THE SACRIFICE OF CALVARY
"Behold, the son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners."--S. Mark xiv. 41.
I HAVE thought, my Sisters, that, dearly privileged as we are, daily to celebrate the greatest and most blessed of all Sacraments, it would not be without its profit if to-night we begin, and on succeeding Sundays continue, to go through the office itself of that Sacrament, as so many and many a mediaeval bishop or priest has done,--more especially in a religious house. For here is our great danger; here is what we shall most terribly have to answer when we stand before GOD'S Judgment Seat: HOW it is, that, day by day, we have been endeavouring to live, while day by day we have been approaching the Altar: how all those hundred, all those thousand Communions, then passed for ever, have helped us forward: or how they will hang like a tremendous millstone round our neck to drag us deeper into perdition.
We must not shut our eyes to this: that the perpetual familiarity with the most terrible action that man can undertake, blessed as in itself it is, most blessed as, in its effects, it may be, may also tend to blunt our feelings as to its danger. That has always struck me very much, as showing how use does deaden feeling, even in a saint, that which is told of Moses on Mount Sinai. First, think of the thunderings and lightnings, or rather bickering fires, and the thick cloud upon the mount; the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud, and waxing louder and louder, so that all the people in the camp trembled; and so terrible was the sight, that even Moses said, I exceedingly fear and quake: and then of his going up, the daysman between his people and their GOD, into the thick darkness. And yet, some few hours after, we find him so little impressed with a scene, the like to which there never was before, and will never be till the LORD'S Second Coming, that he actually reasons against doing as he is commanded: tries to excuse himself, as a child that wished to spare himself trouble might do with an earthly parent. Did those verses never strike you? And the LORD said unto Moses, Go down, charge the people lest they break through, and the rest of the commandment. And yet: Moses, to spare himself the trouble, said, The people cannot come up; and gives the reason too, For thou chargedst us, saying, Set bounds about the mount, and sanctify it.
And now, what of ourselves? The GOD of GOD, Begotten of the FATHER before all worlds, becomes in a certain sense incarnate in the hands of His priests. He who once poured forth His Blood on the Cross, pours it forth daily on our Altars. It is the Sacrifice of Calvary over again: the same Priest, the same Victim: only the method of the offering different. On Calvary He offered Himself in His Blood by a natural death, which was the separation of the Soul from the Body: on the Altar, He, now impassible and glorious, offers Himself by an unbloody and mystical death. On the Cross He offered His death then present; on the Altar He offers His death accomplished and consummated. He offered Himself on the Cross as a Sacrifice of Redemption, by which He merited for man all the graces that He shall ever bestow on His elect, or ever would bestow on them that shall be lost: He offers Himself in our churches as a Sacrifice of Application, by which He bestows those merits on the soul.
"And what, then, is His Majesty?" S. Bernard cries out, "for the extension of Whose glory and worship the Son of GOD vouchsafes mystically to die every day on innumerable altars! They tell of a certain saint that, in the ardour of his love, he wished that he had the power of creating Seraphim eternally to praise GOD. But thou, O priest, dost infinitely more. Thou, after a certain sort, dost call into being, not a world of angels, but the very and Eternal and Consubstantial SON of GOD, and that in the very action, at the immediate point of His work, whereby He most entirely and infinitely honoured Him Whom it was His whole life-work to glorify, His and our FATHER." So S. Bernard.
And further, my Sisters, in that Sacrifice of the Cross our dear LORD fulfilled, as it were, His destiny: laid down that life which He had received for the very purpose of laying it down. But now, after having so dearly bought the many mansions for us, after having by his infinite humiliation acquired the right, as Man, to sit at the right hand of the FATHER, here on the Altar He seems for a while to despoil Himself of that glory and of that majesty: the Lamb, as it had been slain, comes, not, as in that marvellous picture, to be worshipped by all the orders of the angelic hierarchy, but to be slain once more sacramentally; to be offered without suffering, to be partaken without being divided, to be consumed without being destroyed. [Van Eyck's Adoration of the Immaculate Lamb.] As one of the Greek Fathers says so sublimely, "This Sacrifice is the one column that supports the fabric of a tottering world."
Now, my Sisters, can I speak too often, can I speak too earnestly, about the holiness which such a Sacrifice requires in us all? In one sense, of course, it ought to be more necessary in a Priest than even in a Sister: inasmuch as it is undoubtedly a greater thing, holding the eternal WORD in mortal hands, to stand as the mediator between GOD and human nature; as S. Chrysostom says:" It is a greater thing, putting this most Divine incense on the censer to stand between the living and the dead, that the plague may be stayed: to bestow all the graces which GOD Himself can give, and to offer the noblest Sacrifice that humanity can present: it is a greater thing this, than even the eating that Flesh, and drinking that Blood, however often the blessing may come." But then, the Priest has an excuse, which others have not. The Church has always held that he may and must sometimes celebrate in a state in which for one not a Priest to receive would be a mortal sin: because he has no right to deprive of the Bread of Angels those whom it is his business to feed therewith.
