THE SACRIFICE: Jesus’ Passion Narrated by George Herbert

For the past three weeks, I have been meditating on the poet George Herbert’s sonnet on prayer (here and here and here). As we now come to the central Christian mystery of Jesus’ “passion,” his atoning death on the Cross, I am reposting  a reading (in text and MP3 recording) of Hebert’s great narrative poem “The Sacrifice.”

This year we are following the gallant sacrifices which many are making to stem the coronavirus, an enemy to our physical health. Holy Week recalls to us that an earlier and greater sacrifice for our eternal life (John 3:16).



I became a Christian 54 years ago. Among those who witnessed to me at that time was a college friend, Ken Hovey, who shared with me the love of the English poet George Herbert (1593-1633). Ken devised a dramatic reading of Herbert’s long narrative poem, “The Sacrifice.” I have performed this dramatic reading on several occasions in church in Holy Week.

I am going to bracket “The Sacrifice,” with two other  poems by Herbert that bear on the theme of the day. The first is titled “The Agony.” Herbert was highly educated in the Greek and Latin classics and was elected Orator of Cambridge University, a post he gave up in order to enter the parish ministry where he served in the village of Bemerton, outside Salisbury. He died three years later at age 39. “The Agony” expresses his evaluation of worldly wisdom in the spirit of St. Paul: “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:22-24).


            Philosophers have measured mountains,
Fathomed the depths of seas, of states, and kings,
Walked with a staff to heaven, and traced fountains:
But there are two vast, spacious things,
The which to measure it doth more behoove:
Yet few there are that sound them: Sin and Love.

            Who would know Sin, let him repair
Unto Mount Olivet; there shall he see
A man so wrung with pains, that all his hair,
His skin, his garments bloody be.
Sin is that press and vice, which forceth pain
To hunt his cruel food through every vein.

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

In this brief poem, Herbert moves from the mysteries of the cosmos, examined by scientists and philosophers, to the central Christian mystery signified in the Eucharist: the twin mystery of sin and love. We do not truly understand the comprehensive bondage of Sin until we have looked at the Son of God sweating blood in Gethsemane, nor do we understand the depths of divine Love until we have seen that same blood oozing from his dead body. By choosing these two moments – Gethsemane and the side-piercing moment of death – Herbert suggests that Jesus’ last agony – agony meaning struggle or contest – was not so much with his enemies as with his own divine nature, more than this, with his heavenly Father. (see my meditation on Christ’s “cry of dereliction”).

The second poem, arguably his greatest, is “Love” (III). It is a dialogue between the soul and an enigmatic figure called “Love.” In one way, it represents preparation for taking Holy Communion, relatively infrequent in Herbert’s day but preceded by a lengthy exhortation to the people to “search and examine your consciences as you should come holy and clean to such a godly and heavenly feast.” In another poem (“The Reprisal”), Herbert admits the hopelessness of success at such a task: “I have considered it and find there is no dealing with thy mighty passion: For though I die for Thee, I am behind; My sins deserve the condemnation.” Nevertheless, Herbert concludes, “by confession I shall come into the conquest.” Hence the great Reformation theme of justification by faith is ultimately a confession of the Savior, “who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:19).


Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lacked anything.

“A guest,” I answered, “worthy to be here”:
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”

“Truth, Lord; but I have marred them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
So I did sit and eat.

In this brief poem, we follow the movement of the Triune God from creation, sin, redemption and communion. For “Love” we can substitute “Jesus” just as we can in St. Paul’s great hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13.

Let us now move to “The Sacrifice.” This poem essentially tells the story of the Passion from Gethsemane to Jesus’ Death. My college friend Ken discovered there are two voices in this poem: a narrator and a commentator. The two-fold character of this poem reflects the full significance of Jesus’ saving work. The narrative voice tells the story the way the synoptic Gospels themselves tell it. After Gethsemane, Jesus no longer speaks in parables about fulfilling prophecy. Strengthened through the “agony” of prayer, He sets His face to the Cross and remains silent in the face of unjust accusations. The commentator’s is the voice of Deity held back, the voice of Prophecy falling into place, the voice of Wisdom speaking from the whirlwind in a cloud of Paradox, what St. Paul will call the scandal and folly of the Cross.

