O Day Most Calm, Most Bright

Article by   November 2009
Theology and literary flair. These days it seems never the twain shall meet. The former often suffers from clunky constructions and idiosyncratic pedantry; but when mixed with the latter, however, it turns sweetly succinct and yet able to ply the heart, catapulting it upward. It's no mistake that the most deeply theological (and thus doxological) portions of sacred Scripture are often the most brief and poetic.

Surely examples of literary rich theology exist today; but yesterday the exception was the minister who showed little respect for the written word, for the lovely turn of phrase, who was seemingly bereft of any sense of sound. The reasons for this present predicament are many, but at its core lies a disaffection with reading, especially the masterpieces of world literature.

Of course, literary flair isn't necessary to ministry. Christ's disciples were, after all, largely uncouth laborers of the lower class. So, before this turns into an article aiming at an invented crisis, let us instead gather together where the two did meet--in the person of George Herbert--and what, through rich, theological poetry, we can learn about the church and her main function as the God-worshiping community of Christ.

George Herbert was both devoutly reformational and a committed Anglican churchman (in a small country parish after giving up a life at court). This point may be especially helpful for modern Christians, showing as it does that one can be both evangelical and sacramental, biblical and liturgical, reformational and catholic. Not only are these themes not contradictory but, properly understood, they bolster each other into a particularly robust understanding of Christ and the gospel that is needed now more than ever. But that's another essay waiting to be written.

Throughout his life Herbert wrote lyrical poems characterized by precise language, metrical versatility, and an ingenious use of imagery or conceits (favored by the metaphysical poets of the next generation). He wrote about a genuine relationship with Christ in a way that Christians today will find most satisfying, yet few at present are familiar with him.

For our purposes we're going to walk through his poem "Sunday" (published posthumously in a collection of poems called The Temple), with hopes of being led through a contemplation of the joys of worship toward doxology itself, to praise of a God whose gifts to his church are summed up succinctly by Saint Paul: "O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!" (Rom. 11:33).

The first strophe of Herbert's poem starts as follows:

O day most calm, most bright,
The fruit of this, the next world's bud,
Th' indorsement of supreme delight,
Writ by a friend, and with his bloud;
The couch of time; care's balm and bay:        5
The week were dark, but for thy light:
Thy torch doth show the way.

Here Herbert begins the poem with a nod toward the serenity and clarity of the first day of the week--the day upon which the divine service falls. Its integral components--the liturgy of the Word and of the sacrament--bears much fruit, but not necessarily immediately on earth, for it is "the next world's bud." As sojourners, however, we are to take comfort in the fact that the assembly of Christ's body has been legitimated, called out, through the shed blood of the Messiah, the Christian's true friend (ll. 3-4). And it is during this time that all the cares of the one in union with Christ are soothed and even stifled, which leads Herbert to introduce an important theme in line 6: compared to the blazing glory of the light of the world, which is tasted in part on earth during the worship of the saints, the work week is dark.

It's important to note immediately that Herbert isn't concerned with denigrating earthly life. Herbert is in fact one of the foremost proponents of extolling the virtues of a Christian's commonplace vocation throughout the week. He's dealing in comparisons; so, without the divine service, Word and sacrament, where Christ ministers to his people in a special way, weekly pursuits would be dark indeed. (Unfortunately, holding the line on this tension between the secular and sacred, and the virtues of the former that are nonetheless overshadowed by the latter, all but faded in the coming generations of both British and American Protestants.) All this leads us perfectly into stanzas two and three:

The other dayes and thou
Make up one man; whose face thou art,
Knocking at heaven with thy brow:            10
The worky-daies are the back-part;
The burden of the week lies there,            
Making the whole to stoup and bow,
Till thy release appeare.

Man had straight forward gone        15
To endlesse death: but thou dost pull
And turn us round to look on one,            
Whom, if we were not very dull,
We could not choose to look on still;
Since there is no place so alone,            20
The which he doth not fill.

The second stanza employs an extended metaphor (indeed, this poem has more of those than any of Herbert's others)--that of the entire week as an analogy of earthly existence in this time between the times. Sunday worship is the face of this "man," the body of Christ, and this body beats its head against the door of heaven, as it strains under the grueling work of the week, seeking an altogether different kind of work (leitourgia), the ordinary work of worship, which affords reprieve in the midst of the sojourner's pilgrimage.

