Advent - Second Sunday
"The poor have the Gospel preached to them"
God's greatest gifts, my brethren, are those that are most common. And this is true both in the natural order and the supernatural. They are so common that they come at times to be lightly looked upon, or to be regarded as things so much a matter of course in their happening, that we persuade ourselves we have a sort of right to them. Look abroad upon the world. The greatest physical gifts that God has bestowed on man, what are they? They are not far to seek: the blessed light of heaven, the air that lies around us, the water that is to be found at every turn. These are precisely the things that are indispensable, I do not say merely to human comfort, but even to human life. And these are precisely the things that everyone can have for nothing. Again, what are the most beautiful things in the world? Not, after all, the works of art, that are the heirlooms of a monarchy, that a king's ransom could not buy - not these are the most beautiful; for, the common things that lie around us, and which the highest art aims only at representing, have in them a beauty deeper than sculptor's chisel or painter's pencil can ever hope to reach.
Ah, these common things - so common that they have long since become commonplace - and scarce an eye discerns the miracles of beauty they disclose. Stand in the grey dawn, and see the white light coming up behind the eastern hiss, as if God had but newly said: "Let light be made," and see the purple and the crimson clouds roll grandly up, and let the sunrise strike on field and flood. There is no grander spectacle in nature; yet day by day, for many thousand of years, the sun has risen on the world - has called to the labor of a new day generations who were, and who passed away before authentic history began; and it shall rise full many a time as brightly as it rises now, when we, too, shall have closed our eyes to nature and its brightness.
Sunset, too, how solemn and how grand it is! a thing which, if it were to happen once, and never again, would leave of its unearthly beauty a memory that would never die. But, every evening, of all the evenings that have been, the glory of the sunset has crowned the western hills; and it is so common that not one in a hundred ever pauses in his homeward plodding, to think and say how beautiful it is.
Yes; God has made the world, and has left the mark of His divine hand so deeply set on it, and has flung around its sights and scenes so many a shadow of His own divine beauty, that not even amid the corruption and decay that sin has caused, can the traces of God's beauty be utterly obscured. As long as the stars hang in the distant spaces of the dome of heaven, as long as the sun rises, and shines, and sets, as long as the trees blossom, and the flowers bloom, and the seas lie calm or stormy under the open eye of the over-arching heavens, so long will all those things remind anyone who looks at then, with the look that ought to come from eyes behind which an immortal soul sits watching out upon the world, of the existence and the omnipresence of the God Who made them all when they first began to live and Who keeps them, and shall keep them, in their several places till the world itself shall die.
So, also, it happens in higher orders than the physical, that the things are best that lie readiest to our hands. work that each day brings is for that day, the very best work that a man can be engaged upon. The homely duties are those that are most useful; and though the world will not give much heed or much honor to their performance, yet, if they were not performed, the world would miss them more than it would miss deeds that attract a larger notice and bring a larger fame.
