This sermon was preached in substance, on November the twenty-third, 1920, S. Clement's day, at the patronal festival of the Church of S. Clement, Philadelphia. It was again preached at the patronal festival of the Church of S. Mary the Virgin, New York City, on the Sunday in the octave of the feast of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin, December the twelfth, 1920. At the request of the Trustees of the Church of S. Mary the Virgin I have written out the Sermon, following the version preached at S. Mary's. This printed version no doubt differs somewhat in phrasing from either of the spoken sermons, but is identical in substance.
Walk about Sion, and go round about her; and tell the towers thereof. Mark well her bulwarks, set up her houses: that ye may tell them that come after. For this God is our God for ever and ever: he shall be our guide unto death.--Psalm 48:11-13.
As we meet for the celebration of our Patronal and Dedication Festival, our minds naturally turn to the past and we are impelled to praise ancient men and our fathers that begat us. We think of the upbuilding of this parish, and of all that that meant in the way of devotion and sacrifice; we think of the priests and laymen who have spent and been spent in this unselfish work, the outcome of which it is ours today to enjoy. For more than half a century S. Mary's has stood in the heart of the greatest city of this continent, testifying unflinchingly to the whole Catholic Faith. We, as with devout thanks we celebrate their memory and think of ourselves as their heirs, as those whose privilege it is to have entered into so goodly an heritage, cannot think of ourselves as entitled simply to the enjoyment of that heritage. What we have received we must take up as a sacred trust--not as an estate to be squandered, but as one to be increased and enriched during the period of our tenancy. That increase and enrichment calls upon us in our turn for labor and sacrifice. The memory of the Founders and Benefactors of S. Mary's whose names we have just commemorated before God, challenges our loyalty and our labor; it demands that we show ourselves no degenerate heirs of the past, but worthy guardians of its tradition of devotion and sacrifice.
And surely there has been no time in the history of the church when there has been greater need for vigorous defence of the Christian Faith. Outposts of aggressive Catholicity like S. Mary's needs to be multiplied and richly maintained. From all sides there are virulent assaults upon the Catholic Religion, and the assaults are upon its most vital doctrines. The forces of the world seem to have banded themselves together against the historic faith; and they find their attacks upon it vastly helped by the shattered state of Christendom itself. Those who should be fighting shoulder to shoulder in a common cause are contending among themselves while the common enemy wrests from them position after position. The need of union is pressing; but to be of any real worth it must be union, not by compromise, but on the basis of an explicit and fully stated Catholicity.
As we think of the defence and preservation of the truth we have received from our fathers, there seem to be two possible lines of defence which may be taken. There is, in the first place, a line which is enormously popular today, which I may call the minimum method. It assumes that Christianity as we have received it, consists of certain vital elements (though what these are, it is not at all agreed); of an indestructible minimum of essential truth; and of a mass of accretions which have gathered about this essential core of Christianity in the course of the centuries. The method of defence which is commended to us today is to yield to attack anything in Christianity which is not vital from this point of view; to attempt to satisfy the demands of destructive criticism by agreeing with it as far as possible, in what seems to be the vain hope that its demands will at last be satisfied. However, experience seems to show that after you have thrown the last child to the wolves the pack will still follow with unsatiated appetite. There is obviously no end to the appetite for negation.
This method treats the Christian Faith as though it were just a mass of unrelated statements of doctrine, any one of which may be detached without effect upon what remains. You go along the street and you come to a place where a building is being erected and there you see a pile of bricks by the sidewalk; if you take away one brick no material damage is done to the pile, and the building will go on just as well as before. But the Christian Religion is not like that -- a mass of unrelated dogmas. If any belief or practice is truly a part of the Christian Relgion it is an organic part, and it cannot be removed without injury to the whole. After you have "reconstructed the Creed in terms of modern thought," i. e., after you have denied most of its statements, what you have left is not a compact and more defensible body of truth: rather, you have a corpse that has been mutilated by the violent tearing away of its limbs. The minimum method of defence, which consists in abandoning anything the "modern mind" finds unpalatable, results, not in an achieved position which is impregnable, a thoroughly rational and acceptable Catholicity, but in an invertebrate Unitarianism which is safe from attack only because it is too insignificant to stir emotion of any sort.
In contrast with this minimum method is what I will call the maximum method, or the method of protective developments. The first yields what it conceives to be the outposts before attack and gradually retires into what it believes to be an impregnable inner fortress. This fortress turns out to be, stated dogmatically (if it be permitted, in the premises, to state anything dogmatically), "I believe in God, and that Jesus was a good man who (mistakenly) thought that he had a special mission from God." The alternative method is aggressive and militant; so far from yielding outposts under threatened attack, it sets to work to throw out new defences. It surrounds the old position with a circle of fresh outworks; it seeks, not reduced, but enlarged, expression of the old Faith. It sets itself to embody its beliefs in new actions, to exercise them through devotions which shall make the beliefs vivid and draw out and apply their content. It assumes that beliefs that are stagnant and unexercised are in danger of losing their meaning, and that hostile attacks only become dangerous when they find before them unrealized truth, unappreciated belief.
