Project Canterbury Three Sermons by Dr. Barry
Sermon on the Sixtieth Anniversary of the Parish of St. Mary theVirgin, New York City, December 8, 1928. THE ANNIVERSARY SERMON
ST. LUKE: 1:38. "And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word."
As WE READ the narrative of the Annunciation, the scene comes to us vividly sketched in the imagination, but as we dwell on the details it is liable to become blurred through the memories which come thronging into our minds, memories of the treatment of the scene by artists throughout the centuries--mystical interpretation by Byzantine mosaics and Italian Primitives, gorgeous princesses and resplendent angels of the Renaissance, dignified matrons from South Germany and the Low Countries. Our mind wanders among these, perplexed at their failure to grasp--so it seems to us--the simple realities of the event. Why not a peasant's cottage in Nazareth? Is it because the artist knew nothing of history and archaeology? And then it comes to us that the artist, in translating the event of the Annunciation into terms of his own time, is doing precisely the right thing, for what he is dealing with has nothing to do with tune or place; or, rather, properly belongs to all times and all places. It is a permanent fact that is recorded--the fact of the Incarnation. It belonged to the dawn of the Christian era, but it belonged also to the world of the Middle Ages and of the Renaissance. It belongs to our world today and we can only understand it by bringing it into our own lives. The Incarnation of God the Son is for you and me--"for us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven." The American artist, in interpreting for us the Incarnation, would best set the scene of the Annunciation in a New England village or in a Midwest farmstead. The essential fact pertains not to history, but to life. It is a present fact today.
But why this maiden of Nazareth? Was she chosen because she was a pure Hebrew maiden, a maiden of Davidic lineage? Would any similar Hebrew maiden have as well answered the divine purpose? Surely not. There is nothing arbitrary in the action of God. He acts for man through man, and the human instruments through which he acts are prepared for their purpose. We are taught that the Son of God became incarnate at the particular time and place because that time and place were suitable to the fulfillment of the divine purpose, that the world was prepared for the coming of God. Many chapters of Church history have been written to make clear to us the prepared state of the world at the time of our Lord's coming. If this is a true interpretation of the divine purpose, surely we may conclude that the instrument of the Incarnation also was prepared. The Incarnation of God is by far the greatest event in human history, and there could have been nothing incidental about it, nothing that was not deliberately prepared. I am of those who believe that the Incarnation is involved in the purpose of creation; that the going out of creation from God involved the coming back into union with him when its full development was reached in man. I do not believe that the Incarnation was an afterthought, or a thing devised for the redemption of man after he had fallen into sin. In the form that the Incarnation took, it provided a remedy for sin, but its essential object is the union of the creature and the Creator, and was such from the beginning in the mind of God.
One of the mysteries of life is the difference in spiritual capacity, in responsiveness to spiritual appeals, of individuals subject to the same influences. Two children of the same parents, brought up in the same home conditions, often differ enormously in intellectual and spiritual capacity. Children of the same community, subjected to the same educational and social conditions, take utterly different paths in adult life. I am not suggesting any solution of this mystery. I am pointing out that there is an explanation of the spiritual responsiveness of St. Mary. This village girl at once responds to the angelic invitation because she has been deliberately prepared for her mission. Her explanation is found in the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. She has never known original sin, she has never for one moment been separated from God. For the foreseen merits of her Son, from the moment of its creation her soul was in union with God, and therefore completely responsive to all the impulses of the Holy Spirit. We therefore understand her ready answer, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word." She answers thus readily because in her own words, "He that is mighty hath magnified me." She whom God has magnified we need not hesitate to magnify.
There is another element in human nature which to many seems to be unintelligible--to be, in fact, an obstacle to belief in the overruling providence of God. The pursuit of holiness, the devotion of life to following what one understands to be the will of God, the faithful self-denying service of God, does not uniformly result-- as men assume that it ought to result--in satisfaction and pleasure, rather oftentimes in the reverse. The unregenerate man makes pleasure the end of life and is disappointed if he does not attain to it. If he believes in a God at all, he conceives of God as a Being whose prime business it should be to make him happy and prosperous. The half-hearted Christian takes the same view, with some searching of conscience. The service of a good God should result in a pleasant life. But the aspirant for sanctity, for the full expression of the spiritual powers that are latent in him, for the attainment of spiritual maturity, knows that the law of the spiritual life--as indeed of all life--is not immediate attainment, still less satisfaction, but sacrifice. If the human being is anything more than a brute, he is forever unsatisfied. He seeks. He understands that in the life of the spirit there is always something before him unattained. Therefore he knocks at closed doors, he follows mysterious paths, he pushes out into the unknown. This constant seeking is the restlessness of youth, the ambition of maturity, and oftentimes the tragedy of old age. The Christian is never satisfied, never finds a place where he feels that he at last can securely rest from his labors. If life has pursued paths that do not end in cul de sacs, one does attain a measure of gratification, but still, at the edge of the grave, one finds oneself looking out hopefully and eagerly into the future. As one faces approaching death, what one sees is not the sun veiled in purple clouds sinking to rest, not the closing down of impenetrable darkness, not the depressing unknown, but the glow of the dawn on the sky of the future, the breaking of the eternal morning, the opening of the door into the further revelation of God. There is no word of despair upon his lips as his eyes grow dim and his bodily strength abateth, but he says with St. Paul, "The time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith." He says with St. John, as he writes the close of the Revelation, "Even so, come, Lord Jesus." He cries with the dying Lacordaire, "Lord, open unto me."
