Another Newman Sermon on Advent: “Shrinking from Christ’s Coming”

Detail of Christ Pantokrator, National Shrine, Washington

In an earlier post we explored an advent sermon by Newman on “Worship as preparation for Christ’s coming.” He reminds us that we are still on the pilgrimage and in the mode of faith yet also hopeful to arrive at the distant point of the vision of God. Another sermon of the 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), is entitled “Shrinking from Christ’s Coming.” (Find it here) In this sermon Newman digs down even deeper into the meaning of Advent and into the soul of the believer.

In the former sermon Newman looks at the gloom of the present as a necessary starting point for the true hope for the light of Christ. In this latter sermon Newman probes the idea that we would really shrink from the coming of Christ if we but knew his coming means. (A sermon in between these two is entitled “Unreal Words” concerning the superficial banter of those who use words without a sincere understanding of their import. We shall look at this in a future post.) What does it mean, the coming of Christ? Newman goes to the prophet Malachi, “But who may abide the day of His coming? and who shall stand when He appeareth? for He is like a refiner’s fire, and like fullers’ soap.” [Mal. iii. 1, 2.] Newman discovers the same dread at the appearance of the Lord after the resurrection: the women “trembled and were amazed”; the Apostles “were terrified and affrighted.” And in the Book of Revelation, St. John “fell at His feet as dead.”

In other words, do we really want to see the day of the Lord, the coming of the Lord? As important as is the devotion to the child in the crib, Advent betokens as well the final coming of the Lord. Newman says: “We too are looking out for Christ’s coming,—we are bid look out,—we are bid pray for it; and yet it is to be a time of judgment. . . . .  How then can any look forward to it with joy, not knowing (for no one knows) the certainty of his own salvation?”

And if he were to come, really come soon, this would “cut off those precious years given us for conversion, amendment, repentance and sanctification.” Newman drives the point — “is there not an inconsistency in professing to wish our Judge already come, when we do not feel ourselves ready for Him?” And now the unreal words and professions of faith — do we really want him to come soon? “In what sense can we really and heartily pray that He would cut short the time, when our conscience tells us that, even were our life longest, we should have much to do in a few years?”

Newman will answer this intriguing dilemma, but first he draws back to reflect upon Christian existence. It does appear to be a contradiction, but this because there is a “want of depth in our minds to master the whole truth.” Indeed, he points out that “religion has its very life in what are paradoxes and contradictions in the eye of reason.” Fear and joy, time and eternity, sin and righteousness, presence and absence, providence and freedom — the heart of Christian existence is paradoxical in ways that are easily misunderstood.

I was reading a book on Kierkegaard by Theodor Haecker, Kierkegaard the Cripple (1950). Haecker discusses the tension of a “pessimism” and an “optimism” in Kierkegaard and he observes wisely, that he is really neither, because:

The [Christian] mind has an outlook wholly sui generis, incomprehensible to non-Christians, and contains within its framework both optimism and pessimism, not simply added or neatly segregated, or crudely mixed, but in harmony, in the same way that water is a unit of hydrogen and oxygen. It lives with the gaze fixed upon God in the perfect confidence of his goodness and justice, and in this respect it may be called consummately optimistic, if the word were not too weak or had not become hackneyed by secular misuse. Its conception of the ‘world’ . . . is pessimistic, but always within the comprehensive and incomparable unity of the great constellation: Faith, Hope, Charity. (29)

I think Haecker hits the Newman style perfectly (he translated Newman into German, eventually read by Ratzinger). Thus Newman works within that great constellation to explain how one rightly shrinks from the coming of Christ because anxious to make use of the time ahead, (use well the interval, we hear in Gerontius) and in fear for one’s own sinfulness. There is a great tension, but this harmony. Newman wants us to embrace the paradox and not live with a “neatly segregated” or “crudely mixed” elements of spirituality. To hold the elements in tension and in harmony increases or deepens them. We may segregate the expectation from the fear, so it is but a sentimental expectation of something or someone vaguely good, and the fear but a floating anxiety about the future. Let’s see how Newman places them in juxtaposition.

How is fear consistent with prayer? First, “the thought of standing before Christ is enough to make us tremble.” But “If Abraham could lift up his knife to slay his son, we may well so far subdue our fears as to pray for what nevertheless is terrible. Job said, ‘Though he slay me, yet I will trust in him.’ Under all circumstances surely, we may calmly resign ourselves into His hands. Can we suppose that He would deceive us? deal unkindly or hardly with us? Can He make use of us, if I may say so, against ourselves.”

