Sermon 3. Waiting for Christ

"To serve the living and true God, and to wait for His Son from heaven, whom He raised from the dead, Jesus, who hath delivered us from the wrath to come." Thessal. i. 9, 10.

{31} AS we approach the season of our Lord's advent we are warned Sunday after Sunday by our tender Mother, Holy Church, of the duty of looking out for it. Last week we were reminded of that dreadful day, when the Angels shall reap the earth, and gather together the noxious weeds out of the midst of the corn, and bind them in bundles for the burning. Next week we shall read of that "great tribulation," which will immediately precede the failing of the sun and moon, and the appearance of the Sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And today we are told to wait in expectation of that awful Sign, serving the Living and True God the while, as is His due, who has "converted us from idols," and "delivered us from the wrath to come."

What St. Paul calls "waiting," or "expecting," or {32} "looking out," that our Lord Himself enjoins upon us, when He bids us "look up and lift up our heads, when these things begin to come to pass"; as if it were our duty to be on the alert, starting up at the first notice, and straining, as it were, our eyes with eager and devout interest, that we may catch the earliest sight of His presence, when He is manifested in the heavens—just as a whole city or country from time to time is found to sit up all night for the appearance of some meteor or strange star, which Science has told them is to come. Elsewhere, this frame of mind is called watching,—whether by our Lord or by His holy Apostles after Him. "Watch ye, therefore," He says Himself, "for you know not when the Lord of the house cometh; at even, or at midnight, or at the cock-crowing, or in the morning; lest, coming suddenly, He find you sleeping. And what I say to you, I say to all,—Watch." And St. Paul: "It is now the hour for us to rise from sleep; for now our salvation is nearer than when we believed. The night is past, the day is at hand." And St. John: "Behold, I come as a thief. Blessed is he that watcheth and keepeth his garments."

Passages such as these might be multiplied, and they lead to reflection of various kinds. The substance of religion consists in faith, hope, and charity; and the qualification for eternal life is to be in a state of grace and free from mortal sin; yet, when we come to the question, how we are to preserve ourselves in a state of grace, and gain the gift of perseverance in it, then a number of observances have claims upon us, over and above those duties in which the substance of religion {33} lies, as being its safeguard and protection. And these same observances, as being of a nature to catch the eye of the world, become the badges of the Christian, as contrasted with other men; whereas faith, hope, and charity are lodged deep in the breast, and are not seen. Now, one of these characteristics of a Christian spirit, springing from the three theological virtues, and then in turn defending and strengthening them, is that habit of waiting and watching, to which this season of the year especially invites us; and the same habit is also a mark of the children of the Church, and a note of her divine origin.

If, indeed, we listen to the world, we shall take another course. We shall think the temper of mind I am speaking of, to be superfluous or enthusiastic. We shall aim at doing only what is necessary, and shall try to find out how little will be enough. We shall look out, not for Christ, but for the prizes of this life. We shall form our judgment of things by what others say; we shall admire what they admire; we shall instinctively reverence and make much of the world's opinion. We shall fear to give scandal to the world. We shall have a secret shrinking from the Church's teaching. We shall have an uneasy, uncomfortable feeling when mention is made of the maxims of holy men and ascetical writers, not liking them, yet not daring to dissent. We shall be scanty in supernatural acts, and have little or nothing of the habits of virtue which are formed by them, and are an armour of proof against temptation. We shall suffer our souls to be overrun with venial sins, which tend to mortal sin, if they have not already reached it. {34} We shall feel very reluctant to face the thought of death. All this shall we be, all this shall we do; and in consequence, it will be very difficult for a spectator to say how we differ from respectable, well-conducted men who are not Catholics. In that case certainly we shall exhibit no pattern of a Christian spirit, nor shall we be in our own persons any argument for the truth of Christianity; but I am trusting and supposing that our view of Christianity is higher than to be satisfied with conduct so unlike that to which our Saviour and His Apostles call us. Speaking, then, to men who wish now to take that side and that place which they will have wished to have taken when their Lord actually comes to them, I say, that we must not only have faith in Him, but must wait on Him; not only must hope, but must watch for Him; not only love Him, but must long for Him; not only obey Him, but must look out, look up earnestly for our reward, which is Himself. We must not only make Him the Object of our faith, hope, and charity, but we must make it our duty not to believe the world, not to hope in the world, not to love the world. We must resolve not to hang on the world's opinion, or study its wishes. It is our mere wisdom to be thus detached from all things below. "The time is short," says the Apostle; "it remaineth that they who weep be as though they wept not, and they that rejoice as if they rejoiced not, and they that buy as though they possessed not, and they that use this world as if they used it not, for the fashion of this world passeth away."

