The Nativity of The Blessed Virgin Mary
More than three thousand years ago, an inspired voice was lifted up to tell the story of man's life; and it was told in a mournful sentence, for the voice said this: "Man born of woman, lives but for a little time, and is filled with many miseries." So it had been from the beginning until then, so is it now, and so shall it be till the angel of the judgment shall have written the last page of the long, sad history of the human heart. The wisdom and the experience of all ages have been prompt to testify, that man's life is nothing like a holiday - that it is in all cases a very solemn, and, in most cases, a very sorrowful thing, whether to him who lives it, or to him who ponders on it in his heart.
When children grow out of the unconsciousness of early childhood; when they begin to have their minds gradually opened to the life that is theirs, and to the things that are around them; in the gladness of their young hearts, and the enthusiasm of their happy inexperience, they fondly mark and faithfully observe, their birthdays as they come. They mark the day on which their life began, as a day of happy omen, and they call upon those around them to sympathize in their happiness. But, the years pass fleetly by, and each as it passes, brings its measure of experience, and leaves its load of care; and, as men grow up, and advance into manhood, they strive themselves to forget, and to keep out of the memory of others, the coming of their birthdays. They begin to find out what the world is, into which they have entered by their birth. They begin to feel for themselves, the truth - new to them in its bitterness, but older than Job who spoke it long ago - "Man born of woman, lives but for a little time, and is filled with many miseries."
And so it comes, that grown men who have entered upon the battle of life, forget their birthdays, or cease to celebrate them with any special observance.
And even the Church of God, the guardian under Him of spiritual life; even she, when she takes into her hands the record of some noble life, that is worthy to be lifted up and fixed above her everlasting altars; even when she scans with keenness of her infallible vision the life of a saint - mark you this - she does not fix upon the birthday, but rather on the death-day, as the day of happiest omen. For, though that saint be now in heaven, the fight was not won when he was born; many a perilous day should pass, on any one of which he might have lost the battle, before the hand of death would place the laurel on his brow; and hence, over him too, as he lay an infant, might have been chanted the mournful words, "Man born of woman, lives but for a little time, and is filled with many miseries." Only of three lives does the Church commemorate the birthdays - of our Blessed Lord, Who was holiness itself; of John the Baptist, who was sanctified in his mother's womb; and of Mary Immaculate, the Queen of Angels, the Comfortress of Men, the Mother of the Lord of Heaven - she whose birth touches this September day, with a beauty deeper than the autumn beauty of ripened cornfields or fading woods.
To-day is the birthday of Mary our Mother; today she comes to us an infant, bearing, as it were, on her brow, not alone the glory of the autumn, but the glory of the destiny with which God had crowned her life. To-day, the Church says, "Oh ye children! talking in the world's ways, busy are your brains, and hearts, and hands; many a toil is yours and many a sorrow, but, to-day, let business fall from hand and thought, let toil cease, and work forego its claim for one brief day. In Catholic hearts there is, to-day, no place for sorrow, for today is the birthday of Mary our Mother."
The birth of the Blessed Virgin, to what shall I liken it? To this: it was as the dawn breaking upon the world, and proclaiming the near approach of the glory of the sunrise. You have, doubtless, sometimes witnessed the sublime spectacle which God renews every morning, when darkness flees before the dawn, and dawn, broadens and brightens into the flush of sunrise. First, there is darkness spread like a pall upon the face of the dead earth; a veil of shadow lies on tree and flower, and there is no light, save, perhaps, the glimmer of a solitary star, set like a jewel on the dusky brow of night. Then, in the very darkest hour, there comes, shivering through the darkness, the faintest tinge of light, playing through the gloom like a feeble pulse. Gradually, the hills begin to form themselves upon the vision, just as if they were being once again created out of nothing. Soon, there is a belt of light across the east; and the dawn seems to gather up its scattered glories, and bind them like a crown upon the topmost ridges of the eastern hills; and men begin to say, "Now it is day," and look to see the sun mount his vacant throne in heaven. So it was with the birth of the Mother of God.
Darkness, a darkness as of doom, had fallen upon the human heart and upon the homes of me, when sin first found its way into the Paradise that God had made so beautiful, and had meant to be so happy; and in that, the world's darkest hour, when the brows of God seemed black with anger, and when the glood was lighted only by the baleful flashes of the angel's fiery sword that guarded the lost Paradise - in that hour of darkness and desolation, up rose, starlike, above the gloom, the name and the promise of Mary - She will crush they head, " said God to Satan, "and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel."
And that sweet name, and the great promise annexed to it, was handed on through all the generations. Patriarch, upon his deathbed, left it as an heirloom to patriarch; kings bound it like a glory around their dying brows, and whispered it before they died to the kings who were to be. Prophets, standing on the mountain-tops of vision, saw from afar the brightness of her coming, and shouted down the tidings to the desolate world. And the name and the promise kept ever broadening and brightening, and, at length, the last of the prophets saw the time so near, that he laid down the harp of prophecy, because the time was close at hand. It was then the full broad dawn; and, when Mary was born, men well might say, that God's day had broken, and, that the work of the world's redemption had begun.
