Sermons Preached on Various Occasions
by James de Koven, D.D.
with an Introduction by Morgan Dix, S.T.D., Rector of Trinity Church, New York
New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1880.
THE DEAD IN CHRIST.
(Preached at St. Stephen's College, Annandale, All Saints Day, 1866.)
"There remaineth, therefore, a rest to the people of God."—HEBREWS iv. 9.
THE Church, on such a day as to-day, draws us apart from the noise, and din, and bustle, and angry clamor of men. She quiets us, and sobers us, and stills our restless desires, and enables us to look down, as it were, from the heights of her own calm beatitude, upon the unceasing disquiet of the weary world. It is one peculiar blessing of her festival seasons that, in addition to all other gifts they bring, they lift us out of ourselves and away from our fellow men. They draw us into the company of the unearthly ones. They bid us pause in the hurry of activity. They compel us to do what the world will not do—go apart and rest awhile; and give us a vision and a share, be it never so fleeting, in that calm peace which is ever the condition of the Church, as compared with the troublesome world.
In this respect the Church always presents a marked contrast to the popular religion of the day. The popular religion of the day is eager and active, and reflects every impulse and feeling of the times. In it, as in a mirror, you can behold what the world is doing. It is popular and sensational, and up to the times. It hurries hither and thither; it works, it prays, it agitates, it is noisy and clamorous and full of talk. It preaches and harangues. It gathers crowds. It condemns whatever does not agree with it, or go as far as it does. It has societies and associations, and committees, and chairmen, and chairwomen. It votes and electioneers. It speculates, it trades, it buys and sells, it borrows, it lends, it sometimes even steals for the good of the cause. It is progressive. It is anti this and anti that, and pro this and pro that. It is Northern, and Southern, and Eastern, and Western. In short, whatever good it does, or evil it represses, it is like the troubled sea when it can not rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt.
All this the Church is not, and it is sometimes an objection to it with thoughtless people that such is the case. The difficulty lies here. The Church does have a duty to the tendencies of the times. It is her duty to save sinners and to convert the world. She is a living tree, the leaves whereof are for the healing of nations. There is no cry of our poor humanity, no sorrow of heavy-laden hearts, which it is not her part and duty to answer and to remedy. The changing condition of affairs, the questions which agitate and perplex, the wars and pestilences and varied distresses, are to her the providential means of doing her work. But she never does it by simply reflecting the tone of the times. She has the power, because she is the Body of Christ, to perceive at a glance the exact remedy which will meet the difficulty. It may be something against which the world protests, it may be something which seems the merest foolishness to the philosophers of the day; but, with heaven-born intuition, she proclaims it, and preaches and enforces it, until at last it is received and acknowledged as the one thing necessary.
To illustrate: What could have been more in opposition to the tone of the times than the Christianity of the first three centuries to the views and ideas of the highest of the rulers and philosophers of the Roman Empire? Ridicule, mockery, contempt, disdain, and cruel persecution were poured upon the life and doctrines of the despised Nazarenes. Nothing could have stood in more marked and pointed opposition than Christianity and paganism. And yet earnest souls then could perceive how, underneath the apparent opposition, there was that in Christianity which, answered every want, and every longing, and every cry which from all parts of the vast Roman world were going up to God. And thus, in spite of disdain, and ridicule, and mockery, and agony and death, in three hundred years the victory was in a measure won, and the Roman world was Christianized.
The same thing, if the Church does her duty, will be true in this our day and in this our land. Underneath the questions which perplex, underneath the hurry and noise and angry commotion, there are wants and troubles for which the Church has in her treasures things new and old which are their true and proper relief.
God speed the day when she shall dare to bring them forth! God speed the day when she shall know that opposition or persecution against them is only a proof of their power!
God speed the day when she shall leave to sects of human origin the duty of being the barometers which show the changes in the atmosphere of the times!
God speed the day when she shall herself realize the healing powers of Jordan, and bid a disdainful world wash seven times therein, even while it cries in haughty scorn: "Are not Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? May I not wash in them, and be clean?"
But, on this holy festival, I have a definite purpose in view, to which these remarks are simply introductory. If one were to characterize the American people as they are ordinarily characterized, would one not say of them that they are an intensely real and practical people? What more in opposition to their views and feelings than the invisible, the supernatural, the mystical, the awful verities of the unseen 2 Hence, realizing this, and not realizing the great law I have laid down, Churchmen have too often, instead of presenting the blessed truths which are really needed to counteract the tendencies and meet the real wants of the people, presented the awful mysteries of the Faith, with an apology and an explanation which too often explained them away.