So it is, my brethren. God has made the world and the world bears indelible traces of its Maker; and of these traces the most definite and unmistakable are found in the things that are so common that we scarcely think them specially wonderful or specially beautiful. Now, as God made the world, so, also, God made man, in the divine person of Jesus Christ; made the Kingdom of God on earth, which is that Holy Catholic Church to which we have the inestimable privilege of belonging. such being the case one will naturally expect to find in the constitution of that Church - in its power, in its attributes, in its working - a striking likeness to its Divine Founder, Jesus Christ. We would expect to find in it the power of God, and, at the same time, the exquisite tenderness of the Sacred Human Heart of our Divine Lord. And our expectations are not disappointed. There are many great, and grand, and beautiful, and touching things in the history and the working of that Church, but are there not in its working daily before your eyes common things that are more sublime even than her councils and her solemnities? One of yourselves comes to this Church, weighed down by the burden of a sin, the wages of which is death and hell; he kneels before one of the Church's ministers, and what happens? A thing happens which not all the power of the world could effect; his sin is forgiven. So, my brethren, I wish to call your attention to-day to a thing in the Church that goes on before your eyes, perhaps without much notice, but which is, and was intended by our Blessed Lord to be, the thing of all others that was to be a proof of His own divine mission to making, and of the continuance and the carrying on of that divine mission by the church which He purchased with His blood. It is contained in the Gospel I have read for you, in these words: "The poor have the Gospel preached to them." The history of the passage which forms the Gospel of the day is briefly this. John the Baptist, being imprisoned by Herod, and foreseeing that his martyrdom was at hand, began to fear that those disciples of his, whom his austere saintliness had gathered around him, might so cherish his memory when he was dead, as that they would be unwilling to recognize even in Jesus, a greater and a higher than their former master; so he determined while he was still living, to create for them an opportunity to receive from the divine lips of Jesus Christ Himself, an assurance, and from His wisdom a convincing proof, that He was in very truth the Messiah of Jewish history and of Jewish hope. Accordingly, he sent two of his disciples to Jesus, to ask Him the momentous question: "Art thou He that is to come, or look we for another." They found our Blessed Lord in that city of Naim that has since lived, and shall live for ever, in the memory of mankind, in connection with the most touching of all the miracles of Jesus - the raising of the young man, who was the only son of the mother who was a widow. They came to Jesus there, and put the question they had been sent to ask. Jesus says never a word. He makes them stand aside a little, and look on, while He wielded a power that could be nothing less than the power of God, over disease and death. Then He said to them: "Go tell John the things you have heard and seen - the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the dead rise again, the poor have the Gospel preached to them." Here, surely, were proofs enough of the divine mission of Him who was able to offer them. The deaf heard in their closed ears a new, sweet voice; the blind rejoiced in the strange joy of restored vision; the lame walked straight and upright, because the power of Jesus had given strength and freedom to their distorted limbs. The fullness of all healing power had been poured forth upon the multitude. Was anything wanting to the glory of our Divine Lord? Well, if anything were wanting, it was quickly added when the whisper of His voice broke through the very sleep of death, and the young man who was being carried out for burial sat up, and spoke, and wiped away the tears from his widowed mother's cheek. To these miracles our Lord appealed in answer to the question, "Art Thou He that is to come." But does He stop here? No. He adds to these, what He evidently wished to be the crowning miracle of all, "The poor have the Gospel preached to them.
And so it is with the Church. She, too, goes among the people with a blessing on her lips, with power on her forehead, with healing in the touch of her hand. She, too, like her Divine Master - for she has inherited His power - she, too, does her miracles among the people. She gives the light of faith to nature's sightless souls; she has tones in her voice that pierce through ears that worldliness had made dear; she can unloose the tongues of the dumb, who were all unused to prayer and praise; she straightens out the limbs that sin had distorted, till they are free and fit to walk even in the narrow way that leads to heaven. Nay; more than this, when some among her children die the awful death of mortal sin, when the passing hour is bearing them on to their grave in hell, she, speaking through her priest in the confessional, breaks the bond of their death and of their doom, and bids them live again. These things you have seen - you see them hourly. They are the common things things of your Catholic experience; as common as the sunrise and the sunset, common as the darkness and the dawn. But there is yet another thing that is even more abiding proof that she is in very truth the Church of god - she, too, "Preaches the Gospel to the poor."
"What, think you, is the meaning of the word Gospel? It is - the "good news." Jesus Christ and His Church have brought, and bring, and shall for ever bring, to the poor, and the toil-worn, and the oppressed, to those whose lives are hard - as your lives are hard - to them, to you, Jesus Christ and His Church brings the only good news you ever shall or ever can hear. From the day of our Blessed Lord to this, and from this day to the day of doom - believe it, my brethren - no one will ever bring good news to the poor, who does not speak in the spirit of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
What is this good news? It is not easy to compress into a sermon the Gospel that was announced by our Divine Lord. But I shall strive, using all the time, His own sacred words, to put before you the essence or spirit of that Gospel, especially inasmuch as it brought good news to the poor and the oppressed. When I have done so, I may, if time permit, pass to another view of the subject, much more painful, but equally necessary to be proposed to your consideration.
