Sermon III. Third Sunday in Lent.
Of the Remedy for Sin: Through the Sacraments.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen. "Blessed are they that hear the Word of God, and keep it." Words of the Holy Gospel for the Day.
IT is a Canon of wide application in the study of Holy Scripture, in passages where the plain meaning of the words may be accepted, that the explanation which is farthest from the letter, is farthest also from the truth. And the text is one of many passages to which this Canon applies. The intention with which these words were spoken is evident. They are words of practical exhortation to Holiness of life, based upon a statement of dogmatic truth. In the earlier part of the Gospel, after casting out the Devil that was dumb, our Divine Master had been engaged in showing the illogical consequences which flowed from the blasphemy of the Jews against the HOLY [33/34] GHOST. He then exposed their inconsistency, by an appeal to the power by which their own sons cast out Devils. Afterwards, our Blessed LORD spake of the different stages in the Demoniacal possession of an immortal Soul. "And it came to pass as He spake these things, a certain Woman," more faithful than the Pharisees, and believing in the Divinity which they doubted, lifted up her voice, and made public confession of her faith. "Yea, indeed," Christ answered; "yea, indeed; but blessed also are they that hear the Word of GOD, and keep it."
Practical exhortation to Godliness, then, is clearly the purport of this passage, founded as it is upon the doctrine of the Incarnation of our LORD. But the words of the text are ingeniously perverted by Protestant commentators, to serve a controversial object. They are employed to cast discredit upon our veneration for, to lower our estimate of, and to moderate our devout affection towards the Mother of God. Allowing, however, for the sake of argument--and only for the sake of argument--the words, in their popular meaning, to declare what the words do not declare, that they who hear and keep God's Word are more blessed than Blessed Mary; yet, even then, the depreciation of the claims of the Virgin-Mother upon the love and devotion of her children is based upon culpable ignorance and most [34/35] uncritical want of knowledge. For there are at least two parallel passages which bear testimony to the manner in which the text must be understood. One of them has reference to our Blessed LORD: the other, to S. John Baptist. Of the Baptist it was said that, "He that is least in the Kingdom of GOD is greater than he." And CHRIST Himself said, of one that believed on Him, "The works that I do, shall he do; and greater works than these shall he do, because I go to the Father."
These passages do not bear a present signifi-cancy. They are only capable of bearing a future explanation. They look forward to the outpouring of God the Holy Ghost, to the Extension of the Incarnation through the Sacraments, after our Blessed LORD had gone to the FATHER. They anticipate the Day of Pentecost, and the Sacramental System of the Church. At such a time, with such Means of Grace, incorporated into the Sacred Manhood of our Divine LORD, and made temples of His Holy SPIRIT, it is not less certain than marvellous, that greater works than mere Miracles of bodily healing, though performed by CHRIST Himself, can we do in the Church of GOD. It is not less sure than wondrous, that the least and lowliest in the Kingdom of Grace is greater than the most exalted and highly favoured Saint who has not enjoyed the benefit of admittance within [35/36] that Kingdom. And, in like manner, it may be allowed, although, mark you, my Brethren, the text says nothing of the sort, but rather the opposite, that before our Lady had been incorporated into Him Who had been Incarnate of her, before she had been made partaker spiritually of that Sinless Humanity which He owed to her, those who being Sacramentally One with Christ and CHRIST One with them, are more blessed--though not more holy, not more pure, not more righteous, but more blessed--enjoy higher blessings, if they "hear the Word of God, and keep it."