In this retelling of the Passion story, you in the [online] congregation are asked to participate by joining in a chorus, asking rhetorically “Was ever grief like mine?” By joining the chorus, you may recall that Jesus’ death is not simply an historical fact of 2000 years ago – it is that to be sure – but beyond that, it is an event with ongoing significance and power, which we are called to participate in. By joining the interrogative chorus, we also remember that the Gospel is a continuing mystery for us to ponder for ourselves and to proclaim to all peoples.

At two points, you will notice a change in the refrain to: Never was grief like mine!” The first of these emphatic statements comes after the cry: “My God, My God…” The second comes at the end when “all is finished.” These are the moments of deepest mystery, when the Son expresses his utter alienation from the Father; and when with His dying breath He explains why such alienation was His chosen business: “My woe, man’s weal.” It is all for us and it is enough.

Note: In the text below, the narrative voice is in normal type, the commentator’s voice is in bold-face, and the refrain in italics.

Let us now go to the Garden of Gethsemane on Maundy Thursday evening after the Last Supper where Jesus is praying.


George Herbert (1593-1643)

OH all ye, who pass by, whose eyes and mind
To worldly things are sharp, but to me blind;
To me, who took eyes that I might you find:
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

The Princes of my people make a head
Against their Maker: they do wish me dead,
Who cannot wish, except I give them bread;
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

Without me each one, who doth now me brave,
Had to this day been an Egyptian slave.
They use that power against me, which I gave:
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

Mine own Apostle, who the bag did bear,
Though he had all I had, did not forbear
To sell me also, and to put me there:
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

For thirty pence he did my death devise,
Who at three hundred did the ointment prize,
Not half so sweet as my sweet sacrifice:
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

Therefore my soul melts, and my hearts dear treasure
Drops blood (the only beads) my words to measure:
O let this cup passe, if it be thy pleasure:
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

These drops being temper’d with sinners tears
A Balsom are for both the Hemispheres:
Curing all wounds, but mine; all, but my fears:
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

Yet my Disciples sleep; I cannot gain
One hour of watching; but their drowsy brain
Comforts not me, and doth my doctrine stain:
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

Arise, arise, they come.  Look how they run!
Alas!  what haste they make to be undone!
How with their lanterns do they seek the sun!
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

With clubs and staves they seek me, as a thief,
Who am the Way and Truth, the true relief;
Most true to those, who are my greatest grief:
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

Judas, dost thou betray me with a kiss?
Canst thou find hell about my lips? and miss
Of life, just at the gates of life and bliss?
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

See, they lay hold on me, not with the hands
Of faith, but fury: yet at their commands
I suffer binding, who have loos’d their bands
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

All my Disciples fly; fear puts a bar
Betwixt my friends and me.  They leave the star,
That brought the wise men of the East from far.
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

Then from one ruler to another bound
They lead me; urging, that it was not sound
What I taught: Comments would the text confound.
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

The Priests and rulers all false witness seek
’Gainst him, who seeks not life, but is the meek
And ready Paschal Lamb of this great week:
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

Then they accuse me of great blasphemy,
That I did thrust into the Deity,
Who never thought that any robbery:
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

Some said, that I the Temple to the floor
In three days raz’d, and raised as before.
Why, he that built the world can do much more:
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

Then they condemn me all with that same breath,
Which I do give them daily, unto death.
Thus Adam my first breathing rendereth:
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

They bind, and lead me unto Herod: he
Sends me to Pilate.  This makes them agree;
But yet their friendship is my enmity:
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

Herod and all his bands do set me light,
Who teach all hands to war, fingers to fight,
And only am the Lord of Hosts and might:
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

Herod in judgement sits, while I do stand;
Examines me with a censorious hand:
I him obey, who all things else command:
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

The Jews accuse me with despitefulness;
And vying malice with my gentleness,
Pick quarrels with their onely happiness:
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

I answer nothing, but with patience prove
If stony hearts will melt with gentle love.
But who does hawk at eagles with a dove?
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

My silence rather doth augment their cry;
My dove doth back into my bosom fly,
Because the raging waters still are high:
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

Hark how they cry aloud still, Crucify:
It is not fit he live a day, they cry,
Who cannot live less then eternally:
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

Pilate, a stranger, holdeth off; but they,
Mine own dear people, cry, Away, away,
With noises confused frighting the day:
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

Yet still they shout, and cry, and stop their ears,
Putting my life among their sins and fears,
And therefore wish my blood on them and theirs:
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

See how spite cankers things. These words aright
Used, and wished, are the whole worlds light:
But honey is their gall, brightness their night:
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

They choose a murderer, and all agree
In him to do themselves a courtesy:
For it was their own case who killed me:
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

