Great Texts of the Bible
For, lo, the winter is past,
The rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth;
The time of the singing of birds is come,
And the voice of the turtle is heard in our land;
The fig tree ripeneth her green figs,
And the vines are in blossom,
They give forth their fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.—Song of Solomon 2:11-13In Britain, spring is the most beautiful season of all the year; but in Palestine it stands out in more strongly pronounced contrast to the three other seasons, and it is in itself exceedingly lovely. While summer and autumn are there parched with drought, barren and desolate, and while winter is often dreary with snow-storms and floods of rain, in spring the whole land is one lovely garden, ablaze with richest hues, hill and dale, wilderness and farmland vying in the luxuriance of their wild flowers, from the red anemone that fires the steep sides of the mountains to the purple and white cyclamen that nestles among the rocks at their feet. Much of the beauty of this poem is found in the fact that it is pervaded by the spirit of an Eastern spring. This makes it possible to introduce a wealth of beautiful imagery which would not have been appropriate if any other season had been chosen. Palestine is even more lovely in March than England is in May; so that this poem, which is so completely bathed in the atmosphere of early spring, calls up echoes of the exquisite English garden pictures in Shelley’s Sensitive Plant and Tennyson’s Maud.
There are good men to whom the din of the streets is more welcome than the songs of birds in the spring-time. Dr. Johnson hated the quiet places of nature, and was never happy except in the thick of life; Socrates had no love for green field and garden, all his interests were among men; and even St. Paul, if we may judge from his writings, found his raptures in work done among the human throng, and was not keenly sensitive to the natural things which his Master loved. We do not envy these men in that one particular. They were great, richly endowed souls, with one sweet capacity missing. We thank God that we have it, that most good men have it in large measure. It is a gift of God with a touch of heaven in it. It makes the whole world a temple, especially in the spring-time, with stained windows and altar lights and innumerable choristers; it makes us hear speech in a thousand languages to which other ears are deaf.1 [Note: J. G. Greenhough.]
1. “The winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth.” There is a sigh of glad relief in the words, as if some long pain had gone, as if some nightmare had been lifted up, and the spirit of joy had come dancing into our lives again. The winter is long; at least we always feel it long. It is like an unwelcome guest that prolongs its stay. It will not regulate its movements by the calendar. The day for its departure is fixed, but it tarries. It seems to go a dozen times, and comes back again. The spring-time comes with lingering feet. It has to fight with winter for every inch of ground gained. It is like the slow battle of goodness against evil, with the long-deferred result.
That weary time that comes between
The last snow and the earliest green!
One barren clod the wide fields lie,
And all our comfort is the sky.
We know the sap is in the tree,—
That life at buried roots must be;
Yet dreary is the earth we tread,
As if her very soul were dead.
Before the dawn the darkest hour,
The blank and chill before the flower!
Beauty prepares this background gray
Whereon her loveliest tints to lay.
Ah, patience! ere we dream of it,
Spring’s fair new gospel will be writ.
Look up! Good only can befall
While heaven is at the heart of all!2 [Note: Lucy Larcom, Between Winter and Spring.]
2. All through the cold, the forces which make the miracle of spring are gathering in the earth. Down below in every root and seed life is accumulating itself. It is forced down by darkness and cold, but it is not killed; the bitterer the skies above, the harder the crust of the earth, the intenser is the concentration of life. Nor is it quite without its work, though it is hidden. For it fills the sheaths of the buds with the folded leaves; it weaves the down that protects them, it builds within them, in the centre, the glory and beauty of the flower. It prepares itself for its rush and outburst. At last, the burden of darkness and frost and bitter wind is lifted off, the climate changes, and straightway the imprisoned life expands and ripples upwards, the potential energy becomes dynamic, the stored-up sunlight and heart break forth in leaf and blossom to the sunlight, and over a thousand woods and fields apparent death leaps into apparent life.
