A Poem for Holy Saturday: George Herbert’s ‘Sepulchre’

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George Herbert (1633):

Oh blessed body!  Whither art thou thrown?

No lodging for thee, but a cold hard stone?

So many hearts on earth, and yet not one

Receive thee?

 

Sure there is room within our hearts good store;

For they can lodge transgressions by the score:

Thousands of toys dwell there, yet out of door

They leave thee.

 

But that which shows them large, shows them unfit.

Whatever sin did this pure rock commit,

Which holds thee now? Who hath indicted it

Of murder?

 

Where our hard hearts have took up stones to brain thee,

And missing this, most falsely did arraign thee;

Only these stones in quiet entertain thee,

And order.

 

And as of old, the law by heav’nly art,

Was writ in stone;  so thou, which also art

The letter of the word, find’st no fit heart

To hold thee.

 

Yet do we still persist as we began,

And so should perish, but that nothing can,

Though it be cold, hard, foul, from loving man

Withhold thee.


In his book A Year with George Herbert: A Guide to Fifty-Two of His Best Loved Poems, Jim Scott Orrick identifies the thesis of this poem as follows:

Our hearts are as cold and hard as stone, but stone cannot prevent Christ from loving us.

Professor Orrick provides a paraphrase and some contextual notes for the poem as follows:

It is not for lack of room that human hearts refuse to receive Christ. We obviously have plenty of room; the horde of sins and worldly pleasures that dwell in our hearts demonstrate that we have room.

All those sins and worldly pleasures render our hearts unsuitable to receive Jesus.

This rock [the sepulchre] has committed no sins.

We, on the other hand, have attempted to kill you with stones. [Cf. John 10:31]

(The recollection of the frenzied mob at Jesus’s trial renders the silence and order of the tomb all the more profound.)

(The Ten Commandments were written in stone by the finger of God.)

As under the Old Covenant the word of God was held in stone, so now you, the Word of God incarnate, are held in stone.

Human hearts continue to be as hard as those that rejected you during the days of your incarnation, and this hardness of heart would continue in us and ultimately condemn us if it were not for your rock-smashing love.

This sepulchre, though made of stone, cannot hold you in, and human heart, though also stony, cannot keep you out.

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