Project Canterbury

In Memory of the Rev. Thomas McKee Brown, M.A.
Pastor Teacher, Priest

New York: E & J. B. Young and Co., 1899.

A Sermon Preached on Christmas Morning;
Sunday, December 25, in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, New York
by the Right Rev. H. C. Potter, D.D.,
Bishop of New York.

And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold this Child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel. . . . Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also.--ST. LUKE ii. 34, 35.

IF this were in music and not in inspired history, we should be apt to call it a false note. The Divine Child whose birthday the whole round world is keeping this morning has, a little later, as you will remember, been brought into the temple, and Simeon, the venerable Servant of God, has taken him in his arms and sung his own Nunc Dimittis. It is then that he turns to the Virgin Mother, and, as we read, "He blessed them" both. Up to this point the whole scene has been congruous and harmonious,--the joy of the Blessed Virgin, the compliance with ancient usage, the thanksgiving of the aged priest;--why was it necessary that there should have been introduced that jarring and inharmonious note, which foretells to Mary, in the moment of her supreme happiness, "Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul"?

The inquiry is a natural one, and it will help us, I think, in circumstances which, in their strange and sorrowful contrast, are not unlike it, if we strive on this sad and yet joyous Christmas morning to answer it.

1. And first we must try and disencumber ourselves of an impression which, because we look at the august facts of the life of Jesus Christ from our side and not from theirs who were, humanly speaking, contemporaneous with Him, is not unnatural. The Blessed Virgin is to us so distinctly unique a personage in the sacred history that it is not easy for us to realize that, in her origin and circumstances, she was little more than a lowly Judean peasant. Her earthly state was one of poverty and ignorance. We should not exalt her, but only pervert the high significance of the Incarnation, if we should try to make out that it was otherwise. She had not been prepared for her high vocation, like some scion of royalty, by long and laborious training and culture. She came to her great office with only that best endowment, a soul of absolute surrender, however inscrutable it might be, to the Divine purpose. But that to her at the first it was inscrutable there can be no smallest doubt. And that what was true at the beginning of her high calling was largely true all the way on there can be as little doubt. The time was speedily to come in her mother's experience when the Divine Being who was her human son was to pass out of the realm of her intelligent comprehension. She and He are seated at the Marriage Feast in Cana of Galilee, and with a woman's beautiful instinct of helpful anticipation in an embarrassing exigency she cries out to the servants who have whispered "There is no wine!" "Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it." There is not, I think, the smallest warrant for supposing that she in the remotest way dreamed of what her Divine Son was soon to do. She did already realize that he was an exceptional being, with exceptional powers; as we should say, clever, able, original. But any higher conception was out of her reach, as it was out of her realm.

And of this last she must needs be reminded. As one who reads her woman's heart, her Lord makes answer to her thought, "Woman, what have I to do with thee? Not in thy way, by methods of thy divining, may I work here." And then the act of mere volition, and behold the water is made wine!

It was thus, in the first of many ways, that a sword pierced Mary's heart. For, to a loving and devoted nature, what can be more exquisitely painful, than to find that one, in love of whom we have lived and moved and had our highest being, has passed out of the realm of an intellectual companionship? There are mothers here who can understand what I mean. There comes, now and then, in the experience of motherhood, a time when the baby boy, the bright and clever lad, the warm-hearted and affectionate youth, passes into maturity and responsibilities, the intellectual power of manhood. And then it may be the wistful mother's heart finds that her boy has passed out of the limited range of her mental companionship, of those mutual comprehensions which, hitherto, mother and son have never failed to share--and that the happier and earlier relationship will never come back again. Think now what it must have been for the Mother of Jesus to make that discovery--intensified to her a thousand fold--and what it must have cost her!

2. Again: The sword was destined to pass through her soul another way. The time came, as you remember, when Jesus had to make His disciples conscious that He was the world-Man--all men's, not any man's, or community's, or family's alone; and so, when these disciples, on one occasion, say to Him: "Thy mother and Thy brethren stand without desiring to see Thee," He turns to the vast and motley assemblage that stood thronging and crowding about Him and says, " These are my mother and my brethren."

