Hiding In Plain Sight: George Herbert’s “Coloss. 3.3”

Through Lent With George Herbert
Tuesday After The Fourth Sunday Of Lent

hiding-in-plain-sight

Coloss. 3.3.
Our life is hid with Christ in God

My words and thoughts do both express this notion,
That Life hath with the sun a double motion.
The first Is straight, and our diurnal friend,
The other Hid, and doth obliquely bend.
One life is wrapped In flesh, & and tends to earth:
The other winds towards Him, whose happy birth
Taught me to live here so, That still one eye
Should aim and shoot at that which Is on high:
Quitting with daily labour all My pleasure,
To gain at harvest an eternal Treasure.

This is another one of those poems which John Dryden did not like. The conceit is that a slightly modified verse from Colossians 3.3 is hidden in the text, diagonally, as one moves down the lines: My life is hid in him, that is my treasure. It is even more obvious when printed properly, which the WordPress site won’t let me do, with the last two lines indented.

Apparently Herbert was one of those clergy who liked writing biblical verses around the house and church, painting them on walls or inside windows so that one sees them only when sitting down and staring at them. One of them was the verse from Colossians 3.3., which he had painted in the stall in the church where his wife would normally sit, thus associating her with Christ and life.

Herbert compares the life of a human being with that of the sun, which has two apparent motions. These are in fact the result of the motion of the earth, but since we move with the globe it looks like it is the sun that moves. The first is the daily east to west motion of the sun, most obvious. The second is the annual motion of the sun against the stars, in that over the 365 days  of the year the motion of the sun shifts west to east by just under 1 degree of a 360 degree circle. This is the result of the motion of the earth around the sun, and is obvious only to those who watch the sky carefully, although over time the movement is significant. This is compared to that other sun, the Son, Jesus Christ. The life enveloped in flesh look to the earth, but will tend to the heavenly Lord as well, slowly and surely. As Henry Francis Lyte wrote in Abide With Me some two-hundred years later as he, too, died of a chronic respiratory disease,

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day.
Earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away.
Change and decay in all around I see
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

What does it mean for one’s life to be hidden in Christ? The passage from Colossians 3 is worth reading in its larger context of the Letter.

3So if you have been raised with Christ,
seek the things that are above,
where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.
2Set your minds on things that are above,
not on things that are on earth,
3for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.
4When Christ who is your life is revealed,
then you also will be revealed with him in glory.

5 Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly:
fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).
6On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient.
7These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life.
8But now you must get rid of all such things
— anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth.
9Do not lie to one another,
seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices
10and have clothed yourselves with the new self,
which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.
11In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew,
circumcised and uncircumcised,
barbarian, Scythian,
slave and free;
but Christ is all and in all!

12 As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved,
clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.
13Bear with one another and,
if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other;
just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.
14Above all, clothe yourselves with love,
which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 1
5
And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts,
to which indeed you were called in the one body.
And be thankful.
16Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly;
teach and admonish one another in all wisdom;
and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.
17And whatever you do, in word or deed,
do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus,
giving thanks to God the Father through him.

twcscl23

Colossae, in what is now Turkey. Not much left.

Most contemporary biblical scholars would argue for a number of reasons that this was probably not written by Paul but by someone in his name some time after his death. Regardless, it is a powerful passage reflecting a number of themes found in the undisputed letters. Chief among them is the sense that followers of Jesus have died with him and are waiting to rise with him in glory; what Jesus is now in resurrected glory, we will become. Thus, in a sense, we are living that resurrected life now, by the power of the Holy Spirit, albeit not fully realized. Thus we must struggle with “whatever is earthly” and put it to death, so that we no longer lie and put away “anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth”. While we might think this kind of advice is obvious, we only need to look of some of the leaders of the world today to see how potent these eartly things are in the mouths of demagogues – and they were considered normal and perhaps even laudable in Roman times. “Compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” were seen as signs of weakness, what Nietzsche later described as belonging to a “slave mentality”. But the author is adamant that the followers of Jesus must be peaceful, thankful, and clothed with love.  This kind of living collapses apparently cosmically ordained categories of religion, ethnicity, cultural development, and class, so that Christ is all and in all.

To be hid with Christ is to be in the world but to carry this eschatological reality in the body, to live as a resurrected being now and not simply wait like a stone for it to come to pass. The movement may appear to be in one direction, but over a lifetime it actually moves the other, towards the divine.

About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece.
This entry was posted in Lent, Poetry and Novels and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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