The Church is a Divine Institution. It is the Body of Christ. And yet is it not fashioned and ordered and described as though, like a republic, it had its origin in the will and by the votes of its members? The priesthood comes from God, and has the power to remit and retain sins. Yet are they not, to the minds of most ministers, elected by congregations to preach and exhort, and perform with propriety certain necessary, yet, on the whole, unmeaning ceremonies? The Sacraments are sacred mysteries which hide and veil the life-giving presence of an Incarnate God. Yet are they not, in the ordinary view, mere impressive kinds of preaching, expressive symbols, which stimulate the fancy, the imagination, and the intellect? The house of God and its blessed services are the place and the manner whereby we approach the awe-inspiring presence of the King of kings; but, if any one venture to express in lofty architecture or stately ceremony the invisible beauty of Him we adore, alas for anxious souls, and timid hearts, and fearful spirits, and trembling brethren! There is around us an invisible world of angelic beings, who come and go as the ministers of them who are to be the heirs of salvation. There is—the point to which I wish chiefly to direct your attention—a mystical fellowship between the living and the dead in the Communion of Saints. And yet we speak of both with bated breath, and scarcely dare think of them, lest we should be accused of superstition, or be suspected of believing in purgatory.
Meanwhile, upon the last of these points, to say nothing of the rest, a terrible lesson is being taught us. There has been creeping through the land a superstition as deadly as any heathen superstition, and as destructive of souls as the worst delusions of pagan days. The real and practical people, who deny the invisible and reject the spiritual, are falling a prey to the awful corruptions and soul-destroying theories of spiritualism. It is a fearful thing to know that, in spite of all its dreadful results, all its immoral tendencies, all its unbelieving effects, American men and women can be found who can accept, and believe, and maintain what the spiritualist teaches. The only satisfactory explanation to be found is, that there is in the wretched imposture a mangled, distorted, fragmentary truth, which transforms the blessed communion that exists between the living and the dead in the Catholic Church into the communications which pretend to come from the souls of the departed.
Ay, and it is, perhaps, because we have not dared to preach the full and blessed doctrine which the Church holds concerning the bonds which bind together the holy living and the holy dead, that this awful delusion has arisen.
I purpose now to bring forth, as briefly as may be, precisely as though Rome had never asserted its belief in purgatory, or ultra-Protestantism denied the intermediate state, what may be said concerning the dead in Christ.
There are two ideas which greatly prevail, which need only to be mentioned to be refuted. The first is, that the dead in Christ become angels, and, in tender, loving watchfulness, guard and shelter, through sin and sorrow, those whom they love on earth. Marvelous are the ministrations of angels. They are sent forth to minister to them that shall be heirs of salvation. They direct the operations of Nature. They guide the thunder and the lightning, and the winds that blow. They rule the earthquake and the storm, the pestilence and the plague. They are about our path and about our bed. They fill the church with their blessed presence, and bear upward the prayers and praises of the faithful, until they blend with the unceasing alleluias of heaven. They shield our tender infancy, and guide the uncertain steps of manhood. They cover the hoary head of age with the shelter of their wings, and bear the parting soul into the bosom of Abraham. But the dead in Christ never become angels. They are a different order of beings. "Know ye not," says the Apostle, "that ye shall judge angels?" But the matter needs no proof; it is self-evident. As well might you expect that one of the lower order of beings around us should be transformed into a man.
The second notion, which is even more widely spread, is that the dead, being in a state of rest, are, so to speak, in a state of spiritual coma. The calmest rest which we have here on earth is when we sleep well, and death is called a sleep. And thus we think rather of the freedom from care and suffering and distress and misery, which is the blessed portion of the dead in Christ—their negative condition—and forget that their state can not be one of mere negation. Indeed, the very comparison between death and sleep might show us this, for physiologists tell us that the mind is as active when we sleep as when we wake. It is only that it has lost the control of the body. And from the same analogy might we argue that, when the soul is free from its mortal abiding-place, its activity can be in no sense lessened.
With both these ideas is associated the vague notion that the souls of the dead in Christ go directly to heaven. In reply to this, the Church and the more orthodox sects have ever asserted, and clearly proved from Holy Scripture, the solemn doctrine of the intermediate state; that there is a middle state of joy and misery, where the souls of the dead await either in joy or sorrow, with the expectation of bliss or of wretchedness, the resurrection of the body and the judgment of the Great Day. I take this doctrine for granted. As one of the doctrines of the Creed, it needs no proof to this congregation. The souls of the dead in Christ are not angels; the souls of the dead in Christ do not go directly to heaven; but the question to which I wish to direct your attention is as to their blessed estate in the long time of waiting which is their portion.