We read in the Gospel of our Lord on one occasion "entering into a certain town," and being received and {35} entertained "by a certain woman named Martha." There were two sisters, Martha and Mary; "Martha was busy about much serving;" but Mary sat at our Lord's feet, and heard His words. You recollect, my Brethren, His comparison of these two holy sisters, one with another. "Martha, Martha," He said, "thou art careful, and art troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary; Mary hath chosen the best part." Now Martha loved Him, and Mary loved Him; but Mary waited on Him too, and therefore had the promise of perseverance held up to her: "Mary hath chosen the best part, which shall not be taken away from her."

They, then, watch and wait for their Lord, who are tender and sensitive in their devotion towards Him; who feed on the thought of Him, hang on His words; live in His smile, and thrive and grow under His hand. They are eager for His approval, quick in catching His meaning, jealous of His honour. They see Him in all things, expect Him in all events, and amid all the cares, the interests, and the pursuits of this life, still would feel an awful joy, not a disappointment, did they hear that He was on the point of coming. "By night I sought Him whom my soul loveth," says the inspired canticle; "I sought Him and found Him not. I will rise, and in the streets and broad places will I seek Him." Must I be more definite in my description of this affectionate temper? I ask, then, do you know the feeling of expecting a friend, expecting him to come, and he delays? or do you know what it is to be in the company of those with whom you are not at your ease, and to wish the time to pass away, and the hour to strike when you are {36} to be released from them? or do you know what it is to be in anxiety lest something should happen, which may happen, or may not; or to be in suspense about some important event, which makes your heart beat when anything reminds you of it, and of which you think the first thing in the morning? or do you know what it is to have friends in a distant country, to expect news from them, and to wonder from day to day what they are doing, and whether they are well? or do you know, on the other hand, what it is to be in a strange country yourself, with no one to talk to, no one who can sympathize with you, homesick,—downcast because no letter comes to you,—and perplexed how you are ever to get back again? or do you know what it is so to love and live upon a person who is present with you, that your eyes follow his, that you read his soul, that you see its changes in his countenance, that you anticipate his wants, that you are sad in his sadness, troubled when he is vexed, restless when you cannot understand him, relieved, comforted, when you have cleared up the mystery?

This is a state of mind, when our Lord and Saviour is its Object, not intelligible at first sight to the world, not easy to nature, yet of so ordinary fulfilment in the Church in all ages, as to become the sign of the Presence of Him who is unseen, and to be a sort of note of the divinity of our religion. You know there are subtle instincts in the inferior animals, by which they apprehend the presence of things which man cannot discern, as atmospheric changes, or convulsions of the earth, or their natural enemies, whom yet they do not actually see; {37} and we consider the uneasiness or the terror which they exhibit, to be a proof that there is something near them which is the object of the feeling, and is the evidence of its own reality. Well, in some such way the continuous watching and waiting for Christ, which Prophets, Apostles, and the Church built upon them, have manifested, age after age, is a demonstration that the Object of it is not a dream or a fancy, but really exists; in other words, that He lives still, that He has ever lived, who was once upon earth, who died, who disappeared, who said He would come again.