Those, however, who would claim this higher blessing, must accept the deeper responsibility. God's Gifts and man's liabilities in Religion are co-ordinate terms. We cannot possess the one and escape the other. If Christians now are more blessed than the Holy Virgin was before the Pentecostal Gift, they are infinitely more responsible. Whether or not, I now ask you, my Brethren, to claim at GOD'S Hand for yourselves the blessing which the text holds out. I ask you to join me in doing greater works in the sphere of Grace, than our Blessed Lord did in the realm of Nature. I ask you to help me to make good, and to fulfil for yourselves, the saying of CHRIST, which He once spake prophetically of that mighty Forerunner of Himself, and to which He is for ever pledged, [36/37] that we who are least in the Kingdom of God may be greater than he. For, I ask you to hearken with me unto what the Word of God, by the mouth of Holy Church, has said upon the subject we are considering; and, having heard the same, to "keep it." But I ask you in fear and trembling, when I call to mind the liabilities which we incur on account of our inestimable benefits. For, if the Holy and the Righteous of the Old Covenant scarcely be saved, where, under the New Dispensation, shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?
The point we have now gained in the Question of Sin is this:--We have seen that the effect left upon the Soul of Man, by the Personal influence of a Personal agent, when he has successfully tempted us into Sin, may be called the 'Guilt of Sin.' That which we now have to consider as the next point in the argument, is:--How we may escape from this effect of Guilt; how we may counteract the successful influence of Satan. Let me then endeavour, with God's assistance, to place before you a suggestive sketch of that phase of Christian Life which practically deals with the subject of Guilt, and its Divine antidote, Grace. And that system, so far as it concerns man, may fitly be termed, Sacramentalism: for the Catholic Faith is a Religion of Sacraments. The Sacramental System of [37/38] the Church, indeed, is co-extensive with the Mystery of Iniquity and the Reality of Sin. The existence of Sacraments, in the form in which they are offered for our acceptance, of necessity involves the existence of that to which they are countervailing influences, and by reason of which they were instituted. So that, if Sin were eliminated from the Universe, the need of Sacraments would have passed away for ever.
The influences to which the Sacramental System is antagonistic, as I have attempted to show, are the influences of a Personal agent, the Enemy of Souls. And as no mere inward consciousness of that which is holy and just and good, as no mere sentimental desire after Godliness is sufficient to withstand the temptations, or to overcome the workings of an outward foe, we are obliged to place ourselves in Union with another and more powerful Personal Agent, Who will be enabled to equalize the balance on this side of the Day of Judgment, as well as to make it incline in our favour. This end is attained by the Sacraments of the Catholic Church; and this Union is made by our Incorporation into the Sacred and Sinless Manhood of Jesus, through the Extensions of the Incarnation. For Sacramentalism is the only objective force at our disposal with which we may oppose the outward influences of Sin; and the [38/39] PERSON of Christ is the only Person with Whom, being made One, we can hope to overcome the attacks of the Devil. These truths involve wide Questions of the origin of Sin in the world, and of the presence of Sin in our Souls. Into these Questions I do not purpose to enter, further than to say these few words, by way of explanation to what follows.
The exercise of free-will, by which Adam deliberately placed himself out of harmony with the Will Divine, dispossessed our first parent of that Super-human garb which we call 'Grace.' Sanctity, or the power of pleasing God of our own inherent capacity, over and above His Gifts of Nature, was that Supernatural Grace which had been bestowed upon Adam by his Maker. Adam having lost or forfeited this Divine Gift, was simply incapable to endow his children with that which he had ceased to possess--exactly as a father is powerless to bequeath to his son an estate, or a fortune, which he has either squandered, or lost. And, of course, the Gift being Supernatural, what Adam could not hand on to his children, his children were unable to acquire for themselves. Hence, it came to pass, in course of time, that Mankind found itself endued with every conceivable quality and power which comes from Nature, [39/40] with individuality and consciousness, with sensation and intellect, with affections and sentiments, with imagination and genius--and yet, lacking that one, single, but all-important Gift which is Super-human, the Gift of Grace.
