holiest works for the sanctification of the soul
"I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all the people; for this day is born to you a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord, in the city of David"
Luke, ii. 10,11.
THESE are the great tidings which had raised the expectations of the world daring the long period of four thousand years; this is the great event which so many prophets had foretold, so many ceremonies had prefigured, so many just men had looked for, and which all nature seemed to promise and to hasten by the universal corruption of all flesh; this is the great blessing which the goodness of God had prepared for man from the time that the infidelity of his first parents had subjected him to sin and death.
The Saviour, the Christ, the Lord, at length appears on the Earth. The clouds rain down the Just One; the Star of Jacob is manifested to the universe; the sceptre is taken from Juda; and he who was to come is arrived; the Lord exhibits to his chosen people the promised sign; a virgin conceives, and brings forth a son; and from Bethlehem the leader comes forth who is to instruct and govern his people, Israel.
What an accumulation of blessings does this birth announce to the children of men! It would not have been so pompously announced, so ardently expected and desired during so many ages it would not have been the great object of all the dispensations of God to man, had it not been the most signal testimony of love which the Almighty could give to his creatures. What a happy night! The Heavens resound with canticles of thanksgiving and praise.
In order that we may be entitled to participate in the transports of joy which this wonderful mystery dispenses in Heaven and on Earth, it is necessary that we be disposed to partake of the blessings which it has purchased for us. The only cause of this universal gladness, is the means of salvation which this mystery has procured for all mankind. If, therefore, instead of embracing these means, we are obstinately resolved on perishing, the Church weeps over us, and we mingle sorrow and grief with the joy which these happy tidings occasion.
But what are the inestimable blessings which the birth of the Son of God has purchased for man? They are proclaimed by the angel to the shepherds: "Glory to God on high, and peace to men of good will". The glory which ignorant and infatuated man had attempted to usurp, is secured to God; and the peace to which man had been hitherto a stranger, is imparted to him. The first shall form the substance of the present discourse; and the second shall be reserved for a future discussion.
1. Man was placed on Earth for the sole purpose of giving to the Author of his existence the glory and homage which exclusively belonged to him. Every created object reminded him of this duty. To the sovereign majesty of his God he owed the tribute of homage and adoration; to his paternal goodness, the tribute of love; to his infinite wisdom, the sacrifice of his reason and understanding. These duties were engraven in his heart and implanted in his very nature; they were incessantly announced to him by every creature. Man could not listen to the dictates of his own heart, or to the silent voice of the inanimate creation, without hearing them enforced. Nevertheless, he forgot them; he turned a deaf ear to every admonition, and entirely effaced them from his mind. The idolater gave to creatures that glory which was due to the Creator alone. The Jew honoured him with his lips, and confined his testimonies of love and gratitude to an exterior homage which was unworthy of his infinite majesty. While the philosopher, bewildered and lost in the intricacies of his own researches, measured the understanding of God by that of man, and vainly thought that reason, which was a stranger even to its own nature, could fathom the deepest truths. With these three evils was the whole world infected. God was either not known, or not glorified; and man forgot his own weakness and corruption, by listening to the suggestions of ignorant pride.
To what excess did idolatry extend its profane worship! The death of an universally admired character was the signal for his introduction to the rank of a divinity, and his vile remains, on which his inanity was stamped in the most indelible character, be came the title of his imaginary glory and immortality. Conjugal love had its peculiar deities: impure love imitated its example, and erected altars to its own shameful abominations. The adulterer and the fornicator had their temples, their priests, and their sacrifices. The general folly, or rather the general corruption, adopted this confused and detestable worship. The whole world was infected with it; the laws of empires authorised it. The splendour of the sacrifices, the magnificence of the temples, and the immense riches of the idols, gave an awful respectability to its extravagance.
Every nation was jealous of having gods of its own; and when no individual of the human species could be found, who had so far distinguished himself as to be judged worthy of the godhead, they prostituted their adoration to the brute creation. Impure homage became the worship of these impure divinities: cities, mountains, fields, and deserts were defiled by the superb edifices erected to the gods of pride, impurity, and revenge. The multitude of divinities was equal to that of the passions; gods were almost as numerous as men; everything was a god on Earth, except the God who made it. He alone was unheard of by the greater number of his creatures. He alone was either rejected, forgotten, or unknown.