“Where are the snowdrops?” said the sun;
“Dead,” said the frost,
“Buried and lost,
“A foolish answer,” said the sun;
“They did not die,
Asleep they lie,
“And I will wake them, I the sun,
Into the light,
All clad in white,
Last year I was in Surrey at the end of April, for a single day, and walked through the woods of Albury. There had been abundance of rain the night before, but the sunlight of the day was bright, and every leaf, tree, and flower was glittering with waterdrops. In the warm mist everything seemed to grow with more swiftness, and the old phrase, that if one stayed in the silence and listened, one could hear the grass growing, seemed literally true. Life ran to the end of every spray, and rushed into a million leaves and flowers; and I thought that no human passion could be more intense than that with which the young leaves of the beech burst from their long sheath; no light in human eyes more suggestive of fulness of life within the heart than the gold and green glory of light that rained upon me through the unnumbered foliage of the limes. A step further, and the sky seemed to have fallen on the earth, for where the wood opened a little, a great slope, as far as the eye could reach up and down, was clothed with a myriad-flowered mist of bluebells; it seemed as if all the life of the earth had given itself to make them, so multitudinous were they; and as to the primroses, a bank of which I came to by-and-by, so rich was the life in them that I counted fifty flowers springing from a single root, and there were thousands of plants in that sunny place. It was the same in everything, everywhere incalculable, inexhaustible, rushing life, life that never rested, never wearied.1 [Note: Stopford A. Brooke, The Fight of Faith, 327.]
3. The coming of spring awakens new energies in man as well as in nature. No one who hears the warm west wind of April flowing through the trees, and feels the secret stirring that it makes in blood and brain, but knows the influence of spring upon the body. As the sap ran upwards through the flowers, so the blood went swifter through the veins, and the physical emotion sent its message to that immaterial life of thought and feeling which we call the spirit. And the spirit, receiving the impressions, took and moulded them into ideas by the imagination and sent the ideas forth to give motives to the will. If those ideas are dull or sensual, the new bodily life that comes with spring will only serve to make life more commonplace or our passions more degraded. If they are poetical, or enkindling, linked to high aspirations and pure thoughts, then the quickened powers of the body will be restrained from evil, impelled to finer work, hallowed and dignified under the command of a will directed by such thoughts.
It was that peculiar period of spring which most powerfully affects a human soul: a bright, illuminating, but not warm sun, rivulets and thawed spots, an aromatic freshness in the air, and a gently azure sky with long, transparent clouds. I was in a very bad and dissatisfied mood. Everything somehow went against me. I wanted to get angry and to grumble; I recalled that we had to go to confession that very day, and that I had to abstain from everything bad. Suddenly a meek spirit came over me. Through the open window the fresh, fragrant air penetrated the room and filled it. Through the window was heard the din of the city and the chirping of the sparrows in the garden. I went up to the window, sat upon it, bent down to the garden, and fell to musing. A novel, exceedingly powerful and pleasant sensation suddenly penetrated into my soul. The damp earth through which here and there burst bright-green blades of grass with their yellow stalks; the rills glistening in the sun, along which meandered pieces of earth and chips; the blushing twigs of the lilac bushes with their swelling buds swaying under the very window; the busy chirping of the birds that swarmed in the bushes; the black fence wet with the thawing snow; but above all, that aromatic moist air and joyous sun spoke to me distinctly and clearly of something new and beautiful, which, though I am not able to tell it as it appeared to me, I shall attempt to tell as I conceived it. Everything spoke to me of beauty, happiness, and virtue; it told me that all that was easy and possible for me, that one thing could not be without the other, and even that beauty, happiness, and virtue were one and the same. “How was it I did not understand it before? As bad as I was in the past, so good and happy shall I become in the future!” I said to myself, “I must go at once, this very minute, become another man, and live another life.”1 [Note: Tolstoy, Youth, chap ii. (Works, i. 255).]
4. Nor does the influence of spring come only to the body As we breathe the soft new air, and see the green cloud gather on the trees, a thousand memories come back; life is re-lived from the first primrose gathering in childhood to the wonder and joy of last year, when we looked up through the snow of a roof of apple-blossoms to the blue air. Early love, early sorrow, later and wilder passions, the aspirations of youth, the ideals that made the life of lonely wanderings, the thoughts with which we took up work when manhood called us to the front of the battle, the graver thoughts that came when we laid aside hopes too impossible to realize, are all felt, pursued, and longed for, more deeply far in the stirring airs of spring. Every new spring reawakens them all to life within us. With their memories, as with flowers, the meadows of our heart are covered. We walk among them, and as we walk a gentler, tenderer, more receptive temper fills our being. We throw open all the gates of the heart.
