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What Christ Means to Me: Chapter 6

What Christ Means to Me by Wilfred T. Grenfell

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Breadth is a quality of God’s mercy, not a hall-mark of man’s iniquity; it is not one of the insignia of inefficiency, but the one essential quality of that wisdom which can lead to final achievement. It has always been to me one of the great claims of Christ Himself to be something more than an ordinary man, that in His tiny, circumscribed stage on earth, with His intense idealism, devoted purpose, and matchless courage. He could be the broadest in His judgments of any religious leader the world has ever known.

A journey through the old civilization of Egypt, up into the Sudan, impressed upon us how men, exactly like ourselves, for thousands of years have been passing across the same stage as we, in endless, unceasing numbers, generation after generation, race after race, century after century. Everywhere one sees, in the most indestructible materials they knew of, the evidences that their greatest desire was to secure permanence for themselves at any cost, in every possible way of which they could conceive. Moreover, they have so far rendered permanent their bodies on earth that we look into their very faces, six thousand years after they have passed on, and picture as clearly what they did and said and thought as if we verily were mixing again among the living actors on their own stage of life. As we gaze into the face of the old King Amenhotep IV lying in his tomb just as he was put there thousands of years ago, and at the bodies of his servants killed at the same time that their souls might go with him for service in the next world, we realize how that desire is universal and natural and is our best hope that it will be satisfied.

It is the same all around the globe, wherever man crawls upon its surface. We passed through another great cradle of mankind, the valleys of the Tigris and the Euphrates. Here again all around us were written the same lessons as on the Nile. At Ur of the Chaldees, the home of Abraham, at Kish, oldest of known great cities, at Babylon, famous for the wonderful men who ruled the world of their day, at a hundred ancient haunts of mankind is inscribed the same verdict. So strong was his desire for permanent life that man, coming into these then fertile plains from the high mountains, was not satisfied to express his devotion by mere temples rising from the ground, though these were buildings that took years to erect as did our own great cathedrals. But God was so unattainable that He must obviously be worshipped from that which was really high, and not a temple merely called so. So these started by first building a mountain on the plain. The ziggurats, or artificial hills, which they raised to place their temples upon, took so long to erect that the workers who commenced the task could seldom have expected to see its completion. Their zeal, their devotion, their sacrifice were boundless.

Yet all these greatest conceptions of man are alike brought to nought by that dimension of our universe which we are just beginning to recognize as an integral part of all our science—the fourth dimension of time. So we know it will be with all our ‘things,’ all our ‘permanent’ buildings, all our provisions for getting, keeping, holding—all will be as futile as those of Seti or Rameses, or Urgengur or Nebuchadnezzar; exactly as was the case with our infinitely more ancient fellow men who left flint knives which we picked up after they had been buried deep beneath the very foundations of Kish itself, or of the other men who left their arrowheads in the sands on top of the ancient Egyptian highlands probably before the Nile ever existed—to say nothing of their ancestors who crawled the earth in a yet earlier day, and of whom all traces are lost far back in the aeons of geologic time.

It is obvious that man is himself a traveller; that the purpose of this world is not ‘to have and to hold,’ but to ‘give and to serve.’ There can be no other meaning. The lesson of the time element of our cosmogony, of the temporary duration of things, far from discouraging us from effort should spur us to truer and nobler and more earnest work, because not in the thing but in our activity lies the road to our real completion and permanence. We are spiritual beings, not material ones, and the meaning of life is its spiritual value, and our unselfishness is the pledge of the better day that awaits us. Even the exact, emotionless sciences of mathematics, chemistry, and physics are today suggesting that the atom itself has no material substance whatever. But there are two things that no true and wise man will deny; namely, that love is the greatest thing in the world, and that ‘he loveth best who serveth best.’ What greater thing can Christ mean to any generation of the world than these truths? Was not the whole lesson of His life that here not even He, as expressed through His physical body, had ‘any abiding city’? Life is obviously a school, not a bargain counter. Yet so real a counter is it that the pride and pleasure of winning out in the transaction is entrusted to us ourselves to win or lose. So great are the possibilities of it that so far it has been a sheer impossibility for it to have entered into the heart of man to conceive what awaits those who love God ‘in the spirit that Christ revealed to us as possible.’ Doubt this of course we shall, but it is scientifically true that it is as far beyond our brain conception as the thoughts suggested by the new knowledge of matter, each atom of which is now known to be a universe with planets called electrons flying in their orbits round a central proton. Thus hydrogen has one planet, but gold no less than seventy-nine in every atom, suggesting that our sun and all its planets including our earth may be but an atom of some infinitely great substance in a universe, the size of which no human mind could ever conceive.