In this manner was the world, almost from the beginning, plunged in the horrors of darkness and ignorance; every age added new impieties. The nearer the time approached which was decreed for the coming of the Messiah, the more did the corruption of man increase. Rome herself, the mistress of the world, adopted every mode of worship peculiar to the different nations who submitted to her yoke, and erected within her walls temples to the idols of every conquered people temples which might be more properly denominated the public monuments of her folly, than of her victories.
But the general corruption of all flesh could not induce the Almighty to shower down the fire of his wrath on the guilty, as formerly on Sodom and Gomorrah, nor to exterminate the whole race by another deluge. No; his mercy had decreed to effect their salvation. He placed in the Heavens the sign of his alliance with mankind; and this true sign was not the luminous rainbow which appears in the clouds, but Jesus Christ his only Son, the Word made flesh, the true seal of an eternal alliance, and the only light which enlighteneth the world.
On this day he appeared on Earth, and restored to his Father the glory, which an impious idolatry had endeavoured to wrest from him. The homage which his pure and immaculate soul, united to the Word Incarnate, paid to the majesty of God, made abundant amends in an instant for all the honour which an ungrateful world had withheld from him, and prostituted on creatures. An adorer God-man gave more glory to the Divinity, than all ages and all idolatrous nations had taken from him.
Agreeable must this homage of an Incarnate God have been in the eyes of the Great Sovereign of the universe, since it alone erased idolatry from Earth, overturned its profane altars, crumbled to dust the vain idols, imposed silence on the oracles of devils, and changed their superb temples, which had hitherto been the asylums of every abomination, into houses of adoration and prayer. "Thus was the face of the Earth renewed " Ps., ciii. 30. The only true God, who had hitherto been unknown in the midst of cities the most renowned for learning and civilization, began to be adored; the World acknowledged its maker; God entered into the possession of his rights; a worship worthy of him was established over the Earth; and adorers were selected in every place, who began to adore him in spirit and truth.
This was the first benefit arising from the birth of Christ. But, my beloved brethren, are we partakers of this benefit? We do not indeed adore idols; we abhor an incestuous Jupiter, an impure Venus, a dissolute Apollo, a cruel and vindictive Mars. But is the true God more glorified, in the whole, by us, than he was by the pagans? Do we not substitute in his place, and adore, riches, sensuality, the world and its pleasures? For, everything that we love more than God, we adore everything that we prefer before our Creator, we make the god of our heart everything that exercises supreme dominion over our thoughts and actions, our desires and affections, our hopes and fears, is in reality the object of our worship: and in this sense may it not be said with truth, that our passions are our gods, and that to them we sacrifice the true God?
How many idols of this description are there in the Christian world? Impure love has its votaries: at its shrine are sacrificed riches, repose, peace of mind, and health both of body and soul. Wealth is a divinity which engrosses the thoughts, the cares, the actions, the soul, the mind, the will of thousands. Its altars are incessantly surrounded; and no sacrifice is refused which it exacts as the price of its favours.
Shameful intemperance, likewise, which vilifies the name and character of man, which is the bane of morality, which stupefies and drowns the brightest talents in the excesses of liquor and debauchery, and leaves a relish and inclination for nothing but the grossest pleasures of the sensual appetite; this shameful intemperance, I say, is another idol; and its senseless votaries proclaim, that life would not be worth enjoying, unless a considerable portion of it were consecrated to its worship.
The passions of men created the impure deities of heathenism: arid Jesus destroyed those idols by subduing the passions which created them. You seat them again on their usurped throne when you indulge the same passions which made the whole world idolaters. Of what avail is it, therefore, to know that there is only one God, if you prostitute your homage to other objects? True worship proceeds from the heart; and if you devote not your heart to the service of God, you substitute, like the pagans, vile creatures in his place, and you give him not the glory which be longs to him.
The object, therefore, of the birth of Jesus was, not merely to manifest the name of his Father to mankind, and to establish on the ruins of idolatry the knowledge of the true God, but to form a congregation of adorers, who would place neither merit nor reliance in exterior worship, when divested of the interior spirit of purity and love, and who would consider mercy, justice, and sanctity as the most acceptable offerings to the Divinity, and the most pompous ornaments of his worship. This is the second important benefit arising from the birth of Christ.
