New Year's Eve.
As the Days of a Tree.
Isaiah lxv. 22.
ONLY a few more minutes now, and tins year will be with the other past years of the Church; with those which, in primitive times, each had their own offering of Martyrs; with those which, as the earth became the LORD'S, and the fulness thereof, were each adding grace and laying up glory for righteous souls made perfect through much tribulation. One of the most ancient of Christian poets represents the cities where persecution had chiefly raged, as vieing with each other in the Day of Judgment in their oblation to the LORD of so many martyr crowns, of so many deeds of faith and hope and love. So we may picture to ourselves each year of those that have passed between the time that our LORD'S feet for the last time stood on Mount Olivet, and that in which the sign of the Son of man shall appear in Heaven. Each with so many sacrifices of love to offer to Him from Whose one Sacrifice of love all flow: each releasing' from the possibility of sin so many of His elect, accomplishing their warfare, pardoning their iniquity. And what they have to do with reference to the whole Church, that also, dear Sisters, is their office with respect to each of us. And one thing this year, now almost past, will testify against us,--against me, as much at least as against you,--that we have never before had so many means of grace, that that heavenly dew has never in preceding years been so abundantly poured down upon us. Reckon for yourselves how many times that heavenly manna has descended into this Oratory: remember in how very few places throughout England, the Great Sacrifice has so continually been offered up; remember how you yourselves have again and again, often for days together, received Him Whom "the Heaven of heavens cannot contain." Think how you have knelt before the LORD of life and healing. Think of all your Hours, your own prayers here, your Confessions. Add these all up into one sum, and so try to form some faint idea of the account which this year is about to render of you to GOD. For myself, I, too, dear Sisters, have, if not the same account. at least an equal account, set clown against me. And this in addition: that I cannot so often have spoken to all of you, prayed with all of you, found fault with all of you, heard your falls and your difficulties, without making myself liable to that terrible saying of S. Paul: "Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest."
All this is certain: the thing which is uncertain, the thing which, examine ourselves as we will, we can hardly in this world attain to an absolute knowledge of, is, how far, with such helps, we have made a proportionate advance.
And see, then, what a comfort the text is; and see also what a depth of meaning there is in it. "They shall not build, and another inhabit; they shall not plant, and another eat." That can only be perfectly true in the next and happy world. Here we know, too sadly, that what we endeavour to do of good, evil, or rather the author of all evil, comes and spoils. We build, and he inhabits. We know that when we form any new resolution, when we determine that this time we will keep to it, then he--perhaps by the very first temptation--utterly destroys it. We plant, and he eats. But yet in another sense, even in this world, the text is true; and true to our great comfort. We build and plant, not for ourselves, but for Him Whom we desire to love above all things,--for Him Whose service is the only thing which makes life worth having;--and yet, though all be done for Him, though all be given to Him, yet still, "Ye shall not build, and another inhabit; ye shall not plant, and another eat." Why? Because He and we are one: because by that ineffable nearness of eating His Flesh and drinking His Blood, we are made bone of His Bone, and flesh of His Flesh. He is not another. He is the same. Oh what a dear thought that is for you, my Sisters! "They two shall be no more twain, but one. "
"For as the days of a tree are the days of My people." Yes; in both senses. What are the days of a tree here? Its small beginnings; the apparent death of the seed; the weak, puny sapling, that might so easily be trodden down, that every blast threatens to lay even with the ground--then, as it grows up to perfection, its fierce struggles with great winds; shaken, buffeted, spoiled of its foliage, but only striking out its roots wider, and sending them deeper, for all that; it may be, once or twice in the course of its existence, a huge branch reft off; and then, all the beauty of its soft green leaves; all the pleasant whispering of the summer breeze among them; all the shelter they yield to the birds, with whose songs they are repaid; all the solemn music they make when the autumn tempest roars and riots through them. These are "the days of a tree;" and yours, my Sisters, is there no parallel between the two? Those small beginnings of faith, and hope, and love; the temptations and assaults of Satan, and the world, and the flesh; these are the saplings, these are the tempests. And I hope, dear Sisters, that others, in your good works glorifying your Father in Heaven, will seethe beauty; others, in your tenderness and lovingness, may find the shelter.
