Project Canterbury

Dancing before the Lord
and Other Sermons
Preached in St. Ignatius' Church, New York

by the Reverend Arthur Ritchie

Reprinted from "Catholic Champion."

New York: The Guild of St. Ignatius, 1892.

Sermon III.
Shepherds and Kings.

"And when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto Him gifts; gold and frankincense and myrrh." St. Matt. II, 11.

One reading the brief story of our Lord's birth as related by St. Luke might well exclaim with the greatest enthusiasm, What a perfect tale! What an exquisite delineation! How could human pen have more delicately described the marvellous event the Evangelist would record for men in all the ages to come; there is not a word too much, not a phrase too little. It is like one of those dainty sketches which only the true artist can depict; his poetic spirit piercing the veil of nature discovers her hidden charms and with absolute fidelity puts them upon the canvas in such fashion that other less keen souls than his own may be told the enchanting tale and rejoice in the beauties which of themselves they would never have discovered. In two graceful scenes is the birth of the Saviour of men described to us. The shepherds in the fields keep watch over their flocks that cold December night, they are startled by the vision of the Angel who announces the birth of Christ the Lord, they hear the angelic chorus sing Gloria in excelsis Deo, and then they cry one to another "Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us."

Then the second scene, so briefly described yet so perfectly, "They came with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger." It is not said that they worshipped the Holy Child, nor that they brought gifts to lay at His feet. They came into the stable perhaps with uncovered heads, looked on for a few moments in silence, and then passed out again to return to their sheep. No deceiver however accomplished could have concocted such a story as this of the birth of the Saviour; we are at once convinced of the truth and literalness of St. Luke's narrative by its sublime simplicity, its absolute freedom from all affectation.

Truly one might say, This is perfect, add anything to it and you will have spoiled it. Yet the same Divine Spirit Who taught St. Luke what to write and how to write it has willed to make His own addition to the story by the pen of St. Matthew. Not, in one sense, to supply anything that is lacking in the story of the visit of the Shepherds, but to tell of another visit, equally marvellous, received by the Holy Child, and which is as important and precious in its lessons for ourselves as is the Shepherds' visit.

Twelve days after those simple folk of the Judaean hills had seen the new-born Lord, Wise Men from the East came to do Him homage. Like the Shepherds the Magi were supernaturally informed of the birth of the Saviour of the world, these by a Star those by the messenger Angel; like the Shepherds the Magi found their Lord at Bethlehem though whether in the stable now or in some other abode is not clear. There the similarity of the stories ceases. The Shepherds are not said to have worshipped the infant Lord. No doubt they did in their own homely fashion, in their hearts, yet probably not with outward obeisance for there is no record of their so doing; but the Magi it is expressly said "fell down and worshipped Him." The Shepherds brought no gift, so far as we are informed; but the Magi opened their treasures, brought for that purpose no doubt, and gave to the Holy Child costly gifts of gold, incense and myrrh. The Shepherds were humble folk, uncouth peasants of Judaea, the Magi were kings, for Isaiah had foretold concerning them "The Gentiles shall come to Thy light, and kings to the brightness of Thy rising." The Shepherds were Jews, the Magi were Gentiles, and we cannot but feel it fitting that He Who was to be the Saviour of all mankind should have thus manifested Himself at the very beginning of His life in the world, both to Jew and to Gentile.

This thought reminds us that we ourselves may properly claim both manifestations as our own. We may not be of the seed of Abraham according to the flesh, yet we are by God's grace the true spiritual children of Abraham who is the father of all the faithful, inasmuch as "He received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised; that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also: and the father of circumcision to them who are not of the Circumcision only, but also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham, which he had being yet uncircumcised." Jew and Gentile are united in one by the Gospel and we may rightly take to ourselves both the story of the Shepherds and that of the Wise Men. There is a common disposition to regard our-.selves of the Anglican Communion as holding the faith and practice of ancient Catholicity after a more excellent fashion than Christians of other Catholic Communions. Not that we would be thought to unchurch Greek and Latin Christians, as some of them have been willing to unchurch Anglicans, but that our own Communion having passed through the purging fires of the Reformation period has come forth with a chastened Catholicity that is our pride, and of which we may modestly boast. We indeed acknowledge it for true that the process which was intended only to purify was allowed to go much too far, and the Church was unhappily deprived of many of her rightful treasures and purest glories. We believe however that in the good providence of God the mischief done is not irremediable, that it affected the practice rather than the fundamental standards of the Church. The Prayer Book is still the pride and glory of the Anglican Communion for we feel that it embodies a sounder Catholicity, a more Apostolical ecclesiastical conception, than the formularies of any other Church in Christendom.

