“She gave birth to the Creator, and what recompense shall be made her?”
Supporting The WM Review through book purchases
As Amazon Associates, we earn from qualifying purchases through our Amazon links. Click here for The WM Review Reading List (with direct links for US and UK readers).
Image: Wiki Commons Public Domain
This sermon on the Assumption of our Blessed Lady by John Henry Cardinal Newman was published in the collection Discourses Addressed to Mixed Congregations (and for UK readers). It was published in 1849, the first that he published as a Catholic priest, and presented to Bishop Wiseman, the then Vicar Apostolic of the London District (prior to the restoration of the hierarchy in England).
It is worth noting that this sermon, which we are publishing in two parts, was published just over 100 years before Pope Pius XII defined the Assumption of Our Lady as a dogma, in 1950. This sermon, therefore, shows some of the pre-definition explanation of the dogma itself.
We wish all our readers a very happy feast day today.
On the Fitness of the Glories of Mary
On The Assumption of Our Lady – Part I
You may recollect, my brethren, our Lord’s words when on the day of His resurrection He had joined the two disciples on their way to Emmaus, and found them sad and perplexed in consequence of His death. He said, “Ought not Christ to suffer these things, and so enter into His glory?” He appealed to the fitness and congruity which existed between this otherwise surprising event and the other truths which had been revealed concerning the Divine purpose of saving the world. And so, too, St. Paul, in speaking of the same wonderful appointment of God; “It became Him,” he says, “for whom are all things, and through whom are all things, who had brought many sons unto glory, to consummate the Author of their salvation by suffering”.
Elsewhere, speaking of prophesying, or the exposition of what is latent in Divine truth, he bids his brethren exercise the gift “according to the analogy or rule of faith”; that is, so that the doctrine preached may correspond and fit into what is already received. Thus, you see, it is a great evidence of truth, in the case of revealed teaching, that it is so consistent, that it so hangs together, that one thing springs out of another, that each part requires and is required by the rest.
This great principle, which is exemplified so variously in the structure and history of Catholic doctrine, which will receive more and more illustrations the more carefully and minutely we examine the subject, is brought before us especially at this season, when we are celebrating the Assumption of our Blessed Lady, the Mother of God, into heaven.
Motives for belief prior to Pius XII’s definition
We receive it on the belief of ages; but, viewed in the light of reason, it is the fitness of this termination of her earthly course which so persuasively recommends it to our minds: we feel it “ought” to be; that it “becomes” her Lord and Son thus to provide for one who was so singular and special, both in herself and her relations to Him. We find that it is simply in harmony with the substance and main outlines of the doctrine of the Incarnation, and that without it Catholic teaching would have a character of incompleteness, and would disappoint our pious expectations.
Let us direct our thoughts to this subject today, my brethren; and with a view of helping you to do so, I will first state what the Church has taught and defined from the first ages concerning the Blessed Virgin, and then you will see how naturally the devotion which her children show her, and the praises with which they honour her, follow from it.
Earliest doctrine on the Mother of God
Now, as you know, it has been held from the first, and defined from an early age, that Mary is the Mother of God. She is not merely the Mother of our Lord’s manhood, or of our Lord’s body, but she is to be considered the Mother of the Word Himself, the Word incarnate.
God, in the person of the Word, the Second Person of the All-glorious Trinity, humbled Himself to become her Son. Non horruisti Virginis uterum, as the Church sings, “Thou didst not disdain the Virgin’s womb”. He took the substance of His human flesh from her, and clothed in it He lay within her; and He bore it about with Him after birth, as a sort of badge and witness that He, though God, was hers. He was nursed and tended by her; He was suckled by her; He lay in her arms.
As time went on, He ministered to her, and obeyed her. He lived with her for thirty years, in one house, with an uninterrupted intercourse, and with only the saintly Joseph to share it with Him. She was the witness of His growth, of His joys, of His sorrows, of His prayers; she was blest with His smile, with the touch of His hand, with the whisper of His affection, with the expression of His thoughts and His feelings, for that length of time.
Now, my brethren, what ought she to be, what is it becoming that she should be, who was so favoured?
Such a question was once asked by a heathen king, when he would place one of his subjects in a dignity becoming the relation in which the latter stood towards him. That subject had saved the king’s life, and what was to be done to him in return? The king asked, “What should be done to the man whom the king desireth to honour?” And he received the following answer,
“The man whom the king wisheth to honour ought to be clad in the king’s apparel, and to be mounted on the king’s saddle, and to receive the royal diadem on his head; and let the first among the king’s princes and presidents hold his horse, and let him walk through the streets of the city, and say, Thus shall he be honoured, whom the king hath a mind to honour”.
So what recompense to Our Lady?
So stands the case with Mary; she gave birth to the Creator, and what recompense shall be made her? what shall be done to her, who had this relationship to the Most High? what shall be the fit accompaniment of one whom the Almighty has deigned to make, not His servant, not His friend, not His intimate, but His superior, the source of His second being, the nurse of His helpless infancy, the teacher of His opening years?
