Meditations On The Life Of The Blessed Virgin For Every Day Of the Month, Suitable for all seasons and especially the month of May.
BAPTISM OF JESUS CHRIST—JESUS IN THE DESERT—PENANCE.
"Do penance, for the kingdom of heaven is at handy —Matt. iii. 2.
Eighteen long years have elapsed since that day on which the Child Jesus, when found in the temple by His Mother, reminded her by an austere word of His divine mission. Eighteen years devoted to the holy duties of the family, given by Jesus to Mary, and almost all to Joseph also, for according to the ancient traditions, the holy patriarch died only a short time before Jesus was to leave the obscurity of Nazareth. Eighteen years, which form a place of rest for the mind of the Christian, between the first and the last, of Mary's sorrows. Who can tell the marvellous progress of these two holy souls of Mary and of Joseph in this constant intercourse with God! The Blessed Virgin Mary, prevented by the grace of God even from her mother's womb, born without stain, grew nevertheless in perfection every day of her life. "Her life," says a pious writer of our own time, " is an endless heavenward ascension." (Father Faber, "Foot of the Cross.") The immaculate purity of her soul was the gift of God. The ever-increasing virtues which were its ornament were at once the gift of God and the fruit of her own labour., And since the day on which she became the mother of our Saviour, through all the joys and all the sorrows of the Divine Infancy, during the youth of Jesus at Nazareth, the Sun of Justice, still hidden from the rest of the world, shone upon her soul. Joseph basked in His illuminating rays. What a sight for the Angels are these two transfigured souls by the side of the Saviour made man!
"The beauty of the earthly paradise which God had planted with His own hand, and whither He came at the hour of the evening breeze, to converse with His unfallen creatures, was a shadow of the loveliness of the Holy House during the eighteen years of the Hidden Life. We cannot guess at all the mysteries which were enacted within that celestial cloister. The words were few, yet in eighteen years they were what we in our human way should call countless. The very silence even was a fountain of grace, There were tens of thousands of beautiful actions, each one of which had such infinite worth that it might have redeemed the world. Daring those eighteen years an immeasurable universe was glorifying God all day and night ........ But the entire creation was as nothing to the Holy House of Nazareth." (Foot of the Cross, chap, v, p. 232.) But these days are passed. Jesus and Mary have already wept over the tomb of Joseph. Already the holy Mother has seen in the countenance of her Son a look of Divine compassion which announces to her that she is soon about to lose Him by absence, before she loses Him by death. One day a strange report was spread throughout Nazareth. " A man had appeared in the desert on the banks of the Jordan. His clothing was of camel hair; round his loins was a band of leather. He eat no bread and drank no wine; he lived on locusts and wild honey. His words were as austere as his life." (Life of Jesus Christ, by M. Foisset, p. 3.) "Do penance," said he, "for the kingdom of God is at hand." It is of this man that the Prophet Isaias had spoken, saying, "A voice of one crying in the desert, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight His paths. Then went out to him Jerusalem and all Judea, and all the country about Jordan. And were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins." (St. Matt. iii. 2-6)
When these rumours reached Mary, brought, perhaps by those holy women whom the Gospel calls her sisters, Mary the wife of Cleophas and the other Mary, her kinswomen and neighbours at Nazareth, she understood that the hour was come. The austere preacher of the desert was that child whom she had blessed on his entrance into life, the son of Elizabeth and Zachary, the forerunner of her Son.
The Lord, whose ways he was come to prepare, was Jesus. The kingdom of God, which he announced, was that Christian society which the Saviour was come to found by His teaching and by His Blood, over which He was to reign for ever from the highest heaven. At one glance Mary saw all. The sword of Simeon pierced even to the depths of her soul, and the grief so long expected flooded her in its terrible reality.
But the valiant woman, who was to stand at the foot of the cross, the Mother, initiated into the secrets of God, and whose sacrifice was to be united with that of her Son, to save us, kept down the rising waves of a sorrow until then unknown on the earth, and preserving her peace by her complete conformity to the will of God, she awaited her Son at the close of one of His days of labour.
