Domenico Ghirlandaio's 1490 fresco Birth of the Virgin (detail above)
in Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy.
The inscription on the wall above is from the antiphon for this feast:
"Nativitas tua, Dei Genitrix Virgo, / Gaudium annuntiavit universo mundo"
(Thy Nativity, O Virgin Mother of God, / Hath brought joy to the whole world).
John Mason Neale (1818-1866) was born into a devout London evangelical family; his father was a priest. He himself graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge, and at 22 became chaplain of Downing College, Cambridge.
At Cambridge he had embraced the catholic revival and helped to found the Cambridge Camden Society (afterwards known as the Ecclesiological Society).
Although ordained in 1841 and becoming the Vicar of Crawley the following year, he was forced to resign by 1846 due to conflict with the diocesan bishop and the congregation. It was then that Neale became warden of Sackville College, an almshouse at East Grinstead. He remained there until he died.
In 1854 Neale co-founded the Society of Saint Margaret, an order of women in the Church of England dedicated to nursing the sick. This provoked much opposition. People even threatened to stone him or burn down his house. He endured a fourteen year inhibition by his bishop.
As the years went by, however, Neale's sanctity, love and basic goodness won the confidence of many who had opposed him, and the Sisterhood of St Margaret survived and prospered. Neale was also the principal founder of the Anglican and Eastern Orthodox Churches Union in 1864 (now known as the Anglican and Eastern Churches Association). He translated the Eastern liturgies into English, and wrote a mystical and devotional commentary on the Psalms. But he is best known as a hymn writer and, especially, translator, having enriched English hymnody with many ancient and mediaeval hymns translated from Latin and Greek. More than anyone else, he made English-speaking congregations aware of the centuries-old tradition of Latin, Greek, Russian, and Syrian hymns. The English Hymnal (1906) contains 63 of his translated hymns and six of his original hymns.
The following sermon for today's Feast is from a collection published posthumously in 1872: Sermons on the Black Letter Days Or Minor Festivals of the Church of England.
THE LORD'S COMING TO HIS TEMPLE
Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, September 8.
"THE LORD, WHOM YE SEEK, SHALL SUDDENLY COME TO HIS TEMPLE."
- MALACHI III. 1.
THERE is no festival of S. Mary which has not also to do with our LORD. How should it be otherwise? She who was so closely and so wonderfully connected with Him as Man, so that He was bone of her bone, and flesh of her flesh, she cannot be divided in our thoughts from Him now. He is still Man, as truly as He ever was; He still has the flesh which He took of her; the same in which He suffered, the same in which He died, the same in which He rose again from the dead.
This text has, then, to do both with our LORD and with His Blessed Mother; and we may also apply it to ourselves, and say that it has to do with us.
"The LORD, Whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to His Temple." First of all, this prophecy was fulfilled when the Archangel Gabriel was sent to Nazareth with the most wonderful message that was ever heard on earth. "Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found favour with GOD. And behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a Son, and shalt call His Name JESUS." The womb of S. Mary was the temple into which our LORD at that moment entered. There it was that He, Who was the Desire of all nations,--He, Who even then might have said, "The earth is weak, and all the inhabiters thereof: I bear up the pillars of it,"--He, Whom the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain,--there He lay hid for all those long months, until the fulness of the time came, and GOD was born into the world. David, in the Psalms, represents our LORD as anxious to find out this temple for Himself: "I will not give sleep to mine eyes, nor slumber to mine eyelids, neither shall the temples of my head take any rest: until I find out a place for the temple of the LORD, an habitation for the mighty GOD of Jacob." This place, this habitation, He did find out, when the HOLY GHOST came upon S. Mary, and the power of the Highest overshadowed her, and the Word of the FATHER took flesh in her womb.
"The LORD, Whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to His temple." And this promise was fulfilled the second time when our LORD was presented in the temple, at the Purification of His Blessed Mother,--in memory of which we keep Candlemas-day. It was His temple, though the Jews little knew it: He, then an infant six weeks old, was the one true Priest, though the High Priest little thought it; He was LORD of the countless armies of angels, and of all the tribes of men, though He had so few that were truly waiting for Him. "The LORD, Whom ye seek." How many were those that sought Him then? If I count rightly, four only. See if I am wrong. S. Luke tells us that Anna the prophetess "coming in that instant, gave thanks likewise to the LORD, and spake of Him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem." All, then, that looked for redemption in Jerusalem were at that moment in the temple--there were none others besides; and for all that appears, they were only S. Anna herself, S. Mary, and S. Joseph, and Simeon. Pour courtiers to wait on such a King!
"The LORD, Whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to His temple." This Scripture is fulfilled before us every day; for every day the HOLY GHOST comes down into His temples, the bodies of those who are baptized: He comes suddenly, He comes without preparation,--a few words, a little water,--and His temple is consecrated to Him for ever. As S. Paul tells us, "What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the HOLY GHOST?" and again, "Know ye not, that ye are the temple of GOD, and that the Spirit of GOD dwelleth in you?"
But those temples must, little by little, day by day, fall to pieces and perish. "This earthly house of our tabernacle must be dissolved," says S. Paul. And when it shall have been,--when earth shall have returned to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust,--then also this text shall be fulfilled; "The LORD, Whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to His temple." He shall come to it, to raise it up again from the earth, and--if it has been His true temple--to make it His glorious dwelling for ever. And this shall be suddenly, too, as S. Paul also tells us: "In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed."
That will be the last time that our LORD will come to His temple; for afterwards He shall abide in it for ever. The LORD GOD Almighty and the Lamb are the temple of that Holy City, New Jerusalem, which S. John saw, and which we also some day hope to see: according to that saying, "Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of My GOD, and he shall go no more out."
Now, what we are to notice in all these comings of our LORD to His temple, is their suddenness. "The LORD, Whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to His temple." In one moment He was conceived in the womb of S. Mary; in one moment He turns the heart of an infant, from being the abode and the den of Satan, into His own holy temple; in one moment He will raise up these bodies of ours, turning them from mortal to immortal, from corruptible to incorruptible. GOD does not stand in need of time to do His wonderful works. One day is with the LORD as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.
But we may take this verse in yet one more sense. "The LORD shall suddenly come to His temple," when He comes to each of you at death. Long or short as your last illness may be, still the LORD'S coming will be sudden. There is one point, one moment of time, at which you will leave the world and go to Him. Then all our happiness depends on whether the first part of the verse be true: "the LORD, Whom ye seek." If so, all is well. Then His Coming, though it must be dreadful, will also be glorious; then we may make answer with S. John, "He Which testifieth these things, saith, Surely I come quickly. Amen: even so come, LORD JESUS."
But suppose the LORD, Whom ye do not seek, should suddenly come to His temple? . . . .
And now to GOD the FATHER, GOD the SON, and GOD the HOLY GHOST, be all honour and glory for ever. Amen.