It was a cruel world into which Christ was born. Grim Herod, waiting to destroy the newborn King, is a true picture of the attitude of the early world toward childhood. How different Christ has made the world by his coming could not be better expressed than in this fragment of a letter written June 17, 1 B.C, by Hilarion to his wife, Alis, concerning his own child, and concerning a babe about to be born to his daughter:
"Hilarion to Alis, his sister:
Many greetings. ... Be not distressed if at the general coming in I remain at Alexandria. I pray thee and beseech thee take care of the little child, and as soon as we receive wages, I will send them to thee. If—is delivered, if it be a male baby, let it live. If it be a female, expose it."
That awful Greek word ekbale—"cast out," "expose"—is sufficient to measure the difference between the world with and without Christ.
There is one tiny book that, I believe, is the most famous book on religion ever written. Pilgrim's Progress is famous and beautilul, but it is read only by Protestants. The circulation of this other book, however, is not limited by creedal or ecclesiastical barriers: "It has diffused itself like incense through the aisles and alcoves of the universal church." It takes its title from these opening words, "He that followeth Me, walketh not in darkness, saith the Lord." These are the words of Christ by which we are admonished to imitate his life and manner. Only one person has appeared on this earth who was worthy of having a book written about him with such a title—The Imitation of Christ. The perfection and beauty in the character and person of Christ is at once the treasure and the proof of Christianity. Before Christ appeared men had never seen the perfect, nor could they altogether agree as to what it ought to be. But the character of Christ, which Thomas a Kempis urges men to imitate, is the final pattern of perfection.
The first church building dedicated to the worship of God in all of western Pennsylvania was the church the Moravians built in 1771 on the Beaver River for the Delaware Indians. The Moravians were founded by Count Zinzendorf, who was converted in an art gallery in Dusseldorf by contemplating a painting of Christ on the cross, which had the inscription, "I did this for thee. What hast thou done for me?"
This painting was done by an artist three hundred years before. When he had finished his first sketch of the face of the Redeemer, this artist called in his landlady's little daughter and asked her who she thought it was. The girl looked at it and said, "It is a good man." The painter knew that he had failed. He destroyed the first sketch, and after praying for greater skill he finished a second.
Again he called the little girl in and asked her to tell him whom she thought the face represented. This time the girl said she thought it looked like a great sufferer. Again the painter knew that he had failed, and again he destroyed the sketch he had made. After meditation and prayer, a third sketch was made. When it was finished, he called the girl in a third time and asked her who it was. Looking at the portrait, the girl knelt down and exclaimed, "It is the Lord!"
That alone makes the coming of Christ meaningful to the world—not that a good man came, not that a wise teacher came, not that a great sufferer came, but that God came—Immanucl, God with us.
One hears quoted very often, and very thoughtlessly, Richard Watson Gilder's lines:
If Jesus Christ is a man,—
And only man,—I say
That of all mankind I cleave to him,
And to him will I cleave alway.
If Jesus Christ is a god,—
And the only God,—I swear
I will follow Him through heaven and hell
The earth, the sea, and the air!
The last part is sense and reason; the first part is nonsense. If Jesus Christ be man, and only a man, there is nothing in him worth following and worth cleaving to. The poet sings as if it made little difference which way the vote fell—man, or Son of God. But it does make a difference—an immeasurable difference.
In "Death in the Desert," where Browning imagines the death and the last words of John, he makes the evangelist speak thus:
I say, the acknowledgment of God in Christ
Accepted by thy reason, solves for thee
All questions in the earth and out of it.
Yes, if God was in Christ, and if he loved me and gave himself for me, then all problems are solved and all wants are
Thou, O Christ, art all I want;
More than all in thee I find.
But if Christ was not the Son of God, who died for us, then chaos is come again. In the words of Milton in Comus,
The pillared firmament is rottenness,
And earth's base built on stubble.
Father St. Philip used to make a protest to God with the Blessed Sacrament in his hand, saying, "Lord, beware of me today, lest I should betray thee, and do thee all the mischief in the world. . . . The wound in Christ's side is large, but if God did not guard me, I should make it larger."
The conclusion to John's severe and condemnatory letter to the church at Laodicea is the most beautiful of all his conclusions and promises. Here we have love's beautiful climax, "Behold, I stand at the door, and knock" (Rev. 3:20). The mighty actor and conqueror of the Apocalypse, before whom all things in heaven and earth and under the earth bow down in worship and adoration, appears here as a suppliant at man's heart: "Behold, I stand at the door, and knock."
There he is, like a weary traveler, just as you have seen him in Holman Hunt's famous painting—the dews of night distilling upon his brow, a lantern in one hand, and knocking with the other, the head bent forward eagerly to hear if there is an answer to his knock.
This, I think, is the most moving thing in the Apocalypse—not the great white throne, not the sound of many waters, not the sea of glass mingled with fire, not the fourfold hallelujah that rings out over a reconciled and conquered universe, not the New Jerusalem, but Christ, knocking at the door of the sinner's heart!