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SERMON XXIII.

THE VISION OF BEAUTY.

ISAIAH xxxiii. 17.

“Thine eyes shall see the King in His beauty: they shall behold the land that is very far off.”

THESE words are so plain a prophecy of the beatific vision in the kingdom of the resurrection, that we may pass over the earthly and typical fulfilment they have already received; and go at once to the thought of what shall he hereafter. Who is this King but He on whose head St. John saw many crowns; on whose vesture and on whose thigh was written the name of power: “King of kings and Lord of lords?”

And “the land that is very far off;” what is it but that same of which Zechariah prophesied? “The Lord their God shall save them in that day as the flock of His people; for they shall be as the stones of a crown, lifted up as an ensign upon His 432land.”238238   Zech. ix. 16. It can be no other than the heavenly country, for love of which God’s elect have lived as strangers in the earth—a land far away, over a long path of many years, up weary mountains, and through deep broken ways, full of perils and of pitfalls—through sicknesses, and weariness, sorrows, and burdens, and the valley of the shadow of death; world-worn and foot-sore, they have been faring forth, one by one, since the world began, “going and weeping.” And there is already gathered a multitude which no man can number, in the last passes which ascend into “the land which is far off.”

These words, then, plainly promise to every follower of Christ, if he shall persevere unto the end, that in the resurrection he shall see the Lord Jesus Christ in His beauty, and in the glory of His kingdom.

Let us now endeavour reverently to meditate on this wonderful promise of bliss: and may the light of His Spirit cleanse our hearts to understand so much as is good for us to know; and may His pity keep us back from vain and rash thoughts of so high a mystery.

What, then, is this beauty which shall be revealed to all who attain that world and the resurrection of the holy dead?

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1. First, it would seem to be the beauty of His heavenly court. Both from the elder prophets and from the revelation given to St. John, we know that there is a sphere and circuit of which the centre is His throne. Whether this be called “the heaven of heavens,”239239   1 Kings viii. 27. or “the third heaven,”240240   2 Cor. xii. 2. or “eternity,”241241   Isaiah lvii. 15. or “the high and holy place,”242242   Ibid. lvii. 15. or “the light which no man can approach unto,”243243   1 Tim. vi. 16. or “mount Zion,”244244   Heb. xii. 22. or “the new heavens and the new earth,”245245   Rev. xxi. 1. is all one: all these titles of majesty point to one and the same place—a sphere of light and an orb of glory, of which prophets and apostles have had glances and reflections in ecstacy and rapture. “I saw the Lord sitting upon His throne, and all the host of heaven standing by Him.”246246   1 Kings xxii. 19. “There was under His feet as it were a sapphire stone, and as it were the body of heaven in his clearness.”247247   Exod. xxiv. 10. “Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly.”248248   Isaiah vi. 2. “I will take My rest,” saith the Lord, “and consider in my dwelling-place like a clear heat upon herbs, and like a cloud of dew in the heat of harvest.”249249   Ch. xviii. 4.

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What was in this way revealed only through a veil of old, is now, by the rending of the veil, made manifest and open. “When the Son of Man shall sit in the throne of His glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones.”250250   St. Matt. xix. 28. “Behold, a throne was set in heaven, and One sat on the throne. And He that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone: and there was a rainbow round about the throne, in sight like unto an emerald. And round about the throne were four and twenty seats: and upon the seats I saw four and twenty elders sitting, clothed in white raiment; and they had on their heads crowns of gold.”251251   Rev. iv. 2-4. “Lo, in the midst of the throne stood a Lamb as it had been slain.”252252   Rev. v. 6. “Lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands.”253253   Ch. vii. 9. “And I looked, and, lo, a Lamb stood on the mount Sion, and with Him an hundred and forty and four thousand, having His Father’s Name written in their foreheads. And I heard a voice from heaven, as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of a great thunder: and I heard the voice of harpers harping with their harps. And they sung as it were a new song before the throne, 435and before the four beasts, and the elders: and no man could learn that song but the hundred and forty and four thousand, which were redeemed from the earth.”254254   Rev. xiv. 1-3. “Come hither; I will shew thee the bride, the Lamb’s wife. And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and shewed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, having the glory of God: and her light was like unto a stone most precious, even like a jasper stone, clear as crystal; and had a wall great and high, and had twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and names written thereon, which are the names of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel: on the east three gates; on the north three gates; on the south three gates; and on the west three gates. And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and in them the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. . . . . And the twelve gates were twelve pearls; every several gate was of one pearl: and the street of the city was pure gold, as it were transparent glass. And I saw no temple therein: for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple of it. And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof.”255255   Ch. xxi 9-14, 21-23. “And he shewed me a pure river of water 436of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. And there shall be no more curse: but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it; and His servants shall serve Him: and they shall see His face; and His Name shall be in their foreheads.”256256   Rev. xxii, 1-4.

