But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, and said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.
Yesterday's Child is to-day, you see, become a man. He that yesterday could neither stand nor go, knee not the right hand from the left, lay helpless as it were in the bosom of his mother, is to-day presented to us standing at the right hand of God in the glory of the Father: he whom earth yesterday entertained so poorly and obscurely, heaven here this day openly glories in. Now the horn of our sal-vation is raised up indeed; the Church thus showing us plainly to-day, what yesterday we could not see for the rags and stable,--that it was not a mere silly creature, a poor child, or man only, that came to visit us, but the Lord of Glory; so making him some recompence, as we may say, to-day, for the poor case she showed him in yesterday.
But that is not the business. Yesterday was Christ's birthday, to-day S. Stephen's; for natalitia martyrum, the birthdays of the martyrs, were their death-days called: they then first said to be born, when they were born to execution. A day placed here so near to Christ's, that we [213/214] might see as clear as day, how dear and near the martyrs are to him: they lie even in his bosom; the first visit he makes after his own death was to them, to encourage them to theirs; the first appearance of him in heaven after his return up, was to take one of there thither.
And yet this is not all. Christ's birth and the martyr's death are set so near, to intimate how near death and persecu-tion are to Christ's disciples, how close they often follow the faith of Christ; so thereby to arm us against the fear of any thing that shall betide us, even death itself, seeing it places us so near him, seeing there are so fine visions in it and before it, so fair glories after it, as S. Stephen's here will tell you.
And if I add that death is a good memento at a feast, a good way to keep us within our bounds in the days of mirth and jollity, of what sort soever, it may pass for somewhat like a reason why S. Stephen's death is thus served in so soon at time first course, as the second dish of our Christmas-feast.
Nor is it, for all that, any disturbance to Christmas joys. The glorious prospect of S. Stephen's martyrdom, which gives us here the opening of heaven, and the appearance then of God's glory, and of Christ in glory, may go instead of those costly masques of imagined heavens, and designed gods and goddesses, which have been often presented in former times to solemnize the feast. We may see in that infinitely far more ravishing and pleasing sights than these, which all the rarity of invention and vast charges could ever show us. Here is enough in the text to unmake us dance and leap for joy, as if we would leap into the arms of him in heaven, who stands there as it were ready to receive us, as he was to-day presented to S. Stephen.
I may now, I hope, both to season and exalt our Christmas feast, bring in S. Stephen's story, that part of it especially which I have chosen, so full of Christ, so full of glad arid joyful sights and objects, that it must needs add, in-stead of diminishing, our joy and gladness.
And yet if I season it a little now and then with the mention of death, it will do no hurt. I must do so, that you may not forget S. Stephen's martyrdom in the midst of the [214/215] contemplation of the glory that preceded it. That must not he, for the day is appointed to remember it. And though we shall not designedly come so far to decipher it, haying no more than the præludium of his death before us, we will not so far forget it but that we will take it into the division of the test; in which we shall consider these four particulars.
1. His accommodation to his death. His "being full of the holy Ghost;" that fitted and disposed him to it.
II. His preparation for it. He "looked up stedfastly into heaven;" so that he prepared himself for it.
III. His confirmation to it. He "saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God;" that encouraged and confirmed him in it.
IV. His profession at it. "Behold," said he, "I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God:" in those words he professed his faith, and proclaimed his vision of it.
By this manner of considering it, we shall do S. Stephen right, and Christmas no wrong; remember S. Stephen's martyrdom, and yet not forget Christ's being at it; celebrate S. Stephen's memory, and yet no way omit Christ's. He being here to be looked on as encourages of S. Stephen's martyrdom, as much as S. Stephen for his professor and martyr. By all together we shall fully understand the requisites of a martyr--what is required to make one such; to be "full of the Holy Ghost;" to "look up stedfastly into heaven," to look upon Christ as there, and as boldly to profess it; to be full of grace and spirit, full of piety and devo-tion, full of faith and hope, full of courage and resolution; all proportionably requisite to the spiritual martyrdom of dying to the world, and leaving all for Christ; requisite too, all of them in some measure, to die well at any time--the very sum of the test--to be learned hence and practised by us. If I add, all requisite to keep Christmas, too, as it should be kept, with grace and devotion, with faith and courage also against all that shall oppose it--that our Christmas business be to be filled with the Spirit, and not with meats and drinks--to look up to heaven, to look "to Jesus, and never to be afraid or ashamed to profess it,--there is [215/216] nothing then in the text to make it the least unseasonable. I go on, therefore, to handle it part by part. The first is S. Stephen's accommodation to his martyrdom, how he stands fitted for it.