This may be ascribed to a natural and pardonable enthusiasm for one's own; yet making all allowance for that, we feel that we have whereof we may glory in the heritage of Anglican Christianity, at once pure in faith, chaste in worship, and full of good works. Such things as we still fall short in are defects of realization not of theory, and we are altogether confident because we can see that the daily life of the Church is fast approximating her standards, and the time cannot be far off when her practice as well as her theory shall be wholly conformed to the type of that once undivided Christendom which is her model.

It is pardonable then that we should dwell with satisfaction upon the simplicity of Anglican usage as compared with that of Greeks and Latins. We admire the unshaken orthodoxy of the Greeks, their tenacious clinging to primitive practice in many matters, yet we do not grudge them their highly elaborated and lengthened Eucharist, their hiding from the worshippers the tremendous act of consecration, their profound homage offered to the elements of bread and wine hardly to be distinguished from the worship due our Lord's most precious Body and Blood. We like our own Mass better than theirs.

We reasonably praise the zeal and earnestness of the Latins while we deplore their many cults and special devotions, their perfervid invocations, their tinselled Altars and bedizened images-Putting our own Anglican Mother over against her Roman sister we may thank God that we have been born her children and not of the sister, and we are more than ever satisfied with the less elaborate and severer type of Christ's religion in which we have been brought up.

And this is all very well within certain limits. The story of the visit of the Shepherds to the manger of Bethlehem is beautiful enough and complete enough in its way. We read it and say, There is the ideal of such service as our Lord would have at the hands of His people, all natural, all unadorned, all unaffected. So old-fashioned Church people who have learned in the years of a long lifetime to prize their Prayer Book speak with ardent affection of the Morning and Evening Prayers, of the sublime Litany, of the quiet solemn Communion Service for the faithful after the worldlings have left the Church and gone home to their Sunday dining. To such souls ceremonial and elaborate music and Sacramental restrictions are a hindrance and an evil. They come in between the soul and its Lord, they distract and trouble, they rob Christ's religion of its simplicity and therefore of its perfectness.

There are those too who will tell us that the very quintessence of charm about our Lord's religion is its freedom from form, its abhorrence of pomp and display. What could be more unaffected, more unadorned than the homely worship of the Shepherds about the holy manger? As it was the first homage our Lord received from the world, so no doubt also it was the best. For my part, cries one, you cannot have religion too simple for me. I need no gorgeous temple, no carved and sculptured Altar, no painted walls and windows richly stained, no jewelled robes and smoking censers to enable me to offer up my praise to the Most High. I could worship Him in a barn it need be, with only the homeliest and most meagre surroundings of devotion. I care not for magnificence and beauty in the service of my Maker. Yet, after all, is this the question? Is it what you care for, or what He cares for? No doubt He accepts and delights in the humblest house of worship and the most meagrely-appointed service if they be the best it is in man's power to set apart for the honour of his Maker, but not otherwise. He who is able to offer rich and beautiful things for God's service and brings only poor and mean things does not honour his Lord and will not be accepted in his homage. If it were true that the plainest baldest manner of worship is most agreeable to the Almighty we might well be content with St. Luke's account of the Nativity and the visit of the Shepherds to the holy Manger. We might say, So far as St. Matthew's tale of the Magi from the East is concerned it is not congenial to the spirit of true Christianity, but savours rather of superstition and the sort of formalism which keeps men apart from their Saviour instead of bringing them into closest personal contact with Him. Why indeed did our Lord vouchsafe to reveal Himself as the humble Babe of Bethlehem but that men might realize that all barriers were taken away, that God had become one with themselves, and that they could approach Him without fear and with no profound emotions of awe. From this point of view the Shepherds were enlightened, they came to their Lord in the true instinct of the Incarnation, while the Wise Men showed themselves yet enthralled to old-time superstitions, yet unable to appreciate the glorious liberty of the children of God.

