III. A Discourse delivered at The Church of the Annunciation, on the Feast of the Annunciation--. THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION. I. N. D. P. F. et S. S. Amen.
"And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God."--ST. LUKE i. 35.
As the feast of Christmas is designed by the Church to commemorate the birth of Christ, so is the feast of the Annunciation set apart to commemorate His conception. For as Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary, so also was He conceived of the Holy Ghost; and as his birth was miraculous, so was His conception immaculate; by which we are to understand that the human nature which He took of His mother, and in which He was born and grow up to man's estate, was, from the first moment of its existence, void of all spot or taint of sin. Such was the annunciation of the angel to the Blessed Virgin: "The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee; therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called The Son of God."
I propose this morning, by God's help, to set before you:
I. The grounds of our belief in this capital article of the Christian faith; and,
II. The use of it.
First, then, as to the reasons of our belief in this doctrine. 1. In the first place, we believe the Immaculate Conception of Jesus Christ, because it has been delivered to us by the Church as a necessary article of the Christian faith, and. as such, inserted in the baptismal creed. The founders of every society, of necessity create its constitution and prescribe its terms of admission; which all, who afterwards enter the society, are bound to accept. Our Lord, in founding His Church, proceeded on the same principle; directing His Apostles to baptize all candidates for admission into His Church, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost; a direction which has been always understood to mean, that they who became members of His Church were obliged to profess their faith in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. The apostles, themselves, or at least their successors at a very early age of the Church, made such explanations of the true doctrine in regard to each person of the blessed Trinity as were necessary to guard the original faith from the assaults and wiles of those who sought to deprave it by false and heretical teaching. Among other such explanations, one was that the true and orthodox faith in the Son of God was intended to include a belief in this conception by the Holy Ghost, and to shut out the pernicious and degrading errors that were involved in the denial of this doctrine. This explanation was made while the Church was yet one; and the point of faith thus explained, has been ever since retained in the baptismal creed, and made, among all the Churches of the east and west, a condition of admission into the Church of Christ. The requirement of it, therefore, is not peculiar to the Church of any one age or country; but it is made by that one Catholic and apostolic Church, which is the mother of all Christians. And this prescription, which may plead apostolic tradition in its favor; this teaching of our common mother, which ought in reason to have far more weight with us than the wisest of human parents, is a sufficient ground for our belief in the doctrine, at least in the first instance, and until we shall be qualified to try our faith by the ultimate standard of Holy Scripture.
If now you proceed, as in an humble and reverential spirit you properly may, to compare the teaching of the Church with the infallible dictates of Holy Scripture, your attention may be profitably directed, in the first instance, to the prophecy of Isaiah, which is put for the epistle of the day--"Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel." If you turn to the first chapter of St. Matthew you find the fulfillment of this prediction recorded. "Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise; when as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found of child by the Holy Ghost. Then Joseph her husband being a just man, and not willing to make her a public example, was minded to put her away privily. But while he thought on these things, behold! the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary, thy wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost." The narrative of St. Luke is fuller, and equally express. I need not repeat it, for it has been read to you as the Gospel for this day, and you have, I trust, listened and assented to it, as the word of God.
Human testimony is the ground of human faith, or that which we exercise in the common affairs of life. Divine testimony is the ground of divine faith, or that which is required of us in order to our everlasting salvation. Let ns consider the Gospel narrative in both these aspects.
St. Luke was a cotemporary of the apostles. He took the utmost pains to inform himself on the subjects of which he has written. He published his gospel before the death of St. John. He narrates the fact under consideration with remarkable particularity. He gives you the time of the occurrence--under Herod the Great, and in the reign of Augustus Cæsar; the place--Nazareth, a city of Galilee; the name of the Virgin to whom the angel appeared--Mary; the name of her espoused husband--Joseph, and their family and lineage.
His gospel is well known, and is confessed to be genuine and authentic. St. Matthew, who has also recorded the same fact, was himself one of the apostles. There is, therefore, everything that can be desired to secure for the narrative the same kind of faith that we give to human testimony, and if only human faith were required of us, we should have no sufficient reason to refuse it.
But we do not rest in human faith. For the wonderful miracles wrought by Christ and His apostles, and the whole history of their lives, and of the doctrine which they taught, and of the effects which they produced, satisfy us of their immediate inspiration, and of their being sent into the world by God, in fulfillment of promises and prophecies made and delivered ages before. The declarations of the Evangelists, therefore, in this as in other matters, are not merely human testimony; they are a divine testimony, and we assent to them as to the very word of God, and by an act of divine faith. Further:
In this view, the fact we are considering is divested of that air of improbability which it would possess if regarded in the light of human transactions. For it is in perfect keeping with all else that relates to that wonderful Person, Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour. It is an harmonious part of an entire system, the history of which is coeval with the history of mankind, and must stand or fall with that system. In this view, the fact is not only credible, but probable, and needs only adequate testimony to secure belief. That testimony we have. For the fact was made known to Joseph by a divine revelation. To the Blessed Virgin the fact was made known in the same way; and she knew it also from her own consciousness. By them it was attested to the holy apostles; and on their testimony, seconded by the miracles of our Lord and by all the powerful arguments which confirm His doctrine, we receive it.