First, consider the vast number of the dead. The patriarchs and prophets of the elder world; the spirits in prison to whom our Blessed Saviour preached; the apostles, martyrs, and confessors; the bishops, saints, and doctors, of every age and clime and people, from him who saw the morning of creation to the poor babe who died but yesterday—all are there. Think of St. Paul and St. John; think of St. Mary and the penitent Magdalene; think of St. Augustine and St. Jerome, and the mighty dead of later days and other times. All are there. Think how the number increases. Think of those whom you have known and loved and cherished. The living are a mere handful to them. The Militant Church, as it sways to and fro in the agony of the conflict, is but a feeble band—the advance guard of the vast and mighty army.
Of this blessed company, first of all, I remark that their state must be one of great spiritual activity. Nothing more clearly proves this than the words of the text, to which our English translation does not do full justice. In the first verse of the chapter, St. Paul says, "Let us therefore fear, lest, a promise being left you of entering into His rest, any of you should seem to come short of it." He then goes on to show that by that rest was not meant the rest of the earthly Sabbath, nor the rest of the land of Canaan, but the rest of the Church of God, the rest of the faithful departed; and he declares, "There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God." Previously in the chapter the Apostle has made use of the Greek word katapausiV; but, when he comes to this verse, he changes the word to sabbatismoV and declares there remaineth no mere cessation from toil, but a Sabbath rest for the people of God. A rest indeed from physical labor and pain and weariness, a rest from sorrow and distress and grief, but not a rest from prayer and praise and holy worship, the loftiest and noblest of all spiritual activities. For to these, it is well to notice, the body is chief check and hindrance. Of praise and prayer and worship, it is especially true that the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. Even Moses needed a support to his outstretched arms, and Abraham paused in his intercessions, and the beloved disciple slept for sorrow in the bitter agony of the garden. But, when the soul is freed from its mortal frame, these physical hindrances are not. Ah! it is blessed to think that there is no feeble prayer which we utter here, which is not echoed and enlarged and carried onward and upward, by the unceasing tide of prayer there; no praises which we discordantly and uncertainly offer, which are not caught up and filled with deeper harmony, by souls who know no discord; no Eucharists which we penitently offer, which are not joined to that unceasing adoration of the Spotless Lamb, which they present who have come out of great tribulation, and washed their robes, and made them white in a Saviour's blood.
I remark, in the second place, that the state of the dead is in some sort a state of imperfection, and thus admits of continual advance and progression. Their state is imperfect, because the soul is yet separated from the body, and in this separation there is more or less of deprivation. The perfect man consists of body, soul, and spirit; and even they who are the first-fruits to God and to the Lamb "groan within themselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of the body." For them, too, remains still to be borne that awful hour when the Son of Man shall come in the clouds of heaven, with all His holy angels with Him, when quick and dead must meet Him, to be judged for the deeds done in the body. Then the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat; then, in wondering awe at the greatness of their bliss, shall they answer: "Lord, when saw we Thee an hungered, and fed Thee? or thirsty, and gave Thee drink? or naked, and clothed Thee? or sick, or in prison, and came unto Thee?" And the King shall answer and say unto them: "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto Me. Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world."
Again, their state is imperfect, because they have not yet attained to full spiritual perfection. We are called upon often to notice the vast differences in spiritual condition and progress, even of those who die in a justified state. One has only just begun the Christian life; of another, we can merely say that he was free from mortal sin; another has made some progress in faith and hope; another has learned to love; another is full of faith and works and zeal; another, like St. Paul, longs "to depart and be with Christ, which is far better"; another seems to antedate even here on earth the ceaseless worship and the blessed purity of the Saints at rest; another as a confessor, a martyr for the name of Jesus. How far is the condition of the first of these I have mentioned behind that of the last; how far is the condition of the best and noblest of men behind what the soul is capable of!
In that blessed state of waiting, each soul, according to its measure and capacity, progresses on and on, ever drawing nearer and nearer unto the measure of the stature of the man in Christ. They go from grace to grace. There is growth in intellect, growth in knowledge, growth in perception, growth in judgment. There is growth in patience, because it is a time of waiting. There is growth in faith, because the full vision of the eternal glory of the Undivided Trinity is not yet vouchsafed. There is growth in hope, for the new heavens and the new earth are not, and the kingdom in glory is yet to be, when He shall present to Himself "a glorious Church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing," and the New Jerusalem shall descend "like a bride adorned for her husband." The eyes of their understanding are ever more and more enlightened, and they know more and more clearly the hope of their calling, and the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the Saints. There is growth in love; in it they are more and more rooted and grounded, and are able to comprehend still more fully "the length and breadth, and depth and height, and to know the love of Christ which passeth knowledge, that they may be filled with all the fullness of God." This growth is harmonious and unimpeded growth. Here, we grow by fits and starts, by ebbs and flows; here, we grow by stumblings and falls and retrogressions; here, we grow by pain and anguish, and distress and misery. There, the sunshine of God's countenance ever falls brighter and brighter; there, the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne feeds them and leads them unto living fountains, and wipes away all tears from their eyes.
