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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.


Christmas Eve.
[The Choral Society of the place were afterwards to go round with Carols.]


SUPPOSE that now we were to go out into the town, in the chilliness and darkness of this evening, and were to find a poor man and a poor woman asking from inn to inn whether they could have lodgings for to-night; both of them worn out and exhausted by the long journey, and the one clearly just about to become a mother. By-and-by we may hear that they had been obliged to take up their lodgings in a barn: and next morning we might be told that at midnight, in all the coldness and uncomfortableness of such a place, a baby had been born.

That was what happened at Bethlehem, eighteen hundred and fifty-three years ago. "She brought forth her first-born Son and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn." Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Isaiah: "The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib; but Israel doth not know, My people doth not consider." The ox and the ass at the manger knew the LORD, and worshipped Him. The men of Bethlehem rose next day to their business, the polling clerks went on taking the names, the people came and paid their money, and went away and complained how hard it was to be taxed, and knew not that GOD was in a stable of that town, GOD was lying in a manger, GOD was wrapped in swaddling clothes, GOD was fed from the breast of Mary.

There will never be a Christmas Eve like that: no, neither in earth nor in heaven. If GOD give us grace to reach that blessed country, we shall indeed hear the songs of Angels more glorious than this their first Hymn was: "Glory to GOD in the highest, and on earth peace, good will towards men." But CHRIST can never thus show forth His love for us again. He did it once, that it might be done for ever. It was a hard bed, that hay and that manger; but not so hard a bed as by-and-by the narrow plank of the Cross, on which He shall sleep His last sleep, shall be. They were rude companions, the beasts; but not so rude as the soldiers, and the Scribes, and the Pharisees, who will surround the other bed, and cry, "He saved others, Himself He cannot save."

That first Christmas Eve then takes us back to Bethlehem. And our LORD was rightly born there. For Bethlehem by interpretation is "The House of Bread;" and this is that True Bread "Which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world."

Now let me take you to another Christmas Eve, and let it be three hundred years after our LORD'S Birth.

At that time "The kings of the earth stood up, and the rulers took counsel together against the LORD, and against His Anointed. Let us break their bonds asunder, and cast away their cords from us." At that time they who would not bow down to idols of wood and stone were stoned, "were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented, of whom the world was not worthy." How did they keep that Christmas Eve? Thus.

The ground under part of the great city of Rome is tunnelled out into long dark passages called Catacombs. They had once served as quarries, but when no more stone could be got from them they were deserted; and being so very lonely, and so difficult to enter, they served for the poor Christians to meet in. And in the sides of these passages they used to bury their dead. You could see then--and those who have the great happiness to go there may see now--the epitaphs and figures they set up over those graves. A branch of palm, for example, signified a Martyr: a ship entering the harbour, set forth the departure of a common Christian. Here then creeping in stealthily, one by one, not knowing but that their persecutors might burst in on them, not knowing whether any moment might not see them dragged away to the wild beasts or to the rack, those first Christians spent their Christmas Eve. Their altar was generally the tomb of a Martyr; and there they set forth the death of Him Who is the Martyr of Martyrs. Christmas was no time of gladness then,--I mean of such gladness as we now make it. It was a time of fear and danger, and very often of separation; but a glorious time nevertheless. They knew something more of following CHRIST than we do in these days.

But, if we could, go now through Europe, in every great city, in every little village church, we should see multitudes preparing themselves to go up to the Midnight service which is everywhere said in remembrance of Him Who at midnight came into the world; for it is not as if we were alone, though we may seem cut off and separated from the rest of the world. We believe in the Communion of Saints: we believe that in all those prayers, which to-night shall be offered up by the Holy Church throughout all the world, we have a share. We believe that they and we are looking forward to that one long Feast, of which all these earthly feasts are poor and feeble types. We believe that they and we are looking back to that Birth, which was on this night as our only hope of escaping from that death which is eternal night.

Truly this is the night wherein "a holy solemnity is kept;" and Isaiah tells us how to observe it. "There shall be a song," says he. Now we are not to think that all these old customs are good only because they are old. We must not imagine that Christmas Carols are to be kept up only because they have been the fashion for so long. No; remember what was their first beginning. The first singers at Christmas time were the blessed Angels; and the first Christmas Carol they sang was, "Glory to GOD in the highest, and on earth peace, good will towards men." And what was the effect of it? What did the shepherds say? Did they say, What lovely music! or What sweet voices! or, What a glorious sight? No; they said, "Let us now go even to Bethlehem."

And so I say to you, "Let us go now even to Bethlehem." Let us go to see Him Who, though He was King of kings, yet vouchsafed to become a Servant of servants. Let us go there to learn not to do our own will, but our FATHER'S: not to please ourselves, but Him Whose we are, and Whom we ought to serve. Let us go to Bethlehem. It is no such easy thing, in this sense; for if we have once learned this, and if we do it, we are not far from the Kingdom.

And so to go to Bethlehem is the only way by which we can hope hereafter to go up to the Heavenly Jerusalem: so to seek that Holy Infant now, is the only way in which we can expect to meet Him as a righteous Judge hereafter.

And so I end in the words of one of His saints:

"CHRIST, Who mad'st us out of dust,
Life and spirit giving;
CHRIST, from Whose dear steps we must
Pattern take of living:
CHRIST, Who earnest once to save
From the curse and from the grave,
Healing, lightening, cheering;
CHRIST, Who now wast made as we,
Grant that we may be like Thee
In Thy next appearing!"

Which He grant for His own Name's sake: to Whom with the FATHER, and the HOLY GHOST, be all honour and glory for ever. Amen.

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