"Being confident of this very thing, that He Which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ." Phil. I, 6
The law of the world's progress is change-nothing remains, nothing is stationary, everything is restless, all things fluctuating. Surely the stars in the sky stand still. We call them fixed or stationary stars; yet their stability is only relative; they have their proper motions, they march on tranquilly but unceasingly to their destined end.
To the unthinking observer this constant change is mournful. Nothing endures, he cries, nothing is stable, and the sweet and pleasant things that make life worth the living hurry by and leave us even as the unlovely things we so gladly see depart. Rather, however, should one rejoice, at least so far as nature is concerned, that there is this unending flux, for thus are worked out ever more glorious and more perfect ends. How much better off is our planet now than it was ages ago in the glacial days! How much happier the condition of animate creatures upon the earth now than ten thousand or five thousand or even one thousand years ago! Think what secrets, ministering to man's power and wealth and comfort our century has wrung from nature, and as we go on to think what the century which comes after us is to achieve in the same, and perhaps many other fields, we may well be overcome by the vastness of the vision unfolded. Do you say, Yet there remains death? True, but are we not learning every day that all death is merely change, and change which ministers to higher types and conditions of life? Death is ever the marching onward of nature's hordes to higher things. There is an exception to this, as our Christian faith teaches us: the death of the human species means only progress towards higher things when there has been in the earthly stage of its existence moral integrity, loyalty to the law of its being, Man may go down to hell when he goes forth from this world, and that is but progress towards ever increasing woe. It is this which makes man the exception to all the rest of God's earthly creatures, and any doctrine which would give him heaven for a certainty under all conditions would be compelled logically to deny him free-will.
It is not, however, so much with the law of progress by change, of things in general, that I would deal now, as with a special and unique sort of progress belonging to a certain number of the human race only, albeit offered to a far larger proportion of them than ever strive to avail themselves of it.
God is pure action and His purposes for the universe are unceasing in their operation. No doubt it could be truly said of all created things "He Which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ," for the day of our Lord Christ is most obviously the day of final judgment, when He shall come again in glory, and the present law of progress shall give place to a new and far more wonderful and enduring one. So St. Peter says "looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God, wherein the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat. Nevertheless we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness." The largeness of that new creation teaches us that God will surely care for all His creatures, and to His wisdom and His mercy we may leave the puzzling questions that are too hard for us, and the case of the uncounted millions of our own race who have never so much- as heard the blessed name of Christ. The Apostle speaks directly and primarily of the children of God, those who have heard and hearkened to the message of salvation, when he says "He Which hath begun a good work in you, will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ."
I. Who then is He Which hath begun this good work in us, and when did He begin it, and of what sort is the work? As to the first it is clearly God the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, the Sanctifier of the faithful. And the work was begun in Holy Baptism, when being washed at the Font we were made members of Christ, the children of God, and inheritors of the kingdom of heaven. As for the nature of the work itself we shall understand it better as we progress in our investigation of the wonderful operation of the Holy Ghost in our lives.
It is of the essential faith of the Church that Baptism makes a radical and most important change in human life. Some Bishops once taught that this Sacrament did not of necessity imply any moral change in the person receiving it. They probably meant that a baptized man might sin just as grievously as one unbaptized, and that Baptism did not secure the person receiving it against falling into mortal sin, possibly being lost at the last day. Yet anyone who should teach that Baptism effected no change in those who received it would contradict both Holy Scripture and the unvarying doctrine of the whole Catholic Church. By these Baptism is commonly called the new birth, a being born again, an entrance upon a new and supernatural type of life.
We believe that when it was His good pleasure in the ages of the past, God supernaturally endowed inorganic matter with vitality so that protoplasm should begin its wonderful work in His universe. We may believe that when His good time had come He again endowed some lower organic creature with the sensations and instincts of animal being. We may believe that when He thought it best He imparted, by supernatural intervention, to the animal creature the rational soul and spiritual nature of man. So do we also believe that to those whom He calls to the knowledge of His grace, He offers at the Font the supernatural gift, in germ, of the heavenly life, which when developed shall be capable of entering into the society of the blessed spirits above, yea, even of sharing the joy of the life of God. This gift vouchsafed in holy Baptism is so real a thing that so far as we know it is absolutely unattainable save through that Sacrament. The Master's own words are "Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." It has ever been the doctrine of the Church that by Baptism the Holy Ghost imparted to us the vital principle of the heavenly life, a life much more wonderfully excelling the natural human life than that natural human life surpasses the existence of the brutes or that of the creatures of the vegetable kingdom. This is the good work begun in us by God's Holy Spirit.