I. And surely--he could not be better; "full of the Holy Ghost." Ghost is spirit; and what more necessary to a martyr than a spirit? The dreaming, sluggish temper is not fit to make a martyr; he must have spirit, that dares look death soberly in the face.
Yet every spirit, neither, will not make a martyr; there are mad spirits in the world (they call them brave ones, though I know not why,) that rush headily upon the points of swords and rapiers; yet, bring these gallant fellows to a scaffold or a gibbet, the common reward of their foolish rashness which they misreckoned valour, and you shall see how sheepishly they die, how distractedly they look, how without spirit. The spirit that will bear out a shameful or painful death without change of countenance or inward horror, must be holy. Where the spirit is holy, the conscience pure, the soul clean, the man dies with life and spirit in his looks, as if he were either going to his bed, or to a better place. It is a holy life that fits men to be martyrs.
But spirit, and a holy spirit, is not enough to make a martyr, neither; though the martyr's spirit must be a holy one, yet, to dispose for martyrdom, the holy Spirit must come himself with a peculiar power, send an impulse and motion into the soul and spirit that shall even drive it to the stake.
And every degree of power will not do it; it must be a full gale of holy wind that can cool the fiery furnace into a pleasing walk, that cam make death and torments seem soft and easy. "Full of the Holy Ghost" it is that Stephen is said to be, ere we hear him promoted to the glory of a martyr. The spirit of holiness will make a man die holily, and the Holy Spirit make him die comfortably; but the fulness of him is required to make him die courageously, without far of death or torment, cruelty or rage.
By this you may now guess at martyrs, who they are:--[216/217] (1) not they that die for their folly and their humour; not they (2) that die without holiness; not every one (3) that dies, as we say, with valour and spirit; not they that die upon the motion of any spirit but the holy One, that one holy Spirit; not they that die in schism and faction against the unity of this holy Spirit, the peace of his holy Church: none of these die martyrs; die soldiers, or valiant heathen, or men of spirit, they may, but men of the holy Spirit, martyrs, they die not. They only die such that have lived holily; die in a holy cause, in a holy faith, and in the peace of holy Church, as in the faith of one holy Spirit, ruling and direct-ing it into unity; upon good ground and warrant, and a strong impulsion so to do, without seeking for, or volun-tarily and unnecessarily thrusting themselves into the mouth of death.
And yet there are strange impulses, I must tell you, of the spirit of martyrdom, which ordinary souls or common pieties cannot understand. Only we must know that the spirit of martyrdom is the spirit of love, the very height of love to God; which how that can consist with the spirit of schism, whereby we break the unity of brethren--or how a man can so highly love God as to die for him, and hate his spouse the Church, or his brethren--is inimaginable. Some other engines there may be, as vain-glory, an obstinate humour of seeming constant to a false principle, an ignorant and self-willed zeal, which may sometimes draw a man to die; but if the fulness of peace and charity does not appear, there is no fulness of the Holy Ghost, and they make themselves and their deaths but martyrs, that is, witnesses, of their own folly. He that pretends to be a martyr, must have more than a pretence to the spirit of charity.
11. And not to charity only, but to devotion too. He must prepare himself for it, stedfastly look up to heaven, nay, into heaven too; fill his spirit with divine and heavenly provision for it, with S. Stephen here.
Who (1) looks up to heaven as to his country whither he was a-going. He longs earnestly to be there. His soul, with holy David's, "has a desire and longing to enter" thither. He that looks but seriously up to heaven, and beholds that glorious building, those starry spangles, those azure curtains, [217/218] those lustrous bodies of the sun and moon, that vast and splendid circumference of these glistering dwellings, cannot but thirst vehemently to be there; soul and flesh thirst for it. Oh, how brave a place is heaven! how brave even but to look on! But if he can look, as here it seems S. Stephen did, into heaven too, and contemplate the happy choirs of blessed saints and angels, the ineffable beauty of those inward courts, the ravishing melody and music they make, the quiet, peace, and happiness, that pleasure, joy, and ful-ness of satisfaction and contentment there, the majestic presence and blessed sight of God himself, with all the storehouses of blessedness and glory full about him--his very soul will be even ready to start with violence out of his body to fly up thither.