Who shall describe their parting ? It is one of those mysteries which the eye of man is not worthy to penetrate. Jesus departed, and our holy Mother found herself alone in that holy house of Nazareth, from which the sun had vanished. "Then," says the holy Gospel, "cometh Jesus from Galilee to the Jordan, unto John, to be baptized by him. But John stayed Him, saying, I ought to be baptized by Thee, and comest Thou to me ? And Jesus, answering, said to him: Suffer it to be so now. For so it becometh us to fulfil all justice. Then he suffered Him. And Jesus being baptized, forthwith came out of the water; and lo ! the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, and coming upon Him. And behold, a voice from heaven, saying, This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." (St. Matt. iii.) In comparing these two passages of the Gospel we are inclined to suppose that the crowd gathered together on the banks of the Jordan listened with docility to this voice from heaven which made known to the earth its Saviour. Doubt was no longer possible. The Lord had Himself spoken. He had borne witness to His Son, and thus confirmed the words of John the Baptist: " I indeed baptize you with water, but there shall come one mightier than I, the latchet of whose shoe I am not worthy to loose; He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire." (St. Luke iii.) But the Gospel tells us nothing of what the multitude believed or understood. If they saw the white dove, perhaps they attributed its appearance to chance. If they heard the heavenly voice, perchance they said it thundered, as on the eve of the Passion, when the same voice spoke to Jesus: " The multitude, therefore, that stood and heard, said that it thundered; others said an angel spoke to Him." (St. John xii. 29.) Throughout the whole course of our Saviour's life we never see more than a certain small number of pure souls who learn the lessons contained in the miracles by which God made known His Christ. This unhappy people had eyes and saw not, ears and heard not, and moreover there were among that multitude gathered on the banks of the Jordan some whose pride of heart and self-esteem were a source of darkness to themselves and others. Such were the Pharisees in the Gospel, to whom John had spoken these severe words : " Ye brood of vipers, who hath shewed you to flee from the wrath to come ? Bring forth fruit worthy of penance. And think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham for our father, for I tell you that God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham. For now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree, therefore, that doth not yield good fruit shall be cut down and cast into the fire." And, speaking of the Divine Being whose forerunner he was, he added : " Whose fan is in His Hand, and He will thoroughly cleanse His floor, and gather His wheat into the barn, but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire." (St. Matt. iii.)
These proud men, whom John was calling to do penance, heard him and hardened their hearts. They saw Jesus and knew Him not. But He, the Holy One above all others, not only does He bow His Head to a baptism which was a mere symbol of penance, but filled with the Holy Ghost, Who rested visibly upon Him, He plunged into the deserts which stretch on the other side of the Jordan. There, alone with His Father, He prepared Himself by sublime communings for His earthly mission; He prepared Himself for it by praying humbly, like the least of us; He prepared Himself by austerities which we care not to impose upon ourselves, guilty though we be; He fasted, the holy Gospel tells us, for forty days and forty nights.
Strange words are these ! Jesus prays, Jesus does penance! Yes, Jesus prays, because He is man as well as God, and because, in relation to His Father, He gives us the example of the most perfect love, of the deepest reverence, and of obedience unto death, even the death of the cross. Jesus does penance because He Who on earth, as in heaven, is holiness itself, He who took our human nature entire, excepting sin, has nevertheless such love for sinful men that He has consented to make Himself the expiatory Victim of their iniquities. All the sins of this world, past and to come, weighed upon His innocent Head.
