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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.


S. Dionysius the Areopagite. October 9.


ATHENS was the most learned and most beautiful city in the world. It was a kind of University for the whole earth. Men went up from all other nations to study there. There were magnificent temples to the gods, the ruins of some of which remain to this day. There the greatest painters and the greatest poets had lived. There, too, had been wise men, who had spent all their lives in feeling after GOD, in trying to discover whether there were, or were not, a future state; men, whose books we have now, and whose writings, for their beauty and their eloquence, surpass every other.

It is no wonder, then, that the Athenians believed themselves to be wiser and better than the rest of the world, and looked on all others with great contempt, as ignorant and barbarous people. What do you think, then, they must have felt, when one day it was noised about the city, that a poor Jew had come there, who gave out that he was sent to teach a new religion; who said that all the temples of the gods would soon perish; that the idols were the work of men's hands--wood and stone; that they who made them were like unto them, and so were all such as put their trust in them. "He preaches," one of the philosophers said, "that we are to worship one GOD only; and that this GOD was crucified, about twenty years ago, at Jerusalem." We can imagine the shouts of laughter among all that heard: how some called the Apostle mad, some took him for an impostor, some said that it would be amusing to hear what such a person could say, some answered that they would not degrade themselves by going near him. "Oh, but," another of the philosophers would say, 11 that is nothing in comparison of somewhat else that he teaches. He says that we are to believe in the Resurrection." "What is the Resurrection?" asked another. "Is it a goddess?" (It is said, you must know, by old writers, that the Athenians, at first, thought that S. Paul was preaching to them a goddess of that name.) "A goddess! no!" the philosopher answered. "What he says is this,--that, after we are buried, at the end of the world, our bodies will come together again, and will breathe, and will live, and will be just the same as they are now, only more glorious, and that they can never die any more." "The Jew is mad," they all cried out. "The thing is too absurd even to laugh at. It were best to send the poor man to his friends, if he has any, or else to have him shut up." "Well," the first philosopher said, "all I know is, that he has drawn away multitudes of people to believe in CHRIST,--that they have given up the gods of their fathers,--that the more they are punished, the faster they increase,--that some have been put to death, and the others envy them, and that, even here in Athens, some wretched persons have been perverted into being Christians." "Then," said the others, "it is high time to put a stop to Paul's preaching. Let us have him before the Areopagus."

Now, what was Areopagus? That we ought well to understand, that we may also see how very magnificent the whole scene must have been,--the grandest thing in its way which perhaps ever happened in the history of the Church.

Areopagus was a court of justice. At this time it had about three hundred judges: all of them had, in their turn, been magistrates; all of them were men of blameless life,--for to be even suspected of any crime hindered a man from becoming an Areopagite; most of them were very aged. The Court had such a repute for its wisdom and justice, that, as was said, during a thousand years it lasted, it never gave one unrighteous decision: it was a spotless Court. The reverence paid to it was such, that for any one to laugh while it was sitting, was looked on as blasphemy. Its power was very great: it had authority in all matters which were likely to corrupt people's minds: it overruled all the other courts; what it decided was received as if it came from the mouth of GOD; it was the justest, the wisest, the holiest, (if I may use the word so,) of all heathen bodies of men. It was called the Court of Areopagus, which means the Hill of Mars, because it used to sit on a hill where was a Temple of Mars, who was the God of War. Now, all questions about religion came before this Court, and for that reason S. Paul was set before it.

Two things more I must tell you about it: it always held its sittings in the open air, because that seemed to bring it more into the immediate presence of GOD; and it always held them at night, lest the sight of the sorrow and agony of the prisoner might lead the judges to acquit him wrongfully.

Now, who was it that brought the Apostle before this great Court? We are told: "certain philosophers of the Epicureans and of the Stoics." The Epicureans said that, when the body died, the soul died too: that the best thing a man could do was to enjoy himself to the full in this life, for there was nothing to come after it; and so they ran into all kinds of abominable wickedness, and led lives worse than the beasts that perish. The Stoics were better men: they thought it was possible that there was a future life for the soul; they said that a wise man ought to care neither for pleasure nor pain,--that he ought to be like a stock or a stone, and care for nothing. It was these two sets of men that brought S. Paul to Mars' Hill.