We are not astonished therefore to find in the experience of St. Mary the Immaculate, the chosen of God as the instrument of the Incarnation, not the contentment of satisfaction, but the mission of pain--the pain of the misunderstood childbearing, of watching the unfolding of the mysterious mission of her Son as that moves on from Nazareth and Bethlehem to Jerusalem and Calvary, the pain of the mother who stands by the Cross watching the death of all her hopes and dreams, the pain that receives the wounded Body and follows to the silence and despair of Joseph's Garden. It is the pain which is the greatest of all pain, the pain of watching the pain of those we love--that was the life pain of the Blessed Mother. That, too, was the pain of her Son, of Jesus. He emptied himself of his glory and took upon him the servant form and became obedient unto death-- even the death of the Cross. That, too, is the pain of God. There is no use in telling us that God is impassable. That is to heathenize and philosophize him, that is to separate him from us. To say that God cannot suffer is to say that he cannot love, and Jesus is the revelation of his love. The Holy Scriptures are annals of the pain of God. That myth, that wonderful piece of mystic symbolism, that stands at the door of Holy Scripture, tells us the story of God's pain. We see the guilty pair pass out of Eden, and the gates of the garden close behind them, and before the gates the cherubim and the flaming swords and within the gate--what? God in his disappointment and loneliness walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the garden is now full of silence.
And so the story of God's pain goes on. The Flood washes away the unfaithful, but those who are left carry on the tradition of sin. Through the lips of the prophets the divine disappointment is constantly voiced. "O my people, what have I done unto thee? and wherein have I wearied thee?" "How shall I give thee up, Ephraim? how shall I cast thee off, Israel? how shall I make thee as Admah? how shall I set thee as Zeboiim? my heart is turned within me, my compassions are kindled together." It continues--this pain of God--in Christ. "He came unto his own, and his own received him not." O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often would I have gathered thee, and thou wouldst not? In this was the love of God manifested, in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.
The Christian law is the law of sacrifice. It is the law of sacrifice because it is the law of love, and because it is the law of love it is the law of joy. There is no joy like the joy of sacrifice. It is the joy of love not to get but to give, to give utterly and endlessly. The giving of Christ is the giving of himself to the death of the Cross. The unstinted giving of herself is the glory of the Blessed Mother and is the glory of the saints. Sister ADELINE, working among the ill in the mission field, said, ''I prefer to take care of contagious diseases." One said, "But how brave you are, Sister!" "Me brave," cried Sister ADELINE, "but I am very timid; there are three things that I am horribly afraid of, thunder and snakes and the devil." But moving among the stricken children of God she was not afraid. There was no limit to her giving.
The demand for sacrificial service differs from age to age. Once it was the demand for martyrdom. Today it is the demand for a high moral standard. Contemporary society presents the spectacle of a moral let-down. It is not so much that people are worse than in the past, but that they are consciously and theoretically worse. The sinner of the past sinned with his eyes open; he did not defend himself, he did not pretend to be anything else than a sinner, and he consoled himself with the dream of future repentance. The sinner of today regards himself as a superior and a virtuous person. He does not plead weakness, but he produces a justifying theory. Therefore is the Christian called to take a definite stand in social life. We must today appeal to the young against the old, we must stop the silly talk of the corruption of the younger generation, and open our eyes to the fact that it is the older generation that is corrupting the young. Mr. BERTRAND RUSSELL and Professor HALDANE and Judge LINDSAY--to mention but a few--do not belong to the younger generation. It is against the old that young ought to be summoned to battle. Once more the cry goes out, "Put on the whole armour of God!"
The mission the Church summons the young to fulfill today is a very hard one--it is a mission of loneliness and isolation and what youth dreads--standing alone. If often means exclusion from the group they have been associated with, the facing of the ridicule and contempt of the world. But let the boy or the girl have the courage to stand alone, if need be, let the young married couple make their stand for Christian principle clear, and they will, I am convinced, gather others about them--at least they will find life worth living. Let them not compromise, and they will command respect, if not popularity.
Let the motto be, "No compromise." This complex world of today encourages compromise. The modern Lot, just delivered from Sodom, and facing the unknown wilderness, pleads for at least Zoar--"is it not a little one?" He wants to water down the Catholic faith to make it popular. He himself wants to water down the Catholic moral standards while he retains a hold upon the Catholic faith, but it will not do. The Church demands of him isolation, sacrifice, martyrdom. It calls for the slow torture of popular disapproval, which is much more difficult to meet than the lions and the stake. It turns its back upon the hoary teachers of the easy way and calls the young to suffer and to serve.
For sixty years now St. Mary's has stood in the heart of New York testifying to the Catholic faith and practice. We who have entered into other men's labors need to look back and to understand the sacrifice that was involved in the building up of this work. Sixty years ago St. Mary's was looked upon as a joke, a show, a freak. People came to it as to a weird exhibition. Fortunately many who came to mock remained to pray. But Father BROWN and the clergy and laity he gathered about him sacrificed much and labored unceasingly for their ends. The clergy not only incurred ridicule and contempt, but they sacrificed popularity and all prospect of advancement. They were willing to labor and to suffer because they had a vision, a vision of a Church where should be presented in its fulness and without shadow of compromise, the fulness of Catholic worship and practice. They gave themselves willingly to this ideal, and they attained it. When Father BROWN passed to his reward the prize was won. Dr. CHRISTIAN and myself had no such struggle as our predecessor, but we inherited the mission of carrying out the ideals which the parish embodied. I think that the ideals have been pursued and that the standard has not been lowered.
That does not mean that the work has been finished. It falls to the present clergy and laity of St. Mary's to carry on. Are we up to the task? Do we realize the vocation? Do we feel the pressure of the obligation? Are we ready for the sacrifice? Unless we are, the work must go backward and not forward. Will you, the parishioners, stand by the clergy in carrying on the work? Will you offer your lives in the sacrifice, will you do your best to maintain the standards set by your predecessors? If not, St. Mary's will fail.
God save St. Mary's from the spirit of compromise!