The Poetry of George Herbert: “The Sacrifice” (Pt. 2)

Last time I began to write about George Herbert’s poem “The Sacrifice.” As you now know, its a sort of Lament put into the mouth of Jesus. Herbert shows us the grief and agony, not simply the physical agony, but the emotional agony which Jesus suffered on his way to the cross. Herbert does this in order to lead us into a moment of worship. Its a moment in which we say “Christ did this for me! He suffered for me! He was ashamed and betrayed for my sake!” In seeing the agony that Christ endured we see the depths and length of his love for us.

Today I want to dive a little deeper into two of the stanzas of this poem. Check out the following:

Then on my head a crown of thorns I wear:

For these are all the grapes Sion doth bear,

Through I my vine planted and wat’red there:

                    Was ever grief like mine?

So sits the earth’s cure in Adam’s fall

Upon my head: so I remove it all

From th’ earth unto my brows, and bear the thrall;

                    Was ever a grief like mine?

The second stanza is an explicit reference to Genesis 3 in which God curses Adam

17 To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’

“Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat food from it
all the days of your life.
18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return.”

The irony in this set of stanzas is stunning. Its a prime example of historic-salvation hermeneutics. Herbert sees the crown of thorns upon Christ’s head as a fulfillment of Adam’s curse. Adam was cursed with thorns and thistles that would prick him as he toils to provide food. Yet it is Jesus who takes those thorns and lets them prick him, all for our sake! His body is broken for us as food (think Eucharist) for our souls. But Herbert’s vision for what Christ’s work on the cross accomplishes is so much bigger than our individual salvation. Herbert envisions a cosmic restoration! Adam’s fall caused the earth to be cursed, thus causing creation to groan in pain (e.g. thorns), yet it is this same curse which falls upon Jesus. The curse of creation falls upon Jesus! But the curse which creation is under is the same thing which leads to its cure. In other words the effects of the curse upon creation fall in all their weight upon Jesus and lead to a cure for creation. Metaphysically I don’t know if it really works this way, but there is something moving in Herbert’s imagery. Jesus endures the grief an agony of a cursed creation upon himself, which leads him to cry “Was ever a grief like mine.” Yet it is this same grief which leads to the restoration, joy, and, shalom of all of creation, not just us human beings.

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