Now, try for a moment to fancy the thing as it was. A bright, clear night. You must not think that night in that country is like the night here. The clearest, frostiest night you ever saw in England is dim and foggy compared with a night there. The sky looks so deeply blue, and so far off,--the stars stand out of it so clearly,--the moon is so very glorious. Imagine, then, all those wise, reverend-looking Areopagites, seated in rows to hear; the city of Athens, far beneath them, quiet and still; labourers and merchants and noblemen, all asleep; but on every side, the temples of pure white marble, so beautiful and so costly, and so pale in the moonshine. Then imagine a stranger brought in,--one, thought to be a madman,--one, (he says it himself,) whose bodily presence was weak and whose speech was contemptible,--one, whose life and death hung on what the Areopagus might say. And then hear how this despised poor man began to speak in the midst of such wisdom and age, and in the sight of so many buildings which seemed as if they were to last for ever; alone, in the night, among enemies, in a huge city,--hear how boldly he began.

"Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars' Hill, and said: Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious." Let us fancy, as we go on, how the Areopagites must have gazed at each other in astonishment. They, the first court of justice in the world,--the wisest judges that ever sat, they to be told that they were too superstitious! and too superstitious in all things! Did ever a prisoner before so begin his defence? And now see how telling (so to speak,) another verse is. Paul looked round on the many temples that were glittering in the moonshine, round about,--of the God of War, of the Goddess of Wisdom, of the God of Music, of the God of Health, of the Goddess of Love; he was speaking to a Court that met in the open air, to be more in the presence of GOD; and, no doubt, pointing to the stars that were shining so gloriously down upon them, he went on: "GOD That made the world and all things therein, seeing that He is LORD of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; neither is worshipped with men's hands, as though He needed anything, seeing He giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; that they should seek the LORD, if haply they might feel after Him, and find Him, though He be not far from every one of us." S. Paul knew how the wisest men of Athens had tried to find out GOD; how a learned man, who had studied there not long before, had written a book in which he said, "If it be a mistake to believe that the soul cannot perish, it is a mistake in which I trust I shall die:" for that heathen knew nothing of that Gospel which brought life and immortality to light. And so he went on to speak of the Resurrection from the dead.

Up to this time the Court had heard him; but when he spoke of the Resurrection they would hear him no longer. Even their own rules about laughter were forgotten: "some mocked." They thought the whole thing was so contemptible, that they would not punish the Apostle: they let him go where he would.

But now we come to the text I read you, and to the Saint of this day. "Howbeit, certain men clave unto him and believed, among the which was Dionysius the Areopagite." Now, excepting the penitent thief alone, I think that the faith of S. Dionysius is the most wonderful thing in Holy Scripture. Consider: S. Paul had done no miracle,--had not even suffered for the truth; Dionysius gave up all his character for wisdom, was ridiculed by those whom up till that time he had always believed to be the wisest of men, was cast out of Areopagus, was pointed at as a madman and a fool wherever he went; and all because he looked not at the things that were seen, but at the things which were not seen. It is said of him that he was very learned in the motions of the stars, and of the sun and the moon; and twenty years before this, when there was darkness over all the earth at our LORD'S Passion, that he cried out, "Either the GOD of nature is distressed, or the frame of the world is being broken up." It is said also that S. Paul made him the first Bishop of Athens; and nothing is more likely. And this is all we know for certain of S. Dionysius the Areopagite. But nearly fifty years afterwards we find a S. Dionysius who was the first Bishop of Paris in France, who is generally called S. Denys; and who suffered martyrdom, on this day, by being beheaded. Now it is not certain whether this were the same with S. Dionysius the Areopagite, or not. Some learned men have written books to show that he was; and other learned men have written books to show that he was not.

It does not much matter. If there were two Saints of the same name, they are both now before the Throne of GOD and of the Lamb; if there were only one, the greatness of his labours has obtained him the greater reward.

But the S. Denys that was Bishop of Paris, has left a special example to you. He went as a Bishop to France when he was a hundred and ten years old, thinking it a joy to labour and to suffer for CHRIST at an age far beyond any of your own. And he bore all his tortures with unshaken courage: he was scourged and crucified and taken down living from the cross and beheaded. So that in him that verse of the Psalms was fulfilled, "They also shall bring forth more fruit in old age."

GOD give you grace so to be faithful to CHRIST to the end, that you may come to that place where there is no more age and no more weakness; for His merit's sake, Who liveth and reigneth with the FATHER and the HOLY GHOST, one GOD, world without end. Amen.

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