II. It is said further that He will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ--of what sort is that performing? Its first most obvious feature is the personal gift of the Holy Ghost Himself in what we call Confirmation. He comes in every helpful capacity to the soul, not only as guide, philosopher and friend, but as a gentle nurse to cherish, a patient teacher to instruct, a loving sympathizer to comfort, a strong guardian to defend. Our Lord calls Him the Comforter, literally one called to us, an advocate, one upon we can depend to the utmost. Wonderful is the double manner of our Comforter's working. The Master says: "If ye love me, keep my commandments; and I will pray the Father and He shall give you another Comforter, that He may abide with you forever; even the Spirit of truth, Whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth Him not, neither knoweth Him: but ye know Him; for He dwelleth with you, and shall be in you." Not only does He stand without us fencing us about on every side against evil, but likewise in our inmost being He takes up His abode that He may fit us to receive blessed things from without as well as to adapt to our littleness those blessed things when received.
It was His gracious operation that adjusted the infinity of the Divine Person of the Son to the smallness of human flesh in the Incarnation; it was by His gracious operation also that blessed Mary was so sanctified that she could become the Mother of God. Perpetuating the same gracious work He adjusts the all glorious Body and Blood of the Lord to the humbleness of bread and wine, and then makes it possible for our spiritual digestion to assimilate even the heavenly Flesh of Christ in such sort that we may dwell in Him and He in us.
III. There is no cessation in the performing of the good work begun in us by the Holy Ghost so as far as He is concerned. There is needed for the growth and sustenance of the heavenly life within us supernatural food. Did you ever hear the pretty old-world fable of the pelican, who feeds her young with blood from her own breast? It was with thought of this that Christians chose the pelican as a type of our Lord Christ, since He does truly feed us with His own Flesh and Blood. To me this is the strongest of all arguments for the Catholic doctrine of the real presence. The heavenly gifts of the Altar are either our Lord's Body and Blood or they are merely bread and wine symbolizing that Body and Blood. Yet they are given to us as the spiritual sustenance of soul and body, the food that is to sustain the heavenly life imparted to us in holy Baptism. Could bread and wine do this? Of course not, nor can one conceive of any viands known to mankind that could possibly affect in any wise that strange germ of celestial existence hidden in our souls. When once the Body and Blood of our Lord are suggested as the proper aliment of this unearthly being, an altogether beautiful appropriateness is seen of the food to the nourishing it is to effect. Are we not to be made like our Master Christ? In the last day we are to be like Him; how shall we so truly grow into His likeness as by being fed constantly upon His very substance in this heavenly and spiritual manner in the Holy Communion? "He that eateth me, even he shall live by me."
IV. May there not be also medicine wanted? This Godlike power of free will which is ours may be exercised after a very devil-like fashion. Even the gracious Comforter, the Holy Ghost, may be driven from us by wilful sin. Can He be recalled? Will He return? Aye, surely, so soon as we repent with genuine sorrow and call Him back to us. In what lamentable plight He finds us, all filthy with sin and utterly disgraced, the heavenly life within us wounded sore and well nigh slain. As the good Samaritan in the parable poured oil and wine into the wounds of the stranger by the roadside, so through the ministry of the Confessional does the Holy Ghost perform the good work begun in holy Baptism, with sharp penances purging the wounds of sin of all hurtful matter, and then mollifying them with the oil of Absolution. If we have need to thank God for the heavenly food of the Lord's table, we have not less need to be grateful for the precious medicine of Confession. Alas, that we so little prize the bread of life: alas, that we so little avail ourselves of the sacrament of pardon and peace!
V. When is the day of Jesus Christ? Perhaps one might say, It is the day of a man's death, when his soul goes forth to meet his God. In some cases this may be so. There are doubtless servants of God so loyal to sense of duty, so zealously obedient to the leadings of the Holy Ghost, that the hour of death finds His perfect work performed in them. Such a soul was that of the penitent thief upon the cross, to whom the Master said: "To-day shall thou be with me in Paradise." For him the day of Jesus Christ was that Good Friday evening, when descending into Hades he found it illuminated with the glories of heaven, and was vouchsafed, with all the holy ones of the ancient dispensation, the Beatific Vision.
