Project Canterbury

Sermons on the Blessed Sacrament
Preached in the Oratory of S. Margaret's, East Grinstead

by John Mason Neale, D.D.

London: H. R. Allenson, n.d.


"And when the people were come into the camp, the elders of Israel said, Wherefore hath the LORD smitten us to-day before the Philistines? Let us fetch the ark of the covenant of the LORD out of Shiloh unto us, that, when it comcth among us, it may save us out of the hand of our enemies. So the people sent to Shiloh, that they might bring from thence the ark of the covenant of the LORD of hosts, which dwelleth between the cherubims: and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of GOD. And when the ark of the covenant of the LORD came into the camp, all Israel shouted with a great shout, so that the earth rang again."---I Sam. iv. 3-5.

[Festival of Corpus Christi, 1861]

THIS Chapter formed the lesson for the first Sunday after Trinity long before the institution of Corpus Christi. Therefore the marvellous teaching it contains with reference to that Festival is, so to speak, a mere coincidence; only we know that all these things worketh That One and the Selfsame SPIRIT.

And what is the lesson? Your own hearts will already have told you. It is a warning lest we should employ the Ark of our Covenant as the Jews did theirs; and so, instead of finding it a savour of life unto life, and the leader to victory, we should learn that it only entails on us bitterer defeat, and more certain condemnation.

Wherefore hath the LORD smitten us to-day before the Philistines? No great need in those elders to ask that question, when they knew the horrible profanation of the tabernacle. Only let us take care that when we ask the same question about ourselves as regards our spiritual Philistines, we do not break off in the middle, as these Jews did here: but ask again and again till we come to the true reply. I have told you before now that Elisha made especial inquiry where the axe-head had fallen, before he threw in the piece of wood; and so must we,--where and how we have suffered the water-flood of temptation to overwhelm us, and the billows of transgression to swallow us up, before we can venture to put our faith in that dear Cross, itself to sink that we may rise.

Wherefore hath the LORD smitten us? Dear Sisters, we have reasons enough,--have we not?--why it should please Him that we should be defeated,--why we have so often fallen,--why, but by His great goodness, we may fear to fall again! Think,--when we have known that some especial temptation would assault us, how little pains we have taken to stand on our guard against it; think, when some post has had (we knew it in our consciences) to be won, we have said, as the spies did about Ai, Make not all the people to labour thither, for they are few. Think, too, how little we realise to ourselves the need we have of grace every hour and every minute, till we find, when we are left to ourselves, that never was sick person weaker, never was child more helpless. So, partly in anger, partly in love, we are defeated by our enemies, as the Israelites by theirs.

But yet there is something good in the question too. It was not, Wherefore have the Philistines smitten us to-day? but, Wherefore hath the LORD smitten us to-day before the Philistines? Yes; and so, for our comfort, when we have fallen, we may nevertheless say to the temptation, whatever it were, that carried us away, Thou couldest have had no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above. For our fault, doubtless: but still, given; given, as distinctly as the power to afflict Job was given in the assembly of the sons of GOD. And truly I think that, could an inhabitant of another world be suddenly introduced to this, told of the invincible strength GOD has provided for us,--in the Sacraments, in His promises, by His own incorporation with our nature,--that the first impression would be one of wonder that we could ever fail. See how it was in the case of Ai. The Jews, always accustomed to conquer (except on the one occasion at Hormah, where Moses had prophesied their defeat), were even more amazed than afflicted at their loss. O LORD, what shall I say, when Israel turneth their backs upon their enemies? Might not our True Joshua utter the same words? He That trod the wine-press Himself alone: He That, all power being given to Him in heaven and in earth, puts it likewise into our hands through the suppliant almightiness of prayer. What must He have said when from the watch-tower of the Cross, He saw His Israel so often vanquished, yes, and even for a season trodden down, by their enemies? What must He have said? We know. I looked, and there was none to help, and I wondered that there was none to uphold; therefore Mine own arm brought salvation unto Me; and My fury, it upheld me.

Let us fetch the Ark of the Covenant of the LORD out of Shiloh unto us. Now some have questioned whether these Jews were not utterly wrong in summoning the Ark into a scene of war and bloodshed. But the contrary seems very clear. In that battle of Hormah of which I was speaking just now, after Moses had said, Go not up, we are told that the people would presumptuously go up: Nevertheless, it expressly adds, Nevertheless the Ark of the Covenant of the LORD, and Moses, departed not out of the camp. This surely proves that had Moses led the people, the Ark would have been carried out to the battle. So the army was but here acting on its ancient traditions.

And how often, my Sisters, have we summoned our True Ark, that Ark, made of the shittim wood of immortality, and overlaid with the gold of the love of Calvary! How often have we called on that, to deliver us from our enemies! And may I not say, How often it has so delivered us! That would be sad beyond all sadness, if each of you could not call to mind signal examples of this: times when you might have said, Nevertheless my feet had almost gone: my treadings had well-nigh slipt; and He, Who in His own dear Form held up Peter on the water, has, under the similitude of Bread and Wine, held up you! Right or wrong in the Israelites of old, we know what is our duty with regard to our mystical Ark. No place so mean, no spot so lowly, that the LORD of Heaven and earth thinks scorn to enter it. Think, in a Christian land, how few are the rooms in which at some time or other it has not been! And that is a neglected house indeed which the Eternal Word has never, in His Humanity and Divinity both, entered into and blessed!

