ASCENSION OF THE LORD - SUNDAY AFTER 1
GOSPEL - JOHN 15, 26. 26:4
It is written in the destiny of every human being that God will make to His creature two revelations of Himself – one in this life, the other when the gates of death have closed behind the departed soul, and left it standing with its works before the judgment-seat of God. The revelation of God to the soul in this life is made in two ways – through nature, and through faith. For, if we look into the heart of man, even if we suppose that the light of faith has never shone in its deep recesses of passion and of feeling, still shall we be able to see amid all the darkness of passion, and all the weakness of feeling, that the hand of God has made it, and made it for none other than Himself. And then when to the knowledge of man, considered as a natural being, is added the light of faith, all the mysteries of life are cleared up, and we begin to see plainly that we were made for God and for eternity, and that being such, it is no wonder that the things of earth an bring no lasting happiness, and that sin is followed by remorse that is but the shadow and the precursor of the tortures of the damned. So it is, my brethren, the human heart gives testimony of Him Who made it; and since our Blessed Lord has established the Church, the Holy Ghost Whom He sent gives testimony of Him, and teaches us with absolute certainty, for what we ought to live and how we ought to die, and how prepare for that inevitable hour when the second revelation of God shall be made to us from His throne of judgment.
Let us consider for a few moments to-day, the testimony given your own hearts, and let us then see how that testimony is strengthened and explained, by the testimony which the Holy Ghost gives through the Church of Jesus Crucified.
Why were we created? – what is our most important concern in life? – where is centered our highest and our dearest interest? These are questions that ought to be answered, and resolved into the guiding principles of our lives, long before the hand of death is laid upon us, and we call out in a panic of terror for the sacraments we have been neglecting, to make a hurried and almost hopeless preparation for an eternity of which, while life lasted, we thought so little.
No one who has had any experience of life can have failed to be struck, by the different estimate formed of the same world, by the young and the old. The young man, with his foot upon the threshold of life, his eye lit with the light of hope, and his heart beating with the energy of young blood, hardly dreams of a sorrow or a disappointment, in the long future that seems to lie before him. He stretches out two eager, open hands to the world that seems so beautiful, and thinks both hands shall be filled with things that shall bring happiness. Ah! Let him only wait and see. He has, at any rate for the present, a hopeful heart. With him to begin is to succeed; he never dreams of failure, never doubts but he shall win life’s prizes, and doubts still less that, if he win them, they shall be as satisfactory as they seem. And so, building his castles in the air, his youth fleets by – a shadow and a dream – a shadow which he cannot grasp and keep – a dream that shall be broken by-and-by. The years touch him as they pass, and write the story of their passing on his heart, and begin to wake him up to the stern realities that lie around him. Painfully he gathers experience; but even though it brings wisdom it has a sorrow and a sadness of its own. In the very vigor of his manhood he begins to find out, that the world is not at all the pleasant place he thought it once. When he was a boy, he longed for the time that he should be “his own master.” Now that he is a man he learns that in this world no one is his own master, and that even the degree of freedom that manhood may have brought, is very dearly purchased by the responsibilities that came along with it. Ah! The world is not the pleasant place it was; friends are not so faithful, hearts are not so true; toil is sterner, pleasures fewer than he remembers when he was a boy. He thinks the world has greatly changed since then; but no, I is not the world that has changed, it is himself. The years have passed and his heart has grown old, and ever as it grew old, so it has grown sad. He may have succeeded in life, but success is no such blessing after all. He may have plucked the fruit that to the eye of young ambition wore such a bloom, but now that it is plucked, it turns to dust and ashes on his lips. Then age creeps on, and the eye grown dim, and the hand weak, and bodily infirmity adds itself to mental disquiet, till the worn heart is almost sick of living on; and when the old man thinks about the past, his thoughts, too deep for words or tears, are but the echo of the sad utterance of the Preacher: “Vanity of vanities, and all is vanity.”
What does all this mean that I have been saying? It means that all this is God’s testimony to the human heat that man was created for another life than this, that the human heart cannot attain in this life the happiness for which it was created, that the wisdom of the Omnipotent Hand that made it, has poured into it far-reaching desires that can find their fulfilment in nothing lower or less perfect than God Himself.