Here we find a curious mixture of truth and error. Without doubt that side of the truth of the Incarnation which the story of the Shepherds presents to us is a most important, a most blessed one. Our Lord has made Himself one with us, our Friend, cur Brother, Who will enter into the inmost recesses of our hearts; nevertheless the other side, presented by the story of the Magi is equally necessary to warn us against permitting familiarity to breed contempt. While we rejoice at the perfection of His Humanity let us not forget to reverence with lowliest adoration His Divinity.

And to return to the subject of Mother Church rather than to dwell upon the duty of the individual Christian, I think our Anglican Catholicity needs especially this lesson. A pure theology is not merely one that avoids all questionable cults and devotions, but quite as much one that jealously guards our Lord's true Divinity and absolute authority. A chaste worship is not so much one that avoids man-made ceremonies and customs as one that faithfully carries out the ceremonies and customs which God has expressly declared to be acceptable to Him, and such as do Him honour.

Our Anglican Prayer Book is a model of simplicity and strength indeed, but its whole structure is unquestionably built upon the foundation of the ancient Catholicity of undivided Christendom, and he who ignores that fact will get from the using of it but a meagre and unworthy manner of worship. The Wise Men brought to the infant Saviour gold, incense, and myrrh, and it may be that Anglican Christianity has yet much to learn from primitive times, from the Greeks and from Rome of the use of gold, incense and myrrh in Divine worship.

I. There is the gold of glorious architecture and splendid decoration of God's house, that it may be as worthy as man can make it of its hallowed use. Our Mother Church of England has inherited Cathedrals and Abbeys and parish Churches as glorious as any in the world from bygone generations of her children, and in these days of the Catholic revival her sons are showing themselves not unworthy descendants of the holy men of old; yet it is true that we have much more to do, both in England and in this country, before we can claim to follow the example of the Magi in the gift of gold to the Babe of Bethlehem. Fair Churches, stately Churches, Churches of noble proportions, full of carved work and rich colouring, of statues of Saints and Angels, of pictures of great and noble deeds of God's servants, adorned with Altars so fair that men's eyes are charmed with their loveliness, and their hearts lifted up in ecstasy of praise,--these should be our gift of gold.

Shall we be told that the men of old times expended their money upon material fabrics while we give ours to feed the poor, to house the homeless, to care for the sick, to send the Gospel message to the perishing? "These ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone." One duty attended to does not absolve a man from other duties equally imperative. And there is money enough for showing mercy to the poor and for glorifying the house of God as well. I have ever found that those who were most eager to decorate and glorify the Sanctuary were also foremost in loving gifts to the poor. Make God's house glorious and you will not find those who worship in it backward in deeds of mercy. Men of other Communions put us to shame in this matter very often, they build up glorious Churches and Shrines and adorn them with gold and silver and precious stones, while we are too often content with small unsightly structures, unworthy of comparison with the very houses in which we live, how much more unworthy of being the dwelling places of God upon earth. From Greeks and Latins and from the Catholic world of old time we may with profit learn to bring wealth and glory to our Church building as the Jews might have learned from the three Kings to bring gold to lay at the feet of the Babe of Bethlehem.