The Christian Religion can act on the offensive in this manner precisely because it is not a pile of bricks. It is a living, organic body of which the life may manifest itself in many ways and embody itself in many forms. The Articles of the Christian Faith cannot be treated as though they were capable of rearrangement as you my rearrange a pile of apples in a grocery window--leaving out those which have become decayed. To remove an article of the Christian Faith from the body of belief is to maim the body: but the body itself may grow and exhibit new powers and apply its life-force in new ways.
We can, perhaps, best understand all this from an illustration or two. In the early ages of the Church there was no dispute about the Eucharist. Mass was everywhere celebrated and the faithful everywhere made their Communions without raising any question as to the precise definition that would be necessary to express the meaning of their Eucharistic action. Then came a time when controversy arose as to the true nature of the Eucharistic Sacrifice and the true meaning of the Eucharistic Presence. What then was done? What was the method of defence? We know what was done later, after the Reformation. We know that the minimum method of defence was adopted as the outcome of Reformation controversies. People got tired of controversy and said: after all, it does not much matter whether you are a Zwinglian and believe in no presence at all or a Calvinist and believe in a virtual presence--why dispute about unknowable matters? We know that the result today is that there are many bodies which call themselves Christian where definite Eucharistic belief has vanished and where Eucharistic practice is fast following: where the Eucharist is rarely if at all celebrated, and no importance is attached to it.
But what did the Catholic Church do in the time of the Eucharistic controversies? It adopted the maximum method, the method of protective development. It was not satisfied with merely intellectual restatements of the old belief. It felt that intellectual formularies were not sufficient to protect its faith. It felt that the faith for its adequate protection needed embodiment in action. We therefore find coincident with the Eucharistic controversies an increase in Eucharistic practice, the development of Eucharistic devotions. As the decline in Eucharistic belief after the Reformation was naturally followed by decline in Eucharistic action, and all Eucharistic devotions were banned and abolished, so the intense realization of the Eucharistic doctrine which characterized the Middle Ages was attended by the development of devotions. People were not content to repeat a formula; they made our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament the object of explicit worship. They instituted processions of the Blessed Sacrament; they instituted services such as exposition and benediction. And it was such practices, rather than the theological theory, that preserved the faith.
The same process, we know, had gone on before many times. In particular, it had gone on in the great controversies of the counciliar period in regard to the Person of our Lord. There came a time in these controversies when the real nature of our Lord's person being called in question, when the question was raised as to the Person Who was born of Mary, and the answer was that that Person was God. Then the protective development that the Church put forward as a defence of the Incarnation was the title "Mother of God." Henceforth this title of S. Mary has been the test of right belief, and a refusal to use it by any instructed person reveals a defective faith in the Incarnation of God.
The most dangerous line of attack on Christianity today is once more an attack on the Incarnation; it is still a question, Who was born of Mary? What was the manner of the Child's birth? The modern mind finds itself very much troubled by the New Testament teaching as to the virgin birth of our Lord, and by the Catholic belief in the perpetual virginity of S. Mary. "Why hold on to such statements as that, which the intelligence of the modern world has long outgrown?" we are asked. "Why indeed?"--is the answer of the minimum method. Why by insistence on obsolete dogmas alienate "many of the best minds of our generation"? Why drive them from the Church which they would so willingly help if they were permitted? Such is the plea. But is the virgin birth of our Lord a "meaningless dogma"? Is it not rather an integral part of the Christian revelation? Is it true that its abandonment would have no effect on Christian belief in our Lord? But we do not have to guess or theorize about this matter. In some quarters where belief in the virgin birth of our Lord has been dropped we are enabled to follow the course of the developing thought of the Modern Mind; and we find that it has been easy to go on from the conclusion that Jesus was born of Joseph and Mary to the conclusion that He was at best a good man, and then that it is not even necessary to maintain His absolute goodness. The end is--and this is not obscurely taught--He is neither infallible as a teacher nor perfect in His life. It is held that Jesus Christ was in all ways like as we are, including sin. It is today taught by Christian clergy that Jesus Christ was a sinner.
What is the maximum line of defence--the line of protective developments? As in the days of the Council of Ephesus the strongest bulwark to our Lord's divinity is His all-glorious Mother. We need to express our faith in Him as our Catholic ancestors have always done since the rise of controversies about His person in devotion to the Mother of God. When we have so far realized the implications of our belief in the Incarnation as to grasp the place of S. Mary in the plan of redemption, we shall have no difficulty in seeing that devotion to her is protection of our Lord's divinity, and an almost necessary expression of an understanding of her vocation.