He that looks thus stedfastly, looks into heaven, cannot now but look askew upon the earth: to look up into heaven, is (2) to despise and trample upon all things under it. He is not likely to be a martyr that looks downward, that values anything below. Nay, he dies his natural death but unwillingly and untowardly, whose eyes, or heart, or senses, are taken up with the things about him. Even to die cheerfully, though in a bed of roses, one must not have his mind upon them, he so looks upon all worldly interests as dust and chaff; who looks up stedfastly into heaven; eyes all things by the by, who eyes that well. The covetous worldling, the voluptuous gallant, the gaudy butterflies of fashion, will never make you martyrs; they are wholly fixed in the contemplation of their gold, their mistresses, their pleasures, or their fashions. lie scorns to look at these, whose eyes are upon heaven.
Yet to scorn these, but especially to fit us against a tem-pest or a storm of stones, there is (3) a third looking up to heaven, in prayer and supplication. It is not by our own strength or power that we can wade through streams of blood, or sing in flames; we had need of assistance from above; and he that looks up to heaven seems so to beg it. It was no doubt the spirit of devotion that so fixed his sight; he saw what was like to fall below, he provides against it from above; looks to that great Cornerstone to arm him against those which were now ready to shower upon [218/219] his head. It is impossible, without our prayers, and some aid thence, to endure one petty pebble.
But, to make it a complete martyrdom, we must not look up only for our own interests; for we are (4) to look up for our very enemies, and beg Heaven's pardon for them. He that dies not in charity, dies not a Christian; but he that dies not heart, and hand, and eyes, and all complete in it, cannot die a martyr. Here we find S. Stephen lifting up his eyes to set himself to prayer; it is but two verses or three after, that we hear his prayer, "Lord, lay not this sin to their charge!" This was one thing, it seems, he looked up so stedfastly to heaven for. A good lesson, and fit for the occasion, so to pass by the injuries of our greatest enemies as if we did not see them, as if we had something else to look after than such petty contrasts, as if we despised all worldly enmities as well as affections, minded nothing but heaven, an him that S. Stephen saw standing there.
All these ways we are to-day to learn to look up to heaven: as (1) to our hoped-for country; as (2) from things that hinder us too long from coming to it; as (3) for aid and help to bring us thither; as (4) for mercy and pardon thence to ourselves and enemies, that we may all one day meet together there. The posture itself is natural. It is natural for men in misery to look up to heaven; nay, the very insensible creature when it complains--the cow when it lows, the dog when he howls--casts up its head, according to its proportion, after its fashion, as if it naturally craved some comfort thence. It is the general practice of saints and holy persons. "Lift up your eyes," says the Prophet. "I will lift up my eyes," says holy David. And distressed Susanna lifts up her eyes, and looks up towards heaven. Nay, Christ himself, sighing, or praying, or sometimes working miracles, looks up to heaven, who yet carried heaven about him; to teach us in all distresses to look up thither, in all our actions to fetch assistance thence. If we had those thoughts of heaven we should, I know how little of the eye the earth should have. Ubi amor, ibi oculus; where the love is, there is the eye. We may easy guess what we love best, by our looks : if heaven be it, our eyes are there; if airy timing else, our eyes arc there. It is easy then [219/220] to tell you S. Stephen's longings, where his thoughts arc fixed, when we are told he so "stedfastly looked up to heaven."
And indeed it is not so much the looking up to heaven, as the stedfast and attentive doing it, that fits us to die for Christ. It is atenisaV a kind of stretching or straining the eyesight, to look inquisitively into the object. To look care-lessly or perfunctorily into heaven itself, to do it in a fit, to be godly and pious now and then, or by starts and girds, will not serve turn; to mind seriously what we are about, that is the only piety will carry it. Plus valet hora fervens quam mensis tepens. One hour, one half-hour, spent with a warm attention at our prayers, is worth a month, a year, an age, of our cold devotions. "It is good to be zealous," says S. Paul, somewhat hot and vehement, "in a good matter."