It seemed best, in trying to realise the outline and beauty of the heavenly court, to gather together as much as we could from the clear Scriptures of God. Here we cannot go astray. What the Holy Ghost has revealed of the home of saints, and the kingdom of the resurrection, is as certain and real as the visible creation of God. If here and there a word or two seem to refer these glorious visions to the Church on earth, and to prophecies of its unity and sanctity in time, let this one great law of revelation be remembered: The prophecies and parables of the earthly perfection of the Church are anticipations of its perfection in heaven. They are examples of the Divine prerogative of calling “things that are not, as though they were;” and of giving to germs the honour 437of maturity; to weak beginnings the investiture and glory of their eternal perfection. The visible Church on earth is the sphere on which the Divine Spirit casts the image of its future glory. Therefore what we here read is a figure, a parable to exalt the Church on earth to the eye of faith; but it is also a revelation of the glory of the heavenly court, as it shall be hereafter seen by the pure in heart.

Let us, then, sum up, as we can, in our weak words and thoughts, the beauty which is here revealed. What is it but the glory of the blessed Three, and of the Word made flesh, sitting upon the throne of the Eternal? About Him and before Him are the companies of heaven, the hosts and hierarchies of the blessed, the nine orders of seraphic and angelic ministers, and the saintly multitude of God’s new creation. Vision of beauty too intense even for thought! What must be the glory of one saint made perfect in the likeness of our Lord! what splendour of incorruption, where death and sin are not! What, then, shall be the beauty of that gathered host, of which the least would overwhelm our sight and soul with brightness? Armies of martyrs, companies of prophets, the majesty of patriarchs, the glory of apostles, each one in the full transfigured beauty of his own perfect spirit, and all revealing the warfare 438of faith, the triumph of the Church, the power of the Cross, the election of God; these are the degrees and ascents leading upward to the throne of bliss.

2. But if such be the beauty of the King’s court, what is the beauty of the King Himself? of His glorious Person as very God and very man? It is not for us to let loose our imagination without warrant, or at least without adumbrations of truth, without either tokens or shadows which reveal the forms from which they fall. And in holy Scripture we have some such intimations. Isaiah promises that we shall see “His beauty.” Zechariah breaks out, even from afar off, and with a faint sight of His person dimly revealed: “How great is His beauty!”257257   Zech. ix. 17. Solomon in spirit and in the person of the Church says, He is “the chiefest among ten thousand. His mouth is most sweet, yea, He is altogether lovely. This is my Beloved, and this is my Friend.”258258   Song of Sol. v. 10, 16. And David, “Thou art fairer than the children of men.”259259   Ps. xlv. 2. Do not these things lead us on to understand why the child Jesus, as He “increased in wisdom and stature,” increased also “in favour with God and man:”260260   St. Luke ii. 52. why His very presence should have had a power to awaken love, as it also awakened wonder 439at “His understanding and answers;”261261   St. Luke ii. 47. “at the gracious words which proceeded out of His mouth.”262262   Ch. iv. 22. Surely it was something more than interior beauty which drew to Him the sick, the sorrowing, the sinful, the helpless, with such mighty attraction. For the interior beauty of the spirit needs a spiritual eye. When Isaiah foretells that He should have “no form nor comeliness, and when we shall see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him;”263263   Isaiah liii. 2. he seems plainly to speak of the worldly attraction and royal beauty for which the Jews were lusting, of that “observation” which was no forerunner or herald of the kingdom of God. It does not speak of that Presence before which the multitudes gave way, as the waters clave before the ark of God; and at the sight of which a host, armed to take Him, went backward and fell to the ground. It is surely no light thing that the Christian world in its universal tradition of half a hundred generations, has piously and intimately believed that the second Adam, like the first, bore the outward signatures of God’s perfect hand. It is not without some deep reason, dwelling in universal belief among those countless things which, if written, should have filled the whole world with Scriptures; 440or in the intuitions of the Spirit, or in the instincts of love, or in the self-evident harmonies of God’s works; it is not, I say, without some or all of these reasons, that the world has believed that prophets, psalmists, and seers knew what they spake, and spake what they beheld. It is a pardonable fault to take them in the letter of their words, and a harmless error to go astray with the belief of Christendom. We shall not be dangerously out of the way, if we lovingly and humbly believe that He who is the brightness of His Father’s glory, and the express image of His person, did take unto Himself our manhood as His revealed presence for ever, in its most perfect image and likeness; that where two natures were united, as both were perfect, so both were beautiful. I know not what he may be to whom such a thought is not blessed. We bear witness to it by the fond, blind way in which we invest all we love with beauty. Even the least comely and ill-favoured are lovely to those that love them. Our minds are full of lights and hues, with which we array the objects of our hearts. Let each do as he will. Only let us first love Him, and then weigh these thoughts. Till then, it is all too soon.

