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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 Day. Evening.


TO-DAY we celebrate the Birthday of our King in this world: to-morrow we shall celebrate the Birthday of S. Stephen to heaven. To-day our Prince took on Himself our flesh, and came from the womb of Mary into the world: to-morrow S. Stephen puts off the body, and goes from the prison of the flesh to eternal life. To-day CHRIST came down amidst the songs of the Angels: to-morrow S. Stephen goes up amidst the blasphemies of the Jews. To-day CHRIST was wrapped for us in swaddling-clothes: to-morrow S. Stephen puts on the robe of immortality. To-day the Captain of our Salvation showed His love for them that hated Him, by His Birth: to-morrow, His valiant servant shows his love for them that persecuted him, by his prayer.

Now to-night we are called on to think of both: of our LORD and of S. Stephen; of CHRIST'S Birth, and His Martyr's death; and the text I read you will help us to do both. See how David had been promised by GOD the kingdom of Israel. As yet he was fighting for it: he had many difficulties to overcome, many enemies to put down, before he could sit upon the throne. In this verse we read of certain valiant men that came to help him; and in order to get to him, they had to pass over the river Jordan in the first month, when it had overflowed all its banks.

Now the river Jordan is a type of death. It separated the land of Canaan from the wilderness that lay beyond it, just as death separates Paradise from the desert of this world. These brave soldiers had to cross the Jordan, in order to help David. So Stephen had to meet death, and to pass through it, in order to fight the battles of the Son of David, JESUS CHRIST. That is no easy matter in itself. I will tell you what a Bishop of our own said, just before his Martyrdom; he can best describe what a Martyr felt. "I am not in love with this passage through the Jordan, for I have the weakness of flesh and blood plentifully upon me. And I have prayed with my SAVIOUR that this cup of red wine might pass away from me; but if not, His will, not mine, be done; and I will most willingly drink of this cup as deep as He pleases, and enter into this Jordan, yea and pass through it, in the way that He shall lead me."

But this is common to all Martyrs. They all gave up the dearest thing they had for the sake of CHRIST, even their lives. And herein they proved Satan to be a liar, and the father of it. "All that a man hath will he give for his life," he said; and behold these valiant soldiers of CHRIST gave life and all for Him.

S. Stephen has yet a more blessed portion; and we shall find a type of it in those soldiers of David that came over the Jordan. When did they pass it? In the first month. They were the first that did it. Others might follow or not as they liked; they would go anyhow. And so S. Stephen. He could tell nothing of the noble army of Martyrs; he might have been, for aught he knew, the only one who was to suffer for CHRIST'S Name. He had no one to show him the way. He had no one to point to as having been victorious in the same battle. "Ye have not passed this way heretofore." He was the first, and therefore he has the greatest honour.

I will tell you a story. There was once a brave people called the Swiss, against whom there came a much stronger nation, intending to make slaves of them. When they set the battle in array, the Swiss had not a quarter so many soldiers as their enemies, the Austrians. There were many valiant men in the Swiss army: and again and again they came on, but again and again they were driven back. For the Austrians, standing shoulder to shoulder, held out their spears before them, so as to make as it were an iron fence, which neither man nor horse could break through. Now among the Swiss there was a countryman, who seeing this, cried out, "Take care of my wife and children; I will break their ranks." He threw away his armour, rushed in upon the enemy, took as many spears as he could in his breast and arms and body, and so fell down dead himself at the very moment he broke through the fence. The others rushed in after him; and the Austrians were soon put to flight. Now among the multitude of valiant soldiers in the Swiss army, he it was that had the greatest honour, because he was the first to lay down his life for his country. And among the multitude of valiant soldiers in the noble army of Martyrs, Stephen, in like manner, is the most glorious, because he was the first to lay down his life for his LORD.

Look at the text again. These soldiers not only went over Jordan to help David, but in the first month, when it had overflowed all its banks. Now you are to understand that Jordan is a swift strong river, bad to cross at any time, but much worse, of course, when it is swollen by rains. Not only so; but at that time all 4he country round is infested by wild beasts driven out of their dens and hiding-places by the rising of the water: as it is written, "He shall come up like a lion from the swelling of Jordan." But lions, wild beasts, or floods, it was all one to these good soldiers. They meant to go over; and over they did go. None of these things moved them; neither counted they their lives dear to themselves, so they might go and see their King.

In like manner, S. Stephen's death was not like a common death. In the first place, there was the fearful suffering of being beaten to pieces with stones: but that is not all. S. Stephen had not the same things to increase his faith that others had. He had not seen how the faith of CHRIST would spread and increase. He had not seen all the mighty miracles which the Apostles afterwards did. The very fact of his being the first made death more difficult.

But if he suffered more than any other Martyr, he saw more than any other. He beheld what no man ever had seen before, or has seen since. What? He saw JESUS standing at the Right Hand of GOD. What do we say in the Creed? "He ascended into Heaven, and sitteth on the Right Hand of GOD." And now He was standing. Why was this? If we had a dear friend suffering in a noble cause, should we sit at ease, and look on? No; we should stand up to honour him. And if we saw one fighting whom we could assist, should we sit quiet? No; we should stand up to help him.

"He saw the Glory of GOD, and JESUS standing on the Right Hand of GOD." To see the Glory of GOD,--that is a blessedness of which we cannot have the least idea. Satan once told a great Saint, that he would willingly endure the torments of all lost souls, besides his own, if he might only see the Glory of GOD while a hand could open and shut. But of these two things which S. Stephen saw, the second sight was beyond all measure the most comforting.

Think for one moment: to see JESUS, to see Him That hath the keys of hell and death, Him That liveth for evermore, Him That shall reign for ever and ever, King of Kings, and LORD of Lords; to see Him standing at the Right Hand of GOD for us! Yes; all the pains of all the Martyrs would be well borne for that! Yes; with GOD thus on our side we should understand better what S. Paul means: "I am persuaded,"--notice, he had not taken up the thought at random--"I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us."

And we may see Him so by faith. He did not so stand for S. Stephen alone. As the Collect tells us: "Who standest at the Right Hand of GOD, to succour all those that suffer for Thee." Only then there are two things in which we must be like S. Stephen: "He, being full of the HOLY GHOST, looked up steadfastly into Heaven." The HOLY GHOST has been given to us all: but which of us can be said to be full of Him? And if we do look up to Heaven at all, how often we take away our eyes, and bend them down to earth again. We must look up, we must look up steadfastly, and then we shall see, with the eyes of our faith, what S. Stephen saw with the eyes of his body, "the Glory of GOD, and JESUS standing on the Right Hand of GOD." GOD grant that we also, like him, may hereafter see that Glory with our bodily eyes, when we shall rise again incorruptible, for JESUS CHRIST'S sake: to Whom, with the FATHER and the HOLY GHOST, be all glory for ever. Amen.

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