Another Newman Sermon on Advent: “Reverence – A Belief in God’s Presence”

The third of Newman’s Advent sermons using the passage 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 “Reverence — Belief in Christ’s Presence.” (Find it here)

One of the other sermons stressed the aspect of the land being very far off and the need to be ready for a journey; and the other, stressed the coming of the King and the need to be ready for his judgment. In other words, they emphasized his absence and our anticipation. This sermon stresses the actual presence of God to a man of faith and the response of reverence before such presence. “The words of the Prophet relate to our present state as well as to the state of saints hereafter.” We do get a glimmering of the glory of the Lord; we see through a glass darkly, but we “know in part.” And through the sacraments we receive light and “illumination.”

We have a duty, therefore, of “realizing” the presence of Christ. What does he mean by the “realization” of the presence of God? I take it he means the growing awareness in the believer of the presence of God. Like the “subjective appropriation of truth,” that concerns a Newman or a Kierkegaard, even more vital is the personal disposition towards God, present in sign and mystery, through the expression of “reverence.” Reverence is the response of awe and fear in the presence of the Holy, Almighty One.

And now Newman mounts his “attack upon Christendom.”

It is scarcely too much to say that awe and fear are at the present day all but discarded from religion. Whole societies called Christian make it almost a first principle to disown the duty of reverence; and we ourselves, to whom as children of the Church reverence is as a special inheritance, have very little of it, and do not feel the want of it. Those who, in spite of themselves, are influenced by God’s holy fear, too often are ashamed of it, consider it even as a mark of weakness of mind, hide their feeling as much as they can, and, when ridiculed or censured for it, cannot defend it to themselves on intelligible grounds.

 Newman proceeds to criticize two wings of English Christendom for their lack of reverence. One is the liberal wing, the other, an evangelical wing. Through a comparison and contrast Newman shows how they differ in theology but both eliminate reverence.

These are the two classes of men who are deficient in this respect: first, those who think that they never were greatly under God’s displeasure; next, those who think that, though they once were, they are not at all now for all sin has been forgiven them;—those on the one hand who consider that sin is no great evil in itself, those on the other who consider that it is no great evil in them, because their persons are accepted in Christ for their faith’s sake.

Newman elaborates on both theologies, arguing this way and that way, the details of which you may follow in the sermon itself. Newman knew both positions from within. Early life he was an evangelical, but he began to chaff at how stand pat it was on human nature — predestined as saved or damned. “Calvinism was not a key to the phenomena of human nature as they occur in the world,” he would write  as early as 1825. People waver, struggle, grow — and one cannot know the state of ones soul before God for eternity. As for the more liberal position, Newman absorbed it at Oriel College, yet he found it unreal in its own way. As this sermon indicates, true reverence is a key to human existence “in this world.”

Ironically, both the conservative evangelical and the liberal Oxonian have shed reverence, the godly fear of the Holy One, who is present to the world:  “they agree in is this: in considering God as simply a God of love, not of awe and reverence also,—the one meaning by love benevolence, and the other mercy; and in consequence neither the one nor the other regard Almighty God with fear.”

He gives many instances of the lack of reverence. Read the sermon for the numerous examples, such as, refusal to kneel and distraction at liturgy and glibness about the higher things. One of my favorites is this one: “Another instance of want of fear, is the bold and unscrupulous way in which men speak of the Holy Trinity and the Mystery of the Divine Nature. They use sacred terms and phrases, should occasion occur, in a rude and abrupt way, and discuss points of doctrine concerning the All-holy and Eternal, even (if I may without irreverence state it) over their cups, perhaps arguing against them, as if He were such a one as themselves.” When I heard Diane Sawyer discuss points of the doctrine of the priesthood on early morning TV show over her cup of coffee (she opined that celibacy was not important for priestly life), I knew we had reached a point of extreme lack of reverence. Newman saw that the wings of English Christendom were both deficient in signs of reverence for God and the activities of the Church, even if for opposite reasons: “the one decides them inconsistent with reason, the other with the Gospel; the one calls them superstitious, and the other legal or Jewish.”

The turning point of the sermon must be this passage:

They are the class of feelings we should  have,—yes, have in an intense degree—if we literally had the sight of Almighty God; therefore they are the class of feelings which we shall have, if we realize His presence. In proportion as we believe that He is present, we shall have them; and not to have them, is not to realize, not to believe that He is present. If then it is a duty to feel as though we saw Him, or to have faith, it is a duty to have these feelings; and if it is a sin to be destitute of faith, it is a sin to be without them.