And a seditious murderer he was:
But I the Prince of peace; peace that doth pass
All understanding, more then heav’n doth glass:
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

Why, Caesar is their only King, not I:
He clave the stony rock, when they were dry;
But surely not their hearts, as I well try:
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

Ah! how they scourge me! yet my tenderness
Doubles each lash: and yet their bitterness
Winds up my grief to a mysteriousness:
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

They buffet him, and box him as they list,
Who grasps the earth and heaven with his fist,
And never yet, whom he would punish, miss’d:
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

They spit on me in scornful wise,
Who by my spittle gave the blind man eyes,
Leaving my blindness to my enemies:
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

My face they cover, though it be divine.
As Moses face was veiled, so is mine,
Lest on their double-dark souls either shine:
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

Servants and abjects flout me; they are witty:
Now prophesy who strikes thee, is their ditty:
So they in me deny themselves all pity:
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

And now I am deliver’d unto death,
Which each one calls for so with utmost breath,
That he before me well nigh suffereth:
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

Weep not, dear friends, since I for both have wept
When all my tears were blood, the while you slept:
Your tears for your own fortunes should be kept:
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

The soldiers lead me to the common hall;
There they deride me, they abuse me all:
Yet for twelve heav’nly legions I could call:
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

Then with a scarlet robe they me array;
Which shows my blood to be the only way
And cordial left to repair man’s decay:
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

Then on my head a crown of thorns I wear:
For these are all the grapes Sion doth bear,
Though I my vine planted and watered there:
                                               Was ever grief like mine?

So sits the earth’s great curse in Adam’s fall
Upon my head: so I remove it all
From th’ earth unto my brows, and bear the thrall:
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

Then with the reed they gave to me before,
They strike my head, the rock from whence all store
Of heav’nly blessings issue evermore:
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

They bow their knees to me, and  cry, Hail king:
What ever scoffs & scornfulness can bring,
I am the floor, the sink, where they it fling:
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

Yet since man’s scepters are as frail as reeds,
And thorny all their crowns, bloody their weeds;
I, who am Truth, turn into truth their deeds:
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

The soldiers also spit upon that face,
Which Angels did desire to have the grace,
And Prophets, once to see, but found no place:
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

Thus trimmed, forth they bring me to the rout,
Who Crucify him, cry with one strong shout.
God holds his peace at man, and man cries out:
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

They lead me in once more, and  putting then
Mine own clothes on, they lead me out again.
Whom devils fly, thus is he toss’d of men:
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

And now weary of sport, glad to ingross
All spite in one, counting my life their loss,
They carry me to my most bitter cross:
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

My cross I bear myself, until I faint:
Then Simon bears it for me by constraint,
The decreed burden of each mortal saint:
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

O all ye who pass by, behold and see;
Man stole the fruit, but I must climb the tree;
The tree of life to all, but only me:
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

Lo, here I hang, charg’d with a world of sin,
The greater world o’ th’ two; for that came in
By  words, but this by sorrow I must win:
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

Such sorrow as, if sinful man could feel,
Or feel his part, he would not cease to kneel.
Till all were melted, though he were all steel:
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

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.

Shame tears my soul, my body many a wound;
Sharp nails pierce this, but sharper that confound;
Reproaches, which are free, while I am bound.
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

Now heal thy self, Physician; now come down.
Alas! I did so, when  I left my crown
And father’s smile for you, to feel his frown:
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

In healing not my self, there doth consist
All that salvation, which ye now resist;
Your safety in my sickness doth subsist:
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

Betwixt two thieves I spend my utmost breath,
As he that for some robbery suffereth.
Alas! what have I stolen from you?  Death.
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

A king my title is, prefixt on high;
Yet by my subjects am condemn’d to die
A servile death in servile company:
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

They give me vinegar mingled with gall,
But more with malice: yet, when they did call,
With Manna, Angels food, I fed them all:
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

They part my garments, and by lot dispose
My coat, the type of love, which once cur’d those
Who sought for help, never malicious foes:
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

Nay, after death their spite shall further go;
For they will pierce my side, I full well know;
That as sin came, so Sacraments might flow:
                                              Was ever grief like mine?

But now I die; now all is finished.
My woe, man’s weal: and now I bow my head.
Only let others say, when I am dead,
                                             Never was grief like mine.


Today’s hymn is Paul Gerhardt, “O Sacred Head Sore Wounded

Cover Art is Tintoretto, The Crucifixion: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32)