I answer, as the king was answered:
Nothing is too high for her to whom God owes His human life; no exuberance of grace, no excess of glory, but is becoming, but is to be expected there, where God has lodged Himself, whence God has issued. Let her “be clad in the king’s apparel,” that is, let the fulness of the Godhead so flow into her that she may be a figure of the incommunicable sanctity, and beauty, and glory, of God Himself: that she may be the Mirror of Justice, the Mystical Rose, the Tower of Ivory, the House of Gold, the Morning Star.
Let her “receive the king’s diadem upon her head,” as the Queen of heaven, the Mother of all living, the Health of the weak, the Refuge of sinners, the Comforter of the afflicted. And “let the first amongst the king’s princes walk before her,” let angels and prophets, and apostles, and martyrs, and all saints, kiss the hem of her garment and rejoice under the shadow of her throne. Thus is it that King Solomon has risen up to meet his mother, and bowed himself unto her, and caused a seat to be set for the king’s mother, and she sits on his right hand.
We should be prepared then, my brethren, to believe that the Mother of God is full of grace and glory, from the very fitness of such a dispensation, even though we had not been taught it; and this fitness will appear still more clear and certain when we contemplate the subject more steadily.
Consider then, that it has been the ordinary rule of God’s dealings with us, that personal sanctity should be the attendant upon high spiritual dignity of place or work. The angels, who, as the word imports, are God’s messengers, are also perfect in holiness; “without sanctity, no one shall see God;” no defiled thing can enter the courts of heaven; and the higher its inhabitants are advanced in their ministry about the throne, the holier are they, and the more absorbed in their contemplation of that Holiness upon which they wait. The Seraphim, who immediately surround the Divine Glory, cry day and night, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts”.
So is it also on earth; the prophets have ordinarily not only gifts but graces; they are not only inspired to know and to teach God’s will, but inwardly converted to obey it. For surely those only can preach the truth duly who feel it personally; those only transmit it fully from God to man, who have in the transmission made it their own.
Does God use bad men as prophets?
I do not say that there are no exceptions to this rule, but they admit of an easy explanation; I do not say that it never pleases Almighty God to convey any intimation of His will through bad men; of course, for all things can be made to serve Him. By all, even the wicked, He accomplishes His purposes, and by the wicked He is glorified.
Our Lord’s death was brought about by His enemies, who did His will, while they thought they were gratifying their own.
Caiaphas, who contrived and effected it, was made use of to predict it.
Balaam prophesied good of God’s people in an earlier age, by a Divine compulsion, when he wished to prophesy evil.
This is true; but in such cases Divine Mercy is plainly overruling the evil, and manifesting His power, without recognising or sanctioning the instrument.
And again, it is true, as He tells us Himself, that in the last day “Many shall say, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Thy Name, and in Thy Name cast out devils, and done many miracles?” and that He shall answer, “I never knew you”. This, I say, is undeniable; it is undeniable first, that those who have prophesied in God’s Name may afterwards fall from God, and lose their souls. Let a man be ever so holy now, he may fall away; and, as present grace is no pledge of perseverance, much less are present gifts; but how does this show that gifts and graces do not commonly go together? Again, it is undeniable that those who have had miraculous gifts may nevertheless have never been in God’s favour, not even when they exercised them; as I will explain presently.
The Prophets are God’s Friends
But I am now speaking, not of having gifts, but of being prophets. To be a prophet is something much more personal than to possess gifts. It is a sacred office, it implies a mission, and is the high distinction, not of the enemies of God, but of His friends. Such is the Scripture rule.
Who was the first prophet and preacher of justice? Enoch, who walked “by faith,” and “pleased God,” and was taken from a rebellious world.
Who was the second? “Noe,” who “condemned the world, and was made heir of the justice which is through faith.”
Who was the next great prophet? Moses, the lawgiver of the chosen people, who was the “meekest of all men who dwell on the earth”.
Samuel comes next, who served the Lord from his infancy in the Temple; and then David, who, if he fell into sin, repented, and was “a man after God’s heart”.
And in like manner Job, Elias, Isaias, Jeremias, Daniel, and above them all St. John Baptist, and then again St. Peter, St. Paul, St. John, and the rest, are all especial instances of heroic virtue, and patterns to their brethren. Judas is the exception, but this was by a particular dispensation to enhance our Lord’s humiliation and suffering.
Nature itself witnesses to this connexion between sanctity and truth. It anticipates that the fountain from which doctrine comes should itself be pure; that the seat of Divine teaching, and the oracle of faith should be the abode of angels; that the consecrated home, in which the word of God is elaborated, and whence it issues forth for the salvation of the many, should be holy, as that word itself is holy.
Here you see the difference of the office of a prophet and a mere gift, such as that of miracles. Miracles are the simple and direct work of God; the worker of them is but an instrument or organ. And in consequence he need not be holy, because he has not, strictly speaking, a share in the work.
So again the power of administering the Sacraments, which also is supernatural and miraculous, does not imply personal holiness; nor is there anything surprising in God’s giving to a bad man this gift, or the gift of miracles, any more than in His giving him any natural talent or gift, strength or agility of frame, eloquence, or medical skill.
