THe Principal Holy-days as Christmas, Easter, and Whitsunday, have some days appointed to attend upon them: some to go before, some to come after: as it were to wait upon them for their greater solemnity.
Before Christmas are appointed four Advent-Sundays, so called because they are to prepare us for Christ his Advent or coming in the flesh. These are to Christmas-day, as S. John Baptist to Christ forerunners to prepare for it, and point it out.
The Gospel S. Matth. 21. 1. seems at first more proper to Christs Passion than his Birth; yet is it read now principally for those words in it, Blessed is he that cometh in the Name of the Lord. That is, Blessed is he for coming in the Flesh, the cause of all our joy, for which we can never say enough, Hosanna in the Highest.
The Epistle labours to prepare us to behold with joy this rising Sun, bidding us awake from sleep, according to the Prophet Esay 60. 1. Arise, and shine, for thy light is come.
The Collect is taken out of both, and relates to both, the first part of it is clearly the words of the Epistle, That we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, That which follows, In the time of this mortal life, in the which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us, in effect is the same with that in the Epistle: Let us put off the works of darkness, &c. because the night is spent, the day is at hand, and our salvation is near; that is, our Saviour Christ, the light of the world is coming into the world to visit us in great humility, according to the Prophet, Zach. 9. 9. which the Gospel records, Tell ye the daughter of Sion (to her great joy) that behold Her King comes unto her, meek, (or in great humility) sitting upon an Asse.
The Gospel treats of Christs second coming to judgment, an excellent meditation to prepare us for the welcome and joyful entertainment of Christs first coming. A Saviour must needs be welcome to him that is afraid of damnation.
The Epistle mentions the first coming of our Lord for the Salvation even of the Gentiles, that is of us, for which all praise is by us, to be given to him. Praise the Lord all ye Gentiles, and laud him all ye nations together.
The Collect is taken out of the Epistle; and though it seems not to relate to the day, yet is it an excellent prayer for all times, and so not unseasonable for this.
The Epistle mentions the second coming of Christ; the Gospel, the first. The Collect prayes for the benefit of this light.
This week is one of the four Ember weeks, concerning which see after the first Sunday in Lent.
The Epistle and Gospel set Christ, as it were, before us, not prophesied of, but being even at hand, yea standing among us; pointing him out as S. John Baptist did to the people; Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world.
The Collect Prayes most earnestly and passionately to him, to succour us miserable sinners.
THe Epistle, Gospel, and Collect are plainly suitable to the day, all mentioning the birth of Christ. Besides, this Feast hath proper Psalms, in which some Verses are peculiar to the day, as will appear, if they be well considered. The First Psalm for the Morning Service, is the 19. The heavens declare the glory of God; very suitable to the Feast, for at His Birth a new Star appeared which declared his Glory and Deity so plainly, that it fetcht the Sages of the East to come and worship him, S. Matt. 2. Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his Star in the East, and are come to worship him.
The Second Psalm for the Morning is 45. Which at the beginning of it is a Genethliack or Birth-song of Christ, The fairest of the children of men, v. 3. And of his mighty success in subduing the Devil and the world by the word of truth, of meekness and righteousness, vers. 5. &c.
The third is Psal. 85. which is principally set for the Birth of Christ. For it is a thanksgiving to God for sending a Saviour, which should save his people from their sins, the greatest captivity that is; and therefore cannot properly be meant of any but Christ, who was therefore call'd Jesus, because he should save his people from their sins, S. Matt. 1. 21. And so the Primitive Church understood it, and therefore selected it out as a part of their Office for this day, as being proper and pertinent to the matter of the Feast: For the meeting here specified, ver.10. 11. of Mercy and Truth, Righteousness and Peace, was at Christs birth, who said of himself, that he was the Truth; who as he had a birth from Heaven, to wit, his Divine nature, so had he another as Man from Earth from the Virgin; which birth drew Righteousness to look from Heaven, upon poor sinners with a favourable look, and made righteousness and peace kiss, for the delivering of sinners from their captivity. True it is, the Prophet in the first Verses speaks of this delivery as of a thing past, Lord thou hast turn'd away the captivity of Iacob.