To become a voluntary sacrifice for another is the height of self-devotion and self-sacrifice. If a father exposes himself to death to save his son, a brother to save his brother, how we admire that power of love, which forgets itself, and will save at any price. If a soldier exposes himself for his brother in arms, or a brave officer for his soldiers, how we honour these noble victims of self-devotion ! What shall we then say of those sacrifices which bring no glory, by which an innocent man suffers himself to be accused for a guilty one, and accepts dishonour, and perhaps death, to save him whom he prefers before honour and before life 1 How we should pity him, how we should hate the cause of his sacrifice, above all, if the voluntary victim were a being high and pure, whose virtues throw into relief the iniquity which he takes to himself, and whose loyal heart must bitterly feel the dishonour that he imposes on himself! And yet this would be but a man sacrificing himself for a fellow man; he suffers the offence of another to be laid upon him; but no human creature is free from fault, and thus, in expiating the sin of another, he would be expiating his own. But in this case see who is the Victim: Jesus Christ, the Holy of Holies ! Look at the heavens: each star that we:see there is a world larger than our own and if to us they seem to be only brilliant points in space, it is because they are millions of miles from the earth. Now these millions of miles are nothing in comparison to the infinite distance that exists between the essence of holiness and the very least of our sins.
Look at fire and water; they cannot exist together. If we mix them, the one extinguishes the other, and at the same time is itself dried up, and nothing remains but smoke and cinders. The love of Jesus has done what we cannot do. Water and fire have less horror of one another than has holiness of sin, and yet holiness itself has stooped to our iniquity; He has taken its burden upon Himself, and has done penance for it. We, who have honest hearts, can feel how we should resent it, were we accused of a picked action that we had not committed. Let us measure, if we are able, the sufferings of our Saviour, laden with all the sins of the world.
Let us learn to weep over the penance of Jesus Christ; let us learn to understand it To do penance is to suffer; to do penance for another is to suffer for another. Does not a mother suffer for her guilty child, when, bent to the earth by the weight of his sin, she feels it at all hours consuming her soul like the pangs of remorse? She does penance for him every day of her life, and asks God to chastise her, provided only he repents. Does not the hard-working father suffer for his family when he labours in the heat of the sun, or in the cold of winter, to gain the livelihood of those who are too weak to work for themselves? Do not they suffer for their country, who see it in danger, or humiliated by a succession of sins, accumulated from age to age, and of which they are innocent ? Jesus has done for us more severe .penance than the mother who offers herself for her child; Jesus has toiled more to gain our life than the most hard-working father. Jesus has borne the sins of all ages and all countries. He has suffered more than all earthly victims of self-devotion and love. Shall He then have suffered in vain ? Shall we refuse to let ourselves be saved by His tears? Shall we not offer Him our penance in return for His? And after having been in spirit to that desert where He begins for us the expiation which is to end on Calvary, is there a single human being so proud and so ungrateful as to dare to say: I am righteous; I am innocent; leave penance to sinners, I have no need of it ?
Alas! have we not sometimes heard such foolish and wicked speeches ? I am honest, I have done nobody any harm, why then should I repent? I will not go to confession; I should have nothing to say. Have we never heard words such as these ? If ever we hear them, and if, which God forbid, there should be one amongst us so unhappy as to utter them, let us think of our Saviour, kneeling at the feet of St. John the Baptist, receiving from the hands of a man the sign of penance, and retiring to the desert, to weep for forty days and forty nights over our sins, for which we weep not!
Let us, then, who know the good of penance, and the sweetness of its severities, use all possible efforts to make them known to our brethren. It is well worth the trouble. It is the price of the salvation of their souls, and a great saint used to say, that to save a single soul he Would go to the end of the world, or would willingly die. And let those who dare to call themselves too righteous to do penance remember that the truly righteous man does not deceive himself as to any, even the least, of his faults, because he is humble and clear-sighted, and that the wicked man, on the contrary, multiplies his often very serious sins without even seeing them, because his pride blinds him.