This explanation of Original Sin, which may be termed the negative aspect of the Doctrine, offers perhaps fewer difficulties to Latitudinarian objections than the positive. It consists in the absence in Human Nature of a certain needful and unearthly Gift, which formerly belonged to Man. Hence, we find ourselves in this position. Humanity is discovered cut off from the source of Holiness, unclothed of the garment of Sanctity, incapable again to cover itself with the clothing of Immortality. We then discover in the Eternal Fore-knowledge and Purpose of the Almighty a Counsel by which God shall become Man, and Human Nature may be incorporated with the Divine. One effect of this Counsel, in its fulfilment, is the Atonement, or Sacrifice for all the Sins of the whole world, as well for each individual and separate Sin. The Question therefore which now forces itself on our attention is this:--In what manner may that Counsel be made particular, which originally was general? How may individual members of the Body corporate apply to themselves specifically the benefits and blessings which have been accorded to the [40/41] whole family of Man? How can I, personally, plead that Sacrifice effectually for my particular Sins? How can I, individually, place myself in possession of those Superhuman Gifts and Graces which counteract Sin, and of which I, individually, stand in need? I answer at once, and without hesitation:--By placing ourselves in accord with the Sacramental System of the Catholic Church, and by making use of those appliances which are contained in the Divine Extension to Man of the Incarnation of GOD. It is by means of the Sacraments, and, so far as GOD is pleased to work in His own covenanted manner, though we dare not limit His Power, it is by means of the Sacraments only, that the Precious Blood of JESUS is applied to our particular and individual Souls, that Incorporation with the Godhead is extended to each separate and personal member of the Church of Christ.
Let us examine this matter a little more closely, and let us see, whether or not we may furnish "an answer to those who ask us a reason of the hope that is in us," as the Apostle saith, "with meekness and fear;" an answer, however short, which will not only commend itself to the spiritualized instinct of the Catholic, but which may be considered, even if it be not accepted by a candid inquirer, as a [41/42] consistent and rational account of the Sacramental System of the Church.
The Catholic Faith, I will say again, is a Religion of Sacraments. It is a Faith of which the beginning is Sacramental, the middle is Sacramental, the close is Sacramental; and of which each interval is Sacramental. Not a single step can be taken in the Supernatural Life without the co-operation of Sacraments; not an advance can be made; not an end can be gained. And moreover, in support of what has been said, that the Catholic Faith is a personal Religion, it is well to observe, that no Sacramental Grace can be applied to individual Souls, without the intervention of a personal agency. This fact, for it is a fact, is gall and wormwood to the natural and undisciplined Intellect of Man. The cultivated Intelligence of the nineteenth Century, which makes self the centre of its own Religious system, and thence expands to the circumference of the Infinite, will not endure such a mediation. Popular Religionism, which begins with Man and ends with GOD, which ascends from Man to God, and which first evolves a Creed from its own consciousness, and then discovers proofs of it in the Bible, brooks not such an interference. The hard, unyielding, exacting Common-sense of the day--which is not at all [42/43] the faculty of Faith--with self as a stand-point whence to look straight upwards to the Eternal, cannot tolerate such an intercession. And hence it is, that we see welcomed such a statement as this, from a late number of a Monthly Periodical which is widely circulated amongst the educated classes:--That it is absurd to suppose a human being can place his fellow sinner in a position toward his Maker different from that which he would have occupied without such ministration. "The English Protestant," it is added, denounces such a figment "as a superstition:" a statement, you will perceive, my Brethren, which undermines the very foundation of all Sacramental Faith whatever.
