Bloody Sweat: A Lenton Meditation by Jacobus Revius

For Jacobus Revius the Word of God was the chief source of poetic inspiration. In that revealed Word it was especially the Word made flesh—Christ Jesus himself who inspired the poet’s finest lyrics. The supreme significance of Christ in the Scriptures so informs Revius’ poetic sensibility that the Savior becomes the key image to which all others are somehow related. Any SCriptural character, situation, or symbol connects ultimately with the Christ; any poetic reference to the Christ brings with it the whole connected world of Biblical allusion. Analyzing a Revius poem, then, becomes something like Scriptural exegesis. It is such a Scriptural exegesis of “Bloody Sweat” that this article will attempt. Instead of emphasizing diction, rhythm, meter, and form—important though they be—this analysis will stress Biblical relationships. Setting the poem against its background of rich Scriptural allusion makes of it a deeply spiritual experience—a spiritual experience which epitomizes the universal drama of sin, suffering, and salvation in the bloody sweat of Christ in the garden.

What are some of the Biblical relationships by which Revius enriches this poetic vision of Christ in Gethsemane? On first reading, stanza one may seem to be simply a moving and urgent invitation to the individual Christian to come to Gethsemane to see the suffering Savior:

Lazy soul, why do you cry, Yawn, and sigh? Waken now and follow me. See, your Bridegroom now has gone To the lone Garden of Gethsemane.

Upon closer reading, however, the enriching Scriptural allusions come crowding in. The “lazy soul,” urged to awaken from sleep and follow the Bridegroom, suggests both the five foolish virgins and the disciples sleeping in Gethsemane. Like them, the sinner must be forcibly roused from his spiritual slumbers to follow Christ. The word follow subtly suggests the sovereign grace of God: “comt hem dra/ Volgen na…” says Revius. The whole scene of Christ’s suffering while the sinner is heedlessly sleeping brings to mind Paul’s words in Romans 5:7 – “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” The echoing of such Scriptural situations and doctrines immediately lends to the tone of personal urgency a deeper and more universal significance which continues throughout this poem.

This universal significance becomes even more apparent when one grasps the rich connotations of Garden in the first stanY..a and Creator in the second: “See how your Creator weeps…” Behind the garden of Gethsemane in this poem hovers the shadow of the garden of Eden with its fateful fall. Behind this suffering Savior stands the image of the powerful Creator, now ironically forced to bear the suffering of the world he has created. The “greatly multiplied sorrows” and the abundant “sweat of the brow” to which Adam and Eve were doomed after the fall seems to be concentrated here in Christ’s “thousand·thousand crimson tears”—the bloody sweat in the garden. And when Revius envisions this sweat as really blood—“enckel bloet” the doctrine of the substitutionary atonement becomes dramatically vivid: The very sweat by which Christ assumes man’s punishment becomes the blood by which he pours forth man’s redemption. All of these allusions enrich stanzas two and three and subtly link Gethsemane with Paradise, Calvary, and the whole cycle of redemption:

See how your Creator weeps, Bends, and creeps Underneath your load of sin. Thousand·thousand crimson tears Trickle here From His tearing, bursting skin.

See His sweat is really blood Like a flood Streaming forth from every limb. All the thirty earth can drink So I think Of those drops that fall from Him.

The last three lines of the third stanza present another of the universally Significant concepts with which Revius informs this lyric. It is not only the “lazy soul” of the sinner that may be refreshed by the blood of Christ but also the thirsty earth, of which Revius says that it “drinckt haer sat/ In het nat…” or literally “drinks her fill/ of that liquid.” Looking back now, one recognizes new dimensions in the word Creator as the poet’s vision broadens to include the washing of the earth itself—once again made formless and void by sin—in the redeeming, recreating blood of Christ. If the bloody sweat of Christ replaces the cursed sweat of Adam may not the “travail of his soul” relieve the whole creation which “groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now”? (Isaiah 53:11; Romans 8:22) Moreover, the liquid imagery of the third stanza—the streaming sweat, the flood of blood, the thirstily drinking earth—brings with it a wealth of Biblical allusions. Here the Creator of all the “waters under the heaven” (Genesis 1:9) is “poured out like water” and brought “into the dust of death” (Psalm 22:14, 15). As the thirsty earth drinks his blood, he drinks the full cup of the suffering of the whole universe—a draught so bitter that he prays, “If it be possible, let this cup pass from me….” Even the “I thirst” of Calvary is presaged by this pouring out of Himself in the bloody sweat of Gethsemane.

In stanzas four and five the rows of flowers vividly recall the “garden” setting of Christ’s suffering:

Look, and you will notice, too, That this dew Colors stem and leaf and bud, That carnation once snow-white Now is bright With dark spots of crimson blood.

That white rose now shoots a bud Red as blood, And those tulips, pale and dead, Are transformed (Is it not so?) Row by row Into bright flamboyant red.

Now the liquid imagery combines with the red imagery as the poet’s imagination sees the “dew” of Christ’s blood coloring the stems, leaves, and buds of the “snow-white” flowers and transforming them “row by row” into “bright flamboyant red.” The “snow-white” perfection of Paradise seems “pale and dead” in contrast with the blood·red, of the recreated flowers. The transformation of the growing plants by the blood of Christ again emphasizes the universal efficacy of his redemption. As with the liquid imagery. Scriptural allusions also enrich the flower imagery of the poem. The rose of Sharon, the lily of the valley, the root out of dry ground—all of these lend credence to the poet’s imaginary redeeming of the flowers and prepare for the “fairest flower of all” presented in the last three stanzas:

But what is that (lower fair Springing there From this holy, bloody ground? Lovely flower that will replace By its grace All the flowers that can be found?

“Jesus’ goodness, Jesus’ love, Spread above All who sorrow for their sin”  Is its name, surpassing sweet, Rich, replete, Healing balm for helpless men.

Sorry soul, why do you moan. Grieve and groan? Keep this flower in memory. Do not seek it everywhere. Only there: Garden of Gethsemane.

The poetic imagination that transformed the white flowers into red now “creates” the new and holy flower of Jesus’ goodness and love—the eternal flower which springs up from the flowing blood of Christ. Its “healing balm” can truly replace even the soothing “balm of Gilead.” It must not be sought “everywhere”—not even in Eden—for its sweet fragrance replaces and transcends the power of the forbidden tree of life.

Small wonder that the “Sorry soul” who has observed the bloody sweat of the garden should be moved to “moan/Grieve, and groan” as the poet addresses him again in stanza eight. But is this “moan, grief, and groan” the same as the “cry, yawn, and sigh” of stanza one? It need not be. if it represents the “sorrow for sin” aroused by the flower of “Jesus’ goodness, Jesus’ love.” It is then no longer a heedless, pointless crying but a repentant sorrow that finds healing balm in the blood of Christ.

In this Lenten lyric, Jacobus Revius presents a timeless invitation to all weary souls to journey with him to Gethsemane. There his lyric vision grows large enough to suffuse the whole universe with the saving blood. of Christ. But he returns to the “weary soul” of the sinner with the comforting cup of salvation purchased by the bloody sweat of Christ. His words. “Keep this flower in memory,” seem to echo Christ’s words, “This do in remembrance of me.” In Gethsemane Christ drank the bitter cup of suffering. On the cross he cried “I thirst.” And therefore all men “who sorrow for their sin” may drink the cup of salvation—the living water of the blood of Christ.