The first Easter morning brought to this poor woman a sore disappointment. She had gone in the early twilight to the grave where two days be fore the body of one whom she had loved had been hurriedly and secretly buried. Her visit could of course do Him no good, for He was dead. But she might at least, with the spices that she carried, complete the hurried embalming, which the ap proach of the Jewish Sabbath had perhaps inter rupted. She might, at any rate, sit near Him a little longer, before she must give Him up forever, and offer to Him the affectionate tribute and to her own heart the great relief of her tender thoughts and her silent tears. The almost irresistible im pulse, which leads us to cling, to the very last, to those whom we love, though death has touched them, drew her even to the tomb of Him whom she called her Lord.
It was no ordinary friendship which had bound her to Him. We know but little of her history and we may hesitate to accept as true all that is told us of Him. But there is no doubt whatever of the opinion concerning Him or of the feeling toward Him, which prevailed in the little group of persons to which she belonged. She doubtless believed, as others did, certainly, that He had cured her by direct, supernatural power, of a peculiarly dreadful disease. She had been more or less in His com pany from that time to this. She appears to have stood in intimate relations with His mother, and with the mother of two of His disciples. She had seen Him perform what appeared to her to be miraculous acts of divine power. She had heard from Him words which seemed to her to be words of divine authority and wisdom. She had felt, in personal acquaintance, the force of a character which was to her the very ideal of divine purity and strength and gentleness and love. We some times turn the ancient and fragmentary pages, which tell us all we know about Him, and are strangely impressed by the spiritual depth of His sayings and the spiritual beauty of His life. But whatever He was, this woman from the little fishing town of Magdala had known Him well, and she believed that He was the long-expected deliverer of her people, the promised Messiah, the Christ of God. She may have been wrong in this, but this was her belief. She may have had but an imper fect conception of what He meant by His language concerning Himself; she obviously did not under stand Him to have foretold His resurrection; but He was to her a superior being, who had brought into her obscure and sinful life the glory of another world.
Judge, then, of the utter desolation of sorrow with which on reaching the sepulchre she found it empty. Was it that then for the first time she realized that she had lost Him? Not so, for two days before she had seen Him die. She had stood, with the few faithful and loving ones, near the cross on which He had expired. She had looked, to the very end, for some signal display of the power which she believed Him to possess, for a triumphal vindication of the claims which she knew Him to have made. But no help had come from earth or heaven. She had heard His dying cry, and when at last He was taken down from the cross, she saw only too plainly that His life was extinct. She had witnessed His burial, and then, as she sat and watched, while the darkness deepened, before His closed and silent tomb, the terrible certainty had sunk into her soul that all was over. Then it was that she knew that He was gone from her, and that she should never see Him alive again. And long before the hours of the Sabbath had passed and it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, every ray of hope had faded and left her in the stupor of inconsolable grief.
It was not, then, a deeper sense of her irreparable loss, which called out a new flood of passionate tears, as she came to the sepulchre and found it untenanted. But she cherished even the lifeless form from which she could not bear to part. It was that over which she had gone to weep; it was the loss of that only that had wrung from her the cry, "They have taken away my Lord."Surely in His tomb He could have done no harm. They might at least have left Him to her there. And so she stood disconsolate, in the cold Easter dawn.
So many a human soul has stood by the grave of a dead, faith. It was once a living faith, and full of the joy and beauty and strength of life. It was, perhaps, a faith in some man, upon whose knowledge and judgment you had thought you could depend. He seemed to you to possess ample sources of information, and the industry and in telligence to use them wisely. You felt sure that his opinions were not hastily formed, nor distorted by prejudice, not colored by selfishness. He was a man, you supposed, of acute observation, of wide experience; and you received his advice as the final settlement of the questions that troubled you. But you find, as you go on, that he is far from in fallible. You buy a security that he recommends, and it tumbles to nothing; you put your property in his hands, and it slips through his fingers; you adopt a course of study or of action to which he has counseled you, and you find, perhaps too late, that your prospects for life are endangered or ruined. He meant well, you say, if you are just to him; you perhaps love him still for the services he once did you and for his kindly intentions, but you sadly own that you no longer believe in him as a clear-sighted and cautious adviser.
You have, perhaps, had a friend in whose affec tion you trusted. You grew up together, were together at school or at college, passed together through many trying vicissitudes of life, and you always found him staunch and true. You felt sure that you could count on him, whatever might happen; your friendship for each other could never grow cold. But little by little you drift apart, your courses in life take different directions; other friends gather round him and you are left on the rim of an ever-widening circle; till you are forced at last to admit that his special friendship for you is dead. You do not think of blaming him for this. You rally from it, perhaps, and go bravely and cheerfully on with your work, but you bear about for a time a dull pain in your heart, or you carry the scar of wounded feeling forever. It is an experience which comes usually more than once in a lifetime, but it is a sad thing for a man to lose faith in a friend.
