Sermon 6. Omnipotence in Bonds Seasons - Epiphany

"And He went down with them, and came to Nazareth; and was subject to them." Luke ii. 51.

{75} AT this Christmas season, when we are celebrating those joyful mysteries which ushered in the Gospel, it seems almost an officious intrusion upon our holiday to engage in any exercise of the reason, even though it be in order to enliven the devotional feelings proper to the holy tide. It is a time of religious rest and spiritual festivity, and even on the ground that discussion is a kind of labour, we seem to have a right to be protected against it. And yet, as the days go on, and thankfulness has had free current and joy has had its fill, it seems allowable too, to look back at length on what has been occupying the heart, and to reason upon it. Nay, we seem to have the highest of possible authorities for doing so; for after two of the joyful mysteries, the third and the fifth, the holy Virgin is said to have done this very thing. Upon the {76} Nativity of our Lord and Saviour, the very feast we have been celebrating, the Evangelist tells us, "Mary kept all these words, pondering them in her heart"; and after she had found Him in the Temple in the midst of the Doctors, which is the subject of this day's Gospel, "His Mother," we are told, "kept all these words in her heart." Surely, then, it is permitted to me, consistently with the love and adoration due to this happy time of Christmas, to direct your minds, my Brethren, to a consideration which it suggests, not indeed very recondite, on the contrary, obvious to all of us, lying on the very face of the great Mystery, but adapted, I think, both to strengthen the faith and to deepen the love, with which we receive it into our hearts.

"The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us;" this is the glorious, unsearchable, incomprehensible Truth, on which all our hopes for the future depend, and which we have now been commemorating. It is the wonderful Economy of Redemption, by which God became man, the Highest became the lowest, the Creator took His place among His own creatures, Power became weakness, and Wisdom looked to men like folly. He that was rich was made poor; the Lord of all was rejected: "He came unto His own, and His own received Him not." This, I say, is the grand mystery of the season, and this is the subject on which I now propose to make one remark.

I say then, my Brethren, consider what the Divine Being is, and what we mean, when we use His name. The very first idea of Him, if we make the Creed our guide, is Omnipotence: "I believe in God, the Father {77} Almighty." And if you wish to enter into this idea of Omnipotence, and investigate what it is, trace it back into the further mystery of a past eternity. For ages innumerable, for infinite periods, long and long before any creature existed, He was. When there was no creature to exercise His power upon, still He was Omnipotent in His very Essence, as being not sovereign merely, but sole,—as the One Being, without any greater, less, or equal, full of all resources within, and in need of nothing, and, though infinitely one, yet being, at the same time, a whole infinite universe, as I may say, in Himself;—so much so that the breadth and depth and richness and variety and splendour of this created world which we behold, is simply nothing at all, compared to the vastness of that Ocean of perfection which lay concentrated in the intensity of His unity. A king of this world, though a sovereign, though an autocrat, depends on his subjects; but the Almighty God is absolutely and utterly free from any necessary alliance with His creatures. He is complete in Himself, for this reason, if for no other, that He existed for everlasting ages before any one of them was, and was able to do without them for a past eternity, and then created them all out of nothing. He borrows nothing from them; He owes nothing whatever even to the highest of them; they, on the contrary, owe it to Him that they are even able to remain in their own proper nature, and they derive from Him, moment by moment, every pulsation of their life and every ray of such glory as they possess.