Who has ever taught us that all the duties of man consist simply in being neither a highway robber, or one of those wretches against whom human justice arms itself? Let those who think so open the catechism of one of their little children ; this is one of the first questions that the Church asks him: " Who made you?" and the child replies, "God." " Why has God made you ?" and the child replies, " To know Him, love Him, and serve Him in this world, and be happy with Him for ever in the next." " Who made you ?" " God." Then you belong body and soul to God, as the bread we have made, the tool we have fashioned, and the fruit we have planted and cultivated in our gardens, belong to us. We belong to Him still more, for we could not have made this bread if God had not caused the wheat to grow; we could not have made this tool, if God had not hardened for years the wood that forms it, and for centuries the iron of which the knife is made : and is not this fruit filled with the wonders of God, Who placed the shoot in the seed, and the fruit in the flower ? In everything we make, the first part belongs always to God, We only appropriate to our own use, by the intelligence that He has given us, the things that He created for us. But who created us, and sent us into the world ? who drew us from nothing, to which we should return, if He did not continually preserve us ? None but God. We belong, then, to Him a thousand times more than any thing on the earth can belong to us. And what did He create us for? To know Him, love Him, and serve Him. Have we known Him, loved Him, and served Him ? Has He been the only aim of our actions? Has His holy law been our rule and our constant occupation? We may have passed days, weeks, perhaps years, without thinking of Him. And yet we say that we have no need of repentance! We have failed in that which is the very object of our existence, and we do not go to confession because we should have nothing to say!
Let us beware of the justice of the Pharisees in the Gospel. Thank God, amongst Catholics there are but few so careless as not still to go to church on feast days, as their fathers went before them. But let us take heed not to content ourselves too easily with external goodness. Let us dig deep and find out the evil, and cut it off at the root. Above all, let us never say, I do nobody any harm, so I have no need of repentance. Let us again turn to one of the wonderful Gospel narratives. " Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, the other a publican. The Pharisee standing, prayed thus within himself: O God, I give Thee thanks that I am not as the rest of men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, as also is this publican. I fast twice in a week; I give tithes of all I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not so much as lift up his eyes towards heaven, but struck his breast, saying : O God, be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down into his house justified rather than the other, because every one that exalteth himself shall be humbled, and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted." (St. Luke xviii. 13.)
We see here the difference between pride in false virtue, and true penitence. The publicans, or tax-gatherers, were much despised by the Jews, because they were the instruments of the Roman power, and often abused their charge, and troubled the people by their usury. The Pharisees, on the contrary, were rigid observers of the law; but they practised it in the letter rather than in the spirit, and their hearts were full of pride. .Here, then, the publican represents the penitent sinner, and the Pharisee the false man hardening himself in an imaginary righteousness. Let us, then, take the humble publican for our model. If, happily, we have sinned less than some others, let us remember that it is through the grace of God, and, moreover, that that grace is sufficient to render us a thousand times better than we are. If His merciful Hand ceased to support us, alas! whither should we fall? Let us, then, repent for the evil that we have done, and for the good that we have left undone. Let us pray for sinners, and, above all, let us never despise them. One single ray of divine grace can make a great saint of that sinner whom we, in our pride, consider so much beneath ourselves. This is what St. John the Baptist meant when he said to the Pharisees: " And think not to say within yourselves : We have Abraham for our father; for I tell you that God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham."
Lastly, let us accept with gratitude, and employ with Faith, those times in the year that the Church specially marks out for penance. If she, in her wisdom, had not marked them out, how many Christians would never have thought of reserving for themselves during life, those moments of recollection and silence, when the voice of the world is stopped, and when they look backward to weep over their sins, and forward to foresee dangers, and to arm themselves with strong resolutions; and when they chastise with salutary severity this wretched body, which is the prison of our soul and the cause of many of its offences. In reading the live& of the Saints, or the history of the primitive Church, we are sometimes frightened at the penances imposed on themselves by our fathers in the Faith. We are astonished to find that a sin, confessed and sincerely acknowledged, had to be wept over for months, sometimes for years, and that the penitent, separated from the society of the faithful, kneeling at the church door, poorly clothed, and his head covered with, ashes, passed long days in fasting and tears. The Church is less severe now, because her children unhappily have not courage for such penances. Like an indulgent mother, she knows their weakness, and holds out her arms toward them. But let us remember, that what we weep not here below, we shall weep for' elsewhere. I am not speaking of those unhappy ones alone, who neither accuser themselves, nor repent of their sins, and for whom hell is half open. I am, speaking of good Christians,, who go regularly to confession, who repent sincerely of their sins, who intend to avoid them for the future, and who fulfil the penance imposed on them by the priest, but who do not apply themselves as they ought to the expiation of their sins, by proportionate satisfaction. Doubtless such as these are in the love of our Lord, and we hope that they may persevere; but God is just, and He demands that, before entering His kingdom, we should pay the debts contracted towards His justice. If confession and absolution have freed us from the eternal punishment due to sin, the temporal punishment remains, by which we must satisfy the justice of God, as far as we are able. It is of faith, that if we have not paid this debt during life, we shall pay it after death, in that terrible passage from earth to heaven called purgatory; and if it is true that in this world the honest man finds it to his advantage, as well as to his honour, to pay his debts as soon as possible, and not to let accumulate from year to year, interest which in the end would double the original sum, how much more true is it when it concerns that which we owe to God!
