The Typology of Sacrifice in George Herbert's The Temple

By Kelley S. Kent
2013, Vol. 5 No. 07 | pg. 3/4 |

Christ's comparison of Himself with Moses is more frequent. Sinful humanity is also under the curse of the Old Testament law; it is in effect until the moment of Christ's death in the final stanza. "When they did call,/With Manna, Angels' food, I fed them all" (ll. 238-39) is a clear reference to God, through Moses, feeding the Israelites with manna in the desert.35 However, such manna cannot feed the Israelites' hungry souls; it is Christ alone as the "bread of life" (John 6:35, KJV) who can feed spiritually hungry souls. Christ also calls Himself "the meek/And ready Paschal Lamb of this great week" (ll. 58-59), a clear reference to the first Passover. In this Old Testament type of sacrifice, the Israelites killed lambs and sprinkled their blood on the doorposts so that the Angel of death would "pass over" their homes, thereby sparing them from the tenth and final plague on Egypt.36 Here, therefore, Christ acknowledges Himself as the fulfillment of that first Passover; His death, the sprinkling of His blood, spares believers from eternal damnation, the second death.

Throughout the poem, Christ acknowledges Moses' failures as Israel's human savior and His success as the divine Savior of humanity. Just as Moses' "cl[eaving] the stony rock" produced water for the physically thirsty Israelites "when they were dry" (l. 122),37 so also Christ's death produces redemptive blood and water for a spiritually thirsty humanity.38 Christ's redemption is permanent, for He cleaves and redeems the sinful heart; the Mosaic law cannot redeem the heart because it only reveals sin, not removes it, thereby showing humanity its need for a savior.39 Again, Christ states, "Without me each one, who doth now me brave/Had to this day been an Egyptian slave" (ll. 9-10). Just as Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, Christ the antitype leads humanity from death to life by His sacrifice; unlike Moses' eternal problems with the Israelites' disobedience, Christ's offer of salvation is complete when each person becomes a believer.

Both dedicatory and eucharistic types of sacrifice also appear in "The Sacrifice." Spoken by Christ, however, these kinds of sacrifice are made explicitly more legitimate, showing an intricate entwining of the three; they cannot be separated. One reference to the dedicatory kind of sacrifice appears late in the poem, as Christ carries His cross to Golgotha, which He initially "bear[s] [Him]self" (l. 197). However, when "Simon bears it for me by constraint" (l. 198), Christ states that such is also "the decreed burden of each mortal Saint" (l. 199). The believer symbolically sacrifices himself as a dedication of his life to God; this sacrifice is a commanded imitation of Christ's sacrifice. The believer does not literally shed his blood; instead, as Christ commands, he symbolically takes up Christ's cross and follows Him.40 Christ's sacrifice for sin makes possible the believer's sacrifice of himself in dedication to Him. The unique relationship between Christ and the speaker is emblematized through sacrifice.

Christ, a second time, asks believers to sacrifice themselves in imitation of His perfect sacrifice. Christ laments, as He suffers on the cross, "But, O my God, my God! why leav'st thou me,/The son in whom thou dost delight to be?/My God, my God----/ Never was grief like mine" (ll. 213-16). These lines have two paradoxical meanings. The moment Christ identifies with believers by assuming responsibility for their sin, He is rejected by God. Therefore, no human being can know or understand what it cost for the perfect, sinless Christ to feel God's wrath. However, Christ expects believers to complete his partial lament, which the speaker does in "The Thanksgiving."41 Once again, it is here that Christ identifies with sinful humanity, so believers must identify with, and imitate, Him by taking up their crosses and following Him. This is their sacrifice of dedication.

Although Christ's references to the Eucharist point to the eucharistic sacrifice of praise, the celebration of the Eucharist itself perfectly entwines all three kinds of sacrifice in one. The most obvious is the Eucharist as the believer's sacrifice of praise to God for Christ's perfect, redeeming sacrifice of Himself, two kinds of sacrifice in one: "For they will pierce my side, I full well know;/That as sin came, so Sacraments might flow" (ll. 246-47). Blood and water pouring from Christ's side foreshadows believers' partaking of the cup, while Christ's reference to the Israelites eating manna in the desert42 foreshadows believers' partaking of the "bread of life" (John 6:35, KJV).43 As "the meek/And ready Paschal Lamb of this great week" (ll. 58-59), Christ the "antitype" acknowledges Himself as the fulfillment of the first Passover,44 which, for future believers, becomes the Eucharist. Christ's "blood" as "the only way,/And cordial left to repair man's decay" (ll. 158-59) points to Himself as the perfect, propitiatory sacrifice for sin. Both propitiatory and eucharistic kinds of sacrifice emerge in Christ's references to the Eucharist in this poem.