II. From the grounds of our belief let us turn now to the use of the fact; in other words, the reasons why Jesus was conceived of the Holy Ghost. For God does nothing for naught, and weak as we are we can always discover enough in His works to excite our admiration of His wisdom and goodness.
1. The first use which I shall mention of the Immaculate Conception of Jesus is, that it prepares us to believe in His Divinity. On one occasion our Lord declared to the Jews that He had come down from heaven, that He would give to every one that believed on Him everlasting life, and would raise him up at the last day. And what was their reflection on this announcement? They murmured at Him, and said: "Is not this Jesus the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How is it then that He saith, I came down from heaven?" And on another occasion when they had beheld His miracles and listened to His doctrine with astonishment they said: "Is not this the carpenter's son?" or as St. Luke records it, "Is not this Joseph's son?" They felt it difficult to believe that He could be the Eternal Son of God by nature, and yet that there should have been nothing-extraordinary in His human birth. This is a natural feeling, a prejudice which would have universally prevailed, and we may therefore admire the divine goodness in condescending to forestall it. It was necessary for the accomplishment of His beneficent purposes in regard to mankind that the Eternal Word or Son of God should unite to Himself the human nature, and that we may the more easily believe that He has done so He mercifully provides that the body which He assumed should be formed out of the substance of Mary alone, by the immediate power of the Holy Ghost.
2. And as this was most apt to secure belief in our Lord's divinity, so was it the fittest way for effecting that union of the divine and human natures whereby our redemption has been accomplished. It is to the Holy Spirit, the substantial virtue and love of God, that all the great works of creation and redemption are directly attributed. He at first brooded over the earth when it was without form and void, and He gave to all living creatures their principles of life and activity. The inspiration of the prophets, the power to work miracles, the renovation of our nature, are all attributed to the Holy Spirit. Very fit and congruous, therefore, was it that the flesh which the word of God was to assume in order to our redemption, should be formed, not by the force of secondary causes., but by the immediate intervention of the sumo Holy Spirit which is the Lord and Giver of all life, natural and spiritual.
3. Another reason for the Immaculate Conception of Jesus is, that it fitted Him to be the Mediator between God and man, and to be the Redeemer and Saviour of men. As Mediator, the Son of God was to unite in one Person the divine and human natures; but, in order that the Father might look on this Mediator with complacency, it was necessary that He should be free from all stain of sin. God is so holy and pure that He can not look on men except through a Mediator, and we see that for the same reason He could not look on this Mediator except He also were free from all inclination to sin. As our Redeemer, also, who was to expiate our sins, and to purge us from their guilt, as our Saviour, who was to teach us with absolute authority, to command all righteousness, and to exemplify all that He commanded, it was necessary that the Son of God, though living in our nature, should know no sin; that He should be holy, harmless, undefiled, and separate from sinners, that he should have no need first to offer up sacrifices for His own sins, but that He should be able to expiate ours, by offering up His humanity as a lamb without blemish and without spot. Very fit was it that the Son of God, when He vouchsafed to take oh Him our nature, should receive it in the most perfect purity and sanctity, and without that taint of sin which ordinarily adheres to it; that His flesh should be made of a woman to assure us of His perfect humanity, and by the immediate operation of the Holy Ghost, to indicate His Immaculate Holiness.
4. "We may add," to use the words of Dr. Barrow, "as an observable point, the analogy, or apposite resemblance thereof, between the conception of our Saviour for us, and His formation in us; His natural generation, and the spiritual regeneration of Christians; His becoming our brother in the flesh, and our being made His brethren in the Spirit; both being effected by the same agent; as Christ was made true man and partaker of our nature, so we become true Christians, and consorts of the divine nature, by the operation of the same divine spirit; as He, by the dispensation of God, so we by His grace are born, not by blood, nor by the will of the flesh, nor by the will of man, but of God. Hence doth accrue a new relation and we become His brethren, not only as He was made like to us, but also as we become like to Him, and are begotten of God, by the same heavenly virtue, the same incorruptible seed. It may, indeed, be an admonition to us to labor after this spiritual conception, which will render us conformable to our Lord, and far more truly allied to Him than even His partaking of our nature hath done; and indeed, without that spiritual one this carnal alliance will not signify anything of benefit to us; it will little profit us that He was born in the flesh, if we are not born of the Spirit, without which generation we can not enter into the Kingdom of God." [Barrow's Sermons, iv. 555.]