Such is the omnipotent, self-dependent God: fixed in His own centre, and needing no point of motion or {78} vantage-ground out of Himself, whereupon to bring into action, or to use, or to apply, His inexhaustible power. He can make, He can unmake; He can decree and bring to pass, He can direct, control, and resolve, absolutely according to His will. He could create this vast material world, with all its suns and globes, and its illimitable spaces, in a moment. All its overwhelming multiplicity of laws, and complexity of formations, and intricacy of contrivances, both to originate and to accomplish, is with Him but the work of a moment. He could destroy it all in all its parts in a moment; in the same one moment He could create another universe instead of it, indefinitely more vast, more beautiful, more marvellous, and indefinitely unlike that universe which He was annihilating. He could bring into existence and destroy an infinite series of such universes, each in succession more perfect than that which immediately preceded it. He is the Creator, too, of all the intellectual natures which exist, whether in the heavens above, or on the earth, or in the regions under the earth. Angels in their nine multitudinous orders, and men in their populous generations, good spirits and bad, saints and souls on trial, the saved and the lost, first, He created them and creates, each in its own time; and next, He keeps the complete and exact tale of them all, as He keeps the catalogue also of all the beasts, the birds, the fishes, the reptiles, and insects, all over the earth. Not a sparrow falls without Him; not a hair of our heads, but He has counted it in with the rest; and so, too, not a soul, but He has before Him its whole history from beginning to end, and its every thought, word, and deed, and its {79} every motion through every day, and its relative place in the scale of merit and of sin.

And, while He thus intermingles His presence and His operations with an ineffable intimacy of union in every place, in every substance, in every act, everywhere, He is at the same time, as I have said, infinitely separated from everything, and absolutely incommunicable and unapproachable, and self-dependent in His own glorious Essence. Nothing can add to Him; no one can be His creditor, no one can claim anything of Him. He has no duties (if I may use such a term) towards the beings He has created. It is a saying about earthly possessions, that property has its duties as well as its privileges. Such words and such ideas apply not to the Self-subsisting, Everlasting God. He asks of His creatures, "Is it not lawful for Me to do what I will?" And St. Paul says of Him: "O man! who art thou that repliest against God? shall the thing formed say to Him who formed it, Why hast Thou made me thus?" If I must still use the word "duties" or obligations of Almighty God, I will say, that He has obligations towards Himself, but none towards us. What binds Him is the dictate of His own holy and perfect attributes. He is just and true, because His attributes are such; but we have no claims upon Him. Or, if we have claims, it is in consequence of His own gratuitous and express promise, by which indeed He does bind Himself; and then He is but faithful to His own word, because He is the Truth, and His obligation is still to Himself, and not to us. You know, my Brethren, we, in our turn, have no duties toward the brute creation; there is no {80} relation of justice between them and us. Of course we are bound not to treat them ill, for cruelty is an offence against that holy Law which our Maker has written on our hearts, and is displeasing to Him. But they can claim nothing at our hands; into our hands they are absolutely delivered. We may use them, we may destroy them at our pleasure, not our wanton pleasure, but still for our own ends, for our own benefit or satisfaction, provided we can give a rational account of what we do. Now, I do not say that the case is the same between us and our Maker, but it is illustrated by this parallel. He has no account at all to render to us: He has no claims of ours to settle: we are bound to Him; He is not bound to us, except as He binds Himself: we have no merit in His sight, and can do Him no service, unless His promise brings these ideas into existence. I say, He is only bound by His own perfect Nature, infinitely good, and holy, and true, as it is; and in that is the creature's stay. If we accuse Him, He will prevail, according to the text, "that Thou mayest be justified in Thy words, and mayest overcome when Thou art judged." And if we are utterly without claims upon Him as creatures, we are doubly destitute considered as sinners also: and thus, if even Angels are unprofitable in His sight, what are we?

In the words of Holy Scripture [Job iv., ix., xv., xxii., xxv., xxxiii.]: "Can a man be compared with God? What doth it profit God, if thou be just? or what dost thou give Him, if thy way be unspotted? Behold, even the moon doth not shine, and the stars are not pure in His sight. Behold, among His {81} saints, none is unchangeable, and the heavens are not pure in His sight. Behold, they that serve Him are not steadfast, and in His Angels He found wickedness. How much more is man abominable and unprofitable, who drinketh iniquity like water! Behold, He taketh away, and who can hinder Him? Who will say to Him: What dost Thou? Why dost thou strive against Him? for He giveth not account of any of His matters."