Over every other child that had been born, the inspired words had been uttered - "Man born of woman, lives but for a little time, and is filled with miseries." "Born of woman," and, consequently, born in the state of of original sin, finding himself, at his very first step upon the threshold of existence, met by a barrier, which, if it was not removed, would hinder him from attaining the end for which he created, and which yet he would be bound to attain, under penalty of everlasting misery. "Living but a little time," for, time is not to be measured so much by mere years as by the work accomplished in the years that have been given. And, how little are men able to accomplish! They put their hands to many things, but, grasp in the end but poor results. Take man's longest life; and, if you estimate it by the things it has accomplished, will you not be forced to say -"The time in which he lived was short after all," and "filled with many miseries"? Ah! and, above all, filled with the one great, the only misery - the misery of sin.
Now, my brethren, the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary was exactly the opposite to all this; and it is because it was so, that the Church directs us to commemorate her birthday., She, too, was born of woman; she was, even as we are, a child of Adam; but when all sinned in Adam, she - his remote and greatest descendant - was specially exempted from the doom; and, because she was destined to hold towards the Lord of Purity the place of mother, and, because it could not be that His mother should ever be pointed out as having lain, even for an instant, under doom of any sin; for these reasons Mary was conceived immaculate - without the stain of original sin.
Again-whatever be the number of Mary's years, could anyone ever say of her that she lived only a little time? She lived long enough to accomplish every design, great and numerous though they were, that God had formed in her regard. She lived long enough to carry out to the ripeness of its final perfection, the destiny with which God had crowned her - the highest, the holiest, the most sublime destiny that God could possible bestow upon any creature of His hand.
Lastly - Mary had many a thing to suffer, but of the real misery with which men are filled, she never knew the bitterness. When God made her, He gave her a martyr's heart - a heart capable of sorrow, to an almost infinite degree - and its capabilities, great as they were, were tested to the full; yet, there was one thing, that makes man's misery, but which that heart never knew; it never knew the slightest stain of any actual sin.
As she came forth from nothing the daughter of God, with the jewel of original innocence shining on her infant brow, so she lived her life; took her God and her Son to her bosom; lived with Him in that closest of all human relations - the relation of a mother to her Son; saw Him die; and, when the time was come, closed her eyes upon the world, of whose history she was herself so large a part, and opened them forever to the brightness of the God-head of her Son; and all this, without having ever, in her long life, incurred the faintest stain of even the slightest conceivable actual sin.
Such, my brethren, was the mother whose birthday we are celebrating. Is it any wonder that of such a mother, the birthday can never be forgotten?
And, how are we to celebrate it? First, surely, with the deepest devotion of childlike hearts. It is not necessary for me to remind you, that her honor is intimately bound up with the honor of her Divine Son; no need to tell you, that the Catholic, who has ceased to be devout to Mary, and long since ceased to be a good Catholic, and is far advanced to the miserable position of being that blot upon Christianity - that plague of the Church of God - a bad Catholic. No; you know these things well; and, in the outward profession of devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, there is little danger that any congregation of Irish Catholics will ever be fund wanting. But, something more is required than mere outward profession. The devotion, that will be acceptable to Mary and profitable to yourselves, is, and must be, devotion of the heart. Nowhere, in times past, has the name of Mary found a more cherished home; nowhere a warmer welcome, than in the hearts of Irish Catholics. It has been the special honor of our land, an honor that glittered on her forehead when it was bleeding with a crown of many thorns, that she clung with a tenacity that no persecution could conquer, to the name of Mary, to devotion to the Mother of God. And, when the lights were quenched upon her altars, and quenched in the heart's blood of her people; when the altars themselves were overturned; when her priests were hunted fugitives with a price upon their heads, the people carried in hearts, which no sword could ever reach, the name of Mary, and her honor, and her love. And, hence it was that, when the night of persecution passed; when the cloud was lifted off the land; when they built again the overturned altar and restored the ruined church, it was found that, owing, under God, to their firm gasp and faithful hold of devotion to His blessed Mother, the Irish people had lost not one jot or title of the Holy Catholic faith for which their fathers died. And, they have left to us the legacy of that devotion. Oh! my brethren, cherish it as you cherish the apple of your eye. Lift up your hearts to-day to Mary, as she looks down from her throne in heaven, upon this faithful land that always loved her, and that loves her now, and strive to keep her birthday as becomes so great a festival. And as children of a happy household, when the birthday of a dear mother comes. strive to present to her some offering, which, however little in itself, yet serves well to express the affection that prompted the giving; so do you, every one of you, young and old, rich and poor, celebrate this birthday of Mary your mother, by making to her an offering which she will deem worthy of her acceptance. You will ask me, what shall you offer? Well, there is an offering which everyone can make to Mary, and it is the greatest gift that one human heart can offer to another - nay, the greatest that man can offer to his God - it is, the gift of your love. Ah! my brethren, do not undervalue the priceless gift of human affection, which it is yours to give or to withhold. For, I say, when the poorest man that ever lived has given, whether to man or to God, the gift of his affection, he has given a gift greater than which no king can ever give. This is the gift that Mary wants. She, the mother, is singularly like her divine Son; and He said, long ago, to each of us, "Son, give Me thy heart." So says Mary - Give me thy heart: give it to me, that, purified by the touch of my immaculate hands - raised above all earthly affections, by the graces with which my intercession will enrich it - it may be an offering, worthy of an eternal place amongst the treasures of my Son. Jesus asks us for our hearts; let us give them through the hands, of her, from whom, having been pleased to accept His sacred humanity, every gift comes with a richer consecration, and a value heightened a thousand-fold-give them through the hands of Mary your mother.