit of Paul justly inspires such a burst of wisdom and admiration as this, in what words are we to express the sense of greatness which Jesus awakens in us, steadfastly pursuing his way to Jerusalem on the same high service, but, unlike the Apostle, knowing full well what was to befall him there, with his awful fate in full view all the time, although there came no warning voices of sympathizing friends, but the acclamations of an ever-increasing multitude welcoming him, as they fondly imagined, to a throne!
The Apostle's outlook was overshadowed only by a vague general idea of danger. Imprisonment appears to have been the worst calamity distinctly apprehended. He may not have been wholly without hope that the journey might not prove as disastrous as was predicted. But Jesus saw, and, with his knowledge of the deadly hostility which he had provoked, it required in him no preternatural illumination to see it, he saw, and there was nothing else visible to him, that in going to Jerusalem to say and do there what he had said and done elsewhere, he was sealing his own fate over and over again at every step. He knew that priesthood, having no legal power to put him to death, and no other way of compassing his destruction, would be sure to hand him over to the Roman authorities; and that nothing would satisfy the intense national pride of his enemies, stung to frenzy, as it was, by the alleged pretensions of a miserable, Sabbath-breaking, wine-drinking Nazarene, the associate of infamous tax-gatherers and blackguards to the sacred character of the Messiah, — that nothing would appease them but his being overwhelmed by the shame of the vilest of deaths, death by crucifixion. Nevertheless, to Jerusalem he went, into the very thick of his infuriated enemies, with the horrible Cross right before him, never for a moment hidden from his view by any demonstrations of popular favor.
Again, Paul drew a mighty inspiration from Jesus, who trod the same path before him, and left it luminous with the splendor of his faith. "I can do all things,” the Apostle once wrote, "through Christ strengthening me.” But Jesus had no forerunner on that grim journey. He broke the path, marked only by the ever-deepening shadow which the cross cast before, — he broke the path the first, alone, with God. There were none on earth to understand him, and by their sympathy to comfort and strengthen him. He had in his own bosom, it is true, a support beyond all mortal aid. But, in his youth and utter loneliness, what exaltation of mind does it not imply, what cloudless clearness of vision, what indomitable faith, to rise to the Supreme Source of Life, and to keep at that elevation as in his native sphere, finding there all needed strength! While his heart was beating with the tenderest human sympathies, there was a great gulf between his thoughts and the thoughts of all around him. Devoted as they were to him, his personal disciples were so little aware of his high aims, that they were befooled by the fond fancy that he, poor man that he was, was going to make them judges and princes in Israel. And this idea it was, that he was the Messiah, who would shower riches and honors far and wide, which caused a constantly increasing throng of simple-minded country people to follow him on the mad to the city.
How naturally do the incidents of that journey succeed one another! The crowd and the excitement so increased as he approached Jerusalem, and so tumultuous became the people, that he procured an ass on which he rode into the city, partly, as we may suppose, to avoid the pressure of the crowd, and partly, as the ass was an animal not used for any warlike purpose, to let it appear that, great and noisy as was the throng, it was no riot, no popular insurrection that he was leading. As they moved on, the people broke off branches from the palm trees and threw them down before him, tearing off their very garments and spreading them under his feet.
Amidst this wild enthusiasm, he rode slowly on, wrapped in the profoundest solitude of the soul. Not for a moment elated by these imposing manifestations of popular favor, when he reached the brow of the Mount of Olives, where the city came into view, tears gathered in his eyes; he wept, for above the shouts of the people, there rung in his ears the approaching doom of his country. "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem!” he exclaimed, "how often would I have gathered you as a hen gathers her young under her wings, and thou wouldst not! Hadst thou known the things that belong to thy peace! But now they are hid from thine eyes, and the days are coming when thine enemies will surround thee and lay thee even with the ground and thy children within thee, and they will leave in thee not one stone upon another.” The signs of the times were as legible to him as the most familiar prognostications of the weather, the morning and the evening red. He saw how righteousness, which is the life and peace of a nation, had vanished. The dead body lay there in its corruption; and to his clear vision, the Roman eagles were hovering over it, hungry, with whetted beaks, to rend it in pieces. "Where the carcass is,” he said, "there the eagles are gathered together.”
