Newman on John the Baptist

There is a new rich source for understanding Newman, John Henry Newman: Sermons 1824-1843, three volumes, edited by Francis J McGrath FMS and Placid Murray, OSB (Oxford 2010). These papers consists of bundles of pre-conversion sermons that Newman kept in his room at the oratory. In Volume III one may find some notes and fragments on John the Baptist. The sermon was written in 1830, hence Newman was 29 years old. Newman develops an idea we have encountered in Guardini.

Newman notes how strong in character was St John the Baptist — courageous, zealous, devoted. And he was willing to serve without honor or visible results. And he endured the fact that he was “cut off in the midst of [his] days by the savage revenge of a bad woman.”

Then Newman gets straight to the the same passage of scripture as did Guardini — why does St John the Baptist ask about the Messiah while in prison. Newman comments: “Once only, as it appears, his faith gave way for an instant — when shut up in prison, in a time of utter despondency he sent to Christ saying Art thou He? This simple question is enough to show us how great was his trial, and that, though patient to do and suffer God’s will, he had the feelings of other men, though he subdued them.” (27)

So the Baptist is a pattern for us. A pattern for “patient continuance in welldoing under discouragement.” And more — “St John Baptist is the saint of all who are called to serve God in unpleasant and painful situations. We must do our duty in that state of life to which it has pleased Him to call us . . . . faith can make the humblest service acceptable to God, and useful to ourselves and our friends; it goes about its daily duties diligently, thankfully, joyfully — as unto the Lord and not unto men.”

Always ready to venture for faith Newman concludes thusly: “Let us cast our bread upon the waters — (which threaten indeed to swallow it up) but we shall be sure to find at it last, though after many days.” He then adds a stanza from his dear friend John Keble:

The work be thine — the fruit thy children’s part,
Choose to believe, not see — sight tempts the heart
From sober walking in true gospel ways.

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