Or you have trusted some one for his character, which seemed to you as solid as the hills. His very look inspired confidence, his name was held as a synonym of honor, his simple presence rebuked hypocrisy and fraud. Men whom you knew to be low and mean instinctively avoided him, and he stood in the community as the type of a pure and upright man. He stands so still, but you cannot trust him as you did. Ugly stories are whispered about his business transactions. Dark facts have come to your knowledge, which throw doubt on his integrity. You look for more complete dis closures which will change your doubts into cer tainties and ruin his name. But you, meanwhile, have lost your faith in him. Well for you, if you have not also lost your faith in virtue, truth, and human nature itself.
Or perhaps you have given your sympathy and aid to an enterprise which seemed to you worthy of all confidence and honor. It was full of the promise of beneficent and enduring results. It was just what was needed to accomplish a great and desirable end. And so you flung yourself heartily into it, with all the enthusiasm of your nature, and you felt the exhilarating reaction which comes from honest devotion to a noble cause. But the effects that you expected do not appear. The evils that you hoped to destroy still exist; the co operation of others is withdrawn; public sympathy deserts you; and you come at last to the sad con clusion that the scheme from which you had antici pated so much is a failure. Nay, perhaps as your faith in it dies away, you lose confidence in all at tempts to bring about any important and general improvement in society. You settle down into the gloomy conviction that events may as well be left to take their course, that an enthusiasm of human ity is a will-o'-the-wisp.
Or it may be a religious faith that you are at length about to bury. It was dear to you once.
It is bound up with memories of your home and your childhood. You learned its sacred names at your mother's knee. Those whom you have most loved and honored have lived and died in it, and it gave them a courage and gentleness and patience and purity which made their lives beautiful, a joy and trust and serenity of spirit which made their death triumphant. You have seen it held, in va rious degrees of intelligent comprehension and of moral earnestness, by multitudes around you. On some it has seemed to exert no influence whatever. It has been to others the very breath of a diviner life. It has lifted the fallen to a new manhood and womanhood. It has inspired the strong to a self denying activity. It has held men true under the shock of a great temptation. It has kept them calm and cheerful under blow after blow of calatn ity. You have observed the fruits of it, not only in individual characters which it has renewed or developed, but in organized effort for the relief of the suffering, for the rescue of the ruined, for the spread of the principles and the practice of right eousness. To these great undertakings you have seen men giving their fortunes and their lives, not for any personal advantage, but from devotion to that faith, which till lately was yours, and you have instinctively honored them for their loyalty to it. You have looked over history and have no ticed that from the first these have been its effects. It has, indeed, often been misunderstood, its hold on human nature has never yet been complete, and many a crime has been committed in its name. But it has been at least one of the principal agen cies in refining and purifying human society. And the more thoroughly any community has been gov erned by its principles and animated by its spirit, the more conspicuous has been its peace and prog ress and virtue.
You may even have had experience in yourself of its beneficent power. You have sometimes suf fered a keen sense of sin, as you have compared your own conduct with your consciousness of duty and your ideal of character, and you have felt a great load lifted from your conscience as your re ligion has shown you a God of love, ready to for give you for the sake of an atoning Redeemer. You have longed for communion with the infinite Father, and you have seemed to draw near to Him in the person of one whom you believed to be His Son. You now think that such communion was all a delusion and a fancy, but it had the same effect upon you in satisfying your highest aspira tions and exalting all your spiritual life, as if it had been real. You have been attracted to Him, through whom you have thus come nearer to God, not as a man of superior intelligence and virtue, in spite of an unaccountable hallucination under which He labored, but as the very Word made flesh, the divine mind and character realized in humanity. He not only revealed to you the infi nite love, He bound you by a loving devotion to Himself. He lifted you toward all that is noblest and best. You felt that it was your privilege and your glory to serve Him. Duty was transfigured when it became the offering of gratitude to Him. Sorrow was lightened when you thought of His ten der personal care. The discipline of life through which you were passing acquired a solemn but joy ful meaning, when you looked forward to the home, wherein, if you were faithful, you should one day see His face. Your whole moral nature was broad ened and purified by this Christian faith which once you held. You were eager to proclaim it, you sought to win others to the acceptance of it. It was the ground of your deepest hopes; it was the inspiration of your highest activity.
