THE INNER MEANING OF SACRIFICE
"Thus were the things that belonged unto the sacrifices of the LORD accomplished in that day, that they might hold the Passover."--I Esdras i. 17.
AND it is even because the things that belong to the sacrifices of the LORD were in them accomplished, that we celebrate these festivals of Saints. Sometimes it is, that the short, sharp sacrifice of martyrdom was completed, and the victor has gone up, like Elijah, by a whirlwind to Heaven. Sometimes, that the life-long oblation of self is at length concluded, and the confessor has heard the: "Well done, good and faithful servant, thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things." Sometimes, that the lily has long enough been buffeted by the storms and waves of a tempestuous world, and is now transplanted into the gardens of everlasting spring. But in all, the text holds good. Thus were the things that belonged unto the sacrifices of the LORD accomplished in that day.
We keep to-day the feast of one of the greatest of Apostolic Bishops, the founder of the first-born, and on the whole the greatest, of the Churches of the West. His legend is a curious example of the innocent way with which fables have so got mixed up with the lives of the Saints. Painted, to signify by what death he glorified GOD, as holding his head in his hands, the representation was naturally taken as of a physical fact; and hence the fable of his having carried his head three miles.
It would be a grievous thing if we were called upon to believe that the greater part of Church legends, whether beautiful or grotesque, were only pious frauds. Take an example. A holy man founds a monastery, and dedicates it to S. Mary. His first need is to find water for his followers. He prays to be guided to it; goes out, discovers a clear spring. In after years, he will say to a disciple, "Here it was that S. Mary showed me where to find our fountain." After he has served his generation and fallen on sleep, that disciple in his turn will tell, "Ah! here it was that S. Mary showed the spring to our dear father." The next generation will have it," Here it was that S. Mary appeared to our blessed founder, and gave him the spring." And the next, "Here it was, that S. Mary appearing to S.------, touched the rock, and the stream gushed forth." The miracle is perfect; yet not one wilful deceit in the whole course of its formation.
That they might keep the Passover. The marriage of the Lamb is come, and His wife hath made herself ready. The King goes in to see the guests, and He beholds one arrayed in the victorious purple of martyrdom, and another in the golden vestments of confessorship, and another in the snow-white garments of chastity. Then begins the everlasting Passover, the new song, and the melody of the instrument of ten strings--
"The song of them that triumph,
The shout of them that feast."
Then does the Lamb as it had been slain, Victim once as well as Priest, King now and ever, receive the adoration of the four Living Creatures and the four and twenty elders, involving and embracing all with the inexpressible joy of the Beatific Vision. It is well said then, that they might keep the passover.
For what matter to those that have now sat down to the Banquet, all those sufferings that we daily read in the Martyrology? In comparison with the far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, what were even the agonies endured by S. Lawrence, or S. Vincent, or S. Erasmus, or S. Agatha, or S. Blandina, save light afflictions that were but for a moment? The shattering of the poor earthen pitcher, that the imprisoned light might more gloriously shine forth: the hinder part of the vessel broken by the violence of the waves, and the liberated prisoners escaping safely to the unknown land: the mantle of Elijah dropping from him, while with the chariot of fire and horses of fire he goes up to glory.
My Sisters, neither can we ever hope to keep that passover till the things which belong to the sacrifices of the LORD are accomplished. What are they? The Synagogue will teach us; for this it was ordained; this is its office, as it is written in the hymn you often sing--
"Et antiquam documentum,
Novo cedat ritui."
The lamb, the bitter herbs, the loins girt, the staff in hand, the banished leaven: and any one of those wanting will shut us out from the Marriage Supper.
And of that Mystic Lamb, my Sisters, you do again and again eat. Here He vouchsafes to dwell as in His own home; and either most terrible witness against, or most glorious evidence for each of you, will those hours that you kneel in His Presence some day bear. How often does that live Coal from off the Altar touch your lips? how often, with S. John, do you see with your eyes, and handle with your hands, the Word of Life? How often have you to say, as S. Thomas does--
"Taste and touch, and vision in Thee are deceived,
But the hearing only may be well believed;
I believe whatever God's own Son averred,
Nothing can be truer than Truth's very word."
If, then, this Lamb feeds you with His own Flesh' if this Pelican of Mercy gives you to drink of His own Blood, it is your parts and duties to see that the things belonging to the sacrifice of the Lord are accomplished in you.
And first, of the bitter herbs. What are they but earnest self-examination, and true-hearted confession, and the little self-denials of every day, in all Christians? But, in you, they are also the sacrifices entailed by the harder life you have taken up, the obedience to your rule, the silence, the confinement, the work, at home; and then, abroad, the isolation, and suffering, and fatigue, and watching; and, after all, finding that your labour is received as a debt, not accepted as a free gift. And in those things remember the promise of the Good Samaritan. To all He gives the two pence, the Chalice and the Paten; from all He exacts a certain usury at which they are to be laid out; to you He says, Whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee. Oh! most happy repayment, when labour undergone in the service of Lazarus shall be rewarded by rest in the bosom of Abraham. When the darkness of a vigil by the bed of death shall be recompensed where the LORD GOD doth lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof; when ministrations to the sick shall find an end in that land where the inhabitant shall no more say, I am sick.
