Selected Poem - 'The Agonie'

This is a poem for reflection at Passiontide, particularly Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Surely there cannot be many more powerful poems to capture the final hours of Jesus’ life than this one, or to contrast more evocatively the concepts of sin and love in the Christian understanding of sacrifice and redemption.

'The Agonie'

PHilosophers have measur’d mountains,
Fathom'd the depths of seas, of states, and kings,
Walk’d with a staffe to heav’n, and traced fountains:
But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behove:
Yet few there are that sound them; Sinne and Love.

Who would know Sinne, let him repair
Unto Mount Olivet; there shall he see
A man so wrung with pains, that all his hair,
His skinne, his garments bloudie be.
Sinne is that presse and vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruell food through ev’ry vein.

Who knows not Love, let him assay
And taste that juice, which on the crosse a pike
Did set again abroach; then let him say
If ever he did taste the like.
Love is that liquour sweet and most divine,
Which my God feels as bloud; but I, as wine.

Commentary

In the first verse of this poem, George Herbert invites us to look beyond the natural and human world - and the ability of the philosophers and scientists of his day to measure its scope, heights and depths, power and wisdom. Instead, it is more important and necessary for us to consider the transcendent, immeasurable and of more eternal significance, sin and love, both so apparent in Jesus’ passion and in the blood that he shed.

The second verse finds Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives, in the hour or so between the Last Supper and his betrayal and arrest. Foreseeing the agony and isolation, the ‘cup’ ahead, he prays so fervently that his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling to the ground (Luke 22:44). The weight of the world’s sin and the suffering Jesus will endure is compared to a winepress.

 

But in the third verse, very powerfully, the blood of Jesus shed on the cross becomes the wine of the Eucharist, the liturgical act which celebrates the infinite love of God, who gave his only Son for the world’s salvation. The blood which flowed when at his death Jesus’ side was pierced - set abroach by a soldier’s spear (John 19:34) - is poured out for the forgiveness of sins. We are invited to test, taste and marvel.

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