In this world satisfaction is easy; the mercy of God accepts all our efforts, and follows us to the last hour of our life, but beyond that, His justice re assumes its rights, and the Holy Scripture, filled with the marvels of God's love for men, tells us, " It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God."
Let us, then, pay our debts while there is time. If we could for an instant see the sufferings of purgatory, with what ardour should we embrace, here below the penance that alone can save us from them! Are we lever sure of having satisfied the justice of God ? Does not the least offence against the God to whom we owe everything deserve years of penance ? Let us accept with gratitude the easy penances that the Church imposes upon us; let us understand the usefulness of the days of fasting and prayer, on the eve of great feasts, to prepare us to receive their graces holily; at the beginning of the four seasons, to draw down the blessing of heaven on the different, portions of the -year, and on the seeds that our labour has confided to the earth; and during Lent the forty days of which .precede the great feast of Easter, in memory of the forty days that Jesus spent in the desert, before beginning to preach the Gospel. As to the poor, when they fast they have to change their usual life but little, and the Church, who loves them as Jesus loved them, considering their hard labour, is lenient as to the hours and nature of their meals. But, during these holy days, they should courageously cut off every unnecessary indulgence. For example, it would be well that on a Sunday in Lent or Advent they should never be seen going to the public house, which, after all, is little the place for a good father of a family. And they should accept with renewed courage their daily labours, toils, and privations. All these, offered to our dear Lord, and borne with patience, will serve greatly to expiate their sins. They should mortify themselves in their speech, repressing every expression of anger or bitterness, and, above all, they should carefully avoid all profane words and swearing. God hears them. They should never let blasphemy come from their lips, not only in Lent, but at any time. Everything that we .sacrifice to God will be a good penance, and it will be accepted and blessed more than we think.
Who will help us to bring forth worthy fruits of penance? 'The Mother, who, whilst Jesus was fasting and praying for us in the desert of the Jordan, was praying and weeping for us in another desert; in the house of Nazareth, in which Jesus no longer dwelt. The soul of Mary was so closely united to the soul of Jesus, God had given her so real a share in the work of our redemption, that it cannot be doubted that she followed His penance and His prayer from afar, and united herself to Him to obtain for us the mercy of God. We know that Mary is the refuge of sinners, the help of penitent souls, and the Mother of Mercy. Let us, then, pray to her, let us pray to her from the bottom of our hearts, that she may obtain for us the grace of true repentance, and that we may be with the good seed, when, in the day of judgment, the Lord cleanses His threshing floor, and gathers the wheat into His barn, and burns the chaff in unquenchable fire. Let us call upon her to-night, in that beautiful prayer of St. Bernard, the efficacy of which has been proved by so many miracles.
Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that any one who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thy intercession, was left unaided. Inspired with this confidence, I fly unto thee, O Virgin of Virgins, my Mother, to thee I come, before thee I stand, sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in thy mercy hear and answer me. Amen.
To meditate often on these words : " Do penance, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."