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.


Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. December 8.


I HAVE often told you, that it is hardly possible to open a page of the Old Testament without finding some striking type of our LORD. In like manner, here and there His Blessed Mother, Saint Mary, is also set forth to us. Now to-day, when the Church would have us remember her, whom all generations shall call Blessed, we cannot do better than to think over one of these types. It has always been a favourite one with the servants of GOD; and sets forth most plainly to us how our LORD, Who was begotten of the FATHER before all worlds, was nevertheless born in these latter times of a pure Virgin.

Moses was keeping the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the Priest of Midian; and he led them to a part of the desert, where it joined Mount Horeb. We are not to imagine that this desert was only a sandy waste. It was rather like the forest here: one grassy hill beyond another, sprinkled over with a few bushes here and there; but wild and lonely, and without any dwelling of man for many miles round. One of these bushes Moses saw on fire; and that in itself was nothing uncommon. In those hot countries, the heat of the sun now and then sets the withered plant alight, and thus acres of grass and shrubs are sometimes burnt up. But when he looked again, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed: and he turned aside, as well he might, to see this great sight. Then it was that GOD called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and promised to have mercy upon His people Israel.

Now what does all this teach us? Just as the bush held this fire in itself, without being consumed, so did the Blessed Virgin Mary contain in herself, just as any other mother, the GOD who is compared to a consuming fire: and yet she herself was not hurt thereby. It was such a wonder as never had been known before: and never can be seen again. "The Word was made Flesh." That GOD should have been an Infant, should have been wrapped in swaddling bands, should have been fed as other infants, should have suffered like other infants; this is truly a miracle which passes all our powers of understanding. But yet it is even more wonderful that GOD should have lain, like other infants, in the womb of the Virgin; that there He should have taken to Himself bone of our bone, and flesh of our flesh; that He Who bears up heaven and earth, should have been thus borne by a Virgin; that He Who is Almighty, should have become thus weak; that He Who is from everlasting to everlasting, should have become so young; He That is everywhere, so little: He That is worshipped by all the host of heaven, so despised. Thus it was "that the Word became Flesh:" and we may well have it said to us, as it was by GOD to Moses, "Put off thy shoes from off thy feet: for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground."

The Bush, then, is a type of the Blessed Virgin: the flame that burnt in it, and yet consumed it not, is a type of our LORD, Who lay in the womb of S. Mary, and yet destroyed her not.

But this is not all. This great miracle happened, not in a tall forest tree, but in a bush, a low humble bush. And thus our LORD, when the fulness of the time was come, took on Him our flesh from a poor and despised mother. She tells us herself: "For He hath regarded the lowliness," that is the low and poor estate, "of His handmaiden." He was not born among "the kings of the earth," but among its poor: just as the fire was not kindled in a cedar, but in a thicket.

Then again: Moses only saw" this great sight. It did not happen where all the children of Israel could behold it for themselves. There, in the quiet and the loneliness of the wilderness of Horeb was the Bush that burned with fire, and yet was not consumed. So it was with Saint Mary. GOD was to be born of a Virgin: so it was prophesied before. It was the seed of the woman, not the seed of the man, that was to bruise the serpent's head. Isaiah said, "Behold, a Virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His Name Immanuel, GOD with us." And yet so great a miracle was hidden from the Jews. S. Mary was espoused to Joseph: no doubt for this very reason, that the wonderful manner of our LORD'S Birth should not be known. S. Luke expressly tells us, "JESUS Himself began to be about thirty years old, being, as was supposed, the Son of Joseph." And as to Moses alone was the miracle of the burning bush shown, so to S. Joseph alone did GOD make known at first the mystery of our LORD'S taking our flesh. The Angel said unto him, "Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for That which is conceived in her is of the HOLY GHOST."

Again: the Bush burnt with fire just before GOD delivered the children of Israel from the cruel slavery of Pharaoh, king of Egypt. So our LORD took upon Him our flesh to this very end, that He might deliver us out of the hand of him of whom Pharaoh was a type, namely, the devil. If GOD the WORD had never lain in the womb, the flesh of man could never have attained eternal life. If GOD had abhorred to enter the Virgin, man could never have hoped to enter heaven. CHRIST came to save: but He could only save us by suffering for us. And how could both these things be? Man by himself could not save; GOD by Himself could not suffer: therefore GOD became Man: and in that He was GOD, He saved; and in that He was Man, He suffered. We see His miracles, and we confess that He was GOD: we see His sufferings, and we acknowledge that He was Man. He died on the Cross; therefore He was Man. He raised Himself from the dead; therefore He was GOD. He was born of a woman, therefore He was Man; He was born of a Virgin, therefore He was GOD.

And it is His Birth to which we are now looking forward. Advent is nearly half over. And how are we preparing ourselves to keep this Christmas? Our LORD came to save us, if we are willing to be saved. If we would obtain that which He promises, namely, salvation, we must first love that which He commands, namely, holiness. He will not save the unholy. He will not save those that cling to sin. He will save those only who, amidst much weakness, and with much sinfulness, are trying to tread in His footsteps. And then, if we are trying to be like Him here, S. John says, " We know that when He shall appear we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is."

GOD grant it, for JESUS CHRIST'S sake: to Whom with the FATHER and the HOLY GHOST, be all honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.

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