As a young person at boarding school, St John Henry Newman writes excitedly to his mother eagerly counting down his wooden calendar: “Already in imagination I pay my respects to the mince pies, turkies and other good things of Christmas” (Letters and Diaries I, p10).
In later life Newman recognised that 25th December could be a bitter-sweet occasion. He consoles a group of religious sisters, whose superior was critically ill, by comparing the “nimbus glow” of holiness shining around the crib, with the foretaste of heavenly glory.
Newman’s diaries describe his own painful experiences of the day of Christ’s birth, either by being alone, or full of anxiety anticipating the Achilli legal case or mourning the loss of his close friend Sr Pia. His sermons echo the emotional roller coaster that the preparations for the festive season can bring.
His words are especially poignant given the circumstances of the current pandemic. In ‘Remembrance of Past Mercies’ (Parochial and Plain Sermons V, 6) Newman encourages us to identify the ways God has helped us, by looking back at key recent events and seeing his guiding hand. This process will reassure us in the present and for the future.
‘The Lapse of Time’ (PPS VII, 1) continues this reflective theme, as the end of the year approaches while ‘Religious Joy’ (PPS VIII, 17) celebrates Jesus’ coming because it “over powers and sweeps away the vexations of life by its own richness and strength and which above all things unites us to Him who is the fountain and the centre of all mercy (and) loving kindness…”. Accordingly, Newman invites us to “pray (to) Him to give us a spirit of ever-abundant ever- springing love.”