Upon reaching the city, he naturally went to the central spot, the most popular resort, the Temple. He found the ground, sacred to worship, encroached upon by a mob of traders, and turned into a filthy market-place where, amidst the bleating of sheep and lowing of cattle, money changers and cattle dealers were chaffering with strangers who wanted their foreign coin exchanged, or doves or sheep or oxen for sacrificial purposes. Seizing a piece of cord that lay at hand, he folded it up, extemporizing a whip, and with the commanding air, by which from the first all men were struck, he bade the people be gone, exclaiming, "It is written, my house shall be a house of prayer for all nations, but you have made it a den of thieves.” Backed by the multitude that were following him, and whose enthusiasm was heightened, doubtless, by this manifestation of reverence for the Temple, he was not for a moment to be resisted. The first intimation of his will sufficed. The traders fled precipitately, driving their sheep and cattle before them, and overturning their counters in their haste. What wrath this proceeding awoke in the Priests, the official guardians of the Temple, may easily be imagined. How could they tolerate this usurpation of their authority by this unknown person, this base Galilean! They demanded his authority, — who had empowered him. How he answered and silenced them, you know.
Thus boldly did he bear himself in the lion's den. He made no terms with those whom he knew to be his mortal enemies, sworn to destroy him. He paid them no deference. Daily afterwards, he made his appearance in the same place, where the people most thickly congregated. There he encountered Pharisees, Sadducees, and Herodians, and so confounded all comers who undertook to dispute with him, that no one ventured to question him, and so popular was he that the ecclesiastical authorities did not dare to attempt his arrest.
But, notwithstanding his enemies cowered before him, leaving him apparently in undisputed possession of the field, notwithstanding, to all appearances, he was becoming entrenched in the favor of the people, not for an instant was he blinded to the fact that the priests were destined to triumph, and that speedily. No signs of immediate success, however dazzling, no popular adulation, could hide from him the vision of a cruel and lonely death close at hand. With his knowledge of human nature, how could he fail to see that the confusion with which he had overwhelmed all attempts to ensnare him in his speech; so far from bringing his foes to a better mind, would only exasperate their malice and inflame it to the murder pitch.
How touchingly, for instance, is the state of his mind disclosed in that scene in the neighboring village of Bethany, where he lodged during this visit to Jerusalem! What an insight do we get into his thoughts in the manner in which he received the costly homage of Mary when she poured the precious ointment upon his person! When she broke the box, and the whole house was filled with the sweet perfume, it instantly struck his sense as the odor of the tomb. And, although no one there had the poor so near at heart as he, yet when Mary’s act was objected to as a waste, and the plausible suggestion made that the ointment might have been sold and given to the poor, so struck was he by the undersigned coincidence of the act with his near death, that he exclaimed, "Hush!” Disturb her not! Let her alone! She is embalming me for my burial!” And note those added words, more significant, because slightly allusive, "The poor you have always with you, but me you have not always.”
Now it is not to be supposed that the narrators of this incident had any thought of showing how ever-present to his mind was his death. The incident is told, as indeed the whole story is told, not to make out a case, certainly not to make out a case in accordance with nature and probability, but only for the sake of its striking character. No comment is made. No explanation so much as hinted at. I have no idea that the narrators saw, at the moment, the deep pathos of the scene. Indeed, although, as Jesus predicted, the fragrance of that act of Mary's has filled the world, I do not believe its truth to nature has yet been fathomed.
How characteristic it was of Jesus to be struck by correspondences between the seen and the unseen, is evident on every page of his history. Equally evident is it how all unconscious the historians were that, in the particulars which they relate, they are laying open great deeps of feeling in Jesus, -- the passionate, or, as Dr. Tyndall might call it, the emotional life of Jesus, that in him which is the key to so many secrets, to the origin and diameter and meaning of the Gospels, and to the extraordinary power and permanence of the influence which has wrought so mightily on the human soul, and determined the history of our race for ages.
This habit of his of noting resemblances between what occurred in his presence and his thought, how impressively, because incidentally does it reveal the profound personal interest that he had in all that he said and did. When one's heart is full of any great idea, he finds everything hinting at it and echoing it. The soul thus possessed hears all Nature bursting forth into speech and song in response and accord. Around such an one, the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, the mountains and the hills, break forth into singing, and all the trees of the forest clap their hands. Not from hearsay, not from any outward, preternatural dictation, but out of "the burning core” of that great heart of his came every word that Jesus uttered. But the authors of the Gospels never dreamed that they were showing that so it was with him. And yet how naturally, without any strained constructions, may we infer the untold from what is told!
