Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Wise men Following the Star (John Keble)

John Keble, priest, theologian and poet, was born in 1792. He was a leading figure in the “Oxford Movement” (otherwise known as the “Catholic Revival”) in the Church of England, which Newman always regarded as having begun with Keble’s sermon in the University Church of St Mary the Virgin on 14th July, 1833. He famously preached on “National Apostasy.” Keble was a fellow of Oriel, who in 1827 had published "The Christian Year", a popular volume of poems for Sundays and festivals. He was also Oxford’s Professor of Poetry from 1831 to 1841. 

Keble, Newman, Pusey and others published Ninety “Tracts for the Times”, hence the reference to them as “Tractarians.” They sought a spiritual revival by recalling the Church of England to its true Catholic heritage. Their followers became known as “Anglo-Catholics." They had a lasting influence on the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion. 

After 1841, Keble retired to his country vicarage in the village of Hursley, near Winchester. He wrote tracts and hymns. He was above all a devoted parish priest, who modeled the pastoral ministry for which the Catholic Revival was renowned. Keble famously said that if the Church of England collapsed, it would be found in his parish. He was at the same time shy and reserved, and forcefully strong-minded. He preached earnestly and affectionately. He was buried in the Churchyard at Hursley after his death in 1866. His wife Charlotte died a few weeks later and was buried with him. They had no children. Keble College, Oxford, was named in his honour when it was founded in 1869.

What follows is a semon Keble preached for the Feast of the Epiphany. It is from Sermons for Christmas and Epiphany by John Keble, published by James Parker & Co, Oxford, 1882.


“We have seen his star in the East, and are come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:2)

In all the history of our Lord’s manifestation on earth, and especially in the account of his childhood, there is a wonderful mixture of openness and reserve. There is a veil over the brightness of his presence, through which he allows himself to be seen occasionally only, and not by all sorts of persons, but by a few only of a particular class and character.

Thus, in his birth, how was the unspeakable dignity of the Son of God hidden and clouded over! His Mother, the wife of a poor carpenter of Nazareth; the chamber, a stable; the cradle, a manger: yet how wonderful the manifestation of his glory! Angels coming in brightness from the heavens to announce him — a thing which had never been known or thought of before, since, on the birthday of the world itself, “a the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy.” (Job 28:7)

Again, when he was circumcised, he seemed like one among many sinners, having need to be admitted into the Lord’s earthly family: but great indeed was the token of his majesty, in having his Name twice brought by an Angel from heaven; and that, the Name JESUS, which declared him the Saviour of the world. Then he was brought to the Temple, in the usual way, with simple offerings, as any poor man’s child might be: but he was received with an outpouring of the Holy Spirit of prophecy, so many hundred years silent in that place. Still, however, the Spirit was vouchsafed only to quiet and meek persons, and his message spoken of to those only who looked for redemption; even as before, his birth was made known to the shepherds only, watchfully doing their duty; and the secret of the name JESUS, brought from heaven, was known, as far as we can tell, only to S. Joseph and the Blessed Virgin.

The next event in our Lord’s childhood is the Epiphany, or visit of the wise men, which we commemorate this day. And here, surely, we may plainly perceive the same rule or law to have been kept. On the one hand, how clear and glorious the token from heaven! A new and wonderful star, appearing so far away, and inviting even gentiles to so great a distance, not merely to see, but even to worship him: on the other hand, when he is found, he is a meek and lowly babe, resting on his Mother’s knees, as any other child might do, in a poor cottage of a humble village. And the immediate consequence of their visit is, that he is forced to fly for his life; or rather his Mother and Joseph are forced to remove him by night, as if he were helpless, like all infants, and could do nothing for himself.

They worship Him, owning his Godhead : He flies, confessing Himself a true child of man, as we are.

Thus the Epiphany, like the other manifestations of our Lord, partly veils and partly discloses His glory.

As in those other instances also, the disclosure is made to persons of a certain character, and to those only. It is not hard to see what sort of mind thesewise men were in; ; how earnest, not only in obtaining what heavenly knowledge they could, but also in obeying what they knew. They lived in a country, and most likely belonged to a profession, in which the observation of the stars was great part of their daily business. And as the shepherds, when the Angel was sent to them, were watching over their flocks by night, that is, in the honest exercise of their daily calling ; so this star was ordered to meet the eyes of these men, so learned in the signs of the heavens. It seems in both cases to signify that God loves to visit, with His heavenly and spiritual blessings, those whom He sees diligent and conscientious in their daily duty.

