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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. Nicholas. December 6.


THE Saint of to-day, S. Nicholas, is one of whom we know scarcely anything certain but his name. That he was a Bishop in Asia, and that he did great wonders in the Name of CHRIST; this is all that is told of him. But it is enough. His good deeds are written in heaven, if they are not written on earth: his crown is none the less bright there, because we know not the way in which he won it here.

There is, I think, something in thus keeping the memory of a Saint of whom we know next to nothing, which ought to be very comforting to you. It is what the Church delights to do. The blessed Apostles themselves, have for the most part, left no long catalogue of their actions behind them. The long, patient toil, the love to those nations among whom they went, their wisdom, their meekness, their miracles, their sufferings, their constancy, their death, are known only to GOD.

And so it is, and it must be, with respect to the greatest number of those who are the followers of CHRIST. Neither now, nor hereafter, will they be famous in the history of the Church. Just as in a battle, we know nothing of the names of the soldiers who fought, and who conquered; all we hear is who the generals were: so it is in that great struggle which the Church is now carrying on, and to the end of the world will be carrying on, against the devil and all his powers. We know nothing of those thousands of true Christians who help on this battle by their prayers and their holy lives. Only those who have the chief posts are known to men, those who by learning, or courage, or talents, are able to do the chief service to GOD. But remember this: in every battle, it is after all the soldiers, and not the generals, who win it. In the battle between the Church and the devil, it is the meaner and humbler children of the Church who do the most for GOD. The hearty, earnest cry of a poor man, before he goes out to his day's work, is as acceptable to CHRIST as the longer prayers of those who have more time for prayer. It is not the length or the learning of the prayer that He looks at, but its faith and its earnestness.

And now think, when we say of any, the meanest of GOD'S servants, on his departure out of this world, that we believe him to be happy, that we cannot doubt of his salvation, how much we tell of his history. Look back to the long line of those who, from the foundation of this College, have lived and died where you now live, and where you hope to die. Out of those hundreds, how many must there be who are now safe in Paradise! Think then, in these same walls where we now are, how many victories there have been against temptation, how much patience under suffering, how much sorrow for sin, how many resolutions with GOD'S help to renounce the devil and all his works! Probably, nay almost certainly, there is not a single room of all the rooms we live in, from which, at some time or other, & Christian soul has not departed to Paradise. This ought to be a check on all of us, when we are tempted to do evil. How can I do this wickedness, and sin against the LORD here? here, where in past times, some one of GOD'S servants has fallen asleep; here, where the Angels then were, ready to carry his soul into Abraham's bosom; here, where he first beheld, however dimly and indistinctly, the glory of GOD, and JESUS standing at the right hand of GOD to help him in that agony of death? here, where death first began to have dominion over his body, sown in corruption, that it might be raised in incorruption? here, where that saying has been fulfilled, "Blessed"--and oh, who shall tell how blessed!--"are the dead which die in the LORD."

But what, if I were to remind you of the other thought which might weigh with us when the devil would lead us to sin? As these rooms have seen some blessed departures--GOD grant they may have been many, and the more they have been, or shall be, the more His Name be blessed!--so how can we doubt that some, at least, of those who have formerly lived in them departed from them out of grace, and are now awaiting the resurrection of damnation? If our LORD'S words are true, so it must have been: for He says, "Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way which leadeth unto life; and few there be that find it." So again, each of you may ask yourselves, How can I sin here? here, where the time has been that a man would have given untold wealth for one hour's space of repentance, and found it not; where he has uttered that exceeding bitter cry, "The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved;" where he has seen that CHRIST'S Blood had no longer any power to save him, the HOLY GHOST no longer any will to strive with him; when the Church has no longer been able to intercede for him, when he has felt himself shut out from all Christian men, from all good Angels, from all sight and comfort of GOD, from all light, and from all hope, when devils have taken his soul, and carried it away to dwell with them for ever, and for ever, and for ever! This is no fancy. These things have happened again and again; have happened here again and again; have happened where we go on sinning and repenting, repenting and sinning, again and again. Even in hell, those who are lost keep some of their earthly feelings, at least at first they do; we know it from the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. What do you think that they who once dwelt in this place, but who now dwell where the smoke of their torment goeth up for ever and ever, would say, when they see you, their successors, rushing into sin, and going headlong to the same place that is prepared for them? "Tell them," they would say, "that for one morsel of meat we sold our birthright; that we found no place of repentance, though we sought it carefully with tears. Ask them, who among them can dwell with the devouring fire? who among them can dwell with everlasting burning? Testify unto them, lest they also come to this place of torment."

But who can tell how those miserable ones would urge you? Who can tell what it is--the worm that dieth not, and the fire that is not quenched? A good man of old time, to set forth their state, wrote a poem in which he makes them speak thus:

"For ever and ever is a long time!
Were a heap of sand before our eyes
Exceeding the whole world in size,
And a bird every thousand years should come
To take one single grain therefrom,
And GOD would grant deliverance,
When the last grain of all were taken thence,
We should have hope that some one day
Our misery might pass away.
But now beneath GOD'S wrath we lie,
Hopeless and lost, eternally."

But, before I end, we will look once more back to those of GOD'S servants who, having done His will while they lived in this place, have now gone to a better habitation, that is an heavenly. Would they not, think you, exhort you to run with patience the race that is set before you? Would they not urge you to pray in the very spot where they prayed, to repent in the very spot where they repented, to do your duty in that state of life in which it once pleased GOD to place them, as it has now pleased Him to place you? Only to pray more earnestly, to repent more deeply, to do your duty more diligently? Would they not tell you that the sufferings of the present time are not worthy to be compared with that glory? Would they not exhort you to strive to enter in, because with all your strivings the entrance will be hard enough?

They would indeed. And the time will come when these servants of GOD, of whom, as of the Martyr of this day, we know nothing now, shall be known by all. The poor shall not always be forgotten. GOD, Who has their names written in the book of life, will one day proclaim them to men and Angels. And in the meantime, we are knit together with them in one communion and fellowship. I will tell you how a poet of our own speaks:

"But could we lay the body by,
And wash, our eyesight clean,
Then look into the boundless sky,
How different 'twould be seen!
What now is void and silent space,
Were full and vocal then;
Its habitants a heavenly race,
Though once our fellow-men."

And now to GOD the FATHER, GOD the SON, and GOD the HOLY GHOST, be all honour and glory for ever. Amen.

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