Every so often I post a different poem, with a brief reflection to help with your reading. For last week, see here. This week’s poem is George Herbert’s classic devotional: “The Altar”.
George Herbert (1593 – 1633) is a must read for any Christian. He is arguably the finest wordsmith post-Shakespeare and pre-Milton, and all of his work is tinged with a riveting sense of deep commitment to Christ. Despite his wealthy upbringing and fabulous education, Herbert turned down a promising career in politics, instead deciding to devote his life serving as an Anglican priest over a small parish in the English countryside. He is the definition of humility and simple devotion — he was not well known in his day, and neither did he live long enough to see his fantastic poetry published. Only three years after his ordination, Herbert died of consumption at the age of only 39.
Herbert’s legacy of ministry, then, was not just his commitment to his flock, but the lasting impact of his poetry. “The Altar” is a beautiful piece of self-sacrifice and commitment. The structure of the poem is classic Herbert; he loved to experiment with formats that echoed his theme. The format of “The Altar” then, makes the poem take the shape of an actual altar. The difference is that the sacrificial table that Herbert wishes to offer upon is not made of any normal material — it is his heart. The sinful heart of Herbert wishes to be what Paul calls “a living sacrifice” (Rom 12:1), but his heart is so hardened that he must be purified. The altar of his life, Herbert admits, is “broken” (1) and “cemented with tears”. He needs fixing.
So what makes Hebert’s altar pure? What makes him ready to be a “living sacrifice” or a “drink offering poured out” (2 Tim 4:6)? What could make his “broken” altar whole? Only the “blessed sacrifice” of Christ (15) that might be his. What provides sanctification for the broken people of God, other than the purifying blood of Christ? No other sacrifice can prepare us or equip us or make us holy enough to offer ourselves to God in service.
So, Christian reader, take a lesson from Herbert: if you wish to spend yourself in service to Christ and his Kingdom (the goal of every Christian heart), then take hold of the sacrifice Jesus made for you. His perfect work on the cross is what makes your work whole. If your work is the ministry, or your goal is the good of the church, then in your busyness do not forget that your life is God’s. He shaped you, he saved you, and he alone can sanctify you for good works. In all your sacrifice for the things of God, do not forget the sacrifice of Christ, without which your working would be useless and empty.
By George Herbert
A broken A L T A R, Lord, thy servant reares,
Made of a heart, and cemented with tears:
Whose parts are as thy hand did frame;
No workmans tool hath touch’d the same.
A H E A R T alone
Is such a stone,
As nothing but
Thy pow’r doth cut.
Wherefore each part
Of my hard heart
Meets in this frame,
To praise thy Name;
That, if I chance to hold my peace,
These stones to praise thee may not cease.
O let thy blessed S A C R I F I C E be mine,
And sanctifie this A L T A R to be thine.