Am I a stone, and not a sheep,
That I can stand, O Christ, beneath Thy cross,
To number drop by drop Thy blood’s slow loss,
And yet not weep?
Not so those women loved
Who with exceeding grief lamented Thee;
Not so fallen Peter, weeping bitterly;
Not so the thief was moved;
Not so the Sun and Moon
Which hid their faces in a starless sky,
A horror of great darkness at broad noon –
I, only I.
Yet give not o’er,
But seek Thy sheep, true Shepherd of the flock;
Greater than Moses, turn and look once more
And smite a rock.
A Smitten Rock
Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) compiled a series of devotional poems in 1866 called The Prince’s Progress and Other Poems. One of which is the above poem, Good Friday. The poem is a lamentation of her own spiritual indifference towards the sacrifice of Christ and a plea for God to not leave her so unmoved.
She contrasts herself throughout the poem with the women at the foot of the cross, the apostle Peter, and even one of the other criminals hung besides Jesus–all of whom are weeping over the death of Christ. Even the celestial spheres hide in apparent sorrow–the noonday sun darkens as Christ breathes out His last. As all creation mourns the death of God’s Son, Rossetti laments that it is “I, only I” who does not weep.
The final stanza turns from a lament into a plea, relying on three biblical images. First, referencing Jesus’ words in John 10:11-18, “I am the good shepherd,” Rossetti pleas with the Lord to seek her out. Second, she points to Jesus being the one who is “greater than Moses” as Hebrews describes him (Heb 3:1-6). In the wilderness, Moses smites a rock with his staff to provide water for the Israelites dying of thirst (Ex 17:6); an image Paul later says prefigures the striking of Christ (1 Cor 10:4). But in the final image Rossetti makes it clear that it is not Christ she is thinking of as being struck, but herself.
Of course, in the first stanza she wonders if she is indeed a “stone” rather than a “sheep.” But in the phrase “turn and look once more” of the last stanza we are reminded of Peter’s denial of Christ. In Luke 22:61, we read of how the Lord “turned and looked at Peter” moments after his final denial, cutting Peter to the heart and leaving him to “weep bitterly,” something Rossetti has already drawn our attention to in the second stanza. Of course, Peter’s name also means “rock” (Matt 16:18). Leland Ryken comments, “so (as the last line has it) Jesus can be said to have smitten Peter with his look,” (Soul in Paraphrase, p. 203). Christ is greater than Moses because he can strike the rock of our dead hearts. Rossetti is identifying herself with the denying Peter, the rock that needs to be smote, broke open by the piercing gaze of the Lord.
This poem puts to words all the congested weariness of the numb Christian who longs for the canker of sin to be lanced so that release can come, so that refreshment and healing can flow. Conviction may be painful, repentance may be hard, but we long for indifference of our sin to be broken. The scalpel of the heavenly surgeon may sting, but is better than the anesthesia of the world. He alone brings health, brings vitality.
Is your heart unmoved by the glories of the gospel? Seek the true Shepherd, plead with Him, ask that He may smite a rock.