Remember the poor.
Poor, in the various degrees of poverty, have always been, and must always be,
the vast majority of the human race.
Before the coming of our Blessed Lord the world regarded poverty as the greatest curse that fate could inflict upon a human being. they saw the poor man, bent with toil, oppressed by want, forcing from the grudging soil the coarse, daily morsel that served to keep body and soul together. He was debarred from the pleasures the world loved, from the dignity it honored, from the interests it valued. And the world was inclined to think the life of the poor a life from which no good could possible come. Well, our Blessed Lord came, and all was changed. Let us see how.
First, He opened up a view of life which the world had never been in the habit of taking. By calling attention to the eternal future, He, as it were, dwarfed the present, and at once it became evident that it was no such matter after all how a man might suffer in this life that flies so fast, and ends so certainly and so soon, provided the eternal future would supply better things and a brighter destiny. As long as men had no great knowledge or no great belief about a future life, as long as they were stumbling on in pagan blindness - seeing, believing, hoping nothing beyond the present gratification of their five hungry senses - so long as death appeared to them the end of all, and the grave the inevitable term of all their aspiration, so long it was no great wonder that poverty should be regarded as a curse and as a doom. But when the Gospel opened out the view of an eternal world beyond the grave - when, inside the gates of death, the light of faith disclosed the awful and majestic figure of a Just Judge, Who would pronounce sentence upon men not from any regard of their position in society, but according to the personal deeds done in the flesh; then, after all, it began to be seen that poverty was no such evil as men had been in the habit of considering it.
Then, again, the world that dreaded poverty was very busy about many things - about wealth, and honor, and pleasure, and power, and place, and politics - about trade, and commerce, and philosophy, and literature, and statesmanship. Of all these things the world made great parade, for all it made many a sacrifice; and it was of opinion that any life that was not concerned in some of these things was a worthless and a wasted life; and because these things did not come within the reach of the poor, the world hated and dreaded and despised poverty. In their eyes the poor could have no real business in the world. But in this respect, again, our Lord and His Church bring good news. Jesus Christ at one time said, and I do not know any saying even of His that contains more fundamental teaching: "What doth it profit a man if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his own soul?" There, my brethren, is the very keynote of the wonderful harmony of Christianity that has filled and thrilled the world with its undying sweetness. Good news, indeed, for the poor.
These things on which the world set such value were of no great importance after all - had, indeed, absolutely no importance compared to one pursuit, which was, indeed, the one thing necessary; and of that pursuit the poor were quite as capable as anyone else, for that one pursuit was, the salvation of the soul.
Men may come come and men may go, fashions may vary, philosophies may change, kingdoms may rise upon the ruins of kingdoms; the questions of the day, as they have well been called, may have their little hour of noise, and then die, as they are wont to die, without leaving even an echo of themselves. Men, and societies, and states, may laboriously build up their several histories, yet it is always true, for you and me, and every human being, that there is one interest that so towers above every other interest - one business so important that beside it every other shrinks into insignificance; and that one business is the salvation of the soul
Think of this great truth preached to the poor: what a revolution it was calculated to effect in their condition! Hitherto they had been cast aside as worthless - their whole history summed up in the two stern words - to work and die. The world said: "Surely the poor are miserable"; Jesus Christ said, and says still through His church: "No, they are not miserable; at any rate they need not be. The great prize of life is not beyond the reach of toil-worn hands. The poor and do the one great work that every man has got to do under penalty of hell fire - the poor can save their souls."
Again, my brethren - remark, I am putting before you some of the plainest of the Gospel truths - again, I say, the world was prone, and is prone, to say - when it puts into words its notions about happiness - Happy is the man who is rich and powerful; admirable is the man of high spirit, sensitive to feel and prompt to repel an insult or an injustice; enviable is the life of ease which wealth makes smooth, and honors crown, and friendship and affection bless." So it goes on; you can continue the description for yourselves.
