Project Canterbury

Sermons on the Black Letter Days
Or Minor Festivals of the Church of England
by John Mason Neale

London: Joseph Masters, 1872. Third edition.


S. Jerome. September 30.


As it pleased GOD that the Life of our LORD JESUS CHRIST should be written by four Evangelists, neither more nor less, so it has pleased Him that there should be four Saints who, beyond others, have explained Holy Scriptures for the use of His Church. We call them the four Doctors,--that is, Teachers. They are--S. Gregory, on the 12th of March; S. Augustine, on the 28th of August; S. Jerome, to-day; S. Ambrose, on the 4th of April. All of them wrote a great number of books about the Word of GOD; all of them have opened its meaning to us more fully than without them we could have known it; all of them laboured to defend the Catholic Faith against all heresies,--that same Catholic Faith which we hold in our hearts, and profess with our lips, to this day. S. Jerome was the only one of the four who was not a Bishop: he was a simple Priest. He long lived near Bethlehem; and people from all parts of the world used to send and ask him for the explanation of difficult texts. And besides all his other works, he made a translation of the Bible, which is still very famous.

Now, in the text, these four Doctors of the Church are likened to carpenters. And why? Chiefly for this reason: it is the business of carpenters to work in wood, and in nothing else. So the end and aim that these holy men had in view, was to preach the Cross of CHRIST. And just as carpenters can make a thousand different things out of wood, all useful, ail beautiful, so these Doctors turned the Cross of CHRIST to a great many different uses; but it was the Cross, and the Cross alone, that they set forth. Sometimes they tell us how it made an atonement for sin; sometimes, how the devil was conquered by its means; sometimes, how we also must take up our cross; sometimes they, remind us how we are signed with that sign in our baptism. They might say, as S. Paul did, ''I determined not to know anything among you save JESUS CHRIST, and Him Crucified."

Now, what we may learn, most profitably for ourselves, is this: how much fulness of meaning there is in every word and letter of the Bible. If great saints and learned men like these Doctors could spend year after year in setting forth its hidden treasures, and after all confess that they are unsearchable, shall we not be ashamed to read and to search the Holy Scriptures as we do? It is not as if GOD'S Word had only the outside meaning which we see at first. Take the story of Abraham and Isaac. You may know the things which happened well enough; but till you have learnt that Isaac is a type of CHRIST, you cannot be said to understand anything really of the story. And so it is with other stories; so it is with the history of the Israelites, both in the books of Moses, and in Joshua, and in Judges, and Kings; and till you have some little idea of these, you can no more be said to understand the Bible, than a child with a nut in his hand, which he cannot crack, understands what the fruit is like.

Again; we may well bless GOD for such holy teachers, when we remember how difficult the Bible is. Not that we are to fix our faith on them. Great and good men as they were, they might be mistaken: it is not they, it is only the whole Catholic Church which can never be mistaken. But still, they had so great a measure of the HOLY GHOST, that if ever they fell into mistakes, it was only in small matters, and the truths they have taught are written for our instruction to the end of the world.

Yes: the Bible is a difficult book indeed. It is true, some things are written so clearly that we want no one to explain them to us. When we read that CHRIST JESUS came to seek and to save that which is lost, we need no one to tell us that He is indeed the SAVIOUR of the world. When, at the Last Supper, He took bread and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to His disciples saying, "Take, eat, this is My Body," we know and are certain, and are to believe it in spite of all temptation, that it is His Body. But when we read texts which seem to contradict each other, as when S. Paul tells us that "a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law," and S. James says, "Ye see, then, how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only," how then are we to understand? When we find texts such as these, "He that doubteth is damned if he eat"--or again, "Touch not, taste not, handle not"--or again, whole chapters together in the Prophets or the Epistles,--how then are we to understand? The fault is in ourselves, not in the Bible; but how does that help us?

To take the text again. If we wanted to make a chair or a table, and a man led us into a field, and showed us a fine oak, and gave it to us, but offered us no tools, nor any workmen, how should we be the better? There, it is true, is wood enough; but how are we to get at it? But let us have carpenters, and then indeed we shall be obliged to him.

This oak is the Bible. To make it useful to us, we must have the teachers whom GOD has given to us, who are compared to the carpenters. There are few more crafty temptations of the devil than that by which he would persuade people that they can explain Scripture for themselves.

But now, how did these holy Doctors or teachers get their understanding of the Bible? I will tell you. First and foremost, by a holy life, and by much prayer. All other means are nothing without this. If any man, our LORD said, will do His will, he shall know of the doctrine; but not unless.

Then by deep and patient study, by comparing Scripture with Scripture, by learning what the Church before them had taught, what were the old explanations, they gained their understanding. And then by their learning: they could read the languages in which the Bible was originally written, and they studied them diligently. Prayer, and study, and a good life,--that was the way they were able to search the Scriptures.

Prayer and a good life, we each in our own poor way may try; and for all the other helps that GOD gives us, let us praise Him more and more. More especially at this time, when the falling leaves and the stormy skies remind us of sorrow and of death, let us beseech Him to open our eyes, that we may more and more fully believe in Him That is the Resurrection and the Life. GOD grant us so to read of Him of Whom Moses in the Law and the Prophets did write, that, by the teaching of the HOLY GHOST, we may become wise unto salvation, through JESUS CHRIST our LORD; to Whom, with the FATHER and the HOLY GHOST, be all honour and glory for ever. Amen.

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