This, then, is the testimony of God that the things of earth cannot satisfy the heart.
Hitherto I have said nothing about sin. I have been drawing the picture of a man in the pursuit of those aims in life that are not necessarily sinful. But if in pursuit of these a man commits a mortal sin, then the voice of God is heard again through conscience, giving testimony of the judgment to come.
Suppose that in the case of the young man I have been describing – suppose sin lay in wait for his soul, as it passed ut of the innocence of childhood into the clear cold light of reason – suppose that it has seized upon the first service of the soul. What is likely to happen then? A youth follows of unbridled passion or a secret sin. Sin is added to sin, built piled on guilt, till the number is beyond all counting, save in the dread reckoning of the angel who records them in the Book of Judgment. Confession – the only thing that could set things right – confession is neglected; perhaps had confessions and sacrilegious communions swell the tide of wickedness that carries the unhappy soul to its everlasting place in hell. And so youth passes – hateful to God, steeped in sin, a madness and a folly. Then, as life advances, the fire of passion dies down, but the evil habits are so deeply rooted that they still continue long after they have ceased to give even the semblance of gratification. Sin begins to lay its mark on the body, as it has long since laid it on the soul, and with worn powers and exhausted energies, the man who lowers himself to the level of the brute cannot attain even the stolid contentment of the brute. Perhaps the needs of life, and the growing responsibilities of which he cannot rid himself, make him seek to clothe his advancing life with that mere outward decency that the world calls respectability. But within, his soul is rotten, and he has only exchanged the vices of his dead youth, for the still more hateful vices that can cling to the latest age. And time goes on, and he draws nearer to death and to the judgment-seat of God, and he strives to forget the past, and banish the bitter memory of the sins of his youth, shuts his eyes to the advance of death, lulls himself into forgetfulness, and, at some fatal hour when he lest expects it, dies, and is damned. Ah, yes! – only damnation can result from such a life as this. It is certain he has lost his soul. But has he gained anything instead? Has he secured happiness even in the short days of his human life? As he looks back from amid the flames of hell, back upon the days of his mortal life, can he say: “At any rate, I have been happy!? Ah! Even if he could say so, what a fatal price he would have paid for a happiness that fleeted like a dream! But a life of sin never yet made anyone happy. I have met sinners – sinners whom the loving mercy of God brought at length to the tribunal of confession – and I have asked them, and with one voice they testified that they knew not what happiness was, while they continued in the madness of passion and the unspeakable folly of sin. They have tasted remorse, the torture of the soul, that gives the sinner even on this side of the grave a foretaste of the keenest anguish of the damned. No; however sinful the heart may be, still God it was who made it; and He has made it with such skill, and stamped His image so indelibly upon it, that, while in revolt against His law, it can taste no happiness, can enjoy no peace. Now, also, as in the old time, the devil takes a man and shows him the world that lies around him, and says: “All this I will give you if you will fall down and adore me; reject the service of God, and become my bond-slave.” But from the beginning he is a liar, and they who enter his unholy service find that they have not made the best even of this poor world, and have lost their souls beyond hope of redemption for all eternity.
This, my brethren, is the testimony of God in our own hearts, that the only happiness that will satisfy the heart is the possession of God, and that even in this life there is no peace for the wicked. This much knowledge reason itself offers to every human being, and it is to this knowledge St. John alludes, when he speaks in the sublime beginning of his Gospel of “The Light that enlightens every man who comes into the world.”
But it was plain that this much knowledge, great and universal though it was, yet was by no means sufficient to answer even the questions which itself suggested. Men and generations might unite in sad testimony to the fact, that perfect happiness could not be fund on earth, without discovering the direction in which it should be sought, and the means by which it could be acquired; and they might, as in matter of fact they did, groan beneath the intolerable burden of sin, without being able to find any means to lift the burden from the human heart. Then – to explain all, to clear up the mystery, to point out the end, and to supply the means – Jesus came: “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt amongst us.”