Such are the proofs, such the ends of the Immaculate Conception of Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour. The Catholic Church proposes the doctrine as an article of the essential Faith, and this article, like every other in the Catholic creed, is expressed in terms which may be resolved into the very words of Holy Scripture, while the fact itself is seen to subserve the most profound purposes in the economy of Redemption.
Negative teaching, or that which aims merely at the refutation of error, is for the most part out of place in the pulpit, the teaching of which ought to be positive and expository of the word of God and the Catholic Faith. But as the honor which is proper to Christ has been in this, as in other instances, unhappily bestowed on his mother, I feel bound, before I finish my discourse, to advert, though it shall be with all possible brevity, to the alleged Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary.
Of this doctrine considered as a scholastic speculation, or as a flight of passionate devotion, I have nothing to say. You are, however, aware that about ten years ago the doctrine was taken by the Roman see from the custody of schools and cloisters, and set forth as an article of the faith necessary to salvation. It is in this aspect only that I now speak of it, and all I need say of it is, that it does not rest on those grounds on which the Christian faith has been for eighteen centuries immovably established. It is a doctrine which the Catholic Church has never proposed, and which the Holy Scriptures nowhere attest. The nearest approach to such attestation is the text: "He that is mighty hath done to me great things, and holy is His name." The passages most relied on for its support, are from the Old Testament, and are taken in a mystical sense; on which it is only necessary to remark that the mystical sense of Scripture, though often conducive to piety when it harmonizes with doctrine already proved, can never be admitted by a sober judgment to be itself a proof of doctrine. In fact, the sum total of proof to show that the doctrine is an article of the Christian faith is, that the Church of Rome has declared it so to be. They, however, who believe that the Church of Rome may err, and who consider that in the present instance she has not a vestige of support from Scripture or apostolic tradition, must be permitted to say that in declaring the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary to be an article of the Christian faith, she makes a declaration which is void of proof and contrary to fact.
And what is the use of this doctrine? What end in the economy of redemption can we suppose it intended to subserve? Is it designed to prepare the minds of men to confess the divinity of the Blessed Virgin, even, as they confess the divinity of Christ? Such a purpose is disclaimed by the advocates of the doctrine, but they think that the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin is necessary in order to the sinlessness of our Lord's human nature; that she must have been guarded from the taint of original sin in order to convey the human nature pure to Him. But this is to put man's conjecture in opposition to God's declaration; for the Scriptures expressly say that Christ was conceived of the Holy Ghost; which undoubtedly secures the sinlessness of his human nature.
And it deserves to be considered, whether the promulgation of this doctrine as an article of the faith, however piously designed, may not tend to foster a spirit of skepticism and infidelity. Who can doubt that the miracles of the breviary excite suspicions in regard to the miracles of the Gospel, where men are taught that both rest on the same authority; What more fitted to bring discredit on the ascension of our Blessed Lord, than the assumption of the Virgin Mary into heaven, when we see both events commemorated alike in the feasts and services of the Church? In like manner the Immaculate Conception of our Divine Redeemer, which we this day commemorate, is degraded by the parody that is made of it in the pretended immaculate conception of the Blessed Virgin. And the danger is, that by putting the sublime miracles of the Gospel and the stupendous facts of our Redeemer's history on a level with the pious fables which are invented in imitation of them, you lead men to regard them as ancient myths contrived by human wit for their improvement, instead of substantial verities revealed by Almighty God for their salvation.
I have thus endeavored to show you the reasons for our belief in the Immaculate Conception of our Divine Redeemer, and to point out briefly the weakness and the danger of ascribing to the Blessed Virgin an honor which the Catholic Church and the Scriptures appropriate to Christ alone. In view of both points, our duty is plain: it is to protest against the new dogma, as we have protested against other novel dogmas: to preserve the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Faith, free from all modern and extraneous admixtures, to receive this faith into our hearts, and to endeavor by the energy of God's Holy Spirit, sought in earnest prayer, to act it out in our lives, and in particular to strive that as Christ our Saviour, by the power of the Holy Spirit, and in a manner above nature, was made man and was born holy and undefiled, so we, being born again not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, but of the same Holy Spirit, may walk as new creatures, in newness of life, and preserve that holiness and purity of soul which become those who are regenerated by the Spirit of God. Such is the lesson of this day, and may God by the energy of His Holy Spirit impress it on our hearts for the sake of Jesus Christ, our Saviour.
To Whom, etc.