Project Canterbury

The Third Annual Catholic Congress: Addresses and Papers

Albany, New York, October 25, 26, 27, A.D. 1927

Philadelphia: The Catholic Congress Committee, 1927.

Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2011

The King of Saints
Rector of S. Paul's Church, Burlington, Vermont

THE general subject to be considered at this Congress is the Church, and in its various phases and aspects it has been presented by the writers and speakers who have preceded me. We come at last to that which is central to the subject, the fact which has indeed been in the background in all the other discussions, but to which now we are to give a final emphasis.

That fact is that there could have been no Church, no "communion of saints," no "glorious company of the Apostles," no "goodly fellowship of the prophets," no "noble army of martyrs" except for Jesus Christ our Lord. What the world would have been but for His Incarnation and life. His passion and sacrificial death and His glorious victory over death and sin is a subject too great for our consideration here. But what the Church would have been is a question easy to answer. It would have been non-existent. Consider what that means: if Jesus Christ had not come into the world, there would have been no Christian religion, no Christian history; the thrilling story of Christian missionary enterprise would never have been written; the mighty heroes of the cross, the holy saints, the teachers of all the ages would never have found inspiration for their devotion and sacrifices; architecture would have known no great cathedrals; from the art galleries of the world the masterpieces [140/141] of Christian artists would be missing; in the libraries of the world not only the New Testament but all the mightly volume of Christian writings from the Fathers down would find no place. Music would have been without the hymns, the oratorios, the masses, and all the other sublime works of Christian composers; there would have been no majestic liturgies of prayer and praise, no Christian altars, nor ministers, nor life-giving sacraments.

As the world counts time from His birth, so the Church must refer all things back to Him. From Him they are all derived, from Him as source they draw their life and power. He is the head of the Body, the Church, according to the will of the Father, who, as St. Paul says, "has summed up all things in Christ." He it is who makes possible the Communion of Saints. We, therefore, at the end of our meeting set for ourselves this one central and all important task; we turn our eyes from the lesser, the subordinate and the derived elements of the Church's life and like the disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration, we shall for the moment see "no man save Jesus only."

Let us begin, however, by leaving aside the great triumphant affirmations of Catholic theology and the still greater and more fundamental facts of the Catholic creeds. Let us return in thought to the days of His humiliation, when in our flesh, under the hardest conditions of lowliness and poverty, He emerged from the obscurity of the artisan's shop at Nazareth and in less than three years became at once the world's most tragic failure, dying a criminal's death on the dark summit of Calvary, and the world's supreme Master and Lord who ever since has increasingly dominated the life and thought of humanity.

The signs of the times today indicate an interest in the character of Jesus Christ which has a twofold [141/142] expression. On the one side there is that movement associated by many with the name of Schweitzer, whose purpose is sufficiently described in the title of his notable book "The Quest of the Historical Jesus." It represents the feeling on the part of many men of our time that we have been misled as to what Jesus really was and that if in some way they could get back behind the discussions of the theologians and the definitions of creeds, behind ecclesiastical organization and development, they might rediscover the secret of that personality whose influence upon the world has been so profound. Many answers have been given to the question, Who and what was He? Some of them are supported by responsible learning, others are mere guesses of unchecked speculation. He was an "apocalyptic enthusiast," a "revolutionary agitator," and "unpractical mystic," "an incomparable teacher"; only the day before yesterday, He was described as the "Man Nobody Knows."

Another significant circumstance which we must lay alongside of this is the appearance in recent years of a great number and variety of new Lives of Christ, written from every conceivable point of view. It becomes more striking when one recalls that some of these books, despite the fact that many similar works were already in existence, have ranked with the "best sellers" of our time and have been issued in edition after edition until hundreds of thousands of copies have been absorbed by what is notoriously not a book-buying public. To this may be added the popularity of passion plays, religious mysteries, and motion picture films dealing with the same subject. All testify to an unquenchable interest in Him, an interest which persists in the face of scientific skepticism, materialistic irreligion, and ecclesiastical strife.