Milton tells us that the Muses always came back to him in spring. He could not sing very much, as a rule, in winter, but when spring came back the Muses came. He caught the youthfulness and hopefulness of spring; he looked round, and saw life springing triumphantly out of the grave of winter: he saw the feeblest growths rejoice in a new life and beauty. Then, too, his own intellect, under the blessing and inspiration of a spring sky, began to blossom anew.1 [Note: D. Davies, Talks with Men, Women and Children, v. 174.]
“It’s rather dark in the earth to-day,”
Said one little bulb to his brother,
“But I thought that I felt a sun-beam ray;
We must strive and grow till we find the way!”
And they nestled close to each other.
And they struggled and toiled by day and by night,
Till two little snowdrops in green and in white
Rose out of the darkness into the light,
And softly kissed each other.
5. The coming of spring is a parable of the resurrection. Every returning spring-time is a confirmation of our Easter hopes. For it is a parable of that resurrection and restoration of nature which the Bible says is to accompany “the liberty of the glory of the children of God.” It is not man alone that will be glorified. Not apart from the struggling, yearning creation round about him will he reach perfection. His lot is bound up in hers for joy as for sorrow. The resurrection will not free man from his oneness with nature; it will express that oneness in a form that will fill uncreated beings with wonder and praise. It is so often implied by religious writers, even if not expressed, that with the last great resurrection the natural world passes away. On the contrary, St. Paul’s philosophy of resurrection is in nothing more wonderful than in the place which it gives to nature. In that philosophy he is confirmed, as he in turn confirms its reasoned conclusions, by the investigations of recent science. For he takes his stand on the solidarity between man and nature, and on the common character of their destiny. The same great principles of finality, of travail, of hope which mark man’s being mark also the world round about him. “The creation was subjected to vanity, not of its own will, but by reason of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the liberty of the glory of the children of God. For we know,” he adds, “that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. And not only so, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for our adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.” Towards the same great goal man and creation, therefore, alike are hastening. “The times of restoration of all things” prophesied since the world began, “the regeneration, when the Son of man shall sit on the throne of his glory,” are to be marked by the final bridals of man and nature. Together redeemed man and restored nature are to shape one glorious future, as they have shared one shadowed and chequered past. As yet neither is perfectly fitted for that future, and hence the life of man in nature is not yet—what one day it will be—truly natural. Nor has nature yet on her side become what one day she will become—the perfect vehicle of spirit. These two futures are slowly but surely converging towards each other across the ages, and one day they will meet in the world’s golden eventide, as Isaac met Rebekah and was “comforted” after his sorrow. And then will nature
Set herself to man,
Like perfect music unto noble words;
And so these twain, upon the skirts of time,
Sit side by side, full summed in all their powers
Dispensing harvest, sowing the To-Be.
Shakespeare has nothing more beautiful than the closing scene in his Winter’s Tale. The long-lost, long-mourned wife of Leontes, Hermione, unknown to him, lives all the while, and is given back to him after years of separation, the happy victim of a loving plot prepared for his own after-pleasure. Ushered into the chapel of the house of Paulina, her true friend, he beholds what he imagines to be her lovely statue, till slowly it glides towards him; then offers him her hand, and hangs upon him in loving embrace. The statue has become his long-lost wife, risen as it were from her grave, and moving with tenderness of grace across the long interval of years, to fling herself once more upon his arms. But Leontes himself is chastened by the long bitter years which prepare him for this moment, and when the vision of his former joy comes, he is ready to welcome it. When man himself has been disciplined by the long ages of waiting, then shall the end which brings fruition and realization to every pure earthly hope come. Nature, quickened in Christ out of her long winter sleep, shall move to him across those ages of separation which sin has made, his true bride, speaking to his heart the music of a long-forgotten language, waking in him the buried instincts of love, calling him to the mountain of myrrh and to the hill of frankincense.1 [Note: T. Gurney, The Living Lord, 189.]
