When we look abroad upon a mighty kingdom that rules from sea to sea, when we behold on every side evidences of its greatness and stability, when we contemplate the wisdom of its institutions and the happiness of its people, when we find that genius, and learning, and taste – the wealth of human intellect and the poetry of human feeling – have all been lavished to build up, and to adorn, and to make as nearly perfect as the work of human hands can be, the vast fabric of its greatness, we find rising within us a desire to trace it back to the remote antiquity of its origin. We would fain make, as it were, a pilgrimage to the cradle of a race that has carved out for itself such a destiny as this. We would trace back to its first faint source, the river of national life that has rolled so grandly through the centuries, and worn for itself so deep and broad a channel in the course of human history. We would fain behold the institutions in their germ, that have since expanded into a growth so magnificent and so beautiful. But how much more will this instinct find to awaken its energy, in the spectacle of such a mighty kingdom as the Church of God, of which we, by God’s grace, are members, and whose long glories of our very own? For never yet was seen on earth a kingdom such as this; never was wisdom so perfect, sway so boundless, stability so absolutely secure. And it is our happy privilege to-day, guided by the liturgy of the Church, to go back to what we may well call the inauguration of her power on the day of Pentecost.
Our Blessed Lord has appeared to His disciples after His resurrection, and had discoursed with them about the Kingdom of God – the Church which He had purchased by His blood. In those mysterious walks by the Sea of Tiberius He had delivered to them, so to speak, the constitution of His newly-established kingdom, and had commissioned them to preach the Gospel “to every creature.”
But when forty days had come and gone, He went up, and the heavens opened, and the clouds closed over the glory of His passing, and they that loved Him, saw Him no more. They were left alone, left to recall half sadly the features of that glorious face, and to feed upon the memory of that tender heart. They were left, so to speak, desolate upon the dreary world, and it is no wonder they stood, as we read in the Acts of the Apostle, “looking up to heaven,” as realizing sadly, that earth could never be a home to them again, now that it was no longer gladdened by His divine beauty. Desolate they stood, and yet not desolate, for He had left them a sacred promise. He had told them in words which He had repeated more than once, on which He had insisted with loving emphasis: “It is expedient for you that I go, for if I do not go the Paraclete will not come to you. But if I go, I will send Him to you. And He, being come, will teach you all truth.”
The Apostles went back to Jerusalem to await the fulfilment of the promise. They were men on whom had been imposed a task before which the boldest spirit might have quailed, the loftiest genius shrunk abashed, for it was no less a task than the conquest of a world. Their mission was “to every creature,” the limit of their labors, the bounds of the habitable world. And, in truth, they were not men of bold spirit, or keen intellect, or lofty genius. They were without learning, without power, without influence. They had been taken from the lowest ranks of society; and there is nothing to lead us to suppose that they had not much of the ignorance, much of the prejudice, much of the narrowness of mind that was common in the class from which they sprang. How were such men as these to win over a luxurious and vicious world, to a religion that makes the daily carrying of the Cross its indispensable condition? Humanly speaking, they were not fitted; but He who needs no instruments can make use even of the weakest to effect His purpose. He gave His apostles a mission, and He equipped them for the warfare, not with the weapons which human prudence might have deemed essential, but by a personal communication of the Holy Ghost.
From that “upper room” in Jerusalem a power went forth, such as earth had never seen before. The Church went onward through the world, conquering and to conquer, with a footstep like the tramp of armies, and a success that could come only from the God of Battles. A spirit of life breathed upon the corruption of pagan society, and voices from the catacombs penetrated the chambers of pagan palaces. In time she came forth from those recesses where, in days of peril, her children had found at once a home, a temple, and a grave, and she saw the rulers of haughty Rome fling down their diadems in the dust before the shrines of her martyred saints. She took the rude barbarians who were laying Europe desolate, and she molded them to a Christian people, with a strong hand and a determined purpose. She has seen centuries pass by, and yet she grows not old; she has seen kingdoms rise, and rule, and perish, and yet she has not failed; her footsteps hath passed on every land, her influence on every people, and to-day the voice of an old man, the successor of St. Peter, whose throne is raised above the dust of saints, can speak with irresistible and un-resisted authority to the hears and consciences of multitudes.
Our first duty on a festival like this, is to unite with the Church in giving glory to God, for the great things He has done in favor of His Church, in the wonderful mystery we celebrate to-day. But if we would celebrate it worthily, we must do more than this.