The defect of much of this current study and investigation lies in that it seems to take for granted that [142/143] Jesus Christ is merely a figure of the past, one who lived and died in Palestine and on whose grave "the Syrian stars look down." This Figure, it is assumed, we view across nineteen crowded centuries, veiled in mist and obscured by the dust of countless controversies, and if we are to know Him better, we must depend upon this or that scholar of our own generation. After the critics have decided what is genuine and what is not, which records are trustworthy and which are colored or distorted by the tendencies and misunderstandings of the first generations of Christians, they may be able to reconstruct the far-off Jesus of Nazareth, somewhat as a scientist reconstructs the life of prehistoric man from the scanty relics retrieved by the archaeologist's spade. But this quest (which doubtless has its value) altogether ignores the rich and satisfying experience of a present and living Lord, who has made Himself known to His beloved in every age, vouchsafing His presence to the faithful at every Eucharist, communicating His life to the least and lowliest of His followers so that as many as receive Him are by His power and authority enabled to become the sons of God. To those who have shared in any least measure in such a personal experience of Christ as Saviour and Lord, the conclusions of these investigators can satisfy neither the intellect nor the heart.

Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to turn back and ask why this faith was first awakened and how it is supported. The New Testament may be regarded from many points of view. For our purpose today we assume that at least it is true, that it preserves for us vividly the impression which Jesus Christ our Lord made upon the people of His own generation. What do the Gospels, read simply as a record of that impression, tell us are the qualities that set Him apart in the minds of His contemporaries, from the generation in which He appeared? Three, at least, [143/144] are unmistakable: His power, His wisdom, and His freedom from the weakness and stain of sin.

(1)The apologetics of an earlier day laid upon His wonderful works an emphasis which is no longer regarded as necessary or true, yet it is impossible to read the Gospels without discerning the fact that He left upon His generation the impression of One who had command of spiritual power, who was indeed a source of spiritual power, mysterious and amazing.

(2) Coupled with this is the testimony of His contemporaries to what they called His wisdom. "Whence hath this man this wisdom and these mighty works" was the bewildered question of His neighbors in Nazareth. His teaching was with authority. His insight had a power of penetration at once radiant and gentle, His sense of proportion was unerring. Nor was the sanity and practical value of this teaching exhausted by His own age or by the generations which succeeded Him. Upon this point Professor Francis Peabody has laid emphasis: "Each period in civilization has had, in turn, its own peculiar interest and its own spiritual demands, and each, in turn, following its own path back to the teaching of Jesus, has found there what seemed an extraordinary adaptation of that teaching to immediate issues and needs. This is one of the most surprising traits of the gospel. It seems to each age to have been written for the sake of the special problems which at the moment appear most pressing. As each new transition in human interest occurs, the teaching of Jesus seems to possess new value."

(3) But power and wisdom have characterized other great teachers. They are shared by other masters of life. In one quality, however, the human character of Jesus Christ is unique, and that is His sinlessness. Assuming that the New Testament does preserve for us the verdict of His contemporaries, we are struck by their unanimity on this [144/145] point. "In Him is no sin," writes St. John; "A Lamb without spot," writes St. Peter; "Who knew no sin," says St. Paul; "In all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin" is the tradition preserved by the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews. The Evangelists, it is true, do not hesitate to record charges against His character. They frankly admit that He was accused of blasphemy, of Sabbath breaking, of neglect of ecclesiastical feasts and ceremonial washings, of association with disreputable persons, publicans and sinners. But to each of these accusations He makes triumphant answer, and (what is most significant) there is never any trace in Him of what is invariably most conspicuous in the saintliest of other human beings, that is repentance. No cry for pardon is heard in the shadows of Gethsemane; on the Cross He asks forgiveness for others, but never for Himself.

Consider then the marks of the portrait which the Gospels preserve for us. He stands before us in the unadorned simplicity of their narrative as a Person of singular moral force and great moral insight, of lofty and unbroken courage, of passionate justice, of unvarying self-control, of perfect self-sacrifice, of the tenderest sympathy, of a love so pure and perfect that beside it all other loves seem almost tawdry by comparison, and of the most intimate communion with the Father. Yet on the other hand, His holiness has no magical quality, "He learned obedience," "He grew in favor with God and man." He was sinless, that is, not in spite of His human nature but because He was so perfectly human. Saying all this one does not forget that in our day there has been bold criticism of the human character of our Lord. It has been urged that His life was negative and narrow because He lacked many contacts with the world. He knew nothing, it is said, by personal experience of [145/146] marriage, of art, of science, of politics, of many other phases of life and knowledge. Therefore His character must lack that universality of the perfect man. To this the sufficient answer is that ethical universality is found not in outward circumstances but in the inner life, and that Jesus Christ possessed it is proved by the fact that He has been the ideal and saviour of multitudes of people of many races, many conditions and times, of artists, of statesmen, of poets, of soldiers, of both men and women, both high and low, both old and young. He, the homeless, has contributed more than any other to the true home; He, the unmarried, has lifted marriage to a level never before conceived possible; He, the lonely, has been the comforter and companion of the lonely; He, who never travelled beyond the limits of a little land no longer than my own State of Vermont, has journeyed to the very ends of the earth with explorers, adventurers, missionaries, and never under any sky has been an alien or a stranger.