Then, the leaven. Now that, my Sisters, has a most especial reference as regards you. For see what leaven is. Nothing in itself poisonous or harmful, only the decay and corruption of the most necessary of GOD'S temporal gifts. Just as I have so often said, how each of you in yourselves have to begin over and over and over again, so here we may learn that communities are liable to the same declension, and therefore must be reminded of the same duty.
Take an example. The end of the twelfth century was a dark and foul period in the Church. The ecclesiastics were so utterly worldly and impure, the laity so horribly bloodthirsty and blasphemous, that no wonder the coming of Antichrist was believed at hand. GOD then raised up two marvellous Saints,--Francis, to teach the merit of poverty; Dominic, to show that learning must be subjected to the service of the Cross. Both agreed in this: We will have no property; we will beg each day; on each day's begging we will live; if GOD gives us enough, well; if not, whether we live, we live unto the LORD, or whether we die, we die unto the LORD: in the meantime, everywhere and everywhen, we will preach CHRIST crucified.
For a generation, the fervour of those Orders was marvellous. The wonderful conversions, the reconciliation of enemies, the bringing of the most impure to perfect purity, put one in mind rather of S. Peter's sermons, than of anything else. And that first generation gave us the Dies Irae: how marvellously Thomas of Celano, its author, must have realized the Judgment, who need tell? And that thirteenth century was perhaps, on the whole, the most glorious of the Church. It gave us the Angelic Doctor, S. Thomas Aquinas, the Doctor of Christian Life: it gave us the Seraphic Doctor, S. Bonaventura, the Doctor of Christian Love; it gave us Hugh of S. Victor, the Doctor of Christian Mysticism; it gave us Adam of S. Victor, the greatest Christian poet of all times.
Pass three hundred years. And we find those Francisans--what? A set of jovial, popular, well-fed beggars despised and yet liked, first-rate boon companions; and that all. We find those Dominicans chiefly engaged in the Inquisition. Ah me! how was the fine gold become dim, and the most fine gold changed! GOD undoubtedly raised reformers; but the glory of the second house never equalled the glory of the former.
Take another instance. If there is one pattern of a Virgin Saint since the Church passed from her period of persecution, it is the dear spiritual daughter of S. Francis, S. Clare. Past four hundred years; and in a reform of the Clarissines in Holland, we find the rule forbidding sins as not uncommon among them, which GOD forbid your Sisters should meet with in the purlieus of Crown Street!
Good need, then, that we beware of leaven. We know how a little want of discipline soon degenerates into a downright breach of it; and so on and on till the whole lump becomes utterly lawless. And remember who that is, that is spoken of by S. Paul as the Lawless One.
Your loins girt. And that bears reference to the inward purity of which the vow of chastity is also the outward sign. And lastly, your staff in your hands. It is well said; for what is that staff? What but the Cross that He first took, and that you must take up after Him? The staff, so far like that to which Pharaoh, King of Egypt, is compared, that it may run into the hand and pierce it, even as the nails pierced His most Blessed Hands; but which is never so sure a support as when it hurts most; never so trustworthy a friend as when it goes most against flesh and blood; never so full of our Leader's virtue as when it best recalls (and how infinitely small that best is!) our Leader's pain. And so, my Sisters, if you can take all these things into your heart of hearts, then would these verses--and GOD grant they may--be applicable to you:--
"One to another, hear them speak,
The patient virgins wise,--
'Surely He is not far to seek;'
'All night we watch and rise.'
'The days are evil looking back,
The coming days are dim;
Yet count we not His promise slack,
But watch and wait for Him.'
"'We weep, because the night is long;
We laugh, for day shall rise;
We sing a slow contented song,
And knock at Paradise.
Weeping, we hold Him fast Who wept
For us, we hold Him fast;
And will not let Him go, except
He bless us first or last.
"'Weeping, we hold Him fast to-night;
We will not let Him go
Till daybreak smite our wearied sight,
And summer smite the snow.
Then figs shall bud, and dove with dove
Shall coo the livelong day:
Then shall He say, Arise, My love,
My fair one, come away. [Christina Rossetti.]
And taking up that Cross as the Saint of this day, and the Saints of all days took it up, then you will understand in their full meaning those glorious verses:---
"Against the threats
Of malice, or of sorcery, or that power,
Which erring men call chance, this I hold firm,---
Virtue may be assailed, but never hurt;
Surprised by unjust force, but not enthralled,
Yea, even that, which mischief means most harm,
Shall in the happy trial prove most glory:
But evil on itself shall back recoil,
And mix no more with goodness." [Milton's "Comus."]
And now, etc.