Now the star was of course something extraordinary, something different from other stars, as indeed the whole course of this history shews it to have been. There can be little doubt that it was a glory, a miraculous appearance, sent from heaven for this very purpose. And it might be, the wise men had heard or read of that old prophecy, which mentions that a Star should one day rise out of Jacob (Numbers 24:17). For Balaam, who uttered that prophecy fourteen hundred years before, was himself one of the Wise men of the East, and his words might be known and remembered,especially as Moses bad set them down.

However, either by that prophecy, or in some other way, God had made known to these wise men, when they saw the star in the East, that it was a token of the birth of One, who should be King of the Jews, and they set out at once on their long journey to worship him. The length of the way did not keep them back, nor yet their having to go to Jerusalem, which was at that time thought little of among all the nations of the world. They were of a sort of persons renowned for their wisdom, yet they were not ashamed to ask for guidance of those who were least esteemed in the world, because they knew they were the people of God.

And God encouraged them: they-found the place which they sought. Herod, and the chief priests and scribes, enemies of our Lord, and designing to slay Him, told them, however, where to find him, and directed them to the old prophecy concerning Bethlehem. This was great encouragement: to find that the Scriptures of God, as interpreted by those whom God himself had made guardians and expounders of them, guided them onward, instead of checking and disappointing them. And it was still greater, even miraculous encouragement, when immediately on their setting out for Bethlehem, the star which they had seen in the East appeared again: and now it disappeared no more, till it “came and stood over where the young child was,” marking out the very cottage in which the Holy Saviour might be found.

Thus they could have no doubt: they were quite sure it was he whom they sought. They were as certain as the shepherds, when they had come there obedient to the voice of the angel. It moved them not at all that they saw but a little Child, resting on the bosom of a poor maiden, with an aged man waiting by. Their faith had brought them so far, under direction of their heavenly guide, and they were not now going to swerve from it, and begin indulging unbelieving thoughts. They fall down at once, and worship the young child, and offer him the very best that they have to give, the treasures and gifts which they had brought with them on purpose, “gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.”

Having thus done, the wise men receive another warning from God in a dream, which way they should go home; a favour which shewed that he was graciously pleased to accept all they had done hitherto. And having come home, they lost not their faith, but, as ancient tradition relates, were ready to receive the preaching of the Gospel from S. Thomas, when he came into that country, some years after the ascension of our Lord. These wise men assisted that apostle in bearing witness to the Cross among their own countrymen in the East.

Such were the persons who were honoured by our Lord to be the second set of chosen witnesses, invited by miraculous guidance to see him in his childhood. Are we not, so far, all of us like them, in that, when children, we too have a sort of “star in the east” to guide us towards the cradle of our Lord? We are carried to Church, we are taught to pray, we learn more or less of Scripture words and histories: (S. Chrysostom, Homily vi. on Matthew 5). God gives us notice, in various ways, of that wonderful child, who was born at Bethlehem to be King of the Jews: various things happen, from time to time, which give us a sort of blind indistinct feeling, that there is within our reach, we know not how near us, a great and heavenly Being, could we but feel after him and find him.
How these notices and feelings, if they are indeed sent by the Most High, as the star was sent to the wise men, will guide us, more or less directly, to Jerusalem, that is, to the Holy Church of God, the city set on an hill which cannot be hid. We indeed are in that Church already, by the Almighty’s especial favour, ever since the moment of our Baptism. And still as we search after the truth, our thoughts are brought back to the same Church; and Providence teaches us, as the star guided the wise men, to go to Jerusalem, the Church and city of God, and ask where the Truth, that is, Christ, is to be found.

And the Church, like a gracious mother, will be ready at our need. She will guide us, as herself is guided, by Holy Scripture. She will send us to Bethlehem, because it is so written in the prophets: Bethlehem, which is, being interpreted, the House of Bread, and which therefore is an apt figure of the place where he gives himself to us, who is “the true Bread which cometh down from heaven, the Bread of God which giveth life unto the world.” (John 6:32,33) The Church, in short, being guided by the Scriptures, will send us to the Holy Communion, there to worship and receive Jesus Christ. What have we to do in this world, but to prepare ourselves, and follow that heavenly guidance? And we are so far rightly preparing ourselves, as we really from our heart are endeavouring to copy the wise men in their search for the new-born Saviour.

