Affliction Furthers the Flight in Me
Affliction Furthers the Flight in Me
A Meditation on Herbert’s “Easter Wings”
Fundamentally, the story of Easter is a story of healing. After the crucifixion, the darkest and emptiest experience of life, Jesus is resurrected into new and eternal life. All that He suffered has turned to glory, and Jesus takes His place at the right hand of the Father, the full richness of heaven and earth placed under His dominion. In Christ’s resurrection, man’s relationship with God is restored, giving us the opportunity of a life free from the tormenting destruction of sin. Indeed, Christ’s sacrifice is good news, and He freely offers us the fullness of the eternal life He has earned. Through Christ, God restores to us the “riches of his glorious inheritance,” recreating our lives as a “Divine work[s] of art.” Inspired by the story of the resurrection, 17th century English poet George Herbert wrote his short poem “Easter Wings.” The poem beautifully recreates the restorative power of Christ’s resurrection; though short, it reflects, in form and content, the eternal beauty of God’s grace toward sinful man.
The modern reader is likely to take note of “Easter Wings”’ unique form. Similar to most poetry from its time, “Easter Wings” follows a strict formal structure; each of its two stanzas is identical in line and meter, and almost identical in rhythm. But this structure does not remain the same throughout each stanza’s ten lines. Starting “harmoniously” with iambic pentameter, the poem loses two syllables each subsequent line until it is “most poore” at its center, where lines five and six have only two syllables. From this impoverished core, Herbert rebuilds his structure, adding two syllables to each subsequent line until the stanza once again ends in pentameter. The result of his unconventional meter is a poem that creates pattern not only in its rhythms, but also in its appearance: both stanzas splay out on the pages like wings. In fact, in its original publishing, the poems were printed sideways across two pages, fluttering, flying upward toward the heavens as the reader opened and closed the small book of poetry.
Beautiful on its own, this unique pattern also reflects the content of the poem. As the poem begins, Herbert returns us to the Garden of Eden, where the “Lord” creates man “in wealth and store”: safely in the bosom of Paradise, the pentameter is richly intact. But “foolishly,” man turns his back on God. Choosing his will over that of his creator, man quickly loses all the wealth of life with Him, as the lines fall inward toward their “most poore” center. “Sickness and shame” replace the glory of life in God, and as man “decay[s] more and more,” falling from God and into the empty pain of sin, the lines lose the fullness of the poem’s beginning, wasting away syllable after syllable until almost nothing remains. In this fallen state, disorder reigns, the gentle abundance of God replaced with the harsh emptiness of sin.
But Herbert does not leave us in the “poore” state of separation from God. Although man’s disobedience has emptied him of the vibrant life of God, Christ brings healing restoration. At the stanza’s “thinne” core, Herbert and the meter are emptied by sin, desperate to return to the richness of God. “With thee,” he writes, the short, iambic line rising as Herbert finally reaches out to Him, the simple act impregnating the poem with the possibility of restoration (6, 16). Slowly, decay returns to harmony, loss to Christ’s “victories” (9). The lines flood outward again, the dropped syllables grafted back on, healing the brokenness of sin. This is the story of Easter, Christ’s resurrection from the dead that heals our relationship with God, and His re-entrance in the poem that restores the lines to flowing pentameter. Though “foolishly [we] lost” the “wealth” of God, Christ’s death pays the price of our sin, and His resurrection assures us “victory” over even the ultimate destruction of death.
Form and content work hand in hand to create the beauty of this Easter story. The decaying and healing lines illustrate the profound truth of which they speak: without God our lives are empty and sorrowful; with Him we soar even to the heights of heaven. Just so, a life of faith in Christ is incomplete without the transformation that His Spirit brings. In the acceptance of Christ, we become new men, once again “created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”6 Just as the poem’s structure reflects the beauty of the truths it contains, so too our new lives in Christ reflect the beauty of God living within us. In professing that Jesus is Lord and believing in our hearts that He was raised from the dead, we invite God into our lives. Once there, God does not leave us in the brokenness of sin. He starts an often painful process of restoration, healing the brokenness of our sinful lives, turning them from decay into the vibrant pictures of life. Though painful, this process is for our good, restoring our relationship with God and, in its end, offering “the immeasurable riches of his grace” that we forfeited in our disobedience.
“Easter Wings” beautifully illustrates the resurrection of Christ as God’s ultimate source of healing. Without God, the lines, like man, decay into brokenness. With Him, the riches of life are restored, and the abundant blessings of heaven are poured out. This is true restoration, so pervasive that it not only heals us from our pain, but turns the pain itself into a source of good: “affliction shall advance the flight in me” (20). As the last line regains its pentametric glory, it points to something of a paradox: that Christ’s suffering leads to our healing. Rising from the dead, Christ becomes our source of life, a free gift found only in Him. And by daily dying to our old lives of sin, our own afflictions only bring us deeper into the abiding love of Christ. In Him we are healed, gaining in His death and resurrection not only life, but life abundantly.
1 Ephesians 1:22, ESV “And he put all things under his feet…”
2 Ephesians 1:18, ESV
3 C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain
4 1 Corinthians 15:54, ESV “Death is swallowed up in victory.”
5 Ephesians 2:6, ESV “and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”
6 Ephesians 4:24, ESV
7 Romans 10:9, ESV
8 Isaiah 53:5, ESV “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.”
9 John 10:10, ESV “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”
Chih McDermott is a Super Senior from Palos Verdes, Calif. He loves to sing to God even though his voice often cracks.Tags: beauty, crucifixion, death, Easter, freedom, George Herbert, grace, healing, hope, literature, paradox, poetry, resurrection, sin, suffering