For centuries before He came on earth, prophet after prophet was upon his high tower, looking out for Him, through the thick night, and watching for the faintest glimmer of the dawn. "I will stand upon my watch," says one of them, "fix my feet upon the tower, and I will watch to see what will be said to me. For, as yet, the vision is far off, and it shall appear at the end, and shall not lie; if it make any delay, wait for it, for it shall surely come, and it shall not be slack." Another prophet says, "O God, my God, to Thee do I watch at break of day. For Thee my soul hath thirsted in a desert land, where there is no way nor water." And another, "To Thee have I lifted up my eyes, who dwellest in the heaven; as the eyes of servants on the hands of their masters, as the eyes of the handmaid towards her mistress." And another, "O that Thou wouldst rend the heavens, and come down!—the mountains would melt away at Thy presence. They would melt, as at the burning of fire; the waters would burn with fire. From the beginning of the world the eye hath {38} not seen, O God, besides Thee, what things Thou hast prepared for them that wait on Thee." Now, if there were any men who had a right to be attached to this world, not detached from it, it was the ancient servants of God. This earth was given them as their portion and reward by the very word of the Most High. Our reward is future; the Jew was promised a temporal reward. Yet they put aside God's good gift for His better promise; they sacrificed possession to hope. They would be content with nothing short of the fruition of their Creator; they would watch for nothing else than the face of their Deliverer. If earth must be broken up, if the heavens must be rent, if the elements must melt, if the order of nature must be undone, in order to His appearing, let the ruin be, rather than they should be without Him. Such was the intense longing of the Jewish worshipper, looking out for that which was to come; and I say that their very eagerness in watching and patience in waiting, were of a nature to startle the world, and to impress upon it the claims of Christianity to be accepted as true; for their perseverance in looking out proves that there was something to look out for.

Nor were the Apostles, after our Lord had come and gone, behind the Prophets in the keenness of their apprehension, and the eagerness of their longing for Him. The miracle of patient waiting was continued. When He went up on high from Mount Olivet, they kept looking up into heaven; and it needed Angels to send them to their work, before they gave over. And ever after, still it was Sursum corda with them. "Our conversation is in heaven," says St. Paul; that is, our {39} citizenship, and our social duties, our active life, our daily intercourse, is with the world unseen; "from whence, also, we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ." And again, "If you be risen with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God. Mind the things that are above, not the things that are upon the earth; for ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ shall appear, who is your life, then you also shall appear with Him in glory."

So vivid and continuous was this state of mind with the Apostles and their successors, that to the world they seemed expecting the immediate reappearance of their Lord. "Behold, He cometh with the clouds," says St. John, "and every eye shall see Him, and they also that pierced Him. And all the tribes of the earth shall bewail themselves because of Him. He that giveth testimony of those things, saith, Surely, I come quickly. Amen, come, Lord Jesus." They forgot the long lapse of time, as holy men may do in trance. They passed over in their minds the slow interval, as the eye may be carried on beyond a vast expanse of flat country, and see only the glorious clouds in the distant horizon. Accordingly, St. Peter had to explain the matter. "In the last day," he says, "shall come deceitful scoffers, saying, Where is the promise of His coming? But of this one thing be not ignorant, my beloved, that one day with the Lord is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. Seeing all these things are to be dissolved, what manner of people ought you to be, in daily conversation and godliness, looking for and waiting {40} unto the coming of the day of the Lord?" You see the Great Apostle does not dissuade his brethren from anticipating the day, while he confesses it will be long in coming. He explains the mistake of the world, which understood their eager expectation of our Lord's coming to be a proof that they thought that He was to come in their day; but how intense and absorbing must have been their thought of Him, that it was so mistaken! Nay, it is almost the description which St. Paul gives of the elect of God. When he was in prison, on the eve of his martyrdom, he sent to his beloved disciple, St. Timothy, his last words; and he says, "There is laid up for me a crown of justice; and not only to me, but"—to whom? how does he describe the heirs of glory? he proceeds, "not only to me, but to those also who love His coming."