I remark, in the third place, that the holy dead have a closer union with the holy living than the Saints on earth have even one with another. It is only through union with Christ that we have union one with another. Except we are one in Him, whatever ties and bonds and sympathies and feelings may bind men together, they never are really united. All other means of union are temporal and accidental. The union of hand and eye and mouth, the union of desires and tastes and sentiments, the union of blood and relationship and a common country only are immortal and eternal in so far as they are grafted into and share in the mystical life which is in Christ Jesus. Not simply through faith in Christ, not simply through love of Christ, not simply through zeal for Christ, not simply by the conforming of heart and will to His, do Christians grow nearer to one another; but through oneness with Him on earth, in the Church His Body, through the Sacraments in the same holy Church; in Paradise, by His own blessed and life-giving presence. As Christians thus grow nearer to Him, they ever grow nearer to one another.
The union between living Christians is ever more or less imperfect. Ten thousand things mar and interrupt it. The divisions in the Church of God, the setting up altar against altar and priest against priest, the angry controversies and schisms and heresies, diminish it. Whatsoever hinders individual Christians from coming near to Christ, keeps them apart, and so far divides them, and chiefly this frail, mortal body, with its passions and weaknesses and sins, which so feebly at the best expresses what the soul desires, and so often will not let the soul utter what it feels. But death, which only brings a Christian nearer unto Christ, which frees him from his earthly tabernacle, which swallows up mortality in life, in bringing him nearer to Him, brings him nearer unto the children of God on earth.
The dead are in Christ. He is the Good Shepherd who seeks the sheep that has gone astray until He finds him. They, too, with unceasing prayers and earnest longings, plead and intercede for the souls for which their Master died. Christ is the Head of the Church, the Spouse of the Bride, whom He purchased with His own blood. As His own flesh, He nourishes and cherishes His Church, and they share in His unceasing love. St. John represents the saints beneath the altar, crying with a loud voice, "How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them which dwell on the earth?" They plead for the unity of Christendom; they plead for a common faith; they plead for the coming of the kingdom; they plead for the hour of judgment. And louder than the din of controversy, and the movements of nations, and the clash of gold, goes up their ceaseless prayer.
O awful worship of the Saints at rest! O ceaseless litanies of the martyrs of Jesus! O unbroken adoration of the Spotless Lamb! The day draws ever nearer and nearer when the number of the elect shall be accomplished. My brethren, it is the evening of All-Saints' Day. It is a fitting question to ask ourselves, as a church, and as individuals, Do we do our duty to the dead in Christ? Do we remember them? Do we not mostly find our comfort in forgetting them? Are not Saints' Days, too often, a mere lifeless formality? And if we do remember them, is that, after all, enough? Are we in communion with the holy dead? Do we have their presence, as well as their memory? Do we draw near to them as they draw near to us? Do we forget to pray for their perfect consummation and bliss, both in body and soul?
You remember what the truest poet of modern days put into the mouth of the noblest of his heroes, as he leaves this world:
". . . . But thou,
If thou shouldst never see my face again,
Pray for my soul. More things are wrought by prayer
Than this world dreams of. Wherefore, let thy voice
Rise like a fountain for me night and day.
For what are men better than sheep or goats
That nourish a blind life within the brain,
If, knowing God, they lift not hands in prayer,
Both for themselves and those who call them friend?
For so the whole round earth is every way
Bound by gold chains about the feet of God."
All, beloved, this we do not realize; we comprehend it of the earthly and material, but not of the heavenly and the spiritual. But the other day two continents, three thousand miles apart, were bound together by that marvelous conquest of time and space which electricity produces; and now the faintest flutter in the financial or political life of the world so far away finds an answer in the financial or political life of this world of ours. The troubled sea, with its restless waves, tosses and raves; mist and gloom and darkness cover the face of the stormy Atlantic; the shipwrecked mariner cries for mercy; but far below, in the calm, untroubled depths, the electric current flows to and fro.
So, between the living and the dead, though they hear one another no more, though they feel or perceive one another no more, because they are one in Christ, flows to and fro the electric current of love and of prayer. It begins in places where anger and din and noise are not; it begins in the silence of churches, in the loneliness of night watches, by the bed of the dying, in the prayers of children, in the awful mystery of the Eucharistic sacrifice. It passes through the calm, untroubled depths of souls whom Christ has ransomed. It reaches beyond the stars; it enters into the rest of the faithful; it quickens the intercessions of prophets, apostles, and martyrs, and blends the supplications of the feeblest and humblest of Christ's children here on earth with the fragrant incense of those vials full of odors which are the prayers of saints.
My brethren, let us seek to be in Christ; let us seek to live in Him; and then neither death nor life, neither principalities nor powers, neither height nor depth, nor any other creature, can separate us from His love, and from those we love in Him.