And it had need be a stedtast and attentive devotion, that can hold out with this "but." To stand praying or looking up to heaven, when our enemies are gnashing their teeth upon us, and come running headlong on its; to have no regard to their rushing fury, nor interrupt our prayers, nor omit any ceremony of them neither, for all their savage malice, now pressing fiercely on us, but look up stedfastly still, not quich [i.e. stir] aside,--this looks, surely, like a martyr. The little boy that held Alexander the candle, whilst he was sacrificing to his gods, so long that the wick burnt into his finger, and yet neither cried nor shrank at it, lest he should disturb his lord's devotions, will find few fellows among Christians to pattern hint in the exercise of their strictest pieties. Let but a leaf stir, a wind breathe, a fly buzz, the very light but dwindle, any thing move or shake,--and our poor religion, alas! is put off the hinge; it is well if it be not at an end too. What would it do if danger and death were at our heels, as here it was? Or, this attentive, stedfast fastening the soul upon the business of heaven, were a rare piety if we could compass it. This glorious martyr has showed us an example: the lesson is, that we should practise it.
But all this is no wonder, seeing he was "full of the Holy Ghost." That Almighty Spirit is able to blow away all diversions, able to turn the shower of stones into the soft-ness [220/221] and drift of snow, able to make all the torments of death fall light and easy. If we can get our souls filled once with that, we need fear nothing; nothing will distract our thoughts, or draw our eyes from heaven.
111. Then it will be no wonder neither to see next "the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God."
I called this point S. Stephen's confirmation, or his en-couragement to his death. He that once comes to have a sight of God and Christ-of God's glory, and Christ at the right hand of it--of either the one or the other, much more of both--cannot want strength to lie, be the death of what kind it will. It was a gallant speech of Luther, when he was dissuaded from appearing before the Council, (of Worms I think it was,) that he would go thither, though all the tiles of the houses were so many devils. Had every stone that was cast at the martyr Stephen been a devil, he would not after this vision have been afraid. "The Lord is my light and my salvation: whom then should I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life: of whom then shall I be afraid?" says David, and yet he saw nothing like this sight. God's presence is enough, whether it be seen by the eye of sense or by the eye of faith, to keep us stedfast, to make death hide its head for fear, while we stand triumphing over it.
I conceive it impertinent to make it a business to inquire too solicitously what this glory was, and how S. Stephen saw it. That it was some glorious sight, some high resplendent light or brightness, such as God used to appear in, (as Exod. xxiv. 17, Numb. xiv.10, 1 Kings viii) to Moses and his prophets, there called his glory, or some apparition of angels in shining garments winging about a throne of glory, visibly appearing to the eye of the martyr Stephen, is the probablest to conceive; and the shining of "his face, as if it had been the face of an angel," is an evidence it was a visible appearance.
Bt no doubt his understanding saw further than his eye into heaven; that looked and saw a glory there, of which the sense, though elevated to his height, cannot be capable. Divinum lumen says S. Gregory Nyssen, the inaccessible [221/222] light. Spem in re says S. Hilary, his hope already. Deum et Divinitatem, says S. Austin, God and the Godhead. Imo Trinitatem, and that facie revelata, says he again, the blessed Trinity unveiled. Futuræ vitæ gaudia, says Bede, the joys of the other life. These all he saw, say they; and we shall make no scruple to say, in spirit so he did, as far as human nature is capable in this condition.
But, without question, Christ he saw in his body standing amidst that glory: the words are plain for that, and that alone were enough to put courage into the most coward heart.
To see his faith confirmed by sight, and Christ's glory with the Father visibly appear,--to see, whom he had trusted, and for whom he had laboured and disputed, now with his own eyes in glory,--must needs make him kiss the hands that would now send him so soon to him.
To see him (2) "standing at the right hand of God," as if he were risen from his sitting there, to behold the sufferings and courage of his martyr that stood below, now made a spectacle to Christ and all his angels; that is an honour lie may well glory in.
To see him (3) standing amidst his hosts, as if he were coming down to help him; that adds more spirit still.
To see him (4) "standing at the right hand of God," as if he suffered with him, and was therefore pleading for him, as friends and advocates used to do with the accused party at the bar; this infuses yet a greater confidence, that, notwithstanding all his sins or weaknesses, he shall now easily prevail.
To see him (5) standing as a priest to offer him up a sweet-smelling sacrifice to his Father, that still increases it.
To see him, lastly, standing like a judge of masteries at [222/223] the end of the race or goal, to crown him with a crown of glory, cannot but make him think long for the death that shall bring him to it.