Such is the Omnipotence, the Self-dependence, the Self-sufficiency, the infinite Liberty of the Eternal God, our Creator and Judge. And now, this being so, let me go on to the particular thought which I wish, my Brethren, to suggest to you for your reflection at this season.

It is, not merely that God became man, not merely that the All-possessing became destitute; but the point on which I shall particularly insist is, in contrast with what I have been enlarging on, that the All-powerful, the All-free, the Infinite, became and becomes, as the text says, "subject" to the creature; nay, not only a subject, but literally a captive, a prisoner, and that not once, but on many different occasions and in many different ways.

Now, observe, my Brethren, when the Eternal son of God came among us, He might have taken our nature, as Adam received it, from the earth, and have begun His human life at mature age; He might have been moulded under the immediate hand of the Creator; He need have known nothing of the feebleness of infancy or the slow growth of manhood. This might have been, {82} had He so willed; but no: He preferred the penance of taking His place in the line of Adam, and of being born of a woman. This was the very scandal of the ancient heretics, as it has been of free-thinkers in all ages. They shrank from the notion of such a birth from Mary, as a something simply intolerable and past belief; and truly in that belief is the commencement of the wonderful captivity of the Infinite God, on which I am to dwell. Yet I will not do more than suggest so much of it to your devout meditation. I mean the long imprisonment He had, before His birth, in the womb of the Immaculate Mary. There was He in His human nature, who, as God, is everywhere; there was He, as regards His human soul, conscious from the first with a full intelligence, and feeling the extreme irksomeness of the prison-house, full of grace as it was.

At length He sees the light, and He is free; but free only in that His imprisonment is changed. The very first act of His Mother's on His birth, is both an example and a figure of His life-long captivity. "Mary brought forth her first-born Son, and wrapped Him up in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger." It is the custom in those southern parts to treat the new-born babe in a way strange to this age and country. The infant is swathed around with cloths much resembling the winding-sheet, the bandages and ligaments of the dead. You may recollect, my Brethren, the account of Lazarus's revival; how that, when miracle had lifted him up out of the tomb, there he lay motionless, till his fastenings were cut off from him. "He that had been dead came forth, bound foot and hand with winding-bands; {83} and Jesus said to them: Loose him, and let him go." So was it with that wonder-working Lord Himself in His own infancy. He submitted to the customs, as well as to the ritual, of His nation; and, as He had lain so long in Mary's womb, so now again He left that sacred prison, only that her loving hands might manacle and fetter Him once more, inflicting on Him the special penance which He had chosen. And so, like some inanimate image of wood or stone, the All-powerful lies in the manger, or on her bosom, doubly helpless, both because His infancy is feeble, and because His bonds are strong.

It is in this wise He was shown to the shepherds; thus He was worshipped by the wise men; thus He was presented in the Temple, taken up in Simeon's arms, hurried off to Egypt by night, His tender Mother adoring the while that abject captivity to which it was her awful duty to reduce Him. So His first months passed; and though, as time went on, He grew in stature, and burst His bonds, still through a slow and tedious advance did He enter on His adolescence. And then, when for a moment He anticipated His mission and sat down among the Doctors in the Temple, He was quickly recalled by His Mother's chiding, and went back again to her and Joseph, and, in the emphatic words of the text, was "subject unto them." It is said, He worked at His father's trade, not even yet His own master, and confined till the age of thirty to the limits of one city.

And when at length the hour came for His breaking away from His humble home and quitting Nazareth, {84} even then this law of captivity, as I may call it, continued, and that even with the circumstances of a frightful development. For is it not terrifying, so as even to scare the mind, that in His infancy indeed His Mother's pure embrace had been His prison, but now, as a preparation for His public ministry, He is made over to His enemy, and undergoes the handling of the foul spirit himself! The rebel archangel, who would not be in subjection, who had assailed the throne of God, and had been cast out of heaven, he it is who now has got fast hold of the Eternal Word Incarnate, and is lifting Him up, and transporting Him according to his will; taking Him into the holy city, and setting Him upon the pinnacle of the Temple, and taking Him up into a very high mountain in order to seduce Him with a bribe of the unshackled lordship of the wide earth. "What concord hath Christ with Belial?" Yet the fiend is allowed the momentary possession of the Omnipotent.