In the Resurrection, Giotto has combined two subjects. On one side we have the white-robed Angels seated on the red porphyry tomb, with the soldiers, sunk in deep slumber at their feet. On the other, the risen Lord, bearing the flag of victory in His hand, is in the act of uttering the words “Noli me tangere” to the Magdalen, who, wrapt in her crimson mantle, falls at his feet, exclaiming, “Rabboni!”—Master. No master of later times ever painted so touching and beautiful a Magdalen as this one with the yearning eyes and the passion of love and rapture in her outstretched arms. And while the trees behind the sepulchre are bare and withered, here the fig and olive of the garden have burst into leaf and the little birds carol on the grassy slopes. The winter is past, the rain over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing of birds is come.2 [Note: Julia Cartwright, The Painters of Florence, 30.]
There is a very beautiful monument by Chan trey in Lichfield Cathedral; it is called the snowdrop monument. It is of marble, and commemorates two little girls who died. The monument represents them lying asleep with their arms about one another, and in the hand of the younger there is a bunch of snowdrops—the snowdrops of promise, the snowdrops which in this instance are intended to tell of the new life that those who die wake into, and of God’s summer land, where there is no death.3 [Note: J. Eames, The Shattered Temple, 176.]
A little poem of the spring which has come down to us from the Roman Empire shows us by contrast what the world without Christ was. The first stanza tells us that “sharp winter is loosed by the breath of the spring in the west.” The second gives a picture of mingled mirth and toil, as it might be seen in any village among the Sabæan Hills, and the third speaks of the joy which every one feels in such a scene. Then, like a thunderclap in a clear blue sky, the whole thing changes with a suddenness that makes the reader shudder. “Pale death comes impartially to the cot of the poor and the palace of the king. In a moment you will be in night, in the shades, and in the narrow house of Pluto.” Oh! that sad pagan world, clutching feverishly at the joys of wine and love because death is close at hand, always drawing nearer—death and forgetfulness! It is precisely the same note that was struck more than a thousand years afterwards by the Persian poet, Omar Khayyam:
Ah, my Beloved, fill the Cup that clears
To-day of past Regrets and Future Fears:
To-morrow!—Why, To-morrow I may be
Myself with Yesterday’s Sev’n thousand Years.
A Moment’s Halt—a momentary taste
Of Being from the Well amid the Waste—
And Lo! the phantom Caravan has reach’d
The Nothing it set out from—Oh, make haste!
How quickly that which Horace recommended, and recommended with perfect innocence, and apparently with reason, leads to satiety and sickness of spirit. And so the age of Augustus passed into the age of Nero and Petronius.
On that hard Pagan world disgust and secret loathing fell;
Deep weariness and sated lust made human life a hell.
It was in that old Pagan world, with its disgust and despair, that the light of Christ shone. Jesus came into the world just about the time that Horace was writing his poems, and when He came a breath of hope shivered throughout the world. A light broke in upon human life, a possibility dawned which apparently man had never taken into account before.1 [Note: R. F. Horton, in The British Congregationalist, May 18, 1911.]
Banks (L. A.), Hidden Wells of Comfort, 116.
Brooke (S. A.), The Fight of Faith, 324.
Davies (D.), Talks with Men, Women and Children, v. 173.
Eames (J.), The Shattered Temple, 171.
Fox (C. A.), Memorials, 282.
Greenhough (J. G.), in God’s Garden, 29.
Gurney (T. A.), The Living Lord and the Opened Grave, 176.
Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, viii. (1862), No. 436.
Stone (C. E.), God’s Hardest Task, 2.
Williams (T. R.), Addresses to Boys, Girls, and Young People, 98.
British Congregationalist, May 18, 1911 (R. F. Horton).
Christian World Pulpit, xi. 379 (W. Simpson); lxi. 364 (A. Macrae); lxix. 347 (S. Thornton); lxxvii. 252 (W. Martin)
Churchman’s Pulpit: Easter Day and Season, vii. 373 (S. J. Buchanan).
Preacher’s Magazine, iv. 274 (J. Wright); xvi. 180 (H. Friend).