I doubt not that some one made haste to go and tell Mary what He said. There is always somebody eager to run and repeat unwelcome news. And then--can you not imagine the rest? Mary receives the tidings, and straightway turns and surveys the mixed and very miscellaneous herd on the outer edge of which she stood. That disreputable woman, and that shabby hireling, and that peasant creature, and all the rest of the unfragrant and unlovely crowd--such as these to be called--and by Him!--His "mother!" O the shame, and most of all the sting of it! She who had borne Him in her womb, who had fondled and fed and watched Him from His birth, she to be henceforth no better nor other to Him than such as these! I doubt not that she could not grasp His higher meaning, nor even partly understand what it all meant.

But we can. The whole scene is plain enough for us now. There could be, Jesus thus teaches her, no exclusively appropriating affection in her case, or in anybody else's; henceforth and forever. He did not belong to any one, alone, but to all alike.

I touch a sensitive point here, but I am sure that some of you, at any rate, will understand me. The selfishness of love wants exclusive possession. To be able to say of another, a friend, a child, a teacher, "He is mine; no one else can claim, in this sacred and tender relation that binds us, anything whatever"; this is not a very lovely trait, but it is a very human, which is only another way of saying that it is a very common one. And yet the time often comes when we find that we ought not to urge or insist upon such a claim, even if we would. Our friend, our teacher, our leader, has duties, and must have living and helpful relationships, even such as he has had to us, to others, and it may be to many who are outside our knowledge or sympathy or interest.

3. And then, finally, there came to Mary's heart the double-edged sword of sorrow and irrevocable parting. I doubt not that, as time went on, and she saw in her Divine Son the daily disclosure of new powers and a mightier sovereignty, there dawned in her heart the dream that He who was, over life and death and all things else, so absolutely sovereign, would, for herself and Him, ordain that there should be no death, no parting. And then there came the tragedy of Calvary, and not long after that the final separation and evanishment, when a cloud caught Him away, out of her sight forever, and she was left alone. Such is the law of our human life, and even she was not to be delivered from it.

You do not need to have me show you how the line of thought which I have thus far been following fits this place and this day. We have, indeed, our Christmas joy, God forbid that we should forget it, but human hearts all round the world this morning, to whom that joy has come as it has come to you and me, find their joy stifled for the moment by a sorrow that will not down and by tears that no self-control can quite keep back. Cease the fruitless struggle, my children, and, as you let your grief for a little have its way, strive to read the larger lesson that shines out from grief and joy alike.

There cannot be one, remember, first of all, without the other. If it had not been a world of sorrows and partings and death to which He came, the Divine Child would not have needed to be born into it. His presence here is the pledge of deliverance from sorrows, and so, in one way, the prophecy of them. And that especially of sorrows such as yours for him, your pastor, whom you have loved and for a little while have lost. The Christmas joy is here, but alas, as always in our earthly estate, it stands out against the dark background of the great world-grief. And in your case, as I have already indirectly indicated, there is a singular analogy between your grief and that of her who on this day brought forth her Divine Son, and, wrapping Him in swaddling clothes, laid Him in a manger. Soon the sword was to pierce her heart; and, even so, it has pierced yours.

Recall the steps that we have taken, and trace in them the analogy to which I have referred. The first sorrow that came to Mary was when her Divine Son passed out of the realm of her complete intellectual comprehension. Is it not so, must it not be so, with any one who has been drawn, especially, and closely, as you have been, into the fellowship and sympathy of their spiritual leader? There is that in such an one that speaks to us strongly, moves us deeply, influences us helpfully; and we turn to it with a keen sense of the value of teaching, of guidance, and of direction, at once so clear and strong and helpful. But sometimes it is not clear. Has it ever occurred to you that sometimes it must be so, if he who leads and guides and teaches is at all fit for such a task? For, if he is, must he not be competent to ascend heights which we are not competent to follow, and penetrate to depths too deep for us to discern? Is not a fundamental secret of the capacity to lead and guide to be found in these exceptional powers, and yet is not their exercise, which makes him who exercises them for the time being unintelligible to us, the cause, to us who cannot always follow, of a very deep and keen pang?