But at least when He has begun to preach, He will be free. My Brethren, it is true; but even then the threatenings at least and the earnests of a renewed captivity pursue Him. As soon as He does miracles and collects followers, His brethren take the alarm, and try to capture Him. "When His friends had heard of it, they went out to lay hold of Him, for they said, He is become mad." When He preached in Nazareth, "the people rose and seized Him violently, and brought Him to the brow of the hill, to cast Him headlong." At another time He was in danger from His own hearers; they went about to take Him by force to make Him a king. At another time, "the Scribes and Pharisees {85} sent ministers to apprehend Him." At another time, Herod was about to seize Him and put Him to death.

At length He is to die for us; but still that sacrifice of Himself was not to please Him, if imprisonment was away. He allowed Himself, in the Church's words, "manibus tradi nocentium," to be given into the hands of the violent. Now, I ask, what need of this superfluity of humiliation? He was to shed His blood and die; doubtless: but in the manifold dispositions of Providence there were many ways whereby to die, without falling into the fierce handling of jailers and hangmen. He might have taken upon Himself the mode of satisfying the Divine Decree, and have dispensed with the instrumentality of man. We read in history of kings going to death, who refused the assistance of the executioner, and submitted to their fate by their own act. And it was in order to remind us that He need not have undergone that profanation, that, on His enemies first approaching Him, He smote them to the ground. And again, it was in order to impress upon us that He did undergo it, that He touchingly asked them: "Are ye come out as to a robber, with swords and clubs, to apprehend Me? but this is your hour and the power of darkness."

Thus He spoke, and that expostulation was the immediate signal for those special indignities to begin in which He chose to invest His passion and death. He who was submitted to the wine-press in Gethsemani, and agonized with none to see Him but Apostles and attendant Angels, might surely have gone through His solemn sacrifice in solitude, as He commenced it; but {86} He preferred the "hands of men"; He preferred the loathsome kiss of the traitor; He preferred the staves and swords of the ministers of a fallen priesthood; He preferred to die in the midst of a furious mob, haling Him to and fro; under the fists and scourges and hammers of savage lictors; now shut up in a dungeon, now dragged before the judgment-seat, now tied to a pillar, now nailed to the cross, and then at length, when the worst was over, and His soul was fled, hurried, as the best His friends could do for Him, hurried into a narrow sepulchre of stone. O marvellous dispensation, full of mystery! that the God of Nature, the Lord of the Universe, should take to Himself a body to suffer and die in; not only so, but should not even allow Himself the birthright of man, should refuse to be master of His own limbs, and outgrow the necessity of a Mother's arms, only to present Himself to the tyrannous grasp of the heathen soldiers.

And now surely, my Brethren, we are come to the end of these wonders. He tore open the solid rock; He rose from the tomb; He ascended on high; He is far off from the earth; He is safe from profanation; and the soul and body, which He assumed, partake of course, as far as created nature allows, of the Sovereign Freedom and the Independence of Omnipotence. It is not so: He is indeed beyond the reach of suffering; but you anticipate, my Brethren, what I have yet to say. Is He then so enamoured of the prison, that He should purpose to revisit earth again, in order that, as far as possible, He may undergo it still? Does He set such a value on subjection to His creatures, that, before He goes away, on the very {87} eve of His betrayal, He must actually make provision, after death, for perpetuating His captivity to the end of the world? My Brethren, the great truth is daily before our eyes: He has ordained the standing miracle of His Body and Blood under visible symbols, that He may secure thereby the standing mystery of Omnipotence in bonds.

