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Sermons on the Black Letter Days
Or Minor Festivals of the Church of England

by John Mason Neale

London: Joseph Masters, 1872. Third edition.




ONE of Satan's most favourite temptations, (no doubt because he has found it one of the most useful,) is this, that it is a very easy thing to be saved. "What is the use," he asks us, "of taking so much pains? Other people lead easy lives, and please themselves, and are thought good fathers, and good neighbours, and good Christians, and they will do very well; and why need you try to be better than they? All will come right at last, and your prayers and your efforts to keep GOD'S law so very strictly are quite needless. Do as the world does, and do not pretend to be more religious than your neighbours."

We know that this is a temptation, and we ought not to be deceived by it. We know that to live a good life is a trade, like every other trade; that, if we do not take the utmost pains, we shall never learn it at all; and that, with all the pains we can take, we shall find it a difficult matter enough to succeed; "The righteous shall scarcely be saved." It will, as the common saying is, be a very near thing. "We want all the helps we can have; we must take all that we can get, and thank GOD that we can get so many.

Now, in looking round me to see what help to lead good lives you might have which as yet you have not, I see one which, with GOD'S grace, we will try. And this evening I will explain to you what it is, and how we may use it.

You know that, ever since I first came amongst you, we have always observed those days which we commonly call Saints' Days; that is, those Festivals of Saints for which an Epistle and Gospel are appointed. And they are those of the twelve Apostles, of S. John the Baptist, of the Conversion of S. Paul, of the Holy Innocents, of S. Barnabas, and of S. Stephen, besides the glorious festival of All Saints. Before GOD, perhaps for our own sins, suffered wicked men to take away from us the power of celebrating the Holy Communion, we always, as some of you well remember, celebrated it on those days. And, even now, we go oftener into chapel; and in the evening, as you know, I speak to you of the lesson that we should learn from the Festival which we are then keeping.

But now, if you look in the Calendar at the beginning of the Prayer Book, you will find a great many other days marked with the name of some Saint. Take January, for example. On the 8th you find the name of S. Lucian; on the 13th, of S. Hilary; on the 18th, of S. Prisca; on the 20th, of S. Fabian; on the 21st, of S. Agnes; on the 22nd, of S. Vincent. There are six days, then, which the Church sets before us, as the means of helping us in our way to heaven; and which, therefore, I wish that you should understand something about. I do not like that you should only look on them as names which you cannot understand,--as long, difficult words, with which you have nothing to do. I wish that, when you see the altar vested in red, to signify that it is the day of some Martyr who shed his blood for the Name of CHRIST: or, when you see it in white, to set forth to you that we are keeping the feast of some one of those Virgins whom Holy Scripture teaches us to call the brides of the Spotless Lamb; then that you should know something about that Martyr or that Virgin. It is impossible to love those of whom we know nothing. We may believe, indeed, that they were true and faithful servants of CHRIST, and so far we may admire them, and desire to follow their example; but love them we cannot, unless we know something about them on which our love can fix.

Now, therefore, I intend, by GOD'S grace, beginning from this time, as each of these days comes round, to tell you why we keep it, and who it is that we are then called upon to think about. If we were travelling to some place where we were to live all the rest of our lives, should we not wish to know what sort of people we were going among? Should we not be very glad to find any one who could tell us about them? Should we not beg him to let us know what he could, as to their names, and their ways of going on, and what they liked and disliked? We should say, "They are to be my companions by-and-by, and I should like to become acquainted with them as far as I can, before I really go to see them."

So it is with us. We are journeying to the land which the LOKD hath promised to them that love Him.

There are those, already there, who, if ever we are counted worthy to reach it, will be our eternal friends. If we really believe that there is such a place; if we really believe that they are there now, must we not of necessity desire to know something of them? The half of their doings will not be told us in this life; nevertheless, still we shall rejoice to hear that which has been recorded of them.

Now, to go back once again to the Calendar. I dare say you will all have noticed that there are certain letters at the end of the names of the Saints of whom we have been speaking, and you may have been puzzled to know what some of them may mean. Let me now explain this.

There are two great divisions of those men whom the Church reckons among the Saints--the Martyrs and the Confessors. By the Martyrs we mean those who laid down their lives for the true faith, whether their murderers were heathens, as in the case of the Apostles, or Jews, as it was with S. Stephen, or heretics, as it has been with some other Saints. By the word Confessors, at first, they only were meant who, though they had not the glory of dying for CHRIST, yet confessed Him by suffering for Him; whether by being thrown into prison, or being put to the torture, or suffering anything else at the hands of wicked men for His Name's sake: but in time, it came to pass that all those Saints who, by the excellency of their lives and the purity of their faith, had confessed CHRIST, were called His Confessors; and that is the way in which the word is now used by the Church. Every Saint, therefore, being a man, is either a Martyr or a Confessor. But the Church gives honour where honour is due. She takes care to mention those of her Saints who were placed in any great office. Thus, besides the letter M., which stands for Martyr, and the letter C., which is put for Confessor, you will find Bishops and Kings more particularly mentioned as such. Thus all through the calendar you will find, at the end of certain names, B., standing for Bishop; A.B., for Archbishop; K., for King. Of these I shall have to speak to you in their turn.