2. God was known in Judea, says the prophet. Judea erected no idol in her public places, nor paid to any other the homage which was due to the God of her father Abraham (Num., xxiii. 21). This was the only portion of the Earth preserved from the general contagion. But the magnificence of her temple, the splendour of her sacrifices, the pomp of her solemnities, the exactitude of her legal observances, had alone engrossed the attention of her children. She entered not into the spirit of interior worship, but confined her whole religion to the strict performance of these exterior duties. The morals of her inhabitants were not less corrupt than those of the Gentiles. Injustice, fraud, deceit, adultery, and every vice were prevalent, and even promoted by their attention to exterior observances alone. God was honoured with the lips, but the hearts of this ungrateful people were far from him.
Jesus came to undeceive Judea of an error so gross, so ancient, and so injurious to his Father. He came to teach his people that, however satifised man may be with the performance of mere exterior worship, God considers the heart alone; that every species of homage in which the heart has no share, is rather an insult and a mockery, than true worship; that it is useless to purify the outside, if the inside continue defiled with corruption; and that the only adoration which is acceptable to him, is adoration in spirit and truth.
But, alas! my brethren, is not this gross error this error which was so often the subject of our Saviour's reproaches against the synagogue, is it not, I say, the error of the greater number of Christians of the present time? In what does the chief part of our religion consist? It consists, I am afraid, in certain exterior observances alone, in fulfilling certain public duties prescribed by the laws of God and of the Church: and, what is more, I fear that the piety even of the more regular members of the Christian body extends no further. They assist at the holy mysteries regularly; they scruple to transgress the laws of the Church; they recite certain prayers to which they are habituated; they celebrate the solemn festivals by the frequentation of the sacraments; and this is all. They are not more detached than other men from the world and its criminal pleasures; they are not less attentive to the vanities of dress, or to the acquisition of wealth; they are not more disposed to break off a criminal engagement, or to avoid the occasions which have always proved fatal to their innocence: they perform not even these exterior duties of religion either with a pure heart, a lively faith, or an unfeigned charity; all their passions maintain their influence, notwithstanding these religious exercises, which they are prompted to observe, probably, more out of respect to decency and custom, than from a sense of duty which they owe to God. I will allow, indeed, that they are actuated by a kind of fear: for, if they lived, like the impious, with out attendance on any public duties of religion, without any exterior profession of worship, they would consider themselves as accursed in the sight of God, and worthy of the sudden and most dreadful judgments of Heaven.
But how inconsistent is the heart of man! These very duties they do not scruple to violate, and render nugatory by their criminal excesses; and without remorse, without dread, or rather with the most presumptuous confidence, they dare to frustrate the effect of these superficial remnants of religion by a conduct which religion condemns and abhors; they continue on in the commission of crimes which will inevitably draw down the wrath of God, and they appear not to be conscious of their danger; they are satisfied in mind with what they do, and imagine that they give to God what belongs to him, whereas their only religion is, and has been all along, mere external homage a homage which is entirely useless a homage which He looks down upon with abhorrence and indignation.
Nevertheless, these, as I have already said, are the most up right the most regular in the eyes of men, of all who are designated under the class of worldlings. They have not shaken off the yoke, like so many others; they blaspheme not what they do not understand; they laugh not at the sacred mysteries of religion; they consider not the service of God as beneath their attention. But, notwithstanding all this may be said of them, their attachment to religion is not centred in the heart; it possesses no influence over their conduct; they dishonour the service of God by their crimes; they are Christians only in name.
Thus, exterior pomp of worship exists amongst us, with depravation of morals more deeply rooted and more universal, than the prophets even imputed to the obduracy and hypocrisy of the Jews. Thus the religion in which we glory, is no more than a superficial mode of worship in respect to the greater number of the faithful. Thus the new covenant, the law of spirit and life, which ought to be written on our hearts, and which ought to form adorers in spirit and truth, produces mere phantoms, false adorers, worshippers only in appearance, a people like the Jews, who honour him with their lips, but whose corrupted hearts, defiled with numberless crimes, and bound down to the Earth by the chains of lawless passions, are always far removed from him.
In this second benefit, therefore, of the birth of Jesus, the greater number of Christians have no share. Jesus abolished the worship of the Jews because it was purely exterior, and confined to the sacrifices of beasts and to legal observances. In the place of these empty shadows he substituted a law which the heart alone can fulfil: he substituted a system of worship, of which the love of his Father is the first and principal act of homage. But this sacred worship, this new commandment of love, this holy deposit which he has bequeathed to us, has degenerated in our hands: we have debased it into a pharisaical worship, in which the heart has no share, which restrains not our irregular inclinations, which has no influence over our morals, and which makes us so much the more criminal, as we abuse the gift which was intended to eradicate our vices and purify our souls.
