“Ye shall be Witnesses unto Me, both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.” Acts 1. 8.
So many were the wonderful works which our Saviour did on earth, that not even the world itself could have contained the books recording them. Nor have His marvels been less since He ascended on high;-those works of higher grace and more abiding fruit, wrought in the souls of men, from the first hour till now,-the captives of His power, the ransomed heirs of His kingdom, whom He has called by His Spirit working in due season, and led on from strength to strength till they appear before His face in Zion. Surely not even the world itself could contain the records of His love, the history of those many Saints, that “cloud of Witnesses,” whom we today celebrate, His purchased possession in every age! We crowd these all up into one day; we mingle together in the brief remembrance of an hour all the choicest deeds, the holiest lives, the noblest labours, the most precious sufferings, which the sun ever saw. Even the least of those Saints were the contemplation of many days,-even the names of them, if read in our Service, would outrun many settings and risings of the light,-even one passage in the life of one of them were more than sufficient for a long discourse. “Who can count the dust of Jacob, and the number of the fourth part of Israel?” (Numb. 23. 10.) Martyrs and Confessors, Rulers and Doctors of the Church, devoted Ministers and Religious brethren, kings of the earth and all people, princes and judges of the earth, young men and maidens, old men and children, the first fruits of all ranks, ages, and callings, gathered each in his own time into the paradise of God. This is the blessed company which today meets the Christian pilgrim in the Services of the Church. We are like Jacob, when, on his journey homewards, he was encouraged by a heavenly vision. “Jacob went on his way, and the Angels of God met him; and when Jacob saw them, he said, This is God’s host: and he called the name of that place Mahanaim.” (Gen. 32 1, 2.)
And such a host was also seen by the favoured Apostle, as described in the chapter from which the Epistle of the day is taken. “I beheld, and lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands … These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Rev. 7. 9, 14.)
This great multitude, which no man could number, is gathered into this one day’s commemoration, the goodly fellowship of the Prophets, the noble army of Martyrs, the Children of the Holy Church Universal, who have rested from their labours.
The reason of this disposition of things is as follows:-Some centuries ago there were too many Saints’ days; and they became an excuse for idleness. Nay, worse still, by a great and almost incredible perverseness, instead of glorifying God in His Saints, Christians came to pay them an honour approaching to Divine worship. The consequence was, that it became necessary to take away their Festivals, and to commemorate them all at once in a summary way. Now men go into the contrary extreme. These Holydays, few though they be, are not duly observed. Such is the way of mankind, ever contriving to slip by their duty, and fall into one or other extreme of error. Idle or busy, they are in both cases wrong: idle, and so neglecting their duties towards man; busy, and so neglecting their duties towards God. We have little to do, however, with the faults of others;-let us then, passing by the error of idling time under pretence of observing many Holydays, rather speak of the fault of our own day, viz. of neglecting to observe them, and that, under pretence of being too busy.
Our Church abridged the number of Holydays, thinking it right to have but a few; but we account any as too much. For, taking us as a nation, we are bent on gain; and grudge any time which is spent without reference to our worldly business. We should seriously reflect whether this neglect of the appointments of religion be not a great national sin. As to individuals I can easily understand how it is that they pass them over. A considerable number of persons (for instance) have not their time at their own disposal. They are in service or business, and it is their duty to attend to the orders of their masters or employers,-which keep them from church. Or they have particular duties to keep them at home, though they are their own masters. Or, it even may be said, that the circumstances under which they find their calling, the mode in which it is exercised by others, may be a sort of reason for doing as others do. It may be such a worldly loss to them to leave their trade on a Saint’s day and go to church, as to appear to them a reason in conscience for their not doing so? I do not wish to give an opinion upon this case or that, which is a matter for the individual immediately concerned. Still, I say, on the whole, that state of society must be defective, which renders it necessary for the Ordinances of religion to be neglected. There must be a fault somewhere; and it is the duty of every one of us to clear himself of his own portion of the fault, to avoid partaking in other men’s sins, and to do his utmost that others may extricate themselves from the blame too.
I say this neglect of religious Ordinances is an especial fault of these latter ages. There was a time when men openly honoured the Gospel; and when, consequently, they had each of them more means of becoming religious. The institutions of the Church were impressed upon the face of society. Dates were reckoned not so much by months and seasons, as by sacred Festivals. The world kept pace with the Gospel; the arrangements of legal and commercial business were regulated by a Christian rule. Something of this still remains among us; but such customs are fast vanishing. Mere grounds of utility are considered sufficient for re-arranging the order of secular engagements. Men think it waste of time to wait upon the course of the Christian year; and they think they gain more by a business-like method, and the neatness, dispatch, and clearness in their worldly transactions consequent upon it (and this perhaps they really do gain, but they think they gain more by it), than they lose by dropping the Memorials of religion. These they really do lose; they lose those regulations which at stated times brought the concerns of another life before their minds; and, if the truth must be spoken, they often rejoice in losing what officiously interfered, as they consider, with their temporal schemes, and reminded them they were mortal.