But now, you say, you have"given it up."It is dead already, and it waits to be buried. Per haps it is costing you something to part with it. Your whole nature has been wrung and torn in the conflict of reason and feeling through which you have passed. You can mark the precise instant at which your struggling faith in the gospel expired. Perhaps, on the other hand, you do not know what has killed it. Its doctrines have one by one lost their hold upon you. Its threatenings have some how ceased to alarm you as they did. Its promises have year by year grown less alluring to your heart.
Other motives of action have displaced those which it offers, and these have seemed more and more remote and unreal. The decay of your faith has been a half conscious and gradual process, and you have only awakened to a knowledge of it when it is already too late, as you think, - when the evil, if evil there is, is done.
For it often occurs that our religious beliefs are insensibly altered as the result of simple indif ference. They may not have been seriously weighed at the outset, they may have been accepted by tra dition as a matter of course, they may have been eagerly embraced in a moment of excitement; or even if maturely and deliberately accepted, they may never have gained any firm hold upon the mind or become the real basis of character. And from simple neglect they are swept away, one by one, in the rush of an eventful and eager life, by other interests that absorb the thought. If they are nothing more than mere intellectual convictions, this will be true of them. You may give your thorough adherence, at twenty years of age, to the principles of a political party, and never think of them again until you are forty, and what is your old political faith worth to you then? If your re ligion meant to you certain motives of conduct and certain currents of affection, it is truer still. For a motive that is seldom heeded soon ceases to be a motive, and love will quickly die if you pay no at tention to it. But if that which is claimed for the Christian religion is true, if it is something more than a system of beliefs and a condition of devout and trustful feeling, if it does really bring the human soul into communion with God, so that He makes His nearness felt, His truth clear, His love a sweet and sacred possession to those who seek Him through Jesus Christ, - if that is what is meant by a Christian faith, then you surely need not won der that it has lost its reality if you have lived in disregard of it. That kind of religion, if it is pos sible to men, is possible only to those who are in tent upon it. And if yours was not that, it was not a religion at all, and you might as well let it go. You never have known what a religion is. It is not an opinion or a score of opinions; it is not an emotion or a series of emotions. It is drawing near and keeping near to God, in reverent adora tion, in humble contrition, in childlike trust, in holy obedience, in free and peaceful and glad com munion. If you have given up your religion, it is possible you never had one, or if you have once possessed it, you may have simply let it die. It matters little to you or to any one else whether you believe certain things or not, if you stop with be lieving them; it matters very much, if you act on your convictions. But convictions are not always wrought by arguments, they are worn into the mind by experience also. And religious convictions, above all others, are the fruit of experience as well as of inquiry. If your faith was only a belief, you may have lost it by neglect. If it was the begin ning of a new life, it may have been smothered or trampled upon, with all its promise of an ever unfolding and deepening evidence of its own divine origin, in the hot pursuit of other things.
Or it may be that on the other hand the very in tensity with which you have embraced and tried to practice some of the principles of Christianity, has ultimately led to your abandonment of them all. You took, for instance, the view which the Bible gives of sin, and you believed it. You looked abroad upon society, you looked within upon your own heart, and you found it confirmed. You read in the Scriptures certain startling and terrible words concerning the destiny of those who live and die in disregard or defiance of God, and you shuddered as you read them. You saw over against them the pattern of a life dazzling in its purity, divine in its disinterestedness, you knew that your life ought to be like it, and your intensest efforts could not make it so. You have struggled and watched and waited and prayed, but it has all been in vain. You felt the universal taint within you, you saw the irreversible doom before you, and in the revolt of despair you have flung it all away. It is perhaps too late to ask you whether your views of the Bible were as broad as they were deep; if you really think that the effect of the life of Jesus Christ ought to be not to save sinners but to drive sinners mad. You may have lost your faith in this way, because some of the doctrines which you held were so sombre that the very Light of the World could not tinge them with hope.