As to this Oratory, my Sisters, how often, when we have had a difficulty to struggle through, or a battle to fight, in common, have we sent with all speed to the Heavenly Shiloh for our glorious Ark, knowing that we should fare better for the advent of so great a Guest! But then there is this terrible question for us,--for each of us, and for us all in common: have we ever so sent for it as the Israelites here,--still cleaving to our sins, still worshipping (look on further and you see they did) some Ashtaroth of our own heart's desire, and yet trusting to that? By what hands it was brought to the camp at Eben-ezer, you know: by those of Hophni and Phinehas: hands reeking with sacrilege and impurity. And do we not know, my Sisters, that with us also, as that wise officer told the Samaritans, with us also, there have been offences against the LORD? What coldness, when the LORD of Love drew nigh! What want of perfect forgiveness to others, when He That has forgiven us the ten thousand talents approached! How much of impurity, when the Immaculate Lamb, He That is of purer eyes than to behold iniquity, was received! And if His mercy has kept us from gross sacrilege, yet oh! my Sisters, who can say how many spiritual defeats we have known after, and because of half worthy Communions. But notice the misbelief in which those elders spoke. Let us send for it, that when it comes, it may save us out of the hands of our enemies. No. GOD had once, by His own strong right hand and His mighty arm, delivered His people, they contributing no whit to His work: when they were baptized in the cloud and in the sea. Now, let the Ark be with them never so much, it cannot fight for them. It may assist them to fight for themselves: but they must be fellow-workers with GOD.

And so the analogy holds true yet. Of Baptism it might truly be said, that when it comes, it may deliver us from the hands of our enemies:--not, in any accurate sense, of the Holy Eucharist. No: it may fill us with strength, it may fire us with love, it may give us power to go upon the lion and adder: it may be the cause, and source, and spring of glorious victories, of noble efforts in GOD'S service,--it may enable you, my Sisters, when called Home, to carry with you to your Divine Husband, without one soil or crease or blemish on its petals, the Lily of Chastity: nay, in a certain sense, if you should lay down your lives in His service, the Rose of Martyrdom. These things it may work in you; but not for you. That dear LORD will have you yourselves labour and fight; remembering that which He spake by His Apostle: If a man also strive for masteries, yet is he not crowned except he strive lawfully.

And when the Ark of the Covenant of the LORD came into the camp, all Israel shouted with a great shout, so that the earth rang again. Ah me! how different was that time, when the Truer Ark first came into the LORD'S camp! That little terrified band-the connexion of the great new gift with the fearful unknown curse, when after the sop Satan entered into the traitor. If blessing and comfort, such as never yet, on the one hand: sacrilege beyond all example of past ages on the other. No shout of victory then, so that the earth rang again;--No: The kingdom of GOD cometh not with observation,--only the trembling voices that asked, Master, is it I? and another said, Is it I? No triumph on the part of the Leader in that great battle; but those fearfulest of words, That thou doest, do quickly. No triumph on the part of the followers; but only a strife among them which should be counted greatest. That was the way in which the Ark of the LORD first came into the Army of the Church; thenceforward never more to leave it, but on two occasions. The one, past: the Friday and Saturday of our LORD'S Passion, when, the tradition of the Church is, that there was no celebration; and perhaps (for it is one of the hardest of the questions of theology) could not have been one: the other, future: the three days and a half in which the dead bodies of the two witnesses shall lie unburied, when the last spark of the Church is, for the time, crushed out, before the LORD'S Advent.

But whatever might have been in the camp of the Church then on that sad night, do you not imagine that the spiritual Philistines perceived that their dominion was coming to an end? What must they have felt when they beheld the Great High Priest preparing to enter into the Most Holy Place, and, when He had offered the Sacrifice of Calvary for Himself, leaving the Sacrifice of the Altar for them that should come after! Did they not feel the great succour that was about to be bestowed on the human race? Did they not, think you, say, and that most, truly: GOD is come into the camp? And they said, Woe unto us, for there hath not been such a thing heretofore. What is that, but: Neither is there any nation which hath its gods drawing so near to them, as the LORD our GOD is to us?

Well, my Sisters, if there is any one house which ought to feel this strength, to make the best return for this love, and to acknowledge also (for so every privilege must always have) this danger, it is here. You, and none else, form that house. I trust, if it be GOD'S will, that after our brief separation from each other, we shall return to that system which for so many years we had: our Celebration, which is, as S. Cyril somewhere says, the golden key which unlocks every day, and that more and more your Holy Communions, and the hours you spend before the Blessed Sacrament, may tell upon you, may make you more and more that which you ought to be; so full of love, so self-denying, so pure, so holy, that the best periods of the Religious Life should be again represented in you. But remember this; this will be done by the Blessed Sacrament, or it will not be done at all. So receiving, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness?

The mediaeval commentators have yet one, and that a sadder interpretation of the story. They see in the ark, the grace bestowed in Baptism. They see it sent forth, invoked, leant upon, in carrying on our great battle with the world. They see the high hopes, the full certainty, with which the conflict is commenced. Finally, in the evening of life, they see the enemy victorious, the Christian soldier defeated, the ark lost, baptismal grace overwhelmed, the harvest past, the summer ended, the man not saved.

But I would rather see, dear Sisters, that grace strong in you, to do, in the midst of a miserable and naughty world, the mighty acts which the ark did in the land of the Philistines: many a Dagon overthrown; wherever it goes, that grace testified to by victories of love and faith. And then, at last, that ark brought back to the true Canaan, and, in the time of the Eternal Harvest, lodged safely in the Heavenly Beth-Shemesh; for Beth-Shemesh is, by interpretation, the dwelling of the sun. Oh, happy Sister, when the work of her baptismal grace shall there be for ever saved from her spiritual foes; when the reapers, which are the Angels, shall welcome it to the barley-field of glory; when the sun shall be no more her light by day, neither for brightness shall the moon give light to her; but, in the Beatific Vision, the LORD shall be her everlasting light, and the days of her mourning shall be ended!

And now, etc.

Project Canterbury