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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. Katherine. November 25.


IT is not always, no nor often, that we know most about the principal Saints of the Church. Even about most of the Apostles, those who, at the last day, shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging kindreds, and nations, and people, we are told very little, either by Holy Scripture, or by the Church. And so it is with the Saint of this day. No Martyr has been more famous than S. Katherine; but we hardly know anything that is certain about her. The stories which we read of her may be true, and are very beautiful; but they were not heard of till nearly a thousand years after her death. Therefore we cannot feel at all sure of them; but still, there is much that we may learn from them.

It is said, then, that S. Katherine lived in Egypt; that she was very rich and very learned; and that the heathen Emperor wished to make her his wife. She refused to listen to him again and again, and at length he determined to prove to her that the faith of our LORD JESUS CHRIST, of which she spoke so much, was false; so he gathered together fifty of the wisest men of Egypt, and bade them dispute with her. But it was with her, as we read in the Acts that it was with S. Stephen: "they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which she spake." When the Emperor saw that the wise men were put to shame, he grew very furious, and commanded that Katherine should be torn to pieces by a wheel, on which were fastened knives and saws. Just as she was about to be bound to it, she prayed that she might be delivered from so cruel a death. Then the lightning of GOD fell, and dashed the wheel in pieces; and the Emperor commanded that her head should be struck off with a sword. Then, it is said, the angels carried her body to Mount Sinai, and buried it there.

It is in remembrance of the burning of this wheel that those fireworks, which we call Katherine-wheels, are made. And we here often mention the name of this Saint, when we are little thinking of her; for the proper name of Cutton's Hill, as we now call it, is S. Katharine's Hill; I suppose, because there was once a chapel there called S. Katherine's Chapel.

Because of S. Katherine's great wisdom, and her overthrowing the fifty wise men, she is generally called the Patron Saint of scholars. Yet it is not generally the wise of this world, any more than the rich of this world, whom GOD has chosen to do Him service. It should be to the comfort of most of you, that that state in which GOD has been pleased to place you is the same state in which the blessed Apostles were. When they were first examined by the chief Priests, "they perceived," as we are told, "that they were unlearned and ignorant men." The wisdom which is sufficient for you, GOD has given you all. In the first place, the Creeds, to tell you what to believe; and the Church, to tell you how to believe them. In the next place, He has given you all a conscience, which is His most sure voice, telling you what is evil, and what is good. You may have refused to listen to it, and so have deadened it; but there it is still. It may be more difficult now than it was at first, to hear its voice; but if you listen attentively, it speaks yet. This is what the Prophet means when he says, "Thine ears shall hear a word behind thee, saying, This is the way, walk ye in it, when ye turn to the right hand and when ye turn to the left."

I will tell you, as we are talking of this matter, a story of the way in which a common every-day labourer once put to shame one of the wisest men in the world.

At the time when there were still many heathens, and when there were idols and temples of idols everywhere, it happened that a great number of Bishops and Priests, and of others, both men and women, had gathered together for a service in the great church of the city where it happened. As they were coming out, a learned heathen,--one of those who called themselves philosophers,--came up, and said, "Christians, I defy any one of you to dispute with me. If he can prove to me that JESUS, Who was crucified in Judea, is LORD and GOD, then I will worship Him; but if I can prove that our gods are living and true gods, then ye shall worship them. Give me a man, and let us argue together."

While the Bishops were settling who should dispute with this proud heathen, a poor old labourer stood up in the midst, and said, "Philosopher! I myself will dispute with you!" Many of the Christians were very unwilling, fearing that the poor old man might be put to shame: but the Bishops had more faith in GOD, and told the labourer to go on.

"Well, then," he said, "O philosopher, I will begin; you shall answer, and if you cannot answer, you shall confess that you are beaten. Will you?"

The philosopher laughed the old man to scorn, and said, "Yes."

"Then," the labourer said, "listen to me. Philosopher, there is but one GOD, Who hath made heaven and earth, and all that therein is; and one LORD JESUS CHRIST, His only SON, our LORD; and one HOLY GHOST, Who comforteth us. You believe that there are many gods, made of wood and stone, that are to be worshipped. Tell me why you say this? But first, in the Name of our LORD JESUS CHRIST, I command thee to be dumb. Now answer!"

The tongue of the philosopher clave to the roof of his mouth, and he slunk away, put to shame by a poor labourer. Thus you see how much better and stronger faith is than learning.

But, indeed, it is not by reading much, or being learned according to this world's account, that we know best what is the will of GOD; or become, as the Apostle says, "wise unto salvation." One of the greatest Saints and the most learned men that ever lived, when he was asked how he came by all his marvellous wisdom, pointed to a Cross that stood by; as much as to say that it was by thinking on that, by following that, that he became what he was. Our LORD Himself has taught us that, "if any man will do His will, he shall know of the doctrine:" that is, if we act up to the light we have, He will give us more light; whereas, if we do not use what we have, we shall not only have no more, but that we have shall be taken away. Many of you have travelled by the railway, and have gone through a tunnel. You may have noticed what I am going to tell you; if not, notice it next time. When you are in the thick darkness of a tunnel, the only light you can see is the glimmer of the lamps on the walls of that tunnel. You expect the light of day again; you watch earnestly for it; and where do you see it first? Not in the thickest part of the darkness, but in the lamp-light: the lamplights all begin to look white, before you see the least change in the black darkness elsewhere.

That lamp is the conscience; and those who make good use of their conscience will be the first to get the light of GOD'S wisdom in any difficulty or danger that they may have to meet.

So many ways GOD gives us all of pleasing Him! so many ways He gives us all of working out our own salvation! He lets no state in this world be shut out from it. You who are poor, He calls because you are poor; you who are unlearned, He calls because you are unlearned. That text has to do with you, "GOD hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise." Who is wiser and craftier than the devil? Then GOD has chosen you to confound him, to conquer him, to trample upon him, to be more than conqueror through Him that loved you. Again: "GOD hath chosen the weak things of this world to confound the things that are mighty." What can be stronger than the corruption of our nature? Then GOD calls us to conquer it, as our Prayer Book speaks, "to crucify the old man, and utterly abolish the whole body of sin."

And think of this:--such as were like you, such as have lived here among you, and have departed in GOD'S faith and fear, now know more than the wisest and most learned men on this earth. The difficulties that puzzle us are no difficulties to them; the many things which here we shall never know are clearer than light to them. "Now," as S. Paul says, "we know in part" but there they know even as they are known.

GOD grant us so to know Him in this life, that in the life to come we may know all things for JESUS CHRIST'S sake: to Whom, with the FATHER and the HOLY GHOST, be all honour and glory for ever. Amen.

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