"To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home."

Is this the end of the story? Is such a life as this merely the highest point yet reached by the human race in its long upward struggle? The Church in all the ages, the Church of the Apostles, the Martyrs, the Saints, replies, No, this is but the beginning! Jesus is Man indeed but He is more than Man. He is the Christ, promised by the prophets, Son of man and Son of God. [146/147] He is God and man joined in a wonderful unity, revealing at once what God is and what man may be. He is not merely a dim Figure of the Past, whom we must seek to recover by comparison of texts and the weighing of probabilities. He is our living Lord and Saviour, the same yesterday and today and forever.

If it be said that to take the step from admiration and imitation of the historical Jesus to that worship of Christ as God of which Pliny accused the early Christians and which is today the heart of the Church's life, requires an act of faith, we reply, yes, faith—but not a blind faith. It is a faith based on knowledge and rooted in experience.

The light-hearted and almost scornful assumption is met from time to time that the great mysteries of the Creeds, belief in the Incarnation of our Lord, in His atoning Sacrifice for sin, in His eternal oneness with the Father, have been left behind us like worn-out baggage abandoned on the roadside by a marching army. Coupled often with this is the suggestion that Catholics are people who refuse to think at all, whose faces are turned backward, who stubbornly hold the old faith simply because it is old and not because it is true. All of which goes to show how, in this imperfect world, men (even men of good mind and good will) may misunderstand each other. We on our part, I fear, often invite such misunderstanding by our failure to perceive what our brothers really mean. But this we believe: that these great truths, so far from having been left behind, have not yet been reached. Early explorers of this continent thought they had found India when they had only arrived at Staten Island! Our faith in Jesus Christ as incarnate Lord and eternal God is indeed a heritage from the past and a treasure beyond price in the present, but it is still in its deepest possibilities a hidden treasure. Its fullness is [147/148] not revealed, because we cannot bear it now. We are growing up to it, alas, how slowly! But our hope is that in some far future we may yet "attain unto the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a full-grown man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ."

Our subject is the King of Saints; a description of our Lord that is quoted from one of those majestic ascriptions of praise in the Apocalypse: "Great and marvelous are thy works, O Lord God, the Almighty; righteous and true are thy ways, thou King of Saints. Who shall not fear, O Lord, and glorify thy name? for thou only art holy; for all the nations shall come and worship before thee; for thy righteous acts have been made manifest."—Rev. 14:3,4.

The New Testament scholar will be aware that the text is an uncertain one, but the general thought is the same, whatever the text. It is a hymn whose central theme is the justice and truth of Him, who fulfills His promise and sustains His servants until they have gotten the victory. How rich and varied and triumphantly overwhelming is the mighty volume of the testimony of the Saints to the faithfulness of their King! The great Saints whose names adorn the liturgies of the centuries and the historic story of the Church's war against evil and that multitude which no man can number of the lesser, but no less steadfast souls who in lowliness and obscurity have followed Him, faithful even unto death, are one in this assurance. With them we lift our voices, we add our witness to theirs, for like them we have loved Him and tested Him and found Him true. For them and for us He is not the "Man Nobody Knows"; we know whom we have believed and are persuaded that He is able to keep that which we have committed unto Him.

We began with the thought that the Church refers all [148/149] things to Christ as their source and center. Apart from Him they would have no existence. Especially must this be true of the Communion of Saints. The King, in His glory, assembles His own about Him: "Gather my Saints together unto me: those that have made a covenant with me with sacrifice." But they not only gather about Him, they are drawn into His very life, "rooted and built up in Him." Life with and in Jesus Christ, both here and hereafter, is therefore a corporate and social life. There is no room in the Kingdom for selfishness and self-will. To express this in a practical and living way is one end for which this Congress is met.

To bring every thought into captivity to Him, to make every act the expression of His holiness and beauty, who condescends to dwell in us and we in Him; to consecrate to Him all our powers, not only those that we now possess, but those that lie latent in the soul, ready to be brought into conscious exercise as we grow more and more into His likeness; is not this what it means to be a Christian? None of us, it is true, dares say that he fulfills this ideal.

Short of my aim I infinitely fall;
I love Thee, Lord, I love—and that is all.

But He who is King is also Priest—Priest and Victim—by whose one offering we are made perfect, not of ourselves, not by ourselves, but by Him who is able to keep us from falling and to present us faultless before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy.

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