Yet for all this it may be a prophesie of our salvation by the coming of Christ hereafter: for as S. Peter sayes, Acts 2. 30. David being a Prophet, and seeing this before, spake of Christs Nativity, as if it were already past.
The Evening Psalms are 89, 110, 132. The first and last of which are thankful commemorations of Gods merciful promise of sending our Lord Christ into the world, that seed of David, which he had sworn to establish, and set up his Throne for ever. For which, O Lord, the very heavens shall praise thy wondrous works, and thy truth in the congregation of the Saints, v. 5. Psal. 89. The Church was in affliction now, as is plain in both these Psalms: but such was the joy that they were affected with, at the promise of Christs birth and coming into the world, that they could not contain, but even in the midst of their misery, break forth into Thanksgiving for it: and how can the Church excite us better to Thanksgiving to God for the birth of Christ, upon the day, then by shewing us how much the promise of it afar off wrought upon the Saints of old? The 110. Psalm expresly mentions the birth of Christ, ver. 3. The dew of thy birth, is of the womb of the Morning; as the morning dew brings, forth innumerable fruit, so shall the birth of Christ bring forth innumerable faithful people: and therefore the Prophet here does, as we should this day, adore and praise the goodness of God for the birth of Christ, the cause of so much good.
It is admirable to behold the frame of the Churches holy Office and Service this day. In the First Lessons, she reads us the prophesie of Christs coming in the flesh: in the Second Lessons, Epistle and Gospel, she gives us the History of it. In the Collect, she teaches us to pray, that we may be partakers of the benefit of his birth: In the proper Preface for the day, as also in the proper Psalms, she sets us to our duty of Adoring and Glorifying God for his mercy. In the Lessons and Gospels appointed, holy Church does the Angels part, brings us glad tydings of our Saviours Birth, Behold I bring you glad tydings of great joy, for unto you is born this day a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord, S. Luke 2. 10. In pointing the special Hymns and Psalms, she calls upon us to do the Shepherds part, to glorifie and Praise God for all the things that this day we hear and see, ver. 20. And to sing with the Angels, Glory to God in the highest, for this good will to Men.
For the Antiquity of this day, many testimonies might be brought out of the Ancients; but, because I intend brevity, I shall be content with two beyond exception. S. Augustine, Ep. 119. witnesses, that it was the custome of holy Church to keep this day: And upon the five and twentieth of December, in Psalm 132.S. Chrysostom makes a Sermon to prove that the keeping of Christmas-day was ancient, even from the first times; and that the Church kept the true day. In the same sermon he sayes, It is a godly thing to keep this day. Nay further, that the keeping of this day was one of the greatest signs of our love to Christ. Amongst other Arguments which he uses there, to perswade his hearers to keep this day, he brings this, that the custome of keeping this day was religious, and of God, or else it could never have been so early spread over the whole World, in spight of so much opposition. Orat. in Natal. Dom. Tom. 5. Edit. Savil.
IMmediately after Christmas follow as attendants upon this high Festival S. Stephen. S. John, and Innocents; not because this was the very time of their suffering, but because none are thought fitter attendants on Christs Nativity, than the blessed Martyrs, who have laid down their lives for him, from whose birth they received spiritual life. And there being three kinds of Martyrdom; 1. In will and deed, which is the highest. 2. In will, but not in deed. 3. In deed, but not in will: in this order they attend; S. Stephen first, who suffered both in will and deed. Next S. John, who suffered Martyrdom in will, but not in deed, being miraculously delivered out of boyling Cauldron, into which he was put before Port-Latin in Rome. Lastly, the holy Innocents who suffered in deed, but not in will: yet are reckoned amongst the Martyrs, because they suffered for Christ: whose praise these his witnesses confest and shewed forth not in speaking but in dying. [Collect for the day.]