He came to redeem us. Now, in the fact of redemption – of our need for it, of the means by which it was secured, and of the means by which it is applied to us – in this is supplied to us knowledge necessary to know and to attain the end for which God has created us. For, the meaning of Redemption is this – man was created originally in the state of grace, destined for no other end than the eternal enjoyment of God Himself. To secure the attainment of that last end, it was only necessary to preserve the grace that God had freely given him; and to preserve this, he had only to obey the command of God, and thus keep free from mortal sin. This however, the first human pair failed to do; they transgressed the Divine command, fell into mortal sin, and lost for themselves and their posterity the original grace with which they had been gifted. They lost the grace, but the end of their creation still remained the same, and their position was this unhappy one. By the law of their being, by the very nature of their existence, their only real happiness could be in the possession of God, in the enjoyment of heaven; and from that God of sanctity, from that heaven of enjoyment, they were debarred by mortal sin. Do you not see how, how the things of earth cannot make us happy? Because God intended – and, being God, created us in accordance with the intention – that our happiness could not be secured by the things of earth. Again, do you not see why there is no peace for the wicked? Because in the design of God mortal sin is the one great enemy of the human heart.
Who, then, could atone for sin, and thus open a way to man, to attain the everlasting happiness for which he was destined? Only a God could make atonement to God; and, accordingly, in His infinite mercy, the Second Person of the Adorable Trinity took upon Himself our human nature, appeared in the world under the name of Jesus Christ, made atonement for our sins by dying upon the Cross, and, when the great work of our redemption was accomplished, rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and sits now at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty.
But before our Lord ascended to heaven, He promised to send the holy Ghost’ and at the appointed time the Holy Ghost came down, and from that hour to this, bears testimony of Jesus through the Church, puts before men, through the Church’s teaching, the end for which they have been created, and supplies them, through the Church’s sacrament, with the infallible means whereby they may attain it. This is the work of the Church of God – a work in which the Holy Ghost shall assist her to the end of time – to proclaim before a sinful and a deluded world, that the one great business of man is to save his soul.
Other things may, and do occupy and engross the attention of men. Kingdoms and thrones rise with acclamation, and fall with a crash that shakes the world; social and political questions engage the minds and excite the passionate interest of nations and men; yet what is it all to you, compared with the salvation of your soul? Never yet has been, and never in your whole lifetime shall be, any political or other question on the settlement of which so much depends for you as depends on one good confession.
The testimony of the Holy Ghost in your own heart, confirming the testimony given by that heart itself, is briefly this; that you were made for God, and that nothing lower or less perfect can make you happy, that the things of earth can bring no lasting peace, that surely and soon, sin becomes its own most bitter punishment, testifying in a world the unanswerable force of the question which our Blessed Lord, His Church, your own experience, the remorse that tortures the guilty conscience, that all theses thunder in the ear of the worldling and the sinner – “What doth it profit man if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his own soul?”
Ah! – what doth it profit? Youth will pass with its fever of unrest, manhood will succeed to the sad inheritance of the baffled hopes and blighted promises of youth, age will come with its sorrow and the sickness of the heart that goes before death, death itself shall come – oh! So surely – then? You may have succeeded in life – have won wealth, enjoyment, honor – ah! But if your soul be lost, what shall all these things have profited?
You, my brethren, live a narrow life; the objects of your ambition cannot be very high; your opportunities of enjoyment are limited; even if you succeeded to the utmost of your hope, the success of the highest amongst you, weighed in other balances, would not be very great – do you think would it be so great as to be worth the fearful price of your soul’s damnation?
The great majority of a congregation like this must consist of persons to who life is hard. Let me say a word to them. Your hands are hard with toil, your brows are burned by the summer sun, and chilled with the winter blast; your days are days of toil, your hearts are often sore with sorrow. Oh! My brethren, when the hard, toil-roughened hands lie motionless in the coffin beside you, when your weary hearts are stilled in death, when that hard life of yours is ended – a life that had so few enjoyments and so many privations – oh! Would it not be sad enough for angels’ tears that your souls were lost, and lost, s souls are lost, for the want of one good confession?