Again, a much more common experience in the pastoral relation is that other, much closer in its analogy to Mary's, when she heard the words of her Divine Son, "These are my mother and my brethren," which is encountered when we are made sensible that that pastoral relation which has been so dear and helpful to us cannot be ours alone. He whom you have lost has been, to some of you, as I know, a most close and helpful friend and counsellor. His courage has become yours, his strong faith he has somehow imparted to you, as when, to one who told me of it, and who was, at the moment, utterly discouraged about herself, he said, "Do not say you cannot correct that fault, do that self-denying deed, witness to that simple and childlike faith in Jesus Christ. Believe in yourself!" By which, he did not need to say, and I do not need to say that, he did not mean any pagan self-confidence, but rather that Divine Self-Confidence with which the Apostle exclaims, "I can do all things--through Christ strengthening me!"

Now then, when any one of us has had relations so tender and sacred and helpful as these with some friend and pastor, it is not unnatural to think of them as unique and peculiar, und even to resent the idea that they may not be. "Oh no," we say, "this dear friend, this spiritual guide and teacher, could never be quite the same to anybody else that he has been to me. I do not say 'our pastor,' but 'mine,' in a relation exceptional and pre-eminent." Well, we say it; and, as you know, he taught you to unsay it. There was no poor prodigal so alien, so sin-stained, so far away from the Father's house, that he was not ready to vouchsafe to him the same hearkening ear, the same helpful hand, the same wise and faithful and patient counsel, that he would have given to you or to me. Nobody was remote from his love and loving interest, if he, by word or deed, could help them. And so, though it pained you, and you, and you, perhaps, my brother, my sister, my child, to find that he was not in any exclusive sense your pastor and guide, yet that pang piercing you as the sword pierced Mary's mother-heart revealed to you the breadth and depth and comprehensiveness of his!

And then, finally, with Mary as with you, there was the supreme sorrow--the sorrow of death itself. In the case of the rector of this parish there was in this almost a dramatic element, for, to those of us who did not know the burden of ill-health that he bore, he seemed so strong and well; and there is to me a singular pathos and consistency with his clear view, always, of his duty and his resolute determination always to do it, that he should have persisted in his work, long after most men would have laid it down. Do not think of it as ended nor of his departure as breaking your dearest and closest tie to him! For surely that tie is not the tie that binds parent and child, husband and wife, brother and sister, pastor and flock, but rather that which binds each one of these first to his Risen Lord and then to the whole company of His ransomed ones. On the first Christmas morning, ah, shall we not recall it here and now? there broke upon the astonished shepherds not alone the song that smote their ears, but also that enrapturing sight that broke upon their eyes, when they heard not only but saw the Heavenly Host singing their "Gloria in Excelsis." Then to these lowly guardians of their flocks, and henceforth on forever, the two worlds, the world of angels and the world of men, became no longer two, but one. And so they are to-day! Your father and my brother is not dead but liveth, and in the Paradise of God resteth to be forever with the Lord. And so to-day we thank God for all that he was to us and to Christ's Holy Catholic Church. We bless God for the tenderness of his sympathy, the patience of his service, the usefulness of all his various ministries. As we go from this holy House to-day to our homes let us therefore take with us not alone our grief that he is gone, but our joy that he still lives--that in the fellowship of God's elect he is still one with us who remain--his heart enfolding you all, his prayers, as when he was with you in the flesh, still following all your lives. In that faith cherish the memory of his noble life, nobly lived and nobly ended, and may God, who has bound all His together, first in the bond of our common humanity, and then in the fellowship of His Holy Church, keep you, constant and loyal, and loving, even as he was, unto the triumphant end!

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