What a revelation is there, to the same effect as the incident last mentioned, in those brief words that broke from his lips when he was at the table for the last time with his disciples! They have been the occasion of the most extravagant errors, of the most monstrous absurdities. Protestant theologians have been, not a little, embarrassed in the endeavor to explain them satisfactorily. The best that they have been able to say of them, in opposition to the doctrine of transubstantiation, is that they are a peculiarly bold figure of speech, an Orientalism. But in truth they are neither Oriental, nor Occidental, but purely Natural, a mode of expression profoundly human. Precisely so would any one have expressed himself, situated and moved as Jesus was at the moment. With that awful death close before him, such slight incidents as the breaking of a loaf of bread, and the pouring out of the blood-red wine, became portents, startling him with their ominous significance, accustomed as he was to see such correspondences; and so vivid were the images of torture and blood which the breaking of the bread and the streaming wine conjured up, that for the instant the bread and wine vanished from his sight. He saw not them. He saw only with the mind's eye. He beheld only his own tortured body and flowing blood, and he exclaimed, as he handed the bread and wine to his disciples, "Take and eat! It is my body!” "It is my blood!” Never again on earth, he said, would he touch a drop of the fruit of the vine. How could he, associated as it was with such an abhorrent image? I do not believe that he ate a morsel of the bread.
In what keeping this incident, thus viewed, is with the characteristic sensibility of Jesus, with his situation at the time, and with human nature, — is it not manifest? But where in the history is there a hint that the narrators were aware that they were unveiling the inner life of Jesus, or that they had the remotest idea of the admirable consistency of the particulars which they relate, even oftentimes to the simplest forms of expression reported, with the natural working of our spiritual being?
But I am leaving myself but little time to mention certain other respects in which he, who was one with us all, was yet like no other.
Jesus stands by himself, far above all others born of woman, in that, such was his personal power, his extraordinary native force, that, in his presence and at his will, the possessed regained their self-possession, the blind saw, the lame walked, and, in one or two instances, the very dead started from their mysterious sleep, and lie himself returned to life.
But these facts, the so-called miracles, and miracles they are in one sense, in the primitive sense of wonders, — these facts, natural facts, as I hold them to be, effects, illustrations, revelations, of the connection between our material and immaterial being, —these facts are, by numbers, regarded as fables so egregious as to cast a deep shadow of doubt over the whole history in which they are found.
In regard to these extraordinary facts, I can do but little more, here and now, than declare the strength of my own convictions. There are two considerations that have decisive weight with me.
In the first place, the way in which most of these wonderful occurrences are told puts it out of my power to doubt that they actually took place. They are narrated just as we should expect and require them to be narrated in the time and country in which Jesus lived, supposing them to be true. The agitation of human passions, precisely such as, upon this supposition, they must have caused, is undesignedly and unconsciously photographed in the manner in which they are related. Not more faithfully, not more truly inimitably, are the forms of fossil plants and animals stamped upon the substances on which they are found. This species of evidence is, to my mind, incomparably more powerful than the testimony given under oath of never so many honest and intelligent individuals, because it is evidence which no mortal man intended to give. In no instance is this evidence more abundant and striking than in the case of the most extraordinary event in the whole history: the reappearance of Jesus alive on the second morning after his crucifixion. It is the involuntary emotions and misconceptions of the actors in that scene in the Garden, pictured in the different narratives with the artless frankness of Nature herself, that involve the great fact, bearing witness to its truth with authority to which a voice from heaven could give no confirmation.
In the second place, those remarkable physical effects which illustrate the career of Jesus are attributable, and were by him attributed in the most emphatic manner, not to any magical charms or formulas, not to any peculiar gift of which he was conscious in himself, but to an immaterial force, confessedly of vast power, and native to the human soul: Faith, the first extraordinary manifestations of which that occurred took Jesus himself by surprise; and how profoundly he was impressed, by what he witnessed of its power, we may infer from the pointed manner in which he always directed attention to it, and from the bold and emphatic forms of speech which he used in describing it.