But, S. Paul tells us, "in CHRIST JESUS there is neither male nor female." Women, as well as men, have been counted among the Saints;--and for them also the Church has a division. After the names of several of these you will find the letter V., which stands for Virgin. For these she counts worthy of double honour, according to the teaching of our LORD, and of His Apostle S. Paul. Among these also we shall find Martyrs; for the grace of GOD often among them "out of weakness was made strong."

Then comes the question; how do these days help us on in our way to heaven? What good do we get by keeping them? What advantage is it to us to have these Saints in our thoughts? Much every way.

The first and easiest answer to the question is, that we may follow their examples. Not that we shall be called to the same trials as they were:--but that wherever we are, and whatever we do, we may imitate their faith, and love, and hope. It is true, of all these our LORD JESUS left us a Pattern, infinitely brighter than any saint ever did or ever could set. But we are apt to think that, since He was GOD as well as Man, and we are men only, we neither can, nor can be expected to, tread in His footsteps. Well then, in His Saints we have men who were of like passions with ourselves. They did nothing that, the HOLY GHOST helping us, we may not do also. They had no other means of grace than we have. In CHRIST, we see what we ought to do: In His Saints, we see what we can do. And the knowledge that all this lies in our power, that all this wonderful strength is really ours, ought to be our comfort and our encouragement in running with patience the race that is set before us.

But this is not all; we say daily, I believe in the Communion of Saints. That is, between all holy persons, whether now in the flesh, or now with GOD, there is a real and true communion. And by the word communion I mean this--that there is a doing something for each other, and with each other. With those who are upon earth it is manifestly so. We pray for each other, we are prayed for by each other; we all eat the same Body of our LORD, and drink the same Blood; we use the same prayers, we keep the same festivals; we feel the same sorrows, and we have the same hope that those sorrows will one day be swallowed up in everlasting joy. But how do we hold communion with Saints that are gone before us? It is not by following their examples, there is no communion in that. That, so to speak, is all on one side. That is what we do; not what we also receive. How then?

If, in keeping the days of Saints, we think of them and praise GOD for them, we are not for a moment to doubt that they think of us, and pray to GOD for us. '(The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man avail -eth much." But it were strange indeed if the prayer of a righteous man availed much while he was in the flesh--but directly he was gone to appear before GOD, directly he is in a higher and a better state, it availed no longer. GOD forbid! There is no such exception in the Bible; many instances to the contrary. For example, Elijah, just before he went up by a whirlwind to heaven, said to Elisha, "Ask what I shall give thee before I be taken away from thee." As soon, then, as Elijah stood before the throne of GOD, he made his request, and it was granted. Again, S. Peter, a little time before his death, wrote in his epistle, "Moreover I will endeavour, after my decease, that ye may be able to have these things always in remembrance." That is, that he would intercede in heaven for those whom he had loved on earth. Indeed, how could it be otherwise? Take any one of us. Suppose that some one of you were at this moment called out of the world, and by GOD'S infinite mercy were received into Paradise; do you think for a moment that he would forget the rest of us? that he would not have the same feeling to this College that he had while in the world? that he would not rejoice in its welfare? It is good to bring these things home to ourselves; because then we feel the more strongly what a glorious thing is this to which we profess to belong--the Communion of Saints. And if it were a great Saint that was taken away from us (Saints before now have often enough lived in places like this) should I doubt for a moment that, as he had often prayed for us in this life, so he would pray for us, all the more fervently, all the more effectually, after his blessed departure? I say again, GOD forbid!

One remarkable instance how departed Saints have concerned themselves in the affairs of the world, written for our instruction in Holy Scripture, I will mention, because you may never have noticed it. It is in the twenty-first chapter of the second book of Chronicles. There we find that long after Elijah was taken to GOD, Jehoram, king of Judah, did very wickedly: and Elijah sent him a letter out of heaven, telling him that GOD'S vengeance would fall upon him, as it shortly afterwards did.

If these things are so, what a multitude of friends and helpers have we in that heavenly kingdom which we are professing to seek. Those are they, "who through faith subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, turned to flight the armies of the aliens; (of whom the world was not worthy:) they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth."

Now I have told you how I purpose that we should learn something of these holy servants of GOD, and why; and I have only to say, that on Wednesday next, which you will find in your Prayer Books to be S. Faith's Day, it is my hope to begin.

GOD grant that all these means of salvation may bring us at last to that place, where, with the glorious company of the Apostles, the goodly fellowship of the Prophets, the noble army of Martyrs, we shall praise and bless Him for ever and ever. Amen.

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