Newman: “so creeps on this feeble weary world”

Newman: "so creeps on this feeble weary world"

For the past two years ago I made some posts on ‘s sermons. He delivered four sermons for advent, found in volume V of the Parochial and Plain Sermons. My first post may be found here. Or the reader may look at the labels below to the right and click on Advent to find all four of my posts on Newman’s meditations on Advent. I have recently discovered another sermon, although delivered on Ascension, that proves valuable for Advent meditation. It is entitled “ for Christ” in Volume VI, number 17, found here. It could serve as a culmination of his advent meditations. It matches well, and in fact cites, the gospel from the first Sunday of Advent, Luke 21.25ff — Our Lord speaks of the signs of the end times and bids us to stand erect. We should “Be vigilant at all times” — Advent is the time to watch and wait. In this sermon on waiting Newman reflects upon the fact that Christians, who say they are waiting for Christ, and often have though his return to occur in their lifetime were disappointed. So he states: “Now it may be objected that this is a kind of paradox; how is it possible, it may be asked, ever to be expecting what has so long been delayed? What has been so long coming, may be longer still.” 

Newman explains why it is indeed proper to wait and watch for Christ, expecting his return soon, if not very soon. It is neither superstitious nor simple minded. Here is why.

First, we are warned to be vigilant and to wait and watch. This is in part because we must be looking out, and not asleep as is the world. “If it be true that Christians have expected Him when He did not come, it is quite as true that when He does come, the world will not expect Him.” The enemies of Christ think that the Church is foolish and that it must come to an end, i.e., the the signs of the times (“current trends and opinion”) favor its abolishment and failure. “So it is, undeterred by the failure of former anticipations, unbelievers are ever expecting that the Church and the religion of the Church are coming to an end.” They seem strong, and the Church seems weak. But Newman reminds his listeners that the Church has always made its conquests and done great works in “weakness and in fear and trembling,” and it seems to be “always failing, yet always continuing.” Thus it is no paradox, he says, “that it has lasted eighteen hundred years, that it may last many years more, and yet that it draws to an end, nay, is likely to end any day. And God would have us give our minds and hearts to the latter side of the alternative, to open them to impressions from this side, viz. that the end is coming;—it being a wholesome thing to live as if that will come in our day, which may come any day.”

We stand at the brink of the second coming, and every time is equally close to it. “Christ is ever at our doors,” as near now as years ago. For “soon” designates an order of things; according to St Paul, the present distress is close upon the next world, and resolves into it. “As when a man is given over, he may die any moment, yet lingers; as an implement of war may any moment explode, and must at some time; as we listen for a clock to strike, and at length it surprises us; as a crumbling arch hangs, we know not how, and is not safe to pass under; so creeps on this feeble weary world, and one day, before we know where we are, it will end.”

We best be watching.

Second, the disappointment in reading the signs of the times for his imminent return is not a product of superstition but something else, love and reverence — “Whether credulous or not, they only acted as one acts towards some person beloved, or revered, or admired on earth.” Look to the heart, Newman advises, look to the heart:

Consider the mode in which loyal persons look up to a good prince; you will find stories current, up and down the country, in his favour; people delight in believing that they have fallen in with tokens of his beneficence, nobleness, and paternal kindness. Many of these reports are false, yet others are true, and, on the whole, we should not think highly of that man who, instead of being touched at this mutual sympathy between sovereign and people, occupied himself merely in carping at what he called their credulity, and sifting the accuracy of this or that particular story. A great thing, truly, after all, to be able to detect a few misstatements, and to expose a few fictions, and to be without a heart! And forsooth, on the other hand, a sad deficiency in that people, I suppose, merely to be right on the whole, not in every particular, and to have the heart right! Who would envy such a man’s knowledge? who would not rather have that people’s ignorance? And, in like manner, I had rather be he, who, from love of Christ and want of science, thinks some strange sight in the sky, comet or meteor, to be the sign of His coming, than the man, who, from more knowledge and from lack of love, laughs at the mistake.

 Should we live in love, or should we join the scoffers and the teachers of despair? W. H. Auden in Atlantis, speaks of the “witty scholars, men
Who have proved there cannot be
Such a place as Atlantis.” He says we should notice how their logic “subtlety betrays
Their enormous simple grief.” But to live in hope and in love — the Christians keep “their hearts awake for Christ.” 

Finally, we learn from Newman that “Scripture sanctions us in interpreting all that we see in the world in a religious sense, and as if all things were tokens and revelations of Christ, His Providence, and will.” God’s providence and care pervades every thing, however small, however grand, and of this all Christians should be assured and have some experience:

Religious men cannot but feel, in various ways, that His providence is guiding them and blessing them personally, on the whole; yet when they attempt to put their finger upon the times and places, the traces of His presence disappear. Who is there, for instance, but has been favoured with answers to prayer, such that, at the time, he has felt he never could again be unbelieving? Who has not had strange coincidences in his course of life which brought before him, in an overpowering way, the hand of God? Who has not had thoughts come upon him with a sort of mysterious force, for his warning or his direction? . . . the vastness and mystery of the world being borne in upon us, we may well begin to think that there is nothing here below, but, for what we know has a connexion with every thing else; the most distant events may yet be united, the meanest and highest may be parts of one; and God may be teaching us and offering us knowledge of His ways, if we will but open our eyes, in all the ordinary matters of the day. This is what thoughtful persons come to believe, and they begin to have a sort of faith in the Divine meaning of the accidents (as they are called) of life, and a readiness to take impressions from them, which may easily become excessive, and which, whether excessive or not, is sure to be ridiculed by the world at large as superstition. Yet, considering Scripture tells us that the very hairs of our head are all numbered by God, that all things are ours, and that all things work together for our good, it does certainly encourage us in thus looking out for His presence in every thing that happens.

From these two points, which he elaborates upon with great care, Newman confirms that Christians should be waiting for Christ to return at any time. Soon. Today.

Newman then rolls around to a magnificent conclusion, encouraging all Christians in their waiting and watching, and we say this December, especially during Advent:

He knows that God’s Angels are about the earth. He knows that once they were even used to come in human shape. He knows that the Son of God, ere now, has come on earth. He knows that He promised to His Church the presence of a miraculous agency, and has never recalled His promise. Again, he reads, in the Book of the Revelation, quite enough, not to show him what is coming, but to show him that now, as heretofore, a secret supernatural system is going on under this visible scene. And therefore he looks out for Christ, for His present providences, and for His coming; and though often deceived in his expectation, and fancying wonderful things are coming on the earth, when they still delay, he uses, and comforts him with the Prophet’s words, “I will stand upon my watch, and set me upon the tower, and will watch to see what He will say unto me, and what I shall answer when I am reproved. And the Lord answered me … The vision is yet for an appointed time, but at the end it shall speak and not lie; though it tarry, wait for it, because it will surely come, it will not tarry. Behold, his soul, which is lifted up, is not upright in him; but the just shall live by his faith.” [Hab. ii. 1-4.]

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