Yet these things are not to discourage, but to reassure, us; not to drive us to despair and make us content to hand over our divine spark of reason either to unthinking superstition or to shallow claimants to infallible intelligence; but to inspire our faith with that basis of reason which it has a right to demand and certainly longs for; namely, that there are bigger things than our little brain can even imagine, and that comprehension is no limit to legitimate acceptance of axioms. Prayer is not to inform God of what He does not know; it is an eye through which we see God. Faith is not a denial of reason; it is a corollary of finality in relation with the infinite.

Travelling in the Holy Land itself teaches, as perhaps nothing else on earth could teach, that fatal propensity of mankind to fix the heart and mind, not on realities, but on the shadows called ‘things’; and so ever to meet disappointment in life, as one finds at the hands of the greatest of all teachers—experience—what phantoms are all that he thought real. In the innumerable piles of tinsel heaped everywhere in profusion on what are called ‘sacred sites,’ it seems as though the enemy of mankind had determined by mere momentum of atomic weight to keep down the Spirit that once came to earth in the Master of men, and to hide forever beneath ‘things’ the real vision of men as spiritual beings and sons of God.

On Christmas Eve at Bethlehem, somewhere in the neighbourhood of the Nativity of Christ, ‘under the wide and starry sky’ we gathered, a motley crowd, like that which assembles on Christmas Eve in England or on Beacon Hill in Boston on the same occasion, to rejoice in the vision then given to man of his great destiny. It was rather cold, and the nickering candles made it difficult to read the words of the time-honoured old carols. It was a real delight to have things put in their place for once; for somehow there was impressed on every one’s heart the inherent simplicity of the truth, and the real miracle of ‘the way’ in which that truth had been taught to men. Here we were standing on the spot which more than any other on all the round globe for twenty centuries has influenced the progress of the world towards what mankind at its best is striving for. Here the true nature of love was revealed through the physical life of a village carpenter, a life that ended on a felon’s cross. Yet here, under such circumstances, had the world been taught that man’s life on earth is not a hopeless tragedy, but that physical life here can be for us all just an abiding field of honour; that reality is not in the armour, the sword, or the plumes, but in the Spirit; and that without the incoming and indwelling of that Spirit no intellectual infallibility, no meticulous ritual, no self-deprivation of talents which are given to man to spell for him capacity and responsibility, nothing mental, nothing physical, can proclaim what Christ means to any one life or to mankind.

As we there faced the question of what Christ intended He should mean to each of us, what in our heart of hearts could we be conscious of as the true answer, fear though we might to confess it, and dread though we might to face it? What does He mean? It can be no demand that we understand Him; still less that we should consent to recognize Him. Can it be less than a challenge to follow Him?

Men of every age, of every clime, of every race, have longed for a solution of life’s riddle. What is the meaning of life on earth? The answer that rings out to the ages from the life of Jesus Christ is not a dope or a maudlin soporific. It is a challenge as clear as the sun at midday: ‘Follow me.’

No man has ever done despite to his reason or his faith by his willingness to take up that challenge. The school of experience is the one in which men themselves, especially men who accomplish things, place most confidence. In surgery and medicine we are obliged by our colleges to stand by our ‘end results.’ That is what Christ asked. Have any who have ever answered that challenge ‘sans peur et sans reproche’ ever been deceived? To whom today in the light of history would the increasing wisdom of the world award the need of having most wisely chosen? This is part of what Christ has meant to me.