Well, what does Jesus Christ say? This: "Blessed are" - who who, think you - "Blessed are the poor in spirit: blessed are the meek: blessed are they that mourn." There you have on the one hand the opinions of the world, opinions you have heard a thousand times - nay, in which you may have in some degree participated - and on the other hand you have the opinions of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I ask yourselves, is not this gospel in very truth good news for the poor of Jesus Christ - good news for those whose lives are hard - yes, good, if only you be faithful children of the Holy Catholic church, to whose guardianship the Gospel has been committed.
Would that I could pause here, with the unclouded vision before me of a Gospel preached to the poor, smoothing away the ruggedness of the path through which their lives must pass, and by sharp, but blessed touches, fitting them for the heaven that has been promised to their poverty!
But I have said that there was a painful matter to be spoken of in connection with this subject: and it would become neither the truth nor the duty that befit a Catholic pulpit, if I hesitated to add to the consoling words of the gospel of Jesus Christ a word of warning, which the circumstances of the time render specially necessary. And indeed if I had been in danger of overlooking this painful side of matters, the recent pastoral of the bishop would have put my duty quite palpable before me. The Bishops, as you know, had been speaking of education, and though, very naturally, they had been speaking about education principally as it concerns children, yet they were too true to the instincts of their pastoral position to forget that larger education that goes on amongst grown men who mix in the business of the world. For, the truth is, from the cradle to the grave, men are always in process of being educated in some way or other. They are educated by the words and by the example of those around them, but the business of their daily lives, by every influence that the circumstances of their daily life bring to bear upon them. And as that education will be bad or good according to the badnes or goodness of the influences under which it is carried on, the Bishops have felt it to be their duty to point out and to denounce one influence, very potent, but fatally pernicious - the influence of an irreligious and immoral press.
Yes, my brethren, others besides our Blessed Lord have set themselves to preach a gospel to the poor - would incite them to rebel against authority, to be discontented with their poverty, to hate those above them, to praise sedition, to glorify revenge, to cultivate the most fatal and most pernicious passions that can ravage the human heart. This is the work of an irreligious press, that is at this moment being sown broadcast over the land. I warn you against it. Take up one of those newspapers that are becoming unhappily so common - test its teaching by your own natural good sense and intelligence, and you will find it preaching a gospel that is diametrically opposed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. "Be in charity with all men," says the Gospel. "No," says the newspaper, ""hate the class above you." "Blessed are the meek," says our Divine Lord. "No," says the newspaper, "to be meek is to be mean." "Forgive your enemies, do good to them that hate you, bless them that curse you, pray for them that persecute and calumniate you." "What folly!" says the newspaper, "do not be so mean-spirited as to do any of these things. On the contrary, swear irreconcilable hatred to your enemies; hurt by every means in your power those whom you imagine (and often foolishly imagine) to hate you; return curse for curse, and let your curse be ever the bitterest."
I leave you to judge, my brethren, under how solemn an obligation Christians are bound to abstain from reading publications that are so opposed to the spirit of the Gospel, and so intrinsically hostile to the religion you profess. You will find them sometimes professing to have the keenest interest and the most tender concern for religion and for the Church; you will find them putting themselves forward as the champions of the poor, as the liberators of the oppressed; but under all this fair surface runs dark and sullen the current that would carry society to destruction, and man to hell. How shall you detect this, you who are not skilled to detect sophistry wrapped in fair-seeming words? Well, St. Paul once said: "If an angel from heaven preach to you another Gospel than I have preached, let him be accursed." So I say to you, reflect even upon the few plain truths out of the Gospel that I have put before you, and your own intelligence will show you that those newspapers to which I allude are preaching a very different Gospel from that which Jesus Christ preached to the poor; and having seen that much, cast them from amongst you, saying, as St. Paul said, and as I now say, "Let them be accursed."