Fear is paired with trust.

Next we must question how we can pray for the end of time, when time provides us some buffer for improvement, for  living life itself as we know it. First, Newman explains that we pray for a fulfillment of the work, not its curtailment. “All God’s works are in place and season; they are all complete.” If we want him to hurry, we must know that “He still keeps time, and moves upon the deep harmonies of truth and love.” But more profoundly, God acts to transform the world as if in a b of the eye. “He can condense into an hour a life of trial.”  The soul seeks in prayer the transformation that will make it ready to see him. And “He can by one keen pang of agony punish the earthly soul, or by one temptation justify it, or by one vision glorify it.” Newman again typically provides a litany of concrete, historical example for us to make the proper induction — “Adam fell in a moment; Abraham was justified upon his seizing the knife; Moses lost Canaan for a word; David said, “I have sinned,” and was forgiven; Solomon gained wisdom in a dream; Peter made one confession and received the keys; our Lord baffled Satan in three sentences; He redeemed us in the course of a day; He regenerates us by a form of words.” And perhaps alluding to St. Paul or St. Augustine he concludes thusly:  “To men in sleep, in drowning, or in excitement, moments are as years. They suddenly become other men, nature or grace dispensing with time.”

The work of time is paired with the transforming instant of grace.

Third, Newman reflects upon our sinfulness as a reason why we would “shrink from Christ’s coming.” But more time will not fully clear that gap between our sinfulness and the Holy One. “Be sure that the longer you live, and the holier you become, you will only perceive that misery more clearly.”  Face it now, face it tomorrow — “To the end of the longest life you are still a beginner.” What then? Must we get bogged down in despair or distraction? No, “What Christ asks of you is not sinlessness, but diligence.”

Sinfulness is paired with diligence, which is love.

And that love will seek in the present what work, what service the Lord presently requires of us. Newman eloquently says “You cannot elude your destiny, you cannot get rid of your talent; you are to answer for your opportunities, whatever they may be, not more nor less.” Answer for your opportunities. As we recall his famous prayer — “God has given me some work to do.”

And to know that work, to be ready for that work, and trough that work come to please Him, we must pray always. Advent should be about intensified prayer.

Consider what it is you mean by praying, and you will see that, at that very time that you are asking for the coming of His kingdom, you are anticipating that coming, and accomplishing the thing you fear. When you pray, you come into His presence. Now reflect on yourself, what your feelings are in coming. They are these: you seem to say,—I am in myself nothing but a sinner, a man of unclean lips and earthly heart. I am not worthy to enter into His presence. I am not worthy of the least of all His mercies. I know He is All-holy, yet I come before Him; I place myself under His pure and piercing eyes, which look me through and through, and discern every trace and every motion of evil within me.

Prayer embodies the paradoxes of Christian life and the paradoxes of the hope of Advent. “We shall then come before Him, as now we come to pray—with profound abasement, with awe, with self-renunciation, still as relying upon the Spirit which He has given us, with our faculties about us, with a collected and determined mind, and with hope.”

His hope is sustained by the Holy Spirit: “In that solemn hour we shall have, if we be His, the inward support of His Spirit too, carrying us on towards Him, and ‘witnessing with our spirits that we are the children of God.'”

We are led up to his concluding thoughts — none of this is possible without grace, and he speaks about the His “graciousness influences.” The natural man, the son of Adam, would have no clue or inclination about such prayer. This is the prayer of advent, that Christ come soon, from we naturally shrink. Newman says “He who cannot pray for Christ’s coming, ought not in consistency to pray at all.” Even Augustine would pray, prior to his conversion, grant me chastity, but not yet. It is the action of the Holy Spirit Augustine would acknowledge that led to his conversion and prayer. He was fond of citing Romans 5:5 — “And hope confoundeth not: because the charity of God is poured forth in our hearts, by the Holy Ghost, who is given to us.”

That Spirit is vouchsafed to us here; and if we yield ourselves to His gracious influences, so that He draws up our thoughts and wills to heavenly things, and becomes one with us, He will assuredly be still in us and give us confidence at the Day of Judgment. He will be with us, and strengthen us; and how great His strength is, what mind of man can conceive? Gifted with that supernatural strength, we may be able to lift up our eyes to our Judge when He looks on us, and look on Him in turn, though with deep awe, yet without confusion of face, as if in the consciousness of innocence.

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