Yet it is in the middle of such weekly pursuits that the proper love and allegiance of humans to their creator are forgotten. The secular subverts the sacred. Instead of the two appropriately complementing one another, the holiday at sea gives way to making mud pies in a slum (so Lewis): man runs from the light headlong into dark death, and would continue to do so, save by the irresistible grace of a God who "dost pull / And turn us round" (ll. 16-17) to worship the omnipresent one (ll. 20-21), whose image, incidentally, we'd constantly seek to reflect if we weren't so "dull" (ll. 18-19).

Such a gracious gift finds itself outpoured during the assembly of God's people, and it is this blessedness Herbert accentuates in stanzas four and five:

Sundaies the pillars are,            
On which heav'n's palace arched lies:
The other dayes fill up the spare
And hollow room with vanities.            25
They are the fruitful beds and borders
In God's rich garden: that is bare,
Which parts their ranks and orders.

The Sundaies of man's life,
Threaded together on time's string,            30
Make bracelets to adorn the wife
Of the eternall glorious King.
On Sunday heaven's gate stands ope;
Blessings are plentifull and rife,
More plentifull then hope.            35

The worship of the saints on the first day of the week stands as a regular pinnacle in the pilgrim's life. The day itself, Herbert writes, supports the very foundation of heaven, God's throne room; it is in his mercy the ever-enduring Atlas of the divine abode (ll. 22-23). Secular pursuits, while valid in this age, would nonetheless be filled with mere trifles--plain and unproductive--without Sundays, those days that bring color and bear fruit "in God's rich garden" (ll. 24-26, note also that the garden consists of the entire week). Still, in comparison, the gaps between Sundays, like the spaces between flower beds, are "bare" (ll. 27-28).

Life can be measured in multiple ways, not least through the innumerable temporal increments that fill it. Those days upon which the ecclesia gathers, Herbert writes, throughout the course of the church's collective and transgenerational life thread together to make a piece of jewelry to beautify the bride of Christ, "the eternal glorious King" (ll. 29-32).

A typical divine service, which from inauguration to consummation "adorns the wife," in Herbert's day most likely consisted of the following: it calls all the baptized to gather in one place; common prayers and petitions are made for all of the essential elements of life; psalms and hymns are sung and the Word of God is spoken to the faithful.

The church then asks God to accept it and its praise and thanksgiving, as it seeks to fulfill Christ's call to love one another and to confess the faith. It offers up itself and its gifts to God in Christ in remembrance of all that he has done for his people: the cross, the tomb, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension, the sitting at the right hand of God the Father, and the second and glorious coming again.

The liturgy then implores the Father that all those who receive God's gifts of bread and wine to be made "partakers of [Christ's] moste blessed body and bloude," and to "feede on him [and drinke] in thine heart by faith, with thankesgevynge" (BCP, 1559). Thus the people receive back from God the earthly elements of bread and wine as the gift of communion with God the Father through Christ and the Spirit.

Finally, God's people depart in peace to bear witness in the world to the kingdom of God that has come and is coming, calling all of humanity into this unity with God and each other in him.

I've brushed broadly over the typical service of Herbert's day in hopes of highlighting what the poet himself has done in stanza five: On Sunday the gate of God's heavenly court stands agape, showering the covenant people with blessings and grace that exceed every hope imaginable (ll. 33-35). Think of it as a day experienced now that is not yet (even in light of all the petitions made on behalf of the sick and needy). Today, this pushes us to ask simply, do we grasp the nature of the gathering of God's elect? How would believing this affect our anticipation and our practices with respect to weekly worship? What's more, how has this day affected the course of God's redemptive plan? Herbert muses about this next:

This day my Saviour rose,
And did inclose this light for his:
That, as each beast his manger knows,
Man might not of his fodder misse.
Christ hath took in this piece of ground,        40
And made a garden there for those
Who want herbs for their wound.

The rest of our Creation
Our great Redeemer did remove
With the same shake, which at his passion        45
Did th'earth and all things with it move.
As Samson bore the doores away,
Christ's hands, though nail'd, wrought our salvation,
And did unhinge that day.

In stanza six Herbert turns to a redemptive-historical theme that has remained just under the surface from the beginning of this poem: the first day of the week is the day upon which Christ Jesus rose (a fact of no small import as it relates to Christian worship), and he thereby surrounded and imbued the worship of his people on this day with his very light (as the church is, at least in one sense in Herbert's mind, an ontological extension of Christ himself). This he graciously does so that man won't miss the sustenance, the fodder, he needs to live (ll. 36-39). Herbert goads us here to consider ourselves the barn animal that rests entirely upon its master's filling of the trough, which trough we know exactly where to find. Put another way, the Messiah, Jesus, has adopted a piece of ground and cultivated it, making a herbal garden for those who recognize their wounds, who humble themselves before him and seek his healing touch (ll. 40-42).