If then the Catholic Faith be a Religion of Sacraments, let us ask whether or not it provides for its children Supernatural power against Sin, suitable for all estates and each condition of life? I hold, emphatically, that it does; that it forms the basis of every-day life of Christian men and women; that it serves for the building up of our less common existence. I hold that the Extensions of the Incarnation are co-extensive both with the ordinary needs of Human Nature, and with those that are exceptional. We will shortly consider the average life of an ordinary person. The first stage in the [43/44] Spiritual Life, and the first overt act of hostility against Sin, in any form, is to obtain that which by Nature we cannot have, which our parents were unable to transmit, and which ourselves were unable to acquire--namely, the Gift of Grace. The Sacramental Means by which we are placed in possession of this Gift is, of course, Holy Baptism, whereby we are incorporated into the Person of CHRIST, and made partakers of the Sinless Humanity of JESUS. Sanctity, or the power of pleasing God, and Grace, with the power of opposing Sin, is thus implanted in our hearts. And this is the first personal Extension of the Incarnation of our Divine Master to the Soul of Man./
When we are familiar with and understand certain elementary documents of the Faith, whatever may be our age, and whilst still children, the Church distinctly tells us that we are meet, if duly prepared, for the second personal Extension of the Incarnation on our behalf, in the Sacrament of Confirmation. Sanctity for a holy life, and Grace against actual Sin, implanted in Baptism, is now confirmed by GOD, augmented by GOD, energized by GOD, and not by ourselves. On the threshold of youth, between infancy and boyhood, the Church offers to us this second Extension of the Incarnation, to counteract the influence of Sin. She places before us this second Sacrament in her [44/45] Spiritual System, to act as a support to the first which went before, and to serve as a stepping-stone to the third which is about to follow.
The manner in which the third personal Extension of the Incarnation comes before us in our early years is, of course, as our First Communion, the reception of which forms so important an epoch in our Super-human and inner life. In this Sacrament of all Sacraments and Queen of all Means of Grace; in this the centre of all sanctity and holiness, the chiefest Act of all earthly Worship, the antagonism to Sin which was sown in Baptism, which was vivified in Confirmation, bears fruit in Communion. Grace is completed and perfected. Godliness is strengthened and increased. In the most Holy Eucharist, day by day is offered the Super-substantial Bread of Angels to the pilgrim Soul; and the Daily Sacrifice of the Altar takes its place, in the Sacramental System of the Church, as the third Extension of the Incarnation, for the daily supply of Grace, against the daily attacks of Sin.
We next encounter two Sacraments which, though not for all men, or generally, necessary to Salvation, are personally essential to all who enter the state of life assumed in either. Both these Extensions of the Incarnation in their different ways are actively hostile against Sin, and passively [45/46] helpful unto Godliness. For any two who would live together as One in CHRIST, the Sacrament of Marriage is that personal Extension of the Incarnation which supplies Grace and gives power for the many trials, as well as the many blessings of such a life. For all who, as servants of servants, seek to become Stewards of the Mysteries of God, in the awful responsibilities, but in the high privileges of the Priesthood, Holy Order--which places men in an Order, mark you, my Brethren, and not in a Profession--is that Sacramental Extension which gives authority and mission for the work of opposing Sin and aiding Godliness. The one Extension provides for the natural increase, the other Extension perpetuates the Supernatural continuance of the Body of Christ. Both are positively Means of Grace. Both are negatively antagonistic to Sin. The one Sacrament indirectly places persons beyond the occasion of Sin. The other is directly and immediately opposed to the effects of Sin; and forms that human mediation between God and Man in the conflict with Evil, which, however much it may be hated and feared by the World, is only a necessary consequence of a personal Religion which is administered by personal agency.
Upon that Sacramental Extension of the Incarnation which meets us last in order of time, I [46/47] need here say but little. This Scriptural, Primitive, and Catholic custom, when used in conjunction with the last Rites of the Church, is intended to furnish the faithful with a Viaticum for their journey through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Although this Sacrament is not at the present time commanded, neither is it forbidden, by our Church. We have to deplore, and I commend this to your notice, Brethren, we have to deplore that its use is practically in abeyance; but, not being forbidden, it is perfectly lawful and may at any time be restored. Indeed, it is more than tacitly sanctioned; for the Church has declared the First Prayer Book of King Edward the Sixth to be conformable "to the Word of GOD" and "to sound Doctrine." And the First Book of Edward contains a Form of Prayer for the Anointing of the Sick, in the Name of the Lord, after the command of the Apostle S. James, in the Sacrament of Unction.