This energetic, direct apprehension of an unseen Lord and Saviour has not been peculiar to Prophets and Apostles; it has been the habit of His Holy Church, and of her children, down to this day. Age passes after age, and she varies her discipline, and she adds to her devotions, and all with the one purpose of fixing her own and their gaze more fully upon the person of her unseen Lord. She has adoringly surveyed Him, feature by feature, and has paid a separate homage to Him in every one. She has made us honour His Five Wounds, His Precious Blood, and His Sacred Heart. She has bid us meditate on His infancy, and the Acts of His ministry; His agony, His scourging, and His crucifixion. She has sent us on pilgrimage to His birthplace and His sepulchre, and the mount of His ascension. She {41} has sought out, and placed before us, the memorials of His life and death; His crib and holy house, His holy tunic, the handkerchief of St. Veronica, the cross and its nails, His winding sheet, and the napkin for His head.

And so, again, if the Church has exalted Mary or Joseph, it has been with a view to the glory of His sacred humanity. If Mary is proclaimed as immaculate, it illustrates the doctrine of her Maternity. If she is called the Mother of God, it is to remind Him that, though He is out of sight, He, nevertheless, is our possession, for He is of the race of man. If she is painted with Him in her arms, it is because we will not suffer the Object of our love to cease to be human, because He is also divine. If she is the Mater Dolorosa, it is because she stands by His cross. If she is Maria Desolata, it is because His dead body is on her lap. If, again, she is the Coronata, the crown is set upon her head by His dear hand. And, in like manner, if we are devout to Joseph, it is as to His foster-father; and if he is the saint of happy death, it is because he dies in the hands of Jesus and Mary.

And what the Church urges on us down to this day, saints and holy men down to this day have exemplified. Is it necessary to refer to the lives of the Holy Virgins, who were and are His very spouses, wedded to Him by a mystical marriage, and in many instances visited here by the earnests of that ineffable celestial benediction which is in heaven their everlasting portion? The martyrs, the confessors of the Church, bishops, evangelists, doctors, preachers, monks, hermits, ascetical {42} teachers,—have they not, one and all, as their histories show, lived on the very name of Jesus, as food, as medicine, as fragrance, as light, as life from the dead?—as one of them says, "in aure dulce canticum, in ore mel mirificum, in corde nectar cœlicum."

Nor is it necessary to be a saint thus to feel: this intimate, immediate dependence on Emmanuel, God with us, has been in all ages the characteristic, almost the definition, of a Christian. It is the ordinary feeling of Catholic populations; it is the elementary feeling of every one who has but a common hope of heaven. I recollect years ago, hearing an acquaintance, not a Catholic, speak of a work of devotion, written as Catholics usually write, with wonder and perplexity, because (he said) the author wrote as if he had "a sort of personal attachment to our Lord"; "it was as if he had seen Him, known Him, lived with Him, instead of merely professing and believing the great doctrine of the Atonement." It is this same phenomenon which strikes those who are not Catholics, when they enter our churches. They themselves are accustomed to do religious acts simply as a duty; they are serious at prayer time, and behave with decency, because it is a duty. But you know, my Brethren, mere duty, a sense of propriety, and good behaviour, these are not the ruling principles present in the minds of our worshippers. Wherefore, on the contrary, those spontaneous postures of devotion? why those unstudied gestures? why those abstracted countenances? why that heedlessness of the presence of others? why that absence of the shame-facedness which is so sovereign among professors {43} of other creeds? The spectator sees the effect; he cannot understand the cause of it. Why is this simple earnestness of worship? we have no difficulty in answering. It is because the Incarnate Saviour is present in the tabernacle; and then, when suddenly the hitherto silent church is, as it were, illuminated with the full piercing burst of voices from the whole congregation, it is because He now has gone up upon His throne over the altar, there to be adored. It is the visible Sign of the Son of Man, which thrills through the congregation, and makes them overflow with jubilation.