Or again, such a state of mind may seem to you mystical, monkish, mediaeval. Your faith in the gospel has gone down at the touch of the spirit of modern inquiry. It cannot be that if you have ever known it and valued it, if you have any real comprehension of what it is and what it has done, you should let it go merely because others have done so. You will not, if you are a thoughtful and serious person, let a gust of fashion which seems to be blowing across society, topple over your most sacred beliefs. They are but fragile things if that can happen. You will not let them be puffed out of existence by the mockery of a sprightly and flippant essayist, whose easy philoso phy quietly ignores what you know to be the broadest facts of human life and the deepest in stincts of the human soul. That is not modern thought. St. Paul confronted it at Athens. Horace wove it into graceful alcaics in the sensuous idle ness of his Sabine farm. No, it is the great dis coveries of natural science, and the methods of thought which it encourages, which have so rudely shaken your ancient faith. But here also you have of course been careful to distinguish what is really established from what is only conjectured. If you are not yourself a scientific expert, you have taken into account only that which wise and cautious men have agreed to accept as proved. And since the phenomena of religion cannot be measured or weighed, since they belong to a sphere beyond the reach of telescope or microscope, you have tested the fitness of your scientific leaders to be the guides of your thought in these invisible realms. You have inquired into their logical methods. You have made sure that they are as careful in collect ing and as impartial in comparing the facts of human as of physical nature. You have exacted of them clear definitions. If they speak of matter and force, you have found out precisely what they mean by matter and force. You have found it es tablished beyond a question that there is here no jugglery of words, that the ultimate fact of the universe is really something else than the God whom you ignorantly worshipped. Such an in quiry has led you along perilous heights of thought, but you have fearlessly scaled them. You have shrunk from no labor, have been daunted by no obstacles in the pursuit of truth. You surely would not give up a faith so dear, so hallowed, so benefi cent, because any teacher tells you it is vain, or be cause much of the literature of your time makes haste to repeat, with every variety of. incomplete ness and distortion, conclusions which sweep it away. You have yielded your ground only inch by inch, as one who is defending his most sacred treasures. And you have surrendered these at last, precious still, more precious than ever if you have found no other beliefs more consoling and inspiring to take their place - you have surrendered them be cause you could keep them no longer. And from your earnest, distracted, truth-loving soul, there rises into the empty heavens the bitter cry, "They have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid Him." If now in one of these ways or in any other, you have lost your faith in the religion of Jesus Christ, let me say to you three things.
The first is: Be sure that it is dead. It may be only sleeping. It may rise into a life larger, more beautiful, more fruitful than before. It may be that there is after all a personal, loving, forgiving God. It may be that He has a care for the soul of man, with its certain possession of reason and its pas sionate longing for immortality. Perhaps He even cares for you, and by paths that you do not know is leading you to a better knowledge of Himself and to a nobler and truer life. Perhaps He will let you see that you cannot do without Him, without the light of His revelation, without the knowledge of His Son. Do not make haste to bury your re ligion. Do not publish abroad your resolution to get on hereafter without it. You too may find yourself standing one day in helpless and hopeless desolation, among the chilling shadows of life, and One whom you in your blindness supposed to be only a man like yourself will utter your name, and you will fall at His feet, like the Magdalen in the Garden, with a great cry of joy.
But if this is not so and your faith is never again to come to life, then you will do well to mourn for it. Do not exult in your disbelief as an escape from superstition. It is the greatest calamity that has ever befallen you. It is not an emancipation, it is a bereavement. The soul or the century that has parted with its religious faith, ought to be pro foundly sad.
Upon the white sea sand There sat a pilgrim band Telling the losses that their lives had known, While evening waned away From breezy cliff and bay, And the strong tide went out with weary moan.
One spake with quivering lip Of a fair-freighted ship With all his household to the deep gone down; And one had wilder woe For a fair face long ago Lost in the darker depths of a great town.
There were who mourned their youth With a most loving truth, For its brave hopes and memories ever green; And one upon the west Turned an eye that would not rest, For far-off hills whereon his joys had been.
Some spake of vanished gold, Some of proud honors told, And some of friends that were their trust no more; And one of a green grave Beside a foreign wave, That made him sit so lonely on the shore.
But when their tales were done, There spake among them one, A stranger, seeming from all sorrow free "Sad losses have ye met, But mine is heavier yet, For a believing heart is gone from me." "Alas!"these pilgrims said, "For the living and the dead, For fortune's cruelty, for love's sure cross, For the wrecks of land and sea, But howe'er it came to thee, Thine, stranger, is life's last and heaviest loss." Finally, if you have lost the faith that you once had, get another. Not to make you a decent and orderly citizen. Your natural disposition, your early education, the forces of a society which is as full of the influences of the religion you have dis carded, as the noonday air is full of light, may still keep you honest and gentle and pure. Not to give you tranquillity of mind; you may go through life cheerfully and meet death calmly believing nothing. You can stiffen your fortitude to meet the inevitable, you can train your courage to face the unknown. But to be a man whose nature is moulded by the finest influences, whose soul is in spired by the grandest ideals, whose life is exalted to the highest levels, you must have some religious faith. Do not take Christianity if you cannot be lieve in it, but be sure that the faith which you adopt is a better one than the religion of Christ; not freer from mysteries, not easier in its obligations, - these things are not merits in a religion; but more sublime in its doctrines, more convincing in its evidences, more inspiring in its motives, more mighty in its power to transform and to elevate character. Let it be a religion which not only makes you a broader and better man, but which will do for the world, in the future, more than Christianity has done, and is doing. And if you look in vain for such a religion, then come back and consider whether there is not a divine meaning in a certain Roman cross and a certain empty tomb.