A Newman Sermon on Advent: “Worship, a Preparation for Christ’s Coming

Many people are now noticing how early the Christmas lights come out to decorate the shopping malls and the Christmas music is cranked up on the radio. We skip Advent. We can no longer wait. Many Christians embrace the idea that “Jesus is the reason for the [Christmas] season” but the Advent season is all but lost on our culture today, drowned in ersatz holiday cheer. I think we need a dose of Newman. Newman looked peaceful but certainly not “jazzed up” as if on grande lattes and shopping sprees, as the picture here testifies.

I would like to offer a brief summary and meditation upon one of his four advent sermons from the fifth volume of the Parochial and Plain Sermons, “Worship, a Preparation for Christ’s Coming.” (Read it here) It is one of four powerful sermons for Advent, three of which begin with this epigram from Isaiah: “Thine eyes shall see the King in his beauty: they shall behold the land that is very far off.” Isaiah xxxiii. 17. He reminds us that we are still in via, on the pilgrimage, in the mode of faith, not sight, aspiring after a far off land; and yet we hope in the destination and the vision.

As is typical in his sermons, Newman begins with building up an impression through layers of observation and reflection. We do not begin with the holiday cheer, but rather its gloom. “The very frost and cold, rain and gloom, which now befall us, forebode the last dreary days of the world, and in religious hearts raise the thought of them. The year is worn out: spring, summer, autumn, each in turn, have brought their gifts and done their utmost; but they are over, and the end is come. All is past and gone, all has failed, all has sated; we are tired of the past; we would not have the seasons longer; and the austere weather which succeeds, though ungrateful to the body, is in tone with our feelings, and acceptable. Such is the frame of mind which befits the end of the year; and such the frame of mind which comes alike on good and bad at the end of life. The days have come in which they have no pleasure; yet they would hardly be young again, could they be so by wishing it. Life is well enough in its way; but it does not satisfy.”  Newman was not an “old man” when he delivered this sermon, but he lived an ascetical life and had had his fill of ambition and worldly wisdom enough to see its emptiness. Advent must begin from the dark, from the emptiness, so as to make room for the anticipation of the good things to come.

By a natural disposition of experience and season, the glimmer of advent settles into our soul:

Thus the soul is cast forward upon the future, and in proportion as its conscience is clear and its perception keen and true, does it rejoice solemnly that “the night is far spent, the day is at hand,” that there are “new heavens and a new earth” to come, though the former are failing; nay, rather that, because they are failing, it will “soon see the King in His beauty,” and “behold the land which is very far off.” These are feelings for holy men in winter and in age, waiting, in some dejection perhaps, but with comfort on the whole, and calmly though earnestly, for the Advent of Christ.

That phrase almost seems to describe Newman as pictured above — “waiting, in some dejection perhaps, but with comfort on the whole, and calmly though earnestly.” But here is the gist of his sermon, put out front, in the first paragraph, before the rustling of the congregation could even quiet down. Newman is a master of this form.

The rest of the sermon burrows deeper into the earnestness and dejection required by this world, and rouses the high hope of vision and glory of the next.

Prayer is fueled by faith and sacrifice.  In the early morning devotions the “penitents and mourners, watchers and pilgrims” can grasp the measure of advent — “More dear to them that loneliness, more cheerful that severity, and more bright that gloom, than all those aids and appliances of luxury by which men nowadays attempt to make prayer less disagreeable to them. True faith does not covet comforts.”

For what are we waiting? For who are we waiting? The Judge of all souls, “whose eyes are as a flame of fire.” “Our maker and Lord.” “The Lawgiver Himself in person.”  “His righteous Presence.” Verily, “the Son of man sitting on the right hand of glory.”

Do we really want to see such a thing? Are ready to see such a one? We are sleepy in our routines of work and play. “At present we are in a world of shadows. What we see is not substantial. Suddenly it will be rent in twain and vanish away, and our Maker will appear. And then, I say, that first appearance will be nothing less than a personal intercourse between the Creator and every creature. He will look on us, while we look on Him.” Thus is Advent, the coming of the Lord.

But the brilliance of the sermon continues. Must we then simply strive to improve our moral life and escape his judgement? Yes, but that is not all; we must learn how to approach him, and for that we are readied by worship.

Why is it not enough to be just, honest, sober, benevolent, and otherwise virtuous? Is not this the true and real worship of God? Is not activity in mind and conduct the most acceptable way of approaching Him? How can they please Him by submitting to certain religious forms, and taking part in certain religious acts? Or if they must do so, why may they not choose their own? Why must they come to church for them? Why must they be partakers in what the Church calls Sacraments? I answer, they must do so, first of all and especially, because God tells them so to do. But besides this, I observe that we see this plain reason why, that they are one day to change their state of being. They are not to be here for ever. Direct intercourse with God on their part now, prayer and the like, may be necessary to their meeting Him suitably hereafter: and direct intercourse on His part with them, or what we call sacramental communion, may be necessary in some incomprehensible way, even for preparing their very nature to bear the sight of Him.

Worship prepares us for advent, because it quite literally prepares us to meet the Lord, and “see the King in his beauty.” If I am to one day “take possession of my inheritance,” I had better become prepared to do so. “I would not see heaven yet, for I could not bear to see it.”

No we must wait on the Christmas music and lights, the lattes and the brandy — rather know that Advent is “a season for chastened hearts and religious eyes; for severe thoughts, and austere resolves, and charitable deeds; a season for remembering what we are and what we shall be.”

Newman had an exquisite sense of the sacramental presence of the other world as it impinges upon our own. We great force and drama he reminds us in one his celebrated passages:

A thick black veil is spread between this world and the next. We mortal men range up and down it, to and fro, and see nothing. There is no access through it into the next world. In the Gospel this veil is not removed; it remains, but every now and then marvelous disclosures are made to us of what is behind it. At times we seem to catch a glimpse of a Form which we shall hereafter see face to face. We approach, and in spite of the darkness, our hands, or our head, or our brow, or our lips become, as it were, sensible of the contact of something more than earthly.  .  .  .  . we recollect a hand laid upon our heads, and surely it had the print of nails in it, and resembled His who with a touch gave sight to the blind and raised the dead. Or we have been eating and drinking; and it was not a dream surely, that One fed us from His wounded side, and renewed our nature by the heavenly meat He gave.

Thank you Blessed John Henry Newman for your love of God, love of the Church, and your gift of preaching. Truly was it said by Gladstone, of all people, a hundred years hence his parochial sermons will be read.

And after we read some Newman advent sermons, let us “watch for Him in the cold and dreariness which must one day have an end.”.

1 Comment
  1. What a great suggestion for beginning Advent. Newman always takes us exactly where we need to be. Thank you. This sampling of Newman even brings an end to dreariness in this very day. God bless you for keeping this wonderful man's holiness -and his genuine ability to speak to our hearts from his – always accessible to your readers. Newman will help save England yet, and perhaps the rest of us as well!

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