Here I am led to refer to a passage in the history of the last years of the wonderful man who swayed the destinies of Europe in the beginning of this century. It has before now attracted the attention of philosophers and preachers, as bearing on his sentiments towards Christianity, and containing an argument in its behalf cognate to that on which I have been insisting. It was an argument not unnatural in one who had that special passion for human glory, which has been the incentive of so many heroic careers and so many mighty revolutions in the history of the world. In the solitude of his imprisonment, and in the view of death, he is said to have expressed himself to the following effect:—

I have been accustomed to put before me the examples of Alexander and Csar, with the hope of rivalling their exploits, and living in the minds of men for ever. Yet, after all, in what sense does Csar, in what sense does Alexander live? Who knows or cares anything about them? At best, nothing but their names is known; {44} for who among the multitude of men, who hear or who utter their names, really knows anything about their lives or their deeds, or attaches to those names any definite idea? Nay, even their names do but flit up and down the world like ghosts, mentioned only on particular occasions, or from accidental associations. Their chief home is the school-room; they have a foremost place in boys' grammars and exercise-books; they are splendid examples for themes; they form writing-copies. So low is heroic Alexander fallen, so low is imperial Csar; "ut pueris placeas et declamatio fias."

But, on the contrary (he is reported to have continued), there is just one Name in the whole world that lives; it is the Name of One who passed His years in obscurity, and who died a malefactor's death. Eighteen hundred years have gone since that time, but still It has Its hold upon the human mind. It has possessed the world, and It maintains possession. Amid the most various nations, under the most diversified circumstances, in the most cultivated, in the rudest races and intellects, in all classes of society, the Owner of that great Name reigns. High and low, rich and poor acknowledge Him. Millions of souls are conversing with Him, are venturing at His word, are looking for His presence. Palaces, sumptuous, innumerable, are raised to His honour; His image, in its deepest humiliation, is triumphantly displayed in the proud city, in the open country; at the corners of streets, on the tops of mountains. It sanctifies the ancestral hall, the closet, and the bedchamber; it is the subject for the exercise of the highest genius in the imitative {45} arts. It is worn next the heart in life; it is held before the failing eyes in death. Here, then, is One who is not a mere name; He is no empty fiction; He is a substance; He is dead and gone, but still He lives,—as the living, energetic thought of successive generations, and as the awful motive power of a thousand great events. He has done without effort, what others with lifelong, heroic struggles have not done. Can He be less than Divine? Who is He but the Creator Himself, who is sovereign over His own works; towards whom our eyes and hearts turn instinctively, because He is our Father and our God?

My Brethren, I have assumed that we are what we ought to be; but if there be any condition or description of men within the Church who are in danger of failing in the duty on which I have been insisting, it is ourselves. If there be any who are not waiting on their Lord and Saviour, not keeping watch for Him, not longing for Him, not holding converse with Him, it is they who, like ourselves, are in the possession, or in the search, of temporal goods. Those saintly souls, whose merits and satisfactions almost make them sure of heaven, they, by the very nature of their state, are feeding on Christ. Those holy communities of men and women, whose life is a mortification, they, by their very profession of perfection, are waiting and watching for Him. The poor, those multitudes who pass their days in constrained suffering, they, by the stern persuasion of that suffering, are looking out for Him. But we, my Brethren, who are in easy circumstances, or in a whirl of business, or in {46} a labyrinth of cares, or in a war of passions, or in the race of wealth, or honour, or station, or in the pursuits of science or of literature, alas! we are the very men who are likely to have no regard, no hunger or thirst, no relish for the true bread of heaven and the living water. "The Spirit and the Bride say, Come; and he that heareth, let him say, Come. And he that thirsteth, let him come; and he that will, let him take of the water of life, freely." God in His mercy rouse our sluggish spirits, and inflame our earthly hearts, that we may cease to be an exception in His great family, which is ever adoring, praising, and loving Him.

(27th Sunday after Pentecost, 1856. Preached in the University Church, Dublin.)

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