We are to remember that Catholic devotions to our Lady are not her due in what we might perhaps call her private character, but are the outcome of her vocation to be the Mother of God. The primary intention of such devotions is the honor of our Lord Himself. A careful theologian has said that the privilege of being conceived without original sin was not suitable to Mary considered in herself, but it was suitable to the Son whom she brought into the world. To be at once virgin and mother and to ascend in body and soul into Heaven was not suitable to Mary the daughter of Adam the sinner, but it is suitable to the Son whom she brought forth, and because of Him, to His mother. This answer can be given when it is a question of defending devotions to S. Mary. So long as you look upon her with the same eyes as you look upon the other saints of heaven and earth, you may fear excess in her praise; but as soon as, turning your eyes upon her Son, you see in her the mother of your God, no prerogatives of grace or glory will appear too high for her, and you will refuse her nothing which will contribute to raise her above all your conceptions.
It is with such protective developments as we have indicated that we must meet the denials and minimizalions of our faith. It will not do to think that we can just sit still and hold on. We have to meet each new attack with adaptations of the old faith to present use. It is no longer enough to be "high church." The Oxford Movement has passed. It met its contemporary problems gloriously, and we honor the names of its great saints; but we find ourselves obliged to carry on the work that they began under the conditions of a changed world. The things the Oxford Movement fought for, the Apostolic Succession, the divine character of the Church, the supernatural character of the grace of the sacraments, have been sufficiently demonstrated to be a part of the faith of the Anglican Church. Today we are compelled to fight for the very purity of our Lord Himself, and one great arm in our warfare must be the devotional application of the meaning of the Incarnation. The leaders of the Oxford Movement soon found that their belief in the Real Presence needed more than theological statement; it needed cultural statement; and the revival of ceremonial which marked the second stage of the Oxford Movement was the inevitable result. There were adherents of the Oxford Movement who regretted and opposed this ceremonial development as engrafting a Romeward tendency upon the purity of the earlier movement, unable to see that the revived use of ceremonial was the explicit rendering of their own principles. It is human to think that great movements ought to be stopped at the particular stage of their development which appeals to us as satisfactory, and to accuse those who push on in the way they have entered as revolutionaries. Today, I think we understand that the truth of the Real Presence is best defended and most certainly held where it is bulwarked By a developed ceremonial and by such Eucharistic devotions as benediction and exposition.
If you were to find yourself in some strange city and were to look about for a place to attend divine worship, and came upon a Church on the notice board of which you read that Mass was celebrated there daily and that there were celebrations at such and such hours on Sunday; and if, on going into the church you were to see a light before the Tabernacle and people kneeling about the church; or if on going to the church you should find a procession of the Blessed Sacrament going on, or Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament being given; you would have no manner of doubt as to what was taught in that church. And not only would you have no doubt as to what was taught about the Eucharist, but you would have no doubt as to what was taught about our Lord. You would be absolutely certain that you would find there the doctrine of the Trinity and of the Incarnation set forth; you would hear the virgin birth of our Lord and His bodily resurrection maintained.
But suppose in your search for a place of worship you find a church on the notice board of which you read that at eleven o'clock on the first Sunday of the month the Holy Communion will be administered--do you know what you will find or hear if you attend worship there? You cannot be at all certain that you will not hear the divinity of our Lord denied, or be told that He was a man of no doubt good intentions, but a sinner.
Again: if you wander into some church and there see a statue of our Lady and people kneeling near it saying their prayers; if you see them using the rosary; if in a service you hear them singing hymns in honor of our Lady; then you may be perfectly certain what is being taught about our Lord. You will understand that these devotions to our Lady which some of your friends shake their heads at, are in reality the outworks that defend the central citadel of the faith--our belief in the Incarnation and the absolute divinity of our Lord. Devotion to our Lady can exist only where there is perfect devotion to our Lord. And as has been said, You cannot love our Lady too much, if you love our Lord more.
I hear it said that S. Mary's used to be conservative. I would like to know when? Was it, by any chance, during those years in which Fr. Brown, with a little band of devoted laity, was laying the foundation of the S. Mary's of today? Would an examination of the contemporary utterances about the S. Mary's of fifty years ago impress you with the fact that what it stood for in the mind of the community was conservatism? I first visited S. Mary's thirty-five years ago this Advent. I heard Fr. Brown sing High Mass; I heard Fr. Betts preach; I had drifted in from a region where nothing of an ecclesiastical nature had happened for a hundred years, except an occasional change in the covering of the hassocks. I venture to say that I knew what conservatism is--and I did not recognize the services at S. Mary's as its ideal expression.
Conservatism does not consist in sitting tight in the place where you are; the proper designation of that attitude is sloth--and the Church teaches us that sloth is a mortal sin. Conservatism has its own uses and its own value; but it is not of much use in an aggressive campaign. S. Mary's has never been conservative and it never will be. It is not content with holding on to what it has received, it wants to enrich it. It takes radicalism to carry on an offensive campaign. There is a radicalism that is destructive; but there is also a radicalism that is constructive. And it is that radicalism, which does not propose to sit still under attack, but that arms itself and goes forth to the battle, that we find embodied in the ideals of S. Mary's. We have to defend the whole Catholic Faith. But before we can defend it, we must both hold and practice it to the limit.