The believer's symbolic imitation of Christ, in sacrificing himself and his life to God, is another crucial element in the Eucharist. Significantly, it is a meal, just as the Old Testament Passover was a meal, wherein Christ has now become the Passover lamb. Paul himself states that believers symbolically share in Christ's suffering and death by partaking of this communion meal: "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?" (1 Cor. 10:16, KJV).45 Interestingly, Ann Pasternak Slater, in a recent edition of Herbert's English works, notes that "in this poem alone Herbert speaks entirely in the voice of the crucified Christ and thus makes Christ's sacrifice his own" (xiv, italics mine). Slater makes an excellent point here, but again, she, like others, is guilty of the fallacy of conflating Herbert and the speaker in these poems. It is the speaker who "makes Christ's sacrifice his own" (xiv) in "The Sacrifice," not Herbert. The speaker, through the voice of Christ, imagines Christ's sacrifice so that he can figuratively imitate it by symbolically sacrificing himself. The Eucharist, therefore, perfectly binds all three kinds of sacrifice in one.

In "The Sacrifice," readers cannot focus explicitly on Christ's redeeming sacrifice by ignoring the other two kinds, as some critics have done. The effect of the refrain is not to "undermine totally any hope that the speaker or reader might harbor about the sufficiency of . . . human sacrifice" (Dickson 93), but instead to point to Christ's grief as He is rejected by God in assuming the sins of humanity. The purpose of "The Sacrifice" is not to "undermine the traditional meditative goal of communal suffering" either (Bell 70).46 The speaker's sacrifice of praise for Christ's redeeming sacrifice, together with his symbolic imitation of that sacrifice, illuminates the nature of his relationship with Christ and how all believers must symbolically share in that sacrifice to demonstrate their love for Him.

"Easter" joyfully celebrates Christ's resurrection. This poem is the fulfillment of the speaker's desire to imitate Christ's sacrifice, for it is through Christ's glorious resurrection that the speaker can symbolically share in that resurrection, and therefore, dedicate his life to Christ. All three kinds of sacrifice appear here. First, the speaker commands his "heart" to "rise," for "thy Lord is risen" (l. 1). It is He "Who takes thee by the hand, that thou likewise/With him mayst rise" (ll. 2-3). The speaker here declares his dedicatory sacrifice, or the symbolic sacrifice of himself, which is his acceptable imitation of Christ's propitiatory sacrifice. By confessing his sin and accepting Christ's redemption of that sin, the speaker symbolically experiences Christ's death, burial, and resurrection.47 So, the speaker's heart, a synecdoche of his body (Lewalski 101), rises from the dead because Christ "thy Lord is risen" (l. 1). Otherwise, a valid imitation of Christ is not even possible. Implicit here is Paul's assertion that if Christ is not risen from the dead, we are still dead in our sins.48 Christ's resurrection completes the cycle of, and therefore makes possible, our death to sin and resurrection to a new life, in Christ. "As [Christ's] death calcine[s]" the speaker "to dust" (l. 5), symbolically killing him, "His life may make thee gold, and much more just" (l. 6). This statement calls to mind the images of both a refiner's fire49 and a phoenix. Symbolically, the speaker must be burnt to ashes, in a refining purification process, so that, like the phoenix, he may rise both with Christ and as a "new creature" in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17, Gal. 6:15, KJV). Christ's death, burial, and resurrection are repeated in the spiritual life of the speaker, and of each new believer.

The speaker, in the final three stanzas of "Easter," also offers a eucharistic sacrifice of joyful praise and thanksgiving to Christ. It is in the first three stanzas that we discover what makes his song of praise possible. The speaker commands himself to "sing his praise/Without delays/. . . Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part/With all thy art" (ll. 1-2, 7-8). What makes the speaker's eucharistic sacrifice of praise possible is Christ's propitiatory sacrifice: "The cross taught all wood to resound his name/. . .His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key/Is best to celebrate this most high day" (ll. 9, 11-12).50 Before Christ's redemption of humanity, the speaker's eucharistic sacrifices would not have been considered acceptable, or at least sufficient, to God. It is the cross alone, that sacred symbol of Christ's propitiatory sacrifice, that teaches the speaker his song, namely, "what key/Is best to celebrate" (ll. 11-12) Christ's resurrection, and symbolically, the speaker's own. All three types of sacrifice are intricately entwined in this poem: the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ's death makes possible the dedicatory sacrifice of the speaker's symbolic resurrection with Christ, which he celebrates in a eucharistic sacrifice of praise to Christ.

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