It is as of old time: if the children of Israel are in fear and danger, and having the sentence of death in themselves, he must, whether perfect or not, approach the Heavenly Ahasuerus; and so will I go in unto the king, which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish. But on others there is no such necessity. They can, if they so will, be purified, as Hezekiah speaks, according to the purification of the sanctuary, before they receive Him, Who, when the earth is weak, and all the inhabiters thereof, bears up the pillars of it; when they join in that privilege at which, as S. Augustine says, Heaven is astonished, earth marvels, man trembles, the angels venerate, the devil shudders. S. Laurence Justiniani, preaching in some convent, tells the sisters there, that the hearts of those who communicate once a month or less, may be compared to an inn, where, if a great king takes up his abode just now and then for a night, he is satisfied with what is necessary, without looking for splendour; while those who communicate almost daily, are rather like the same prince's ordinary dwellings, in which, since they were built for that very use, he may naturally expect that they should in all points be conformable to their destination.
They tell a story of blessed Juan d'Avila, the apostle of Andalusia, that he was once assisting at Mass where the priest was evidently thinking of anything rather than of the work he had in hand: going through the service hurriedly and irreverently; and that, stepping up behind him, the saint whispered into his ear, "Do not thus treat Him Whom you are holding: He has not deserved it": and that the priest, struck to the heart, as soon as he was in the sacristy, asked to make a general confession, and ever after led an earnest life. Ah, my Sisters, are there not times when it would be well if to some of you, aye, to all of you, as you hold for one second the Bread of Angels in your hand, it could be whispered, "Do not thus treat Him Whom you are holding: He has not deserved it?" What! if that Victim held so then in your hands, should one day rise up in judgment against you? There will be such a thing as the wrath of the LAMB; and to whom so terrible as to them that unworthily behold Him every day on their altars?
That was well said by a saint of old time, "You, who hold the spotless LAMB in your hands, hold as much as you love": that is, His strength to you, His value to you, His help to you, is to be measured by your love to Him. What, my Sisters! And will you remain weak, when you hold the Source of all strength?--poor, when you have in your hand the Giver of all riches?--unloving, when He is there, Who not only gives, but is love? It was with a holy boldness, that a mediaeval saint, speaking of this heavenly manna, said: "I dare to affirm that GOD, who is omnipotent, could not give more: that GOD, who is all-wise, knows not how to give more: that GOD, who is all-rich, has nothing more that He can give. Oh, what ought to be the confidence of the receiver, when such is the goodness of the Giver!"
There is a story of a sister in some convent, who was allowed to receive daily. And her one thought, her one safeguard, her one buckler against sin, was this, and this only: "I have received to-day: I shall receive to-morrow." My Sisters, all of you to a certain extent, some of you almost to the same extent, might take that safeguard on your lips,--might you not? You know you might.
My Sisters, did you ever connect, in your own minds, these two clauses? JESUS, knowing that the FATHER had given all things into His hands,--began to wash His disciples' feet. If that Power, given to Him as Man, led to that humility, what ought not the power given here, whether to Priest or Sisters, of handling, of tasting, of living on, the Bread of Life, to work, in wonders of humility! I am not afraid about you, that you might shrink from undergoing the--or what the world would call so--the greatest humiliation; but how of the every day giving place, how of the poor, little, paltry misunderstandings, that every sisterhood has felt so sadly: that every priest, who has written at all, has treated of so earnestly?
Thus, this evening, we have thought a little about the preparation for the great Sacrifice. If it please GOD to spare us to the next, we will, as He may help us, begin the consideration of the Sacrifice itself.
This only I desire to remind you: what is the gratitude you owe to GOD for the privilege you enjoy of receiving it as you do? You know that there are no Sisters in England who can receive it as you do: who have it dwelling with them, abiding with them, hallowing them; unless in some Roman Catholic Sisterhoods. But then, compared even with them, is not this a blessing to have that glorious Chalice which they are so unhappily denied: that Chalice, to deny which to any one S. Thomas (for he lived before that miserable change) calls spiritual adultery; because, what our dear LORD joined together, man has separated? But I am not speaking to blame others, but to warn you. We are all of us too apt to forget this glorious privilege, what it is. Perhaps the best way of realising it is to remember what we should have thought of the happiness of those who had it, before we had it ourselves. Dearest Sisters, on the whole I am well satisfied with your efforts; I see the strength of the Blessed Sacrament in what you do for GOD. But can I say, can you, any of you, say, that altogether you are living and conversing, treating each other, obedient, gentle, loving, as they should be who receive the Immaculate Lamb almost daily? Judge yourselves by that rule. This day the SON of GOD has touched me, dwells in me, mingled Himself with me. To-morrow He will do the same thing. When I come to-morrow to receive Him, when I stretch out my hand to receive His Body, can I say that that hand has, since it touched Him last, done nothing to offend Him? When that Body touches my lips, can I say that these lips, since He touched them last, have spoken no idle word? I do not wish to put a difficulty in your way of receiving Him, as I should do in any Sisterhood but this; I mean, where the Sisters were, from year's end to year's end, always in the oratory, and able to communicate. It is not so with you. Some of you, by to-morrow night, may be fifty miles off, and never see the Blessed Sacrament again for a month. Therefore you not only may, but ought to feed upon it while you can.
But then, O my Sisters, how carefully! Think of these three things which you may say:--
I call myself the Lamb's Bride.
When at home, I receive His Body and Blood daily.
Any day, I might be called to go forth to almost certain death; and some day, in all probability, my Priest, in telling me to go to this or that place, will pronounce, though he knows it not, my death-warrant.
And ought you not, my Sisters, to be Saints? If, hereafter, you do not approach at least to that title, how can you hope to be saved at all?
GOD grant me so to speak, you so to hear, that you may be my hope and joy and crown of rejoicing: if it shall please GOD that I attain the lowest place in the Kingdom of Heaven, that you may be my glory and my joy!
And now, etc.