All these wars Christ may he brought in here as standing for us. In the Creed we profess him sitting, thereby acknowledging his place in heaven, and his right to be our Judge yet when his saints and servants have need of him, he stands up to see what it is they want, how valiantly they behave themselves; he stands up to show them who it is they trust; he stands up to help and aid them; he stands up to plead, and even suffer with them; he stands up to present them to his Father; he stands up to reward then with the garlands of glory.
Sometimes it is oftener it has been when the beginning of Christianity needed it at first), that by some visible comforts and discoveries he shows himself to the dying saint. Often it is that the soul ready to depart feels some sensible joys and ravishments to uphold its failing spirits. But he is never wanting with inward assistances and refreshments to those who suffer for him. We must not look, all of us, nor confessors nor martyrs now-a-days, to see visions and reve-lations with S. Stephen; we are set in a fixed way, where reason and religion, so long proved and practised, is able to give us comfort in the saddest distresses. God does not usually confirm our reason by our sense in the revelation of himself, or what he expects from us. It may be because the devil, grown cunning now by so many centuries of years, has taken up of late (as he is God's ape) a way to fetch off souls by some sensible delusions from the faith; for he can transform himself (nay, does so, says the Apostle) "into an angel of light." For this, it may he, God sends us now "to the word and to the testimony," and leaves us to reason, tradition, and example of so many ages, to expound it. However, this is sufficient, that neither God nor Christ will leave us wholly comfortless, but will surely stand by us when we need, and supply us as there is.
IV. Indeed, he cannot look for such a profession upon it as we find here from S. Stephen; yet to a stedfast profession of our faith, those assistances he still allows us are sufficient. We will look a little upon Stephen's, though.
[223/224] And, (1) first, here is a kind of profession of the Blessed Trinity; the Holy Ghost here at the beginning of the first verse of the text, God in the middle, and Jesus at the end.
Here is (2) a profession of Christ's manhood, whilst he calls him the Son of man.
Here is (3) a profession of his faith in all of them, by his so loud proclaiming.
Here is (4) a professions of God's ready help, Christ's ready assistance to his saints in trouble.
Here is (5) a profession of God's owning the Christian's cause, and gloriously standing up to confirm and maintain.
Here is (6) a profession of Christ's opening heaven to all believers; that heaven is always open to us, if we could see it; that God's glory shines upon us to show us the way thither; that Christ stands there to make our way, to guide us thither.
Here, lastly, is a profession of his confidence and resolution; that though his enemies stand pressing now about him, and death before him, he will not eat his words, will not renounce his faith, will not slip the collar, will not deny anything of what he has said or done, disclaim anything that he believed, desert Him whom he had trusted, but preach him to his death, and die upon it.
And now, the heavens being open, it is good to make what haste we can to enter it. Moneta, a famous doctor of Bononia, upon the hearing these words, "Behold, I see the leavens open," preached soberly upon, that they would be quickly shut if men made no more haste to enter, betook himself presently, says his story, to a religious order. I say nothing to that particular, but yet must tell you, the words are strong enough, if we would look as stedfastly into them as S. Stephen did into heaven, to persuade to a religious life. Heaven will not always be open to us. Patet atri janua ditus it is hell that stands continually wide open. We are told by Christ himself, that the Bridegroom comes, and the doors are shut; there will be a time, if we continue in sin and negligence, when heaven itself, nay Christ himself, will not let us in. Take we then our time whilst Christ stands at the door. Heaven has this day been strangely open to us, and Christ stood there in a glorious manner; though our eyes did not, [224/225] our faiths, I hope, did see him there. It is good, taking this opportunity to get in; we know not whether we shall live to the next opening. Prepare we then ourselves with S. Stephen here, by steadfast looking upward into heaven, by disdaining and scorning all things below, by vehement, earnest longings after things above, by setting ourselves attentively and constantly to our devotions and our prayers, by holy charity, and praying for friends and enemies, by constant resolutions to live and die to Christ, by a bold profession of our faith and continuance in it, by making it our Christmas work, our holiday business, our festival delight. And then, though I cannot promise you visions here, while we live below, I dare promise you the blessed vision hereafter above, where we shall see "Jesus standing at the right hand of God," and there stand round about him, with this blessed martyr Stephen, and all his saints and martyrs, in the glory of God for evermore.