Newman then builds up the case for the connection of reverence or fear before the Lord as a function of faith in his presence, or the “realization of his presence.” He has us consider the eventuality of being in God’s presence — anyone would be afraid. This fear of God is not merely that of a sinner before the judge, but more fundamentally a creature before the creator. And with the specific case of a Christian there is a peculiar mixture of joy and sadness at his departure and anticipation of return. Those “who believe that the Son of God is here, yet away,—is at the right hand of God, yet in His very flesh and blood among us,—is present, though invisible,—is one of both joy and pain, or rather one far above either; a feeling of awe, wonder, and praise, which cannot be more suitably expressed than by the Scripture word fear.” In other words, reverence or “awe, wonder, praise” (or “godly fear,” for short) should be the defining quality of the Christian mode of existence. I would put Newman up with  the philosophers who look to moods such as anxiety or dread as indicators of human existence — why not reverence? Do we fear hypocrisy? or the scorn of the enlightened? Or are we just . . .  well, irreverent? Newman calls us out.

As a brief aside, I took a first interest in this sermon as I read “Teaching in the Spirit of Christian Humanism,” by the late Frank O’Malley, the great teacher at Notre Dame. As he listed out the requirements for teaching in Christ’s College, he said: “I am led to emphasize the need for us to conserve and to develop the virtues of reverence and patience. The attitude of reverence — belief in God’s presence, Newman called it — will keep us from committing acts of aggression against all realities and knowledge and against those whom we would introduce into the mysteries of our realities and knowledges. And out of reverence and respectful recognition of other persons, our students, we will be helped to avoid the dangers of instrumentalization, and depersonalization.” Frank O’Malley of Notre Dame was one of the rare spirits to grasp the import of Newman’s sermons for education.

And to return to Newman’s concluding thoughts in this sermon: “Godly fear must be a duty.” Reverence is a sign of authentic belief, belief in the presence of God. “Fear follows from faith necessarily,” as a matter of reasoned analysis, Newman asserts. And as confirmation, “Scripture abounds in precepts to fear God.” For example,  “Let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear.” Or St. John’s account of the Church triumphant in heaven, “Who shall not fear Thee,” they say, “O Lord, and glorify Thy Name; for Thou only art Holy?” Or think of the three Apostles on the Mount of Transfiguration, who, when they heard God’s voice, “fell on their face, and were sore afraid.” [cf. Prov. i. 7. Hab. ii. 4, 20. Heb. xii. 28. Acts ix. 31. Rev. xv. 4. Matt. xvii. 6.] Thus Newman’s attack on Christendom is wrapped up with a solid claim — “the want of fear [reverence!] is nothing else but want of faith, and that in consequence we in this age are approaching in religious temper that evil day of which it is said, ‘When the Son of Man cometh, shall He find faith on the earth?’ [Luke xviii. 8.]” From the perch of his pulpit, Newman hits the spiritual bull’s eye, again.

Newman does not end on these notes of devastating attack, but with the words of encouragement showing his pastoral concern. He encourages the audience in their acts of reverence, because they are acts of faith. Newman shows his spiritual strength in the roll of his sweet Victorian prose (he repeats “acts of faith” 7 times in one sentence!) in this admonition for advent and for preparation. His last words are “love him.”

To come often to prayer, is an act of faith; to kneel down instead of sitting, is an act of faith; to strive to attend to your prayers, is an act of faith; to behave in God’s House otherwise than you would in a common room, is an act of faith; to come to it on weekdays as well as Sundays, is an act of faith; to come often to the most Holy Sacrament, is an act of faith; and to be still and reverent during that sacred service, is an act of faith. These are all acts of faith, because they all are acts such as we should perform, if we saw and heard Him who is present, though with our bodily eyes we see and hear Him not. But, “blessed are they who have not seen, and yet have believed;” for, be sure, if we thus act, we shall, through God’s grace, be gradually endued with the spirit of His holy fear. We shall in time, in our mode of talking and acting, in our religious services and our daily conduct, manifest, not with constraint and effort, but spontaneously and naturally, that we fear Him while we love him.


Join us!

* indicates required