Newman on the Mystery of Christmas

Stained glass, University Church of St Mary the Virgin

I remember when I first started reading Newman in earnest some ten years ago; I read a remark by Fr Ker that Catholics should most of all read the Parochial and Plain Sermons, written when was an Anglican divine, because of their focus upon the moral demands of the gospel and the call to holiness. I would liken the experience of reading each of these sermons to that of an encounter of a magnificent stained glass in a light filled chapel. As each piece sparkles with the light in a distinctive color or shape, so too does each sentence and each paragraph shine with its own peculiar meaning. The heart and mind are illuminated with every turn of the prose. Or better yet, each sermon requires a meditative turn of mind, but Newman’s great gift of writing, and speaking, brings the listening soul along the path of prayer. He now composes a scene and fills out some spiritual consideration and then draws out a resolution for improvement. 

The sermon on Christmas, The Mystery of Godliness (V.7, found here), is a fine example of the power of his sermons. As for the “mystery of godliness, which should be before our minds at all times, ” Christmas is a special time for meditation upon the mystery for we see today that “the Most Holy took upon Him our flesh of ‘a pure Virgin’.” Newman first reminds us of the great holiness and majesty of the second person of the Trinity so that we understand the great condescension of his incarnation as man. He did not come out of the clouds, nor morph himself as some pagan divinity – rather he was born of a Virgin as announced in Isaiah. And as we read in the Gospel, “two separate Angels, one to Mary, one to Joseph, declare who the adorable Agent was, by whom this miracle was wrought.” Newman reviews and states our creed. But then he begins to draw out the profound implications of the creed, for “This is the great Mystery which we are now celebrating, of which mercy is the beginning, and sanctity the end.” With this sentence Newman frames his meditation — Mercy, the beginning, and sanctity the end.
The end, the purpose of the Incarnation, is our redemption and sanctification — “He who is all purity came to an impure race to raise them to His purity. He, the brightness of God’s glory, came in a body of flesh, which was pure and holy as Himself, ‘without spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing, but holy and without blemish;’ and this He did for our sake, ‘that we might be partakers of His holiness.'” It was “to make us partakers of the Divine nature; to sow the seed of eternal life in our hearts; and to raise us from ‘the corruption that is in the world through lust,’ to that immaculate purity and that fullness of grace which is in Him.” Newman would not let us get caught up in sentimentality of the season, but recalls us to the purpose of our religion.
The mercy is to be found in the manner of Christ’s life on earth — his humble manner of life. This too is a mystery of the day. This passage carries us along from the image of this day, the humble birth in Bethlehem, to the ministry along the roads of Israel, so that we catch a glimpse of his great mercy:

He was born of a poor woman, who, when guests were numerous, was thrust aside, and gave birth to Him in a place for cattle. O wondrous mystery, early manifested, that even in birth He refused the world’s welcome! He grew up as the carpenter’s son, without education, so that when He began to teach, His neighbours wondered how one who had not learned letters, and was bred to a humble craft, should become a prophet. He was known as the kinsman and intimate of humble persons; so that the world pointed to them when He declared Himself, as if their insufficiency was the refutation of His claims. He was brought up in a town of low repute, so that even the better sort doubted whether good could come out of it. No; He would not be indebted to this world for comfort, aid, or credit; for “the world was made by Him, and the world knew Him not.” He came to it as a benefactor, not as a guest; not to borrow from it, but to impart to it.

Newman suggests that the very shortness of Christ’s life is a sign of merciful instruction: “He came into the world, and He speedily left the world; as if to teach us how little He Himself, how little we His followers, have to do with the world.” Newman was drawn to the image of lightning as an apt one for the life of Christ. “He came and He went, before men knew that He had come, like the lightning shining from one side of heaven unto the other, as being the beginning of a new and invisible creation.”
So what must be our resolution upon meditating upon the birth in Bethlehem? To abandon the worldly ambition and the natural but noble goal of the development of our  natural faculties, physical, emotional, mental. “Let us come to the Sanctifier to be sanctified. Let us come to Him to learn our duty, and to receive grace to do it.” As Bloy said — there is but one sadness, not to be a saint. 
Newman returns us to the signs of the season: “This is a time for innocence, and purity, and gentleness, and mildness, and contentment, and peace. It is a time in which the whole Church seems decked in white, in her baptismal robe, in the bright and glistering raiment which she wears upon the Holy Mount.” 
And he draws us to a conclusion, both simple and challenging  before he descends from the pulpit: “May each Christmas, as it comes, find us more and more like Him, who as at this time became a little child for our sake, more simple-minded, more humble, more holy, more affectionate, more resigned, more happy, more full of God.”


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