The reason of the choice of the Epistles, Gospels and Collects for these dayes is plain, these being all priviledged dayes, that is, days which have in Scripture their peculiar histories. But for the Collect for S. Stephens day we may note in particular, That as the Church offers up some of her Collects directly to the Second Person of the Trinity, so one of them is this for S. Stephens day, and very properly; For as S. Stephen in the midst of his Martyrdom prayed to Jesus saying, Lord Jesus receive my spirit, and, Lord lay not this sin to their charge; so the Church in imitation of this blessed Proto-Martyr upon his day calls upon the Lord Jesus also desiring of him such a spirit as that of S. Stephen, to love and pray for our Enemies, which is that Heroical and Transcendant vertue which is peculiar to Christian Religion.
Before we endeavour to shew the antiquity of these days in particular, it will not be amiss to give some account of the ancient observation of Saints dayes in general.
That the observation of Saints days was very ancient in the Church will appear by these testimonies following. The Councel of Carthag. 3. c. 47. tells us that the Church did celebrate the Passions and Anniversaries of the Martyrs. This Counc. was held in S. Augustines time. S. Aug. in Psal. 88. Attend therefore my Dearly Beloved; All of you unanimously hold fast God your Father and the Church your Mother. Celebrate the Saints Birthdays (so they Anciently called the dayes of their Death and Martyrdom) with sobriety, that we may imitate them that have gone before us, that they may joy over us, who pray for us, that so the Blessing of God may remain upon us for ever. Amen, Amen.
Chrys. Hom. 66. ad. Pop. Antioch, The sepulchres of the Saints are honourable, and their dayes are known of all, bringing a festival joy to the world.
Before these S. Cyprian, l. 4. ep. 5. We celebrate the Passions of the Martyrs and their days with an anniversary commemoration. And before him Anno 147. the Church of Smyrna says the same Euseb. Hist. l. 4. c. 15.
If it be demanded why the Church kept the days of the Saints deaths, rather than of their Birth or Baptism? The answer may be: 1. Because at their deaths they are born Citizens of Heaven, of the Church triumphant, (which is more than to be born either a man or a Christian, a member of the Church Militant) whence (as above said) these days were usually styled by the Ancients, Their Birth-days. 2. Then do they perfectly triumph over the Devil and the world, by which the Church Militant hath gained, to her comfort, an example of persevering constancy and courage, and the Church Triumphant hath gained a new joy by the addition of a new member. For surely if the Saints and Angels in heaven joy at the conversion of a sinner, much more do they joy at the admission of a Saint into Heaven.
Thus much of the Saints days in general. For these three holy days in particular, that they are ancient, S. Augustine shews us, who hath Sermons upon all these days, Tom. 10. And Chrysol. who hath Sermons upon S. Stephen, and Innocents: And Origen in his Comment upon these words, A voice was heard in Rama, tells us, the Church did, and did well in it to keep the Feast of Innocents, and there is as much reason for the keeping of S. Stevens day, who was the first Martyr, and of S. Johns the beloved Disciple and Evangelist, as for the keeping of Innocents, and therefore it is to be thought, that the Church did then as well observe them as this, since, as we have proved, she did keep the days of Martyrs.
THis Sunday hath the Collect with Christmas-day; and the Epistle and Gospel treat about the same business, the birth of Christ; for we have not yet done with the Solemnity of Christmas. Thus great Solemnities have some days after them, to continue the memory of them, in prorogationem Festi.
THe Feast of the Circumcision is affirmed by Learned men to be of a later institution: for though many of the ancients mention the Octave of Christmas and Newyears-day, yet they do not mention or seem to keep it, say they, as a Feast of the Circumcision. But suppose it be so; yet surely it cannot be denied that there is reason enough for the keeping of this day solemn, as it is the Feast of Christs Circumcision: For as at Christmas CHRIST was made of a woman like us in nature, so this day he was made under the Law, Gal. 4. 5. and for us took upon him the curse of the Law; being made sin for us, and becoming a surety to the offended God, for us sinners. Which suretiship he seal'd, this day with some drops of that precious blood which he meant to pour out whole upon the Cross.