But that is not the only tree. Your life will not always be like that. That is the earthly. Which is the heavenly? Why, then we think of that Tree of Life in the midst of the Paradise of GOD, which you must also resemble; that Tree, planted by the rivers of waters, the rivers of pleasure which are at GOD'S right hand for evermore. The Tree, the fruitful Vine, according to Jacob's saying, against which the archers shot, and wounded Him and grieved Him, but which by their means, has now "stretched out her branches unto the sea, and her boughs unto the river:" has now become that tree, in which the fowls of heaven,--each poor weak trembling soul that yet is trying to rise above earth, that yet would fain soar to Heaven,--may lodge among the branches; may, as the wise man speaks, "dwell in a lodging where all good things are."
"And Mine elect shall long enjoy the work of their hands." Long indeed! The work of hands, dear Sisters, consecrated as yours, can never perish. First and foremost, the saying is true of the Captain of our Salvation,--elect above all the millions of His followers. He, indeed, did long enjoy the work of His Hands; that hard, that painful labour, when all that day long He stretched forth His Hands unto a disobedient and gainsaying people. Those hands, dearest Sisters, have alike hallowed and strengthened ours: they teach our hands to war, and our fingers to fight. He who now inherits and enjoys their work, will give us the work of ours also in His own season.
Now, in looking forward to the year on which we are now trembling, I see this great opportunity, this fresh epoch given us, of starting afresh. True, of course, every day begins and ends a year equally with this; but in such marked times we shall do well to find an additional incentive to commencing all over again; to saying with the Psalmist, "Now have I begun." We will remain in prayer here, when I have finished speaking to you, till the clock strikes twelve; and what are we especially to pray for? I will tell you.
If now for the future the King of Glory will more frequently tabernacle among you, pray for yourselves, dearest Sisters, that you may be more and more fitted to be so much in His Presence. Now, scarcely an hour, either by day or night, that this little Oratory will not be His Court: scarcely an hour, at which it will not diffuse its blessings all around it, if only your hearts are pure and holy to receive them. You now know something of this great blessing: it has been a comfort to you in trouble; it has helped you; and I am not afraid, but that you will endeavour to live lives more and more worthy of its more continual reception. And henceforth I hope that each one of you will no more think of omitting her visit to the Blessed Sacrament, than she would her daily prayers. Here, daily, you must shut the doors of your hearts from everything else, to be alone with the Beloved. Here, daily, you must try, long, strive, yearn, after that nearness to Him, which His Sacramental Presence can give His people even here. Truly, now it may be said of you, 'O taste and see how gracious the LORD is!" Surely, if your own dear King vouchsafes thus to arm you in those still and holy hours, what is it, but that He expects you to fight valiantly the battles of the LORD when you are thrown out into the world! Happy Sister, who can give herself to Him with such perfect self-negation here, and can devote herself for Him with such perfect courage there!
And then, my Sisters, let us pray that He Who alone can order the unruly wills and affections of sinful men may, if it be His will, still preserve, you in a peaceful home here. I know that this must be prayed for, in submission to His Will only: but then, who can tell how far His Will may depend, so to speak, on the earnestness of your prayer? You know that He often withholds a blessing, or seems to withhold it, in order that we may ask it the more earnestly; so faith may receive the greater honour, and His Name be more abundantly glorified. But remember this. Even if, after all, His will should be otherwise; if we should have to give up this dear little place, with all its associations of the past, and all its hopes for the future, still your prayers will not have been thrown away. Prayer can no more be wasted than love. This: if it he GOD'S will; if not this, then something better: better for us, perhaps, in this world; better for us, certainly, in the next.
And so now, as the ancient Liturgies say, let us commend ourselves and each other and all our life to CHRIST our GOD: ending this year, as is meet, with prayer, and beginning the next, as is no less meet, with praise. This, too, is the custom all over Europe, (not indeed in village Churches, but in Religious Houses;) or something like this. And then, let us pray for the New Year, with all its unknown, and as yet unborn, joys and sorrows; that its sorrows may knit us more closely to Him Who, in the days of His pilgrimage here, was Himself a Man of Sorrows, and acquainted with grief: that its joys may fit us for those joys--or rather for that one joy--which He Himself has promised, which He Himself gives, which He Himself is.
And now to GOD the FATHER, GOD the SON, and Gou the HOLY GHOST, be all honour and glory now and for ever. Amen.