It has been long and widely taken for granted that the extraordinary events that marked the career of Jesus were expressly designed to accredit his authority. As I read his history, this is a palpable assumption, a representation of the miracles so-called entirely unwarranted by the record. Jesus never sought occasion to produce these remarkable effects. As I have said, they took him by surprise, in the first instance, and he rather sought to avoid them. He represented it as an evidence of the low condition of the people that they required signs and miracles in order that they might believe in him. It is true, he referred to them as proofs of his truth, but they were valid as credentials of his authority for this very reason, that they were not designed as such any more than his proclaiming the gospel to the poor, to which he referred in the same way, was so intended. He preached to the poor for the poor's sake, and not to prove that he came from God.
Accepting those wonders as true, I see in them a most cheering, most triumphant, and most needed demonstration of Spirit, the Hidden Life of all that is. Were that really believed in, we should have but little difficulty in believing that he who appeared among men "in the power of the Spirit” could even awake the dead.
And can it be doubted that, if the extraordinary facts in the life of Jesus were received as facts in nature, as facts essential to a true philosophy of nature, it would radically affect our ideas of life and death, and neutralize the materialistic tendencies of physical science, were they a thousand times more pronounced than they are?
Once more, I can only briefly mention one other particular in which Jesus is pre-eminently distinguished above all the other leaders of mankind. He was far greater in his reserved than in his actual life. As men always sympathize mightily with suppressed emotion, this is a characteristic of him that, indefinable as it is, is a great power, because it is indefinable. We receive from the accounts of him the impression that the man was far more than his word, wise as that was, far more than his work, great as that also was. This impression is made, not merely by the facility, but by the wondrous grace with which he met all emergencies and rendered them his submissive servants. We feel that he was more than equal to any circumstances. He was always master, imperial master, of the situation, even when he was hanging in mortal agony on the Cross. And how informal was he withal, how little didactic! At every turn and touch, power gushed from his lips and his fingers.
The one simple conclusion is that he was a person apart and alone, above being ranked with the other great ones of the world. He stands out, a far advanced fact in the natural history of the human race. In him as in no other we have a revelation, realization, development, if you please, of the vitalizing and transcendent energy of Truth, when transmuted into personal power, incarnated and concrete, a new, unparalleled advance of the Spirit across and beyond the great physical mystery of our being, death. In him stands a wide open gate into the Illimitable, where science must reverently pause and confess her limitations. And it is not to the intellect first or chiefly that this wonderful Life is addressed. Through the quick sympathy of one and the same nature, it calls into action the best and the greatest in every soul of flesh, bearing triumphant witness to the sovereignty of Spirit, of God in all and above all.
When facts, similar to those in the history of Jesus, at once original and natural, are shown us in the histories of other renowned persons, and as satisfactorily established, then shall we be prepared to rank them with him.
What think ye of Christ? The question of questions. "There is no doctrinal controversy of the church,” says a learned German theologian, "which may not be traced back to a fundamental difference of opinion as to the person of Jesus.” Strauss again was moved to write his elaborate life of Jesus, wherein Jesus is reduced to all but a myth, by the idea that there is no hope of a thorough reform but in eradicating what he held to be the false idea that reigns of Christ. Our radical brothers are of the same opinion. The idea of Jesus must be changed, they conceive. He must be put down from his high position, reduced to the rank of the world's great men. It is true, the idea of Jesus is of vital importance. But it is thus important, because it is, as I have said, a demonstration which has no parallel of the Spirit; because Jesus, not in his words alone, but Jesus awakening Lazarus, Jesus awakening himself from the grave, reveals to us its mighty potency. It is in vain that we magnify the spirit: our faith in it is feeble, so long as we are unable to recognize its energizing presence in those physical effects which Faith in it, as it dwelt in Jesus, once produced.
 I am not at all disposed to distrust the testimony of those who appear to know, and who report to us the benign wisdom of the religion of the far East. Butwe can hardly be expected to set Buddhism on a level with the religion of the New Testament, if the practical character of Buddhism is to he decided by the specimen of it which Max Midler gives, and we presume he gives us, at least, one of the best, in his lecture on the Nirvana. It is a pretty story that he tells, but not to be mentioned with the parables and incidents of the Gospels.