But be these things as they may, there is a beauty we know Him to possess in fulness, the beauty of perfect love. If the hardest-featured 441of those who love us be lovely to our eyes; if the tenderness, sympathy, observance and anxious affection, the soul of love which speaks from every line, and from every motion of the eye and of the countenance of friends, draw our whole heart into them as if we rather lived in them and by them, than by a life in ourselves; if their coming and their presence, their speech and their silent gaze, be to us as beauty and delight; what shall be His presence and His countenance in the kingdom of the resurrection? What shall be the beauty of perfect meekness, perfect humility, perfect tenderness, perfect love, of perfect delight in our love, and perfect bliss in our sinless peace? “O wonder of love, O Friend all gentle, all pure, all wise, in whose presence to abide, under whose loving gaze to dwell, is heaven; shall we indeed see Thy beauty? Shall we see Thy form all majesty, and Thy countenance all love? Shall we look upon that of which we read in gospels, muse on before the altar, and picture in the heavens? Is it to us, is it to me, let each one ask, that Thou hast pledged Thy troth, that I shall see Thee with these very eyes wherewith I now see my own form and the face of this fleeting world? Shall I see the wounds, the five hallowed wounds, which Thou didst shew to Thy friends when the doors were shut, on the night of the resurrection; and the 442 very print of the nails, and the radiant circle of Thy crown of thorns? And shall I know and feel ‘All this was for me,—consciously, and with clear intent, suffered upon earth for me?’ O Love greater than love of man; Love of God, Love eternal, which created me, suffered for me, died for me, bare with me in my long, blind, stubborn rebellions, spared, shielded, restrained, converted me by holy inspirations, and the pleadings of tender upbraiding,—do I now see Thee face to face? Art Thou He that has ever blessed me behind the veil, and spread over me day and night Thy pierced hands, on whose palms my name was graven with the nails of crucifixion; out of whose depths has issued for me nothing but Thy precious blood and Thy cleansing grace all the days of my life? Now I behold Thy beauty, ‘whom having not seen,’ I desired to love; and in whom, though I saw Thee not as yet, I rejoiced, so far as my cold, loveless soul, conscious of sin, and shrinking from Thy pure presence, could rejoice and love. It was my blindness that hid from me Thy beauty. If I had loved, I should have perceived Thy love; and should have chosen Thy sweetness before all happiness on earth. But Thou hast saved me from my sins and from myself, and hast brought me to this ‘land which is very far off;’ far off from sorrow and crying, 443from death and sin; and hast revealed to me Thy beauty in the vision of peace. Lord, it is enough: I desire no more: be this eternal, and it is enough for ever.” Surely if we can venture to breathe such things, these will be among the thoughts of those who attain that world and the kingdom of the resurrection. But who can utter or conceive the beauty of the love of our ever-blessed Lord beaming from His Divine countenance, as the sun shineth in his strength? In that face will be revealed all the love of His holy Incarnation, of His life of sorrow, of His agony and passion, of His Cross and death. As if the soul and the accents of our manhood were not enough to express His love; as if promises of grace and works of mercy were inarticulate, He must speak to us in the language of agony, and print upon Himself for ever the characters of a “love which passeth knowledge.” Therefore, in the midst of the throne was seen “a Lamb as if it had been slain.” The wounds of His hands and feet, and of His pierced side, are eternal seals and countersigns of the love which has redeemed us for Himself.