Or view another part of the subject. It was once the custom for the churches to be open through the day, that at spare times Christians might enter them,-and be able to throw off for some minutes the cares of the world in religious exercises. Services were appointed for separate hours in the day, to allow of the attendance in whole or part of those who happened to be at hand. Those who could not come, still might keep their service-book with them; and at least repeat at times the prayers in private which were during the passing hour offered in church. Thus provision was made for the spiritual sustenance of Christians day by day; for that daily-needed bread which far exceeds “the bread that perisheth.” All this is now at an end. We dare not open our churches, lest men should profane them instead of worshipping. As for an accurately arranged Ritual, too many of us have learned to despise it, and to consider it a form. Thus the world has encroached on the Church; the lean kine have eaten up the fat. We are threatened with years of spiritual famine, with the triumph of the enemies of the Truth, and with the stifling, or at least enfeebling of the Voice of Truth;-and why? All because we have neglected those religious observances through the year which the Church commands, which we are bound to observe; while, by neglecting them, we have provided a sort of argument for those who have wished to do them away altogether. No party of men can keep together without stated meetings; assemblings are, we know, the very life of political associations. Viewing, then, the institutions of the Church merely in a human point of view, how can we possess power as Christians, if we do not, and on the other hand, what great power we should have, if we did, flock to the Ordinances of religion, present a bold face to the world, and show that Christ has still servants true to Him? That we come to church on Sundays is a help this way, doubtless; but it would be a vastly more powerful evidence of our earnestness for the Truth, if we testified for Christ at some worldly inconvenience to ourselves, which would be the case with some of us on other Holydays. Can we devise a more powerful mode of preaching to men at large, and one in which the most unlearned and most timid among us might more easily partake, of preaching Christ as a warning and a remembrance, than if all who loved the Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity made it a practice to throng the churches on the weekday Festivals and various Holy Seasons, allowing less religious persons the while to make the miserable gains which greater keenness in the pursuit of this world certainly does secure?
I have not yet mentioned the peculiar benefit to be derived from the observance of Saints’ days: which obviously lies in their setting before the mind patterns of excellence for us to follow. In directing us to these, the Church does but fulfil the design of Scripture. Consider how great a part of the Bible is historical; and how much of the history is merely the lives of those men who were God’s instruments in their respective ages. Some of them are no patterns for us, others show marks of the corruption under which human nature universally lies:-yet the chief of them are specimens of especial faith and sanctity, and are set before us with the evident intention of exciting and guiding us in our religions course. Such are, above others, Abraham, Joseph, Job, Moses, Joshua, Samuel, David, Elijah, Jeremiah, Daniel, and the like; and in the New Testament the Apostles and Evangelists. First of all, and in His own incommunicable glory, our Blessed Lord Himself gives us an example; but His faithful servants lead us on towards Him, and confirm and diversify His pattern. Now it has been the aim of our Church in her Saints’ days to maintain the principle, and set a pattern, of this peculiarly Scriptural teaching.
And we, at the present day, have particular need of the discipline of such commemorations as Saints’ days to recall us to ourselves. It is a fault of these times (for we have nothing to do with the faults of other times) to despise the past in comparison of the present. We can scarce open any of the lighter or popular publications of the day without falling upon some panegyric on ourselves, on the illumination and humanity of the age, or upon some disparaging remarks on the wisdom and virtues of former times. Now it is a most salutary thing under this temptation to self-conceit to be reminded, that in all the highest qualifications of human excellence, we have been far outdone by men who lived centuries ago; that a standard of truth and holiness was then set up which we are not likely to reach, and that, as for thinking to become wiser and better, or more acceptable to God than they were, it is a mere dream. Here we are taught the true value and relative importance of the various gifts of the mind. The showy talents, in which the present age prides itself, fade away before the true metal of Prophets and Apostles. Its boasted “knowledge” is but a shadow of “power” before the vigorous strength of heart which they displayed, who could calmly work moral miracles, as well as speak with the lips of inspired wisdom. Would that St. Paul or St. John could rise from the dead! How would the minute philosophers who now consider intellect and enlightened virtue all their own, shrink into nothing before those well-tempered, sharp-edged weapons of the Lord! Are not we come to this, is it not our shame as a nation, that, if not the Apostles themselves, at least the Ecclesiastical System they devised, and the Order they founded, are viewed with coldness and disrespect? How few are there who look with reverent interest upon the Bishops of the Church as the Successors of the Apostles; honouring them, if they honour, merely because they like them as individuals, and not from any thought of the peculiar sacredness of their office! Well, let it be! the End must one time come. It cannot be that things should stand still thus. Christ’s Church is indestructible; and, lasting on through all the vicissitudes of this world, she must rise again and flourish, when the poor creatures of a day who opposed Her, have crumbled into dust. “No weapon that is formed against her shall prosper.” “Rejoice not against me, O mine enemy! when I fall, I shall arise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord shall be a light unto me.” (Is. 54. 17. Mi 7. 8.) In the meantime let us not forget our duty; which is, after the example of Saints, to take up our cross meekly, and pray for our enemies.
These are thoughts suitably to be impressed on us, on ending (as we do now) the yearly Festivals of the Church. Every year brings wonders. We know not any year, what wonders shall have happened before the circle of Festivals has run out again, from St. Andrew’s to All Saints’. Our duty then is, to wait for the Lord’s coming, to prepare His way before Him, to pray that when He comes we may be found watching; to pray for our country, for our King and all in authority under him, that God would vouchsafe to enlighten the understandings and change the hearts of men in power, and make them act in His faith and fear, for all orders and conditions of men, and especially for that branch of His Church which He has planted here. Let us not forget, in our lawful and fitting horror at evil men, that they have souls, and that they know not what they do, when they oppose the Truth. Let us not forget, that we are sons of sinful Adam as well as they, and have had advantages to aid our faith and obedience above other men. Let us not forget, that, as we are called to be Saints, so we are, by that very calling, called to suffer; and, if we suffer, must not think it strange concerning the fiery trial that is to try us, nor be puffed up by our privilege of suffering, nor bring suffering needlessly upon us, nor be eager to make out we have suffered for Christ, when we have but suffered for our faults, or not at all. May God give us grace to act upon these rules, as well as to adopt and admire them; and to say nothing for saying’s sake, but to do much and say little!
Bl. John Henry Newman, PPS II, 32, pp. 393-401