It is otherwise with the office of preaching and prophesying, and to this I have been referring; for the truth first goes into the minds of the speakers, and is apprehended and fashioned there, and then comes out from them as, in one sense, its source and its parent. The Divine word is begotten in them, and the offspring has their features and tells of them. They are not like “the dumb animal, speaking with man’s voice,” on which Balaam rode, a mere instrument of God’s word, but they have “received an unction from the Holy One, and they know all things,” and “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty”; and while they deliver what they have received, they enforce what they feel and know. “We have known and believed,” says St. John, “the charity which God hath to us.”
So has it been all through the history of the Church; Moses does not write as David; nor Isaias as Jeremias; nor St. John as St. Paul. And so of the great doctors of the Church, St. Athanasius, St. Augustine, St. Ambrose, St. Leo, St. Thomas, each has his own manner, each speaks his own words, though he speaks the while the words of God. They speak from themselves, they speak in their own persons, they speak from the heart, from their own experience, with their own arguments, with their own deductions, with their own modes of expression.
Now can you fancy, my brethren, such hearts, such feelings to be unholy? how could it be so, without defiling, and thereby nullifying, the word of God? If one drop of corruption makes the purest water worthless, as the slightest savour of bitterness spoils the most delicate viands, how can it be that the word of truth and holiness can proceed profitably from impure lips and an earthly heart? No; as is the tree, so is the fruit; “beware of false prophets,” says our Lord; and then He adds, “from their fruits ye shall know them. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?” Is it not so, my brethren? which of you would go to ask counsel of another, however learned, however gifted, however aged, if you thought him unholy? nay, though you feel and are sure, as far as absolution goes, that a bad priest could give it as really as a holy priest, yet for advice, for comfort, for instruction, you would not go to one whom you did not respect. “Out of the abundance of the heart, mouth speaketh;” “a good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth good, and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil”.
The role of Our Lady in the Incarnation
So then is it in the case of the soul; but, as regards the Blessed Mary, a further thought suggests itself. She has no chance place in the Divine Dispensation; the Word of God did not merely come to her and go from her; He did not pass through her, as He visits us in Holy Communion. It was no heavenly body which the Eternal Son assumed, fashioned by the angels, and brought down to this lower world: no; He imbibed, He absorbed into His Divine Person, her blood and the substance of her flesh; by becoming man of her, He received her lineaments and features, as the appropriate character in which He was to manifest Himself to mankind.
The child is like the parent, and we may well suppose that by His likeness to her was manifested her relationship to Him. Her sanctity comes, not only of her being His mother, but also of His being her son. “If the first fruit be holy,” says St. Paul, “the mass also is holy; if the mass be holy, so are the branches.” And hence the titles which we are accustomed to give her. He is the Wisdom of God, she therefore is the Seat of Wisdom; His Presence is Heaven, she therefore is the Gate of Heaven; He is infinite Mercy, she then is the Mother of Mercy. She is the Mother of “fair love and fear, and knowledge and holy hope”; is it wonderful then that she has left behind her in the Church below “an odour like cinnamon and balm, and sweetness like to choice myrrh”?
Our Lady exceeds every other holy person in history
Such, then, is the truth ever cherished in the deep heart of the Church, and witnessed by the keen apprehension of her children, that no limits but those proper to a creature can be assigned to the sanctity of Mary.
Therefore, did Abraham believe that a son should be born to him of his aged wife? then Mary’s faith must be held as greater when she accepted Gabriel’s message.
Did Judith consecrate her widowhood to God to the surprise of her people? much more did Mary, from her first youth, devote her virginity.
Did Samuel, when a child, inhabit the Temple, secluded from the world? Mary too was by her parents lodged in the same holy precincts, even at the age when children first can choose between good and evil.
Was Solomon on his birth called “dear to the Lord”? and shall not the destined Mother of God be dear to Him from the moment she was born?
But further still; St. John Baptist was sanctified by the Spirit before his birth; shall Mary be only equal to him? is it not fitting that her privilege should surpass his? is it wonderful, if grace, which anticipated his birth by three months, should in her case run up to the very first moment of her being, outstrip the imputation of sin, and be beforehand with the usurpation of Satan?
Mary must surpass all the saints; the very fact that certain privileges are known to have been theirs persuades us, almost from the necessity of the case, that she had the same and higher. Her conception was immaculate, in order that she might surpass all saints in the date as well as the fulness of her sanctification.
Returning to the Feast
But in a festive season, my dear brethren, I must not weary you with argument, when we should offer specially to the Blessed Virgin the homage of our love and loyalty; yet, let me finish as I have begun;—I will be brief, but bear with me if I view her bright Assumption, as I have viewed her immaculate purity, rather as a point of doctrine than as a theme for devotion.
HELP KEEP THE WM REVIEW ONLINE!
As we expand The WM Review we would like to keep providing our articles free for everyone. If you have benefitted from our content please do consider supporting us financially.
A small monthly donation, or a one-time donation, helps ensure we can keep writing and sharing at no cost to readers. Thank you!
Subscribe to stay in touch:
Follow on Twitter and Telegram:
Also on Gab!