He took bread, and blessed, and made it His Body; He took wine, and gave thanks, and made it His Blood; and He gave His priests the power to do what He had done. Henceforth, He is in the hands of sinners once more. Frail, ignorant, sinful man, by the sacerdotal power given to him, compels the presence of the Highest; he lays Him up in a small tabernacle; he dispenses Him to a sinful people. Those who are only just now cleansed from mortal sin, open their lips for Him; those who are soon to return to mortal sin, receive Him into their breasts; those who are polluted with vanity and selfishness and ambition and pride, presume to make Him their guest; the frivolous, the tepid, the worldly-minded, fear not to welcome Him. Alas! alas! even those who wish to be more in earnest, entertain Him with cold and wandering thoughts, and quench that Love which would inflame them with Its own fire, did they but open to It. Such are the best of us; and then for the worst? O my Brethren, what shall we say of sacrilege? of His reception into hearts polluted with mortal, unforsaken sin? of those further nameless profanations, which from time to time occur, when unbelief dares to present itself at the Holy Altar, and blasphemously gains possession of Him?

My Brethren, it is plain that, when we confess God {88} as Omnipotent only, we have gained but a half-knowledge of Him: His is an Omnipotence which can at the same time swathe Itself in infirmity and can become the captive of Its own creatures. He has, if I may so speak, the incomprehensible power of even making Himself weak. We must know Him by His names, Emmanuel and Jesus, to know Him perfectly.

One word more before I conclude. Some persons may consider that a thought, such as that I have been enlarging on, is a difficulty to faith. Every one has his own trials and his own scandals: I grant it. For me, my Brethren, I can only say that its effect on myself lies just in the very opposite direction, and, awful as it is, it does but suggest an incentive, as for adoration, so for faith also. What human teacher could thus open for us an insight into the infinitude of the Divine Counsels? Eye of man hath not seen the face of God; and heart of man could never have conceived or invented so wonderful a manifestation, as the Gospel contains, of His ineffable, overwhelming Attributes. I believe the infinite condescension of the Highest to be true, because it has been imagined. Moreover, I recognize it to be true, just as I believe in the laws of this material world, according as human science elicits them; viz., because I see here the silent operation, beneath the surface, of a great principle, which is not seen till it is investigated. I adore a truth, which, though patent to all who look for it, yet, to be seen in its consistency and symmetry, has to be looked for. And further, I glory in it, for I see in it the most awful antagonism to the very idea and essence of sin, whether as existing in Angels or in men. For what was {89} the sin of Lucifer, but the resolve to be his own master? What was the sin of Adam, but impatience of subjection, and a desire to be his own god? What is the sin of all his children, but the movement, not of passion merely, not of selfishness, not of unbelief, but of pride, of the heart rising against the law of God, and set on being emancipated from its trammels? What is the sin of Antichrist, but, as St. Paul says, that of being "the Lawless One," of "opposing or being lifted up against all that is called God, or worshipped, so that he sitteth in the temple of God, showing himself as if he were God"? If, then, the very principle of sin is insubordination, is there not a stupendous meaning in the fact, that He, the Eternal, who alone is sovereign and supreme, has given us an example in His own Person of that love of subjection, which in Him alone is simply voluntary, but in all creatures is an elementary duty?

O my Brethren, let us blush at our own pride and self-will. Let us call to mind our impatience at God's providences towards us, our wayward longings after what cannot be, our headstrong efforts to reverse His just decrees, our bootless conflicts with the stern necessities which hem us in, our irritation at ignorance or suspense about His will, our fierce, passionate wilfulness when we see that will too clearly, our haughty contempt of His ordinances, our determination to do things for ourselves without Him, our preference of our own reason to His word,—the many, many shapes in which the Old Adam shows itself, and one or other of which our conscience tells us is our own; and let us pray Him who is independent of us all, yet who at this season became as {90} though our fellow and our servant, to teach us our place in His wide universe, and to make us ambitious only of that grace here and glory hereafter, which He has purchased for us by His own humiliation.

(1st Sunday after Epiphany, 1857. Preached in the University Church, Dublin.)

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