And what can we more say? If this be His beauty as very man, what must be His beauty as very God? What must be that Divine, uncreated beauty, ancient but ever new, which, with 444the Father and the Holy Ghost, is also in the Son? It is not a human or finite love which shall be seen in the face of the Word made flesh, but the mercy, compassion, tenderness, of the Eternal. God, who has revealed Himself to us in sundry ways and in divers manners; in the lights of heaven and the beauty of the earth, in life-giving seasons and fruitful suns, in prophecies and promises, in miracles and visions, by all the accents and in all the compass of human speech, as if all tongues had failed, and all language were too weak, has for our sake created a new speech and a new language for the utterance of His eternal love. He gave the Son of His love to be made man, to suffer, and to die, to redeem us from sin and death; to gather us, by His Spirit, about His throne, and to reveal to us, through human sympathy and the accents and the sorrows of our own nature, the perfection of His everlasting love. It is the love of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, the beauty of the ever-blessed Three, the Holy One, that is revealed to us in the person of the King of Saints. But here, let us rest and adore, lest we break through the fence, and sin against the majesty not yet unveiled.

We have come, then, to the end of all our thoughts and toils. For what else were we born, and for what end came we into the world, but to 445behold the face of God? This is the end for which we were created; to this, as to its source and rest, our being tends; unto this all the mysteries and movements of His power and love, in nature and in the Spirit, invite and draw us. To love God, and to die; this is the end of man: or read it in the light of heaven, to love God, and to dwell in God for ever,—this is our being and our bliss.

Now with two plain thoughts, full of soothing hope, we will make an end.

1. The first is, that the King whose beauty is the bliss of heaven is ever drawing and preparing us for His presence by all the mysteries of His Church. What is our Baptism but the real engrafting of our whole being, in body and soul, into this supernatural order, of which His heavenly court is the ripe and perfect fruit? What are all they who are gathered round Him now, and all who shall be gathered round Him when the whole mystical number is fulfilled, but poor sinners fallen and dead, born again by His free Spirit, and drawn by a succession of graces, each one linked within the other? There is a divine order in the scheme of our salvation, “descending from the first effect unto the last; that is, from the fruit, which is glory, to the root of this fair tree, which is the redemption of the Saviour. 446 For the Divine goodness bestows glory upon merits, merits upon love, love upon penitence, penitence upon obedience to vocation, obedience to vocation upon vocation, and vocation upon the redemption of the Saviour; on which rests the whole of that mystical ladder of the great Jacob, as well in heaven, forasmuch as it ends in the loving bosom of the everlasting Father, in which He receives and glorifies the elect; as also upon earth, forasmuch as it is planted on the bosom and in the pierced side of the Saviour, who died to redeem us on mount Calvary.”264264   S. François de Sales, Traité de l’Amour de Dieu, liv. iii. c. 5. By this golden chain He draws us to Himself; working in us by the power of His grace, unfolding the interior capacities and faculties of our spiritual life; in some, from the gift of regeneration, onward through childhood, boyhood, youth, unto the ripeness of perfect life, by an ever advancing growth of purity and of fellowship with His veiled presence; in others, after waywardness and rebellion, by sharp scourges and barbed shafts, wounding the soul with appalling fears and pangs of conscious guilt, bowing them to the yoke of repentance, and through the grace of penance perfecting their conversion. By these two main paths of grace, but with infinite varieties of light and shadow, He leads us on, 447enlarging our inward and spiritual sense of desire and sight.