Yet for the large majority of Christian souls the beholding of the Beatific Vision, for that is the day of Jesus Christ, probably does not follow immediately upon death. The good work begun in us at holy Baptism is being performed by the gracious Spirit of God all the time of this life, if we be faithful, yet it does not to any great extent appear outwardly in human lives. To the children of this world the devout Christian may not seem very different from the upright moral man who uses not the Sacraments: yet underneath the surface there is a difference unmeasurable between the two lives. As in the springtime one may look upon two adjoining fields, and say he sees no difference at all in them--for the time of the coming forth of the seed is not yet--while if he could go down beneath the surface he would find the one field all filled with rich glorious life, with tender plants only waiting the genial showers of spring and the warm sunshine to cause them to thrust their heads up from out the womb of mother earth and cry We are here; and the other field only lying fallow, untenanted by teeming men-sown bursting seeds--so human souls may be full of the precious seed of eternal life, while in this world's eyes they be no more wonderful, no more holy than other souls that have never known the new birth of holy Baptism. And life for the greater number of God's faithful ones is no very triumphant progress towards beatitude. Men speak often of the struggle of existence, of the hard battle we all have to wage with the obstructions which seem to oppose themselves to every human career. The Christian, however, should rather speak of that which goes on within himself as the battle of life. Not external circumstances make the agony, but the unceasing struggle with sin. Who can look upon his own career past and present, with Christian eyes, and not be ashamed because of the failure of his spirit to overcome the lusts that lurk within, to fight manfully against the devil that assaults from without. "O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" cries the great Apostle. Could we have the dying confessions of most of the great saints of God I doubt not they would tell us that the whole of life had been one long battle, and that it seemed as if almost more had been lost than won.
Therefore death seems not to be so important an event in the course of that good work which the Holy Ghost began in us at Baptism and will perform until the day of Jesus Christ. Nay, we say, not that, for death means something most mysterious, most significant. It means for the Christian that the evil disease which all through the days of his earthly pilgrimage afflicted him, and would not be healed, is now cured, and forever. Do you remember how the servants of the nobleman of Capernaum met their master on his return from beseeching our Lord on behalf of his son, and said to him "Thy son liveth?" The sacred narrative proceeds, "Then enquired he of them the hour when he began to amend. And they said unto him, Yesterday, at the seventh hour, the fever left him." He had not simply begun to amend, but the disease had suddenly and wholly disappeared. That is what death does for God's faithful ones; it suddenly and absolutely cures them of the evil desire of sin against which all their lives they had contended. At the seventh hour, that is at the hour of the departure of the soul from this world into the intermediate state.
Still, you say, it is not the day of Jesus Christ. No, in most cases not, for though the fever has gone there remains the long gracious convalescence. He Which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ. The gentle nurse, the wise physician, the ever loving friend, God the Holy Ghost does not desert the soul in the hour of death, but still cares for and aids it performing the good work begun in Baptism.
What a blessed, joyous, torturing thing that great convalescence is? The delicious weariness that makes rest so sweet, the welcome pains that tell of returning strength and vigour, the longing for the free out-door life, that is now so certain so inspiring a hope. The souls of the righteous in the waiting world thank God for the pains that assure them of enduring health and glory, for the waiting that is making them meet for the happy energies of Paradise, for the shutting out of the full blaze of heaven's glory until such time as they shall be able to delight in it without being overwhelmed by it. The doctrine of the intermediate state of preparation for the fulness of joy is surely one of greatest comfort.
"Until the day of Jesus Christ." At last it has come. The Holy Ghost has performed to the utmost His great work of sanctification, begun in Baptism, carried on in the sacramental life, perfected in the waiting world, and now--the Master reveals Himself in all His beauty to the spotless soul, saying, "To-day shall thou be with me in Paradise." O day of days! O joy all joys beyond! What rapture to see Him as He is, aye to be like Him in one's own being; to know that one shall belong to Him wholly, for ever and ever, and that nothing can ever come between the happy soul and its all satisfying Lord. Could we but keep the thought of the day of Jesus Christ before our minds as we go on through this vale of tears, methinks that gracious Spirit Which began His good work in us at the Font would not find it quite so hard to perform it even to the end.