Now, in stanza seven, we return more forcefully to Hebert's poetic covenant theology: "the rest" (l. 43), the seventh day that was assigned its function as the Sabbath of the old covenant (at the end of the creative week), was removed by the great Redeemer when, on the cross, the earth shook in fury at the murder of God's Son and in anticipation of the final arrival of the divine kingdom (Matt. 27:51). That "same shake" (l. 45), the nailed hands of Christ that procured salvation (l. 48, a reference to the atonement) served to "unhinge that day" (l. 49), just as Samson who, trapped in Gaza, "took the doors of the gate of the city... and went away with them...and put them upon his shoulders" (Judges 16:3; l. 47).

Where on the continuum Herbert resides with respect to sabbatarianism is not readily apparent here. Suffice to say that as an Anglican (not of the puritan variety), and thus generally more Lutheran with respect to understanding the Sabbath (not to mention that he served under James I at court before his ordination), it ought come as no surprise that he might agree with the Augsburg Confession on this point, seeing that "Scripture, not the church, abrogated the Sabbath. For after the revelation of the gospel all Mosaic ceremonies can be omitted" (Latin Text, Article XXVIII: The Church's Power, 58ff.).

Nonetheless, note the redemptive-historical emphasis upon which all reformational Protestants can (mostly) agree: the old covenant, seventh day of rest has given way to the new covenant, first day of worship. All that the old Sabbath pointed to has been fulfilled in Christ, and, because the church as the body of Christ has been promised all it needs pertaining to life, the gates of heaven swing open on this particular day every week, pouring mercies and grace to overflowing. But lest the church think it fit of its own accord to be partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4), Herbert reminds us that...

The brightnesse of that day        50
We sullied by our foul offence:
Wherefore that robe we cast away,
Having a new at his expence,
Whose drops of bloud paid the full price,
That was requir'd to make us gay,        55
And fit for Paradise.

Herein lies, of course, the familiar story--the glories of that day of rest at the end of the creative week became desecrated when the first couple, and we in them, grasped at autonomy, seeking to supplant the creator God and become little gods ourselves (ll. 50-51). So much for righteousness. Yet, praise be to God, he expends himself, suffering violence, for the sake of his world (and, indeed, in spite of its evil), thereby clothing his people in a new robe, which righteous robe fills the precise need we have to make us blessed, happy, "fit for Paradise" (ll. 52-56; imputation, anyone?). And it's this future hope that is brought into the present during the assembly of God's people.

Thou art a day of mirth:
And where the Week-dayes trail on ground,
Thy flight is higher, as thy birth.
O let me take thee at the bound,        60
Leaping with thee from sev'n to sev'n,
Till that we both, being toss'd from earth,
Fly hand in hand to heav'n!

God's redemptive telos for his creation is captured by Herbert in this poem, and the Sunday worship of God's elect serves as a microcosm of that goal. The old Sabbath, upon which the creator God entered his providential rest, of which his people Israel were called to reflect, pointed forward to that glorious, eschatological delight of eternal rest already inaugurated in Christ Jesus, the Messiah of God. The future kingdom has broken into the middle of time, but it's not all upheaval and apocalypse. The kingdom comes slowly. Sunday, the day upon which the covenant community of Christ gathers, is a day of joy, of laughter, of "mirth" (l. 57), and it falls inexorably at the beginning of every week, kicking off a series of workdays that "trail on ground" in comparison to the elevated flight of the divine service (whose birth, we once again note, came by the shedding of blood, ll. 4, 58-59).

The poet then turns to speak, beseeching the day to let him grab hold of it straightaway and freely ("at the bound," l. 60), with all joy leaping from Sunday to Sunday, which, when threaded, you will recall, "Make bracelets to adorn the wife / Of the eternall glorious King" (ll. 31-32). This pursuit of the ordinary means of grace, the weekly worship of the body of Christ, leads from glory to glory, until finally "toss'd from the earth," thrust onward and upward toward the throne room of the thrice holy God. And all this comes through the washing of water by the word in the power of the Holy Spirit who has hid our lives with Christ in God.

What a day, indeed!


Chris Donato (M.A., Reformed Theological Seminary) is a senior associate editor of Tabletalk magazine.  He holds baccalaureate degrees in both literature and journalism from John Brown University.  He is also editor of Perspectives on Sabbath, forthcoming from B&H Publishing.

Chris Donato, "O Day Most Calm, Most Bright", Reformation21 (November 2009)

 

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