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The flrat-born from the dead; that in all things he might have the pre-eminence.—Colossians L 18.
Death is an event we do not attempt to shut out of view. Here, our city has its cemeteries, which, by their taste and beauty, rather attract than repel a visit. There, where hoary trees fling their shadow on graves, Btands th >. rural church, within whose humbled walls the living worship in closest neighborhood with the dead; a 'ype of heaven, the approach to that sanctuary is by a path which passes through the realms of death. When death occurs among us, friends and neighbors are invited to the funeral; and in broad day the sad procession, following the nodding hearse, wends slowly along our most public streets. The spot that holds our dead wc sometimes visit, and always regard as a sort of sacred ground; there a monument is raised to record their virtues; or a willow, with its weeping branches flung over the grave, expresses our grief; or a pine or laurel, standing there in evergreen beauty when frosty blasts have stripped the woods, symbolises the hopes of the living, and the immortality of the dead; our hand plants some sweet flowers, which though they shed their blossoms as our hopes were shed, and hide their heads awhile beneath the turf, spring up again to remind us how the dear ones who there sleep in Jesus are awaiting the resurrection of the just.
I have read of a tribe of savages that have very different customs. They bury their dead in secret, by the hands of unconcerned officials. No grassy mound, no memorial stone guides the poor mother's steps to the quiet corner where her infant lies. The grave is levelled "with the soil; and afterwards, as some to forget their loss drive the world and its pleasures over their hearts, a herd of cattle is driven over and over the ground, till every trace of the burial has been obliterated by their hoofs. Anxious to forget death and its inconsolable griefs, these heathen resent any allusion to the dead. You may not speak of them. In a mother's hearing, name, however tenderly, her lost one, recall a dead father to the memory of his son, and there is no injury which they feel more deeply. From the thought of the dead their hearts recoil.
How strange! How unnatural! No, not unnatural. Benighted heathen, their grief has none of the alleviations which are balm to our wounds, none of the hopes that bear us up beneath a weight of sorrows. Their dead are sweet flowers withered, never to revive ; joys gone, never to return. To remember them is to keep open a rankling wound, and preserve the memory of a loss which was bitter to feel and still is bitter to think of; a loss which brought only grief to the living, and no gain to the dead. To me, says Paul, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. They know nothing of this; nothing of the hopes that associate our dead in Christ with sinless souls, and sunny skies, and shining angels, and songs seraphic, and crowns of glory, and harps of gold. Memory is only a curse, from which they seek relief by removing the picture from the chambers of their imagery, or turning its face to the wall.
Without the hope of a better world, apart from mercy, pardon, grace and glory, through the blood of Jesus Christ, what were death to me, or to any, but an object of unutterable gloom? I shrink from seeing it. With all the strong consolations of the gospel, ah! what sight so bitter as to see a loved one dying; our sweet flower withering day by day on its drooping stalk ; the cold shadow of death, like an eclipse, creeping over the whole horizon of our being, till, one hope after another disappearing, the case assuming a gloomier and yet gloomier aspect, we are left, but for the inner light of the Spirit and God's truth, in blank despair? As we hang over the dying couch or cradle, how it wrings the heart to see the imploring look turned on us, and we can give no relief; to hear the low moanings, and we cannot still them; and when the struggle is long protracted, to be forced to pray that God in mercy would drop the curtain, and close this dreadful scene. There is no event so terrible as death. There is no sound so awful as that last sigh. There is no coldness feels so chill to the hand as the brow or face of the dead. And when, in place of one full once of light, and life, and love, our arms embrace a pale, claycold corpse, when, for the smiling face, childhood's pattering feet, and prattling tongue, and bright sparkling eye, and merry laughter, we have nothing but that solemn countenance, that rigid form, that marble brow, that cold clammy hand, that silent tenant of a lonesome room, beside whom we tread with noiseless step, and, as if afraid to disturb their slumbers, speak in hushed whispers, and with bated breath, verily death needs all the consolations that religion can administer.
Apart from the hopes of a better and a brighter world, to one's self, also, what is death but an unutterable evil? What weary hours, and days, and nights, are often preludes to the closing scene. And that scene! what terrible sufferings may we have to endure, and others have to witness in our dying chamber? How may they resemble those appalling struggles amid which the dying man seemed to us to be doing battle with an invisible enemy, who had him by the throat, and whom he was trying, but in vain trying, to throw off? Steps he into a palace or a hovel, Death, without any question the King of Terrors, presents the features of a tremendous curse in that ghastly countenance, the fixed and filmy eyes, the restless head, the wild tossing of the arms, the hands that, as if they sought something to cling to, clutch the bed-clothes, the muttering lips, the wandering mind, the deep insensibility, the heavy breathing, the awful pauses, and that long-drawn, shivering sigh, which closes the scene, and seems to say, as the departing spirit, ere it quit the bounds of time, casts one last look on all that is past and gone, Vanity of vanities, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.
Solomon pronounces a living dog to be better than a dead lion; and I say, better be a living beggar than a dead king. I love life; I love to walk abroad and see the sun shine, and hear the birds sing, and wander by rippling stream, or sit on banks where sweet flowers grow; I love the homes where I look on happy faces smiling, receive welcome greetings, and hear kind voices speaking. To have all these shut out, to be nailed up in a narrow coffin, to be buried in the dull earth, to moulder amid silence into dust, <to be forgotten, and, when fires are cheerily blazing on our own hearth, and songs and laughter by their merry fing tell how broken hearts are sound again, to think of ourselves lying cold, and lonely, and joyless in the tomb, are not things we love to dwell on. Our Lord himself shrank from death ; he cast himself at his Father's feet, to cry in an agony, If it be possible let this cup pass from me. And who, unless some unhappy wretch, courts death, wishes to die, to lie down among those naked skulls, and the grim unsocial tenants of the grave? Faith herself turns away from the thought. Standing on the edge of the grave, she turns her eye upward; and, leaving the poor body to worms and dust, she wings her flight heavenward, follows the spirit to the realms of bliss, and loves to think of the dead as living; as not dead; as standing before the Lamb with crowns of glory, and bending on us looks of love and kindness from their celestial seats. Yes ; death needs all the comforts that religion can summon to our aid.
Nor has Christ left his people comfortless. By his life, and death, and resurrection, he has fulfilled the high expectations of prophets; nor, bold as it is, is the language too lofty which Hosea puts into his mouth, O death, I will be thy plagues; O grave, I will be thy destruction. The death of Death, the life of the grave and greatest of all its tenants, he has conquered the conqueror of kings; he has broken the prison, he has bound the jailer, he has seized the keys, and he comes in the fullness of time to set all his imprisoned people free. They are prisoners of hope. He will bring back his banished. He has entered into glory as their forerunner, or, as my text calls him, " the first-born from the dead."
Let us consider in what respects Christ is " the firstborn from the dead."