3. In the third place, the ignorance and corruption of man kind had deprived the Almighty of the glory which was due to his providence and eternal wisdom. The philosophers of old, who were necessitated by the voice of reason to acknowledge the existence of one only Supreme Being, represented him either as a Deity wrapped within himself, and too great to condescend to pay attention to the things of this Earth, or as a God without liberty; who, although he was the Lord over mankind, was governed by the decrees of what they called Fate, and on account of this subjection, could not prevent any action of man, or any occurrence in the world; all of which they supposed were predestinated so to be, and must happen of necessity. Jesus came to restore to his Father the glory which had been wrested from him by this pernicious error: he came to teach mankind that faith is the source of true wisdom, and that the sacrifice of reason is the first step to Christian philosophy. He came to remove every doubt respecting the nature of the Deity, and to teach us what was proper to be known concerning him, and what to remain unknown.
But, alas! where are the believers who make the entire sacrifice of their reason to faith, and bow down their heads in silent respect and adoration before the majestic veil of religion? I speak not of the impious who say: There is no God: but I speak of the greater number of the faithful, whose ideas of the Divinity are as false and human as those formerly entertained by the pagan philosophers. This numerous class of adorers of the true God consider not the occurrences of life as ordained or permitted by his providence: they live as if either chance or the caprice of men were the cause of what happens on Earth; they seem to think that prosperity and adversity are the two divinities which govern and preside over every thing that passes in the world. This is certainly the fact; for if they looked up to God as the great disposer of all human events, would they murmur and complain, would they indulge impatience and despondency, would they entertain the spirit of envy and revenge, when any thing happens contrary to their inclinations or interest? I speak, like wise, of those men who imagine, that the mysterious ways of God, in promoting our eternal welfare, ought to be laid open to the understanding; and finding that the powers of reason are too weak to fathom the secrets of his grace in operating the salvation of his elect, will not exclaim with the apostle: "O the depth of the wisdom and knowledge of God" Rom. xi. 33, but are tempted to believe that, either God does not concern himself about our salvation, or that it is to no purpose that we be concerned about it ourselves. I speak of those men who delight in the giddy circles of dissipation, who discover something plausible and convincing in the weakest and most senseless arguments which incredulity opposes to faith; who seem to wish that religion were false, and who are less affected by the weight of proofs, by which the swellings of our reason are repressed, and truth and immortality brought to light, than by a declamatory harangue, which proves nothing except the boldness of impiety and blasphemy.
Finally, I speak of many Christians who tacitly avow that the belief of the wonderful prodigies which religion has recorded, is calculated only for, the ignorant and the simple; and who seem to think that the subversion of the order of nature, by the miraculous interposition of providence, is a work too great for the Almighty to effect, except on the most extraordinary occasions; and who refuse to acknowledge a continuation of miracles in a church which was founded on them, which glories in them as the peculiar and distinctive mark of her divine origin, and which is herself the greatest miracle.
These unhappy men wrest from God the glory which the birth of Jesus had insured to him. He taught us to captivate our reason to the belief of the incomprehensible mystery of his manifestation in our flesh. He terminated the wanderings of the human mind, and withdrew it from the abyss of error, into which it had fallen under the guidance of human reason, and brought it to the paths of truth and life. We, nevertheless, refuse to submit to his authority, and even under the empire of faith, we desire to follow as formerly the standard of weak reason. Those mysteries of religion which are above our comprehension, stagger our belief: we wish to reform every thing: we have doubts about every thing: we imagine that God thinks like man. Without entirely renouncing our faith, we destroy its influence. Hence our morality is vitiated, our vices are multiplied: the love of present things is enkindled in our hearts; the love of the good things to come is utterly lost and extinguished. Hatred and dissensions are diffused every where among the faithful, and the primitive traits of innocence, holiness, and charity, which in the first ages made religion appear amiable in the eyes even of those who refused to embrace it, are in danger of being effaced for ever from the minds of the greatest part of men. Let not this be said of all.
Let us, my beloved brethren, enter into the spirit of this solemnity. May Jesus be born again in our souls: may he take possession of his rights over us. We shall then, in union with his faithful followers, give to God the glory which injustice belongs to him; and he, in return, will admit us into a partnership of his glory in the kingdom of Heaven.