The wise men were ready to follow wherever God’s providence might lead them, however slight and even doubtful the notices of his will might be. They follow the star, not knowing whither it would take them, much as Abraham had done, from nearly the same country, two thousand years before. So ought it to be enough for us to know the next step in our journey, the next thing God would have us do, with something like tolerable certainty. One step before them, is as much as sinners in a troublous world should expect to see.

The wise men did not mind the trouble of their journey to find our Lord. Day after day they went on, and still the star, as it may appear, or at least some providential sign, shewed them they had still further to go; and they did not grow weary, nor turn back, nor say, “Why could not we as well have honoured the young Child at a distance, in the sight of God Who knows our hearts?”

This surely may reprove our indolence and want of faith, who are so seldom willing to leave our homes, and go ever so little way, there, where we are sure the young child is to be found, but rather put up with idle excuses, the more profane because they make a shew of respect, of God being in one place as much as in another, and of our being able to serve Him at home as acceptably as in Church.

Neither, again, did those wise men shrink from their long journey, nor fear to ask about our Lord,or to go where they heard he was, or to worship when they had found him, lest they should he wondered at, and thought strange, and pointed to, as wilfully and fancifully making themselves unlike other people. No such thought, it would appear, came at all into their minds: they just followed the star and the prophet, whether those who looked on derided them or no. Will it not be a good token of our faith, when we too make up our minds to obey the Church, and serve God as we best may, not regarding what kind of talk people may at first make about it?

I say, at first, because in no long time, if we let them alone, they will let us alone. It is but exercising a little courage and perseverance at first, and taking care not to disgrace our profession by wilful sin; and we shall quickly find leave from the world to serve God regularly in spite of her scorn.

Further, the wise men were not ashamed to acknowledge and honour Christ as especially present in a poor cottage, and as a young child: neither let us doubt, but take him at his word when he says, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40); and again, “Whosoever shall receive one such little child in my Name, receiveth me” (Matthew 18:5). As ever we desire to find Christ truly in his Sacraments and his Scriptures, be it our care never to forget him in his poor, if we can relieve them; or in his little ones, if we can help them to continue his, at least by not doing or saying any thing to corrupt them in the way of bad example.

The wise men, being bidden by an Angel not to return to Herod, obeyed, and went back as they might some other way. They did not stumble at the command, though it might seem strange to find so sacred a person in danger, and his life made to depend on any thing they could do. They did not say, “How is this? that he should be the Son of God, and yet we must go out of our way to save his life from the tyrant?” But being bidden, at once, without objection, they obey the bidding. It will be a good sign when Christian persons, having found truth, shew themselves worthy of it, by the like obedience to plain commands, without asking questions.

Lastly, the wise men grudged not the holy child the best and most expensive gifts they could offer, though it were hard to see how some of them, at least, could be of any use to him. But they were full of adoring love, and a heart where love dwells cannot stop to consider the use of things. Does not this tell us something about our way of serving and honouring Christ in his Churches, and in all that appertains to them, especially in whatever belongs to the services of the Holy Communion? Ought it not to be all as handsome as we can make it? Ought we nicely to count the cost, or measure the good done, when we are bringing our offerings for such purposes? Are we used to do so, when we are bringing tokens of affection to those whom we most love and honour on earth? Did David so behave? or S. Mary Magdalene? or these wise men? or any of those whom the Bible mentions as honouring God and being honoured by him?

For indeed these wise men were greatly honoured by him; especially if, as was of old believed, they became afterwards disciples of his apostle, ministers and stewards of his mysteries. Think what a glorious ending, from a beginning in appearance so slight and seemingly accidental, as their observing a particular star, religiously taking it to be from God, and with all perseverance inquiring its import, and following after its course.

Let any Christian child, or poor person as ignorant as a child, only go on doing his best in silence, God for his part will most surely keep and perform his part of the promise. Let the star, the lesser light you have, guide you to Christ here, that you may after this life have the fruition of his glorious Godhead.

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The village of Hursley is very near Winchester. Today I drove a friend there to visit the church and John Keble’s grave. I’ve been there before. Each time I have found the church open, and although it’s not really a “shrine” - there is almost no Keble memorabilia on display, - it is a lovely house of prayer. Just being there, reflecting on the challenge that lay in front of the fathers of the Oxford Movement, together with the crises of our own time, it was natural to mumble the invocation “John Keble, pray for us”! Here are a couple of photos:


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