But He not only works within us; He also proposes to our spiritual faculties an object of faith to prepare us for His manifested presence. He that is enthroned in “the land that is very far off” is the same that said, “Lo, I am with you alway.” He is with us in the midst of His heavenly court. Even now it is “not far from any one of us.” In the blessed Sacrament of the altar He reveals Himself in His beauty to the sight of the pure in heart. He is there sitting upon His exalted throne, and His train fills the temple. There is the Word made flesh, the Lamb that was slain, angels and archangels, and all the company of heaven. What is not there where He is, in Whom are all things? This is the great reality of Truth, by which the regenerate live with Him in God. All the whole life of Christ’s true servants upon earth is the melting of a twilight as it brightens into day. The world in which they live, indeed, is hidden, veiled, for a while, with shadows, sacraments, and symbols. But through all, the radiance of the Eternal Beauty shines upon them; and through all, their sight pierces, with a spiritual intuition, even to the land and kingdom of peace. But on earth there is no approach beyond the real presence of the Word made flesh. 448The altar is His throne, already seen. After this there remains nothing but “the King in His beauty” seen face to face.

2. And lastly, the other truth for our consolation is this: that by a special and particular discipline, varied and measured for the necessities of every faithful soul, He is making us ready for the vision of His presence. The discipline of His Sacraments and mysteries is common to all members of His body: but the discipline of His chastising love is particular, and for each. By the gifts of His grace we are prepared for His chastisements, and by His chastisements we are prepared for fuller measures of His grace. If we resist His Spirit, or grieve Him by our rebellions, or hang back and sullenly refuse His leading, He has scourges of sharpness and of love to chasten us into faith. The experience of every one who has been brought under this loving discipline issues in one word: “Before I was afflicted, I went wrong.”265265   Ps. cxix. 67. “One thing I know, that whereas I was blind, now I see.”266266   St. John ix. 25. It is not only the careless and lukewarm, but the wakened and devout, who feel under chastisement as if, for the first time, they had received their sight. The whole order of the Church, and all its sacraments of grace, seem to unfold themselves into a new revelation of truth and meaning. 449Not that any thing without us is altered, but because we are changed within. Our Baptism, on which we used to look as a font of pure water, we perceive to be “the river of the water of life,” the grave of Christ, the mystical death, “the beginning of the new creation of God,” the power of a holy resurrection. The Church rises before us on twelve foundations, builded four-square, the precincts of the holy city, and the avenue to the paradise of God; its order is linked with the hierarchies of heaven; its unity ascends into the heavenly court; its altars become one with that which stands upon Mount Sion, on which is the very Paschal Lamb. Even when seemingly most deprived of all outward channels of grace, these things are most deeply realised. In long exile from the sanctuary and the altar, when all seems most against them, then is His time of grace. Then He seems to reveal Himself with a directer light, and to shew that He is Lord also of the Church; that sacraments were ordained for man, not man for sacraments. He thus ministers to us by the interior priesthood of His mystical Body; and makes to overflow, by spiritual communion, the very souls who have in time past drawn but scanty graces from the visible sacrament of His love. And where is all this change but in ourselves, in the clearer 450purging of our inward sight, and the awakening of keener desires for the vision of peace? Such is the work wrought in us by the inward discipline of pain and trial, of sorrow and of passion, whereby He makes His own know that they are His. Blessed tokens, though sharp and piercing; deep-cutting prints of the nails of the Cross; yet marking off those He chooses from the world, consecrating them, trembling and shrinking, to Himself. “Blessed are ye that weep” now, whether in contradiction, or bereavement, or sickness, or fear. Every visitation is a stage of advance in your walk of faith. Every chastisement is sent to open a new page in the great Book of Life—to shew you things within you which you knew not, and things which hereafter shall be your portion. He is cleansing the power of sight in you, that it may become intense and strong to bear His presence: and that power of sight is love; fervent and purifying love, consuming every sin, and purging out every stain. The more fervently you cleave to Him by love, the clearer shall be your vision of His beauty. Then welcome all He sends, if so be we may see Him at last, where there is no more sin, where truth has no shadow, where unity and sanctity have no dispute. Welcome sorrow, trial, fear, and the shadow of death, if only our sin be blotted out, and our 451lot secure in the lowest room, in the light of His face, before the throne of His beauty, in our home and in our rest for ever.

THE END OF VOL. III.

LONDON:
PRINTED BY LEVEY, ROBSON, AND FRANKLYN,
Great New Street, Fetter Lane.


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