The Church, when she proclaims a festival, when she sends forth through all her wide domains a mandate to her children to rejoice in her joy, which is their own – when she lights her lights and burns her incense, and puts forth the resources of her magnificent ritual – the Church has it in purpose that we, her children, should do something more than fill our eye, and please our fancy, and gratify our taste, be something more than mere lookers on at a gorgeous pageant, or even than grateful admirers of the glory of the past. There is ever in the festivals she proposes a something, a lesson, a suggestion, and example, which has a personal concern for ourselves, and bears upon the needful business of our own spiritual life. Let us see what, in the present instance, the lesson is.
The great and special favors which God has bestowed upon His Church find, so to speak their counterparts in His dealing with the individual soul. As the mission of the Holy Ghost was to the Church, so to each of us individually, the same Holy Spirit has a mission also.
We remark here two things of His coming – first, He came to teach all truth; second, since the Church was to be for all ages, He is to remain with her for ever.
Turning now to our individual selves – the Holy Ghost is our teacher; He enlightens our intellect, strengthens our will, discloses to us the order of God’s law, and the freedom of God’s service – gives us the grace to make our knowledge profit us to works of sanctification, and enables us to persevere to the end. Our duty plainly is: (1) to prepare our hearts for His coming; (2) to receive with docility, and carry out with fidelity, the lessons He imparts to us by His inspiration, and (3) to persevere to the end.
(1 First - this preparation – how shall it be made? “They went up into an upper room, and all these were persevering in one mind, in prayer.” So did the Apostles; and if we wish to receive the Holy Ghost we must prepare our hearts by retirement and prayer. “I will lead her,” said the Holy Ghost, “into solitude, and there I will speak to her heart.” Now, by retirement I do not mean mere physical withdrawal from the resorts of men. It is unfortunately too true that we may bring with us a world of worldly thoughts even into the solitude of a cloister. I mean, rather, that withdrawal of the thoughts and the affections from the things of earth, which results in that spirit of recollection which we may call the silence of the heart. Even in the material world, as if God wished to give us a constant lesson, silence usually attends upon, as it were, the condition of the most perfect power. What rules so widely as the light, and yet, what ever comes so quietly as the silent footsteps of the dawn? The trees grow, the glowers bloom, the stars move on through heaven, the forces of nature do their appointed tasks, and all in silence.
And so it is, too, in the spiritual world. In the sanctification of a soul, which is a far greater work than the creation of a world, the Holy Ghost seems to demand silence and recollection as the indispensable conditions of His operation. And from silence and recollection springs, necessarily, prayer. Prayer, that reaches from earth to heaven, and places at the disposal of the weak whisper of a sinner’s heart the very omnipotence of God.
Second - we must receive and put into practice the inspirations of the Holy Ghost. You have been placed in a singularly favorable position for the unimpeded operations of the Holy Spirit. First, He has enlightened you by faith, and placed you in the bosom of His Church. He has given you a knowledge of His law; and when your lives proclaimed before Him that you kept His commandments, He made known to you that He wanted something more. You heard within your hearts a voice that said, “Leave all and follow me,” any you came and enlisted under the higher law of the evangelical counsels. Be thankful for this special grace, “Non fecit taliter omni nation” – not to everyone has it been given to hear that invitation which God addresses O those of His special friends and faithful servants whom He wishes to make a people apart. It remains with you, by God’s grace, to carry out the vocation you have received. Do you ask me how? I answer in a word – by faithfully observing the holy rule which, as a sweet yoke and a light burden, God has given you the privilege to live under.
Third - but there is one thing more - the crowning of the work - we must persevere. What will avail the graces we have received, the light which have enlightened us, the good works, the fasting, and the prayer, nay, the very sacraments of Christ, if, in the end, not persevering, we should lose our souls? What does it matter to have fought through the longest day, if night closes around disaster and defeat? When the dead soldier lies stark and cold, with his white face turned to the silent stars, what matters it that he marched forth at morning, high-hearted and hopeful? But in earthly battles defeat does not necessarily imply disgrace. We may honor the dead soldier though his cause be lost, and recognize his bravery even through the shadows of defeat. But in the fight for eternal salvation the case is far otherwise. There, defeat must mean eternal ruin and eternal loss. He who, at the last, shall lose in that great battle, shall lie forever in the depths of hell, tortured b the flames around him, but tortured far more by the memory of long gone hopes, that once were readily at a touch of grace to blossom into fulfilment, and ripen into the fruit of everlasting life, but which withered and died and were made vain, in the deadly atmosphere of un-repented sin.
Ask, the, the grace of final perseverance for yourselves and for your brethren. May God grant it – to me, who speak, and to you who listen, that, enlightened by the Holy Spirit, corresponding with His inspirations, knowing through Him the will of God, and doing it with all our might, and so persevering to the end, we may one day, in God’s good time, find ourselves with the saints who have gone before, keeping Pentecost in heaven. Amen.