What was the darkes hour that ever struck for this sinful earth? When was it that God seemed most to be absent, and the powers of darkness to have their way and their will? It was when the Son of God hung on the cross, and when even from his lips there broke the mysterious cry, Lord, if thou hadst been here—"My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Matt. 27:46.) Yet out of that darkest hour comes the world's brightest light and the soul's fondest hope. Now we know that God was not absent, but present, when Christ died on the cross, for God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself.
No doubt a part of our probation in this life is the limitation of our knowledge of the ways of God. How different it would be if we could see things as God sees them, could understand the divinity that is shaping our end! In the Gesta Romanorum, that fourteenth-century collection of legends and miracles and fables, there is the story "The Hermit and the Angel."
A hermit and an angel once set out on a journey together. The angel was in human form and garb, but he had told the hermit about his exalted rank. The first night they stopped at a humble home by the wayside, where, for the love of God, they were granted food and shelter. In the middle of the night the angel arose and strangled the infant child of their host as he was sleeping in his cradle. The hermit was amazed and horrified at this deed of his companion, but since he knew he was an angel he kept silent. At the end of the next day's journey they were entertained at a mansion in a city, and when they departed the angel stole the beautiful golden cup out of which his host had drunk the wine at dinner.
On the next day's journey they were crossing a bridge over a deep and dangerous stream when they met a pilgrim. The angel said to the pilgrim, "Canst thou show us, good father, the way to the next town?" When the pilgrim turned to point out the road, the angel picked him up and flung him over the parapet of the bridge into the river. Seeing that, the hermit said to himself, "Surely this is a devil with whom I travel, for all his works are evil!" But he said nothing to the angel.
That night, as darkness came on, snow was falling; and they heard the howling of the wolves in the forest. In the distance they saw a light in the window of a cottage, and making their way thither, they asked for refuge. The surly master of the house with oaths and curses turned them away from his door. "Yonder," he said, "is the pig sty. That is the place for dirty beggars like you!" So they passed the night in the pig sty among the swine. In the morning the angel went to the man's house and thanked him for his hospitality, and for a keepsake gave him the stolen goblet.
At this the hermit's anger and horror would no longer be contained. "Get thee gone, wretched spirit!" he cried. "Thou pretendest to be a messenger from heaven; yet thou requitest good with evil and evil with good." Then looking upon him with compassion in his eyes, the angel said: "Listen, short-sighted mortal. For love of that infant son the father had been made covetous, breaking God's commandments to heap up wealth for his boy, which the boy, if he had lived, would have wasted in riotous living and debauchery. My act which seemed to you so cruel saved both parent and child. The owner of the golden goblet which I took had once been abstemious, but he was becoming a drunken sot. The loss of his cup has set him to thinking, and he will mend his ways. The poor pilgrim whom I threw into the river was about to commit a mortal sin, when I interfered and sent his soul unsullied into heaven. As for this wretch who drove God's children from his door, he is, indeed, pleased for the moment with the bauble I have given him; but hereafter he will burn in hell." When the hermit heard these words, he bowed his head and murmured, "Forgive me, Lord, that in my ignorance I misjudged thee."
Although the ways of providence to us are ofttimes inscrutable, one day we shall be able to see, what we can now behold by faith, that
There's a wideness in God's mercy,
Like the wideness of the sea;
and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind.
When Robert Louis Stevenson first saw the terrible devastations of leprosy he was almost turned into an infidel. But when he saw the miracles of Christian pity and compassion in the leper hospital at Malokai, his faith emerged triumphant, and he wrote in the guest book there:
To see the infinite pity of this place,
The mangled limb, the devastated face,
The innocent sufferer smiling at the rod—
A fool were tempted to deny his God.
He sees, he shrinks. But if he gaze again,
Lo, beauty springing from the breast of pain!
He marks the sisters on the mournful shores;
And even a fool is silent and adores.
One of the famous bells of China is the bell in the Great Tower. Five hundred years ago the ruler of China, the Son of Heaven, commanded the official of this province that he should have a bell made of such size that the sound of it could be heard for a hundred li. The mandarin assembled artisans and bellsmiths from all parts of the empire. But when the metal had been cast it was found that the result was void. The brass, which had been used to strengthen the voice of the bell, and the gold, to deepen it, and the silver, to sweeten it, had rebelled one against the other. A second time the bell was cast, and again the same result. This time the emperor, the Son of Heaven, sent a grim message to the mandarin, saying, "Twice thou hast betrayed thy trust; if thou fail a third time, thy head shall be severed from thy neck. Tremble and obey."
The mandarin's lovely daughter, who had refused a hundred suitors rather than leave her father's home desolate, learned the contents of the message from the emperor, and was in deadly fear for her father. When she consulted an astrologer he said, "Gold and brass will never meet in wedlock. Silver and iron shall never embrace until the flesh of a maiden be melted in the crucible, until the blood of a virgin be mixed with the metals in their fusion."
The day for the third trial of the bell came. The mandarin and his daughter and her servants stood on a platform overlooking the great caldron of liquefied metal. The mandarin was about to give the signal to cast. Then he heard a cry, "For thy sake, O my father!" and, turning his head, he saw his daughter leap into the roaring furnace.
That is the reason, the people say today, that the sound of this bell in the Great Tower is deeper and mellower and mightier than the tones of any other bell, sometimes pealing like the roll of thunder and sometimes as soft as a woman's voice.
This ancient Chinese legend embodies the truth that sacrifice and suffering make their contribution to the strength and richness and beauty of life.
Rom. 8. 18 reads—I consider that the sufferings of this present while are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us.
Some time, when all life's lessons have been learned
And suns and stars for evermore have set,
The things which our weak judgments here have spurned,
The things o'er which we grieved with lashes wet,
Will flash before us out of life's dark night,
And we shall see how all God's plans are right,
And what then seemed reproof was love most true.
But not today. Then be content, poor heart,
God's plans like lilies pure and white unfold;
We must not tear the close-shut leaves apart.
Time will reveal the calyxes of gold.
And if, through patient toil, we reach the land
Where our tired feet, with sandals loosed, may rest,
Where we shall clearly see and understand,
I think that we shall say, 'God knew the best'.