Cardinal John Henry Newman, whose beatification we look forward to this year, preached a number of sermons on the theme of Lent.
He never resorted to platitudes or mere exhortation. He wove beautiful, powerful gems from scripture with his own keen insights into the human heart and produced masterpieces of preaching and prose.
He spoke and wrote very much heart to heart, one to one and person to person. His grasp of language and his insight into the mystery of Christ, offered a compelling and powerful presentation of the central truths of our faith. We invite you to ponder his insight into the Face of Christ and the Cross of Christ.
The Face of Christ
I see the figure of a man, whether young or old I cannot tell. He may be fifty or he may be thirty. Sometimes he looks one, sometimes the other. There is something inexpressible about his face which I cannot solve. Perhaps, as he bears all burdens, he bears that of old age too. But so it is; his face is at once most venerable, yet most childlike, most calm, most sweet, most modest, beaming with sanctity and with loving kindness. His eyes rivet me and move my heart. His breath is all fragrant, and transports me out of myself. Oh, I will look upon that face forever, and will not cease.
And I see suddenly someone come to him, and raise his hand and sharply strike him on that heavenly face. It is a hard hand, the hand of a rude man, and perhaps has iron upon it. It could not be so sudden as to take him by surprise who knows all things past and future, and he shows no sign of resentment, remaining calm and grave as before; but the expression of his face is marred; a great wheal arises, and in a little time that all-gracious face is hid from me by the effects of this indignity, as if a cloud came over it.
A hand was lifted up against the face of Christ. Whose hand was that? My conscience tells me: ‘thou art the man.’ I trust it is not so with me now. But, O my soul, contemplate the awful fact. Fancy Christ before thee, and fancy thyself lifting up thy hand and striking him! Thou wilt say, ‘It is impossible: I could not do so.’ Yes, thou hast done so. When thou dist sin wilfully, then thou hast done so. He is beyond pain now: still thou hast struck him, and had it been in the days of his flesh, he would have felt pain. Turn back in memory, and recollect the time, the day, the hour, when by wilful mortal sin, by scoffing at sacred things, or by profaneness, or by dark hatred of this thy Brother, or by acts of impurity, or by deliberate rejection of God’s voice, or in any other devilish way known to thee, thou hast struck the All-holy One.
O injured Lord, what can I say? I am very guilty concerning thee, my brother; and I shall sink in sullen despair if thou dost not raise me. I cannot look on thee; I shrink from thee; I throw my arms round my face; I crouch to the earth. Satan will pull me down if thou take not pity. It is terrible to turn to thee; but oh turn thou me, and so shall I be turned. It is a purgatory to endure the sight of thee, the sight of myself – I most vile, thou most holy. Yet make me look once more on thee whom I have so incomprehensibly affronted, for thy countenance is my only life, my only hope and health lies in looking on thee whom I have pierced. So I put myself before thee; I look on thee again; I endure the pain in order to the purification.
O my God, how can I look thee in the face when I think of my ingratitude, so deeply seated, so habitual, so immovable – or rather so awfully increasing! Thou loudest me day by day with thy favours, and feedest me with thyself, as thou didst Judas, yet I not only do not profit thereby, but I do not even make any acknowledgment at the time. Lord, how long? When shall I be free from this real, this fatal captivity? He who made Judas his prey, has got foothold of me in my old age, and I cannot get loose. It is the same day after day. When wilt thou give me a still greater grace than thou has given, the grace to profit by the graces which thou givest? When wilt thou give me thy effectual grace which alone can give life and vigour to this effete, miserable, dying soul of mine? My God, I know not in what sense I can pain thee in thy glorified state; but I know that every fresh sin, every fresh ingratitude I now commit, was among the blows and stripes which once fell on thee in thy passion. O let me have as little share in those thy past sufferings as possible. Day by day goes, and I find I have been more and more, by the new sins of each day, the cause of them. I know that at best I have a real share in solido of them all, but still it is shocking to find myself having a greater and greater share. Let others wound thee – let not me. Let not me have to think that thou wouldest have had this or that pang of soul or body the less, except for me. O my God, I am so fast in prison that I cannot get out. O Mary, pray for me. O Philip, pray for me, though I do not deserve thy pity.
The Cross of Christ
It is the death of the Eternal Word of God made flesh, which is our great lesson how to think and how to speak of this world. His Cross has put its due value upon everything which we see, upon all fortunes, all advantages, all ranks, all dignities, all pleasures; upon the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. It has set a price upon the excitements, the rivalries, the hopes, the fears, the desires, the efforts, the triumphs of mortal man. It has given a meaning to the various, shifting course, the trials, the temptations, the sufferings, of his earthly state. It has brought together and made consistent all that seemed discordant and aimless. It has taught us how to live, how to use this world, what to expect, what to desire, what to hope. It is the tone into which all the strains of this world’s music are ultimately to be resolved.
Look around, and see what the world presents of high and low. Go to the court of princes. See the treasure and skill of all nations brought together to honour a child of man. Observe the prostration of the many before the few. Consider the form and ceremonial, the pomp, the state, the circumstance; and the vainglory. Do you wish to know the worth of it all? Look at the Cross of Christ.
Go to the political world: see nation jealous of nation, trade rivalling trade, armies and fleets matched against each other. Survey the various ranks of the community, its parties and their contests, the strivings of the ambitious, the intrigues of the crafty. What is the end of all this turmoil? The grave. What is the measure? The Cross.
Go, again to the world of intellect and science: consider the wonderful discoveries which the human mind is making, the variety of arts to which its discoveries give rise, the all but miracles by which it shows its power; and next, the pride and confidence of reason, and the absorbing devotion of thought to transitory objects, which is the consequence. Would you form a right judgment of all this? Look at the Cross.
Again: look at misery, look at poverty and destitution, look at oppression and captivity; go where food is scanty, and lodging unhealthy. Consider pain and suffering, diseases long or violent, all that is frightful and revolting. Would you know how to rate all these? Gaze upon the Cross.
Thus in the Cross, and him who hung upon it, all things meet; all things subserve it, all things need it. It is their centre and their interpretation. For he was lifted up upon it, that he might draw all men and all things unto him.