2. There is the incense of stately worship, of rich and dignified ceremonial. Our Anglican taste may have no natural craving for elaborate ritual, for ornate and lavishly figured music, for the stately pomp of great ecclesiastical functions, yet is it not possible that these things belong fittingly, where they may be had and in such measure as they may be had, to the worship of the King of kings and Lord of lords? It is easy to say that God loves simple worship, but is the saying founded on fact? The worship He ordained for the Hebrews in olden time was anything but simple. The worship which St. John was permitted to witness in heaven was of the most ornate and magnificent description; the white robes, and the golden crowns, the harpers harping with their harps, the lightnings and thunderings and voices, the lamps of fire, the censers with much incense, the unearthly Alleluia chorus, the sublime Trisagion, the four and twenty elders rising out of their seats and falling down before Him that sits upon the throne while they cast their crowns before the throne--there, in that celestial worship, you have pomp and glory and ritual and everything most awe-inspiring, most heart-absorbing.

True, our greatest efforts after glorious functions here upon earth are but as child's play compared with that celestial worshipping, nevertheless if we offer the best our abilities and our means can supply, we are sure the service will be acceptable in the eyes of the King Whom we would honour. Anglican Christianity for many years has not been famous for great functions, for magnificent ceremonial. We have rather prided ourselves on our freedom from exuberant worship, on our simple music, our severity of ritual. Have we not then something to learn from Greeks and Latins, from the Catholic world of old time, of making God's Service high and glorious with exquisite music and artistic detail of ceremony, even as the Jews of old might have learned something from the gift of incense brought by the Magi to our Lord?

3. The gift of myrrh perhaps does not at first seem to accent the same principle, yet in reality it does. For myrrh means mortification, the life of penitence, self-denial in all its varied forms. A religion that has not much of self-denial in it is not a religion of very deep worship because there is not sufficient humbling of the individual. To worship God adequately there should be the supremest abasement of self on the part of the worshipper. I think the three Kings worshipped more profoundly than the Shepherds because we are told that they fell down before the Holy Child, and we are not told that the Shepherds did so. Their gift of myrrh mystically signified the same thing, that the truest worship of God is ever accompanied by self-abasement on the part of man.

Anglican Christianity is sadly lacking in this feature of true Catholicity. Not that there are not as devout and humble-minded Christians to be found in our own Communion as in any part of Christendom, only that as a Communion there is far too-little made of penitential exercises in the Anglican body. We have few enough fast days, yet how many keep those we have? Lent is perhaps well-observed in most of our Churches, or far better observed than in olden times, but when one has said that he has said almost all. How are Ember Days and Rogation days and all Fridays in the year kept among us? Our tendency is to make much of the more joyous feasts and to ignore the fasts. That is only the more superficial aspect of the matter too. We have so few penitential devotions among our prayers, so little of hardness in our lives. The idea that one ought to suffer for his sins, not indeed to take them away but to show genuine repentance for them, is repugnant to our minds generally. Most Anglicans reject the doctrine of Purgatory altogether, for they like to think of their dead only as enjoying the delights of Paradise not as doing penance fur their sins committed in this world. And they reject also the idea of penance while we are here, holding that the sufferings we have to endure involuntarily are quite as much as we can bear without adding hardnesses inflicted by our own wills.

Akin to this is the small use that is made of the Confessional. Because we have the idea of voluntary Confession being more profitable, and that therefore we should not be compelled by canonical regulation to confess our sins, the larger proportion of our people never confess their sins through the Sacramental ordinance existing in the Church for that purpose at all. We live and carry about with us the burden of our transgressions growing so used to them that we do not feel their weight, and thus coming to fancy that we are not really guilty at all. God promises to put away the sins of those who contritely confess them, but do you think real contrition and genuine confession are common virtues in our own Communion? And if they are not, have not Anglicans something to learn from Greeks and Latins and the Catholic world of old time concerning fasting, and penitential devotions, and the confession of sin, even as the Jews might have learned something profitable from the gift of myrrh brought by the Magi to the infant Saviour? Indeed it seems so to me: the story of the simple homage of the Shepherds must always be dear to us as telling us to how great humiliation our Lord has condescended in His Incarnation; but the Story of the Wise Men will not be less edifying as reminding us that He is King of kings and Lord of lords, Who has come in the flesh, and it is for us to bring the gold of all our costliest things, the incense of our most sublime worship, and the myrrh of outward and inward lives of penitence.

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