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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. Alban. June 17.


THIS day is very interesting to us for two reasons: first, because S. Alban was an English Martyr; and secondly, because he was the first English Martyr. He lived at a town in Hertfordshire, which was then called Verulam, but now has taken its name from him, and is called S. Alban's. A soldier he was, and a heathen; but, notwithstanding, when the persecution broke out, he took in and sheltered a Christian Priest, gave him food and lodging, and preserved him from his enemies. No doubt GOD was well pleased with this deed, even in a heathen. For although good works done before baptism cannot deserve favour, yet He sometimes is pleased to reward them. And so it was here. He gave Alban the grace to become a Christian; He gave him the grace not to fear them that kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do; and so his head was struck off, and he entered into the joy of his LORD.

The great church that they built over his tomb stands to this day, and you may still see the stone that lies on the very spot where he suffered.

But this, of all things, is his great glory--that what S. Stephen was to the whole Catholic Church, that S. Alban was to our own dear Church of England--its first Martyr. To be the first to do or to bear anything for GOD'S sake is an honour which we shall not fully understand till that Great Day when the secrets of all hearts shall be opened. In the first place, it requires more faith. So you read in that chapter of the Book of Joshua where my text is, that when the children of Israel were about to pass over the river Jordan, where there was no bridge, where the water had overflowed all his banks, where they were to trust, simply and quietly, to GOD'S word that He would bring them through; it was the priests, His more immediate servants, who had to go down to the bank, and as soon as their feet were dipped in the water, but not a moment before, then the waters stood up on one side on a heap, and left a dry passage for all the multitude. Those Priests had the more glorious part, they were the first to obey GOD'S command, though it seemed to lead them to their certain destruction. And S. Alban's faith was like theirs. GOD called him to die for the True Faith. We have heard and read of multitudes that have done so; not men only, but women, girls, even infants, that out of weakness have been made strong. But Alban had no such examples before him. "Ye have not passed this way heretofore" was exactly true of him. There had then been no martyrdoms in this England of ours. But it was enough for him to follow where GOD led. He was a soldier, and he knew that in all wars some man must march first. He was a Christian, and he could say, "Nevertheless I am not ashamed; for I know Whom I have believed, and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I have committed unto Him against that Day."

And another reason why it is more glorious to be the first to obey GOD'S commands is, that it makes us more like CHRIST. He was the first that conquered Satan; He was the first that burst the bars of death; He was the first to ascend into heaven. Therefore He is called the Captain of our salvation, our Leader, Who bids us do nothing that He has not done Himself. He tells us, when He putteth forth His own sheep, He goeth before them. Therefore, when we can go before others, and show them how to obey GOD, we become in some degree like Him Who went before us all. Not that this going first is easy or pleasant. See where it led our LORD. It led Him to suffer hunger, thirst, weariness; to be in the wilderness forty days and forty nights; it led Him to be reviled, mocked, spitted on; it led Him in the company of two thieves to the hill of Calvary; it led Him as high as the Cross, as an example to those that should come after Him. Yes, it is not an easy thing to serve GOD at all; but least of all easy is it to serve Him first. It is difficult enough to follow a good example. It is a great deal more difficult to set it.

Now, in one sense, these words of Joshua, "ye have not passed this way heretofore," are true to us all every hour of every day. Always new temptations are coming, always new difficulties are rising up, always new troubles are threatening us. We may have had like things before, we may have felt and feared something of very nearly the same kind, but not exactly the same. Therefore every day we need the grace and the help of GOD in something of a different way from that in which we needed it before. But the comfort is, if all these things are changing around us, there is One Who does not change, JESUS CHRIST, the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever. Whatever kind of help you need, He is seated at the right hand of the FATHER to give it you. Fifteen hundred years ago, He was ready to assist S. Alban in his Martyrdom; He was ready to crown him when it was over. Since that time, think of the multitude of His servants, who in all sorts of distresses, in all kinds of fears, in all manner of temptations, have called on Him, and have found Him a very present help in time of trouble. And His Arm is not shortened now. If He had grace sufficient for the martyrs, depend upon it, He has enough grace to carry us through this life, yes, and through the Valley of the Shadow of Death also.

No; His Arm is not shortened. And so you would say if you could see what I have seen within the last few weeks. Only a year ago, in one of the wildest and fiercest countries of Asia, where there are but few Christians, our LORD gave grace to thirty to die for His sake. It seems strange to hear of Martyrdoms in our own time; but so it is. While I, perhaps, was talking to you of martyrs, than which nothing is more easy, these servants of GOD were playing the man for His sake, and becoming martyrs. One of them was a Bishop; the greater part were mere common Christians in that country, what you all might be here. Their bodies, or what remained of them, were brought to the city of Paris, where multitudes of people go up every day to see them. But the most interesting part I have not told you yet. There was one among these martyrs who was kept to the last; he had suffered torments for the sake of CHRIST, but he saw all the others beheaded first, and then his own turn was to come. He was just about to be put to death, (it was by the sea-shore,) when a French ship came into the bay, and the savages were afraid, and let him go. He also is in Paris, with the remains of his companions, and you may see the marks of the knives on his arms and hands, of which he has lost the use. "It was GOD'S will," he says, "but, had it not been for that unfortunate French vessel, I should now be in Heaven."

With all these examples, then, not only of what GOD has done, as it was with S. Alban, but of what He still does, as it was with the thirty martyrs of last year, what business have we to doubt that He will not be able to take care of us through this life, and out of it? What business have we to fear when we come to any new trial, any place or thing of which it may be more particularly said, "Ye have not passed tins way heretofore," that nevertheless we shall not pass it safely? Only let us be ready to do or to bear what He sends us; only let us try to be the first to hear what His Will is, and the first to attend to it, and if we, the HOLY GHOST helping us, take care of that, He will take care of all the rest. They that are first in His service, are first in His favour: "They that seek Me early shall find Me." This indeed would be grievous, if we desired to be the first in all earthly things--man's good opinion, money, comfort, and what not else--but in that which really alone matters--GOD'S favour--we are content to be last. Last in everything else, if you will; but let us try to be first in that.

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

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