As by his Birth we received the adoption of Sons; so by his Circumcision, the redemption of the Law: and without this, his Birth had not availed us at all.
The Epistle, Gospel, and Collect are plainly fit for the day.
This Holy day hath no fast before it, the Reason we shall shew: and to save trouble, we will here once for all shew
Why some Holy-dayes have Fasts before them: and then, Why this and some other have none.
For the first. It was the religious custom of the primitive times to spend the night (or a greater part of it) before the Holy-dayes, in watching and prayers and tears, partly to prepare them for the more solemn and religious observation of the Holy-day following; partly to signifie that we should be as the blessed Saints were, after a little time of mortification and affliction, translated into glory and joy, according to the Psalm, Heaviness may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.] Thus after a Vigil comes a Holy-day. These Vigils, or night-watches, being in continuance of time, abused by the wickedness of some, who under colour of those holy nightly exercises stole a liberty of intemperance, lust and other villany, were, say some, by the wisdom of holy Church, to avoid scandal, turn'd into Fasts, which still retain the old name of Vigils. The truth of this Assertion I question; for neither do I find any decree of holy Church forbidding these Vigils: (the 35. Can. of the Counc. of Eliber; and the fifth Can. of the Counc. of Altisiodorum or Auxeres, which are usually produced to this purpose, coming far short of such a prohibition) nor is it so probable, that the Church should, for some particular mens abuse, forbid a practice so religious, commanded by our Saviour, S. Matth. 25. 13. commended to us by his practice at Gethsemaine, S. Matth. 26. 38. S. Luke 6. 12. earnestly urged by the Fathers of the Primitive times. I therefore rather think, that, whereas it was the ancient custome to fast the day and watch the night before the Holy-day, as S. Bernard tells us. Ser. de Vigil S. Andrei: in time, as charity and devotion grew cold, through sloth and restiness, this more troublesome part of devotion, the nightly watches were laid aside, and the Fast only retained, and that but slenderly observed. But it were to be wished, that, as the Fast might be retained, and more strictly observed, so the holy Vigils might be in part at least revived. For the night was not made only for sleep. Tradesmen, Mariners, Merchants, will tell you so much; they spend a good part of the night in watching for gain; will not you do as much for your soul? Besides, the darkness and silence of the night, are helps to compunction and holy sorrow; helps to meditation and contemplation: the soul is the more free from outward distraction. The sight of men lying a-sleep in their beds, like dead men in the grave, suggests a meditation of Doomsday. Let me therefore perswade men and women; Bend your knees, sigh, watch and pray in the night, Blessed is he, whom our Lord when he cometh shall find so doing: and because we know not what hour he will come, watch therefore. See Chrys. Hom. 26. in Act. This for the first; why some Holy-dayes have Fasts before them.
Now why this Feast of CIRCUMCISION, and some other have no Fasts, the reason is double.
First, because sometimes the signification of the Vigil or Fast, mentioned above, ceases: and the signification or mystery failing, the Vigil or Fast is omitted. For example, S. Michael upon this account hath no Fast, because the Angels did not by sufferings and mortifications, enter into their joy, but were created in the joy they have. But then secondly, though this signification and Mystery of Vigils and Fasts holds good in S. Mark, S. Philip and S. Iacob, and some other, yet they have no Fasts for another reason; because they fall either betwixt Easter and Whitsunday, or betwixt Christmas and Epiphany, which holy Church held for such high times of joy and Festivity, that they would not have one day among them sullied by pensive sorrow and fasting: Con. Turon. 2. c. 13. Epiph. in brevi expos. Fidei.
If the Fast for a Holy-day, fall upon a Holy-day; that is, if the day before the Holy-day upon which the Fast regularly is to be kept, be it self also a Holy-day, then the Fast must be kept the day before that. Decretal. l. 3. Tit. 46.