Thus have we endeavoured to follow the course of the Sacramental Christian from birth, through life, to death. We have shortly marked the position, the use, the sequence, of six Sacramental and personal Extensions of the Incarnation of God, which are intended, each in its own way, to serve as countervailing influences to the action and the [47/48] work of Sin. Let us endeavour, then, to condense what has been said. Two of these Extensions, so far as God's covenanted scheme declares, are absolutely necessary to all for salvation. Two are only not essential. And two, for those who respectively enter into the states of life to which they act as portals, are also absolutely needful--one for the many, and one for the few. The Catholic is thus armed against the Enemy of Souls for all occasions of his Supernatural existence, from the beginning to the close of his natural career. In the first Extension of the Incarnation is that course commenced. Emerging from infancy through a second Extension, we see him continuing a life-long encounter as a man, fortified by the Spiritual sustenance of a third Extension, through at least a weekly Communion of the Body and Blood of CHRIST, and a daily Eucharistic Worship before God's Altar. Should the Catholic desire Marriage, the fourth Extension of the Incarnation--itself an earthly counterpart of that Heavenly Mystery--the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony sanctifies it to-his use. Should he seek the Priesthood, Holy Order, in the fifth Extension, sanctifies him, unworthy though he be, for his Master's service. And when he comes to die, his holy Mother Church does not forget her Child in the last personal and [48/49] Sacramental Extension of the Incarnation here on earth, does not forsake him in the last fierce conflict with Satan and with Sin.
The Catholic's daily life is thus Sacramentally supported; his customary wants are thus Sacramentally cared for; his extra-ordinary needs are thus Sacramentally supplied. And each Extension of the Incarnation in its order is employed against the Personal influence of a Personal agent. From the font to the tomb the Sacramental System of the Catholic Church flows on with or follows after him, anticipating, energizing, strengthening, and fulfilling his efforts after Holiness; or, in the language of the Eucharistic Collect, pre-venting, furthering, continuing, and perfecting his efforts against Sin. Can any thing more be needed?--Dear Brethren, something more is needful. We have carefully noted each fresh instalment of Grace which the Catholic acquires, every new Gift of Sanctity which the Catholic obtains. Advance in Godliness, however, is all that we have noted. One step after another has been gained. One Extension of the Incarnation after another has been opened to us. But, alas! in the Spiritual Life of Catholics, there is the possibility of declension from Grace, as well as of advancing in Holiness; it is possible to go backwards, as well as to go [49/50] forwards. Six Sacramental Extensions of the Incarnation would be amply sufficient for those who live godly, righteous, and sober lives. They are insufficient for those who do not. Hence it is, that a seventh Sacrament is needed for penitent Souls; for Souls who have fallen into Sin; for Souls who desire to return into the way of Godliness. And this, the seventh and last Sacramental Extension of the Incarnation of our God, I need not tell you, my Brethren, in Theological language, is termed the 'Sacrament of Penance.'
The consideration of this Sacramental Extension of the Incarnation I defer to another occasion. And I will only add this:--That if by the threefold course of Penitence, with Contrition, by Confession, after Satisfaction, we are admitted to the benefit of Absolution, the personality of Satan is expelled from our hearts, and the influence of Sin is counteracted; the Guilt of Sin is washed away in the Blood of the Lamb, and the Sanctity of our LORD is imparted; Holiness lost is now restored, and Grace cast aside is again acquired; allegiance tampered with is made loyal, and love become cold is made more fervent; Christ slighted or banished by the Soul is once more welcomed and made her first, her only care; and the Soul is once more, and, please GOD, is for ever united to her [50/51] Divine Spouse; the Soul is once more, and, please God, is for ever made One with the Lord Who loved her.
Now, to God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be ascribed all Glory, for ever and for evermore. Amen.