Nine Days with St. John Henry Newman – Day 5

Day 5 – Hidden Things

It is the death of the Eternal Word of God made flesh, which is our great lesson on how to think and how to speak of this world. His Cross has put its due value upon every thing 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.

(John Henry Newman, Sermon: The Cross of Christ the Measure of the World)

What is the key to understanding the state of the world and our place in it? This was the question John Henry Newman asked in a Lenten sermon on April 9th, 1841. All these years later, his answer is as relevant now as it was when he first delivered it.

The answer, he proclaims, is “the Crucifixion of the Son of God.” 

If we wish to understand the corridors of power, the political realm, the nations battling in war or trade, the ranks of the community, the factions, the ambitions, the vanities, and all the other characteristics of a world that will ultimately end in the grave, look to the Cross of Christ.

If we want to form a right judgement of “the world of intellect and science” and all 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” we must look at the Cross.

If we want a proper perspective on all the misery, poverty, destitution, oppression and captivity of the world. If we “[c]onsider pain and suffering, diseases long or violent, all that is frightful and revolting,” Newman says. “Gaze upon the Cross.”

Why?

In the Cross and the One who hung upon it, “all things meet; all things subserve it, all things need it. It is their center and their interpretation. For He was lifted up upon it, that He might draw all men and all things unto Him.”

It sounds simple, too easy. Look upon the Cross. But Newman didn’t present his statement as a mere catchphrase. To look upon the Cross means we must make an important distinction between the reality of the Cross of Christ and the reality of the world. On the surface, the Cross tends to make the world look particularly gloomy. The world, on the other hand, casts something “far more bright and sunny.” The world, according to Newman, “seems made for the enjoyment of just such a being as man.” And why not? We, as humans, have “the capacity of enjoyment, and the world supplies the means.” 

It’s easy to take the world and its pleasures as a kind of philosophy. On the surface, it makes sense. And what a contrast that is from the message of the Cross. “The doctrine of the Cross, it may be said, disarranges two parts of a system which seem made for each other; it severs the fruit from the eater, the enjoyment from the enjoyer.” 

Newman’s choice of words is no accident. He reminds us that Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, desired forbidden fruit – something that, on the surface, seemed wonderful. Little has changed. “The world, at first sight, appears made for pleasure, and the vision of Christ’s Cross is a solemn and sorrowful sight interfering with this appearance… But again; it is but a superficial view of things to say that this life is made for pleasure and happiness. To those who look under the surface, it tells a very different tale.” 

The doctrine of the Cross exposes the superficial view for what it is: “The world is sweet to the lips, but bitter to the taste. It pleases at first, but not at last. It looks gay on the outside, but evil and misery lie concealed within… all is disappointment; all is sorrow; all is pain.”

The Cross of Christ begins with sorrow and pain. It “bids us grieve for our sins in the midst of all that smiles and glitters around us.” If we don’t, “we shall experience it to be miserable by the recoil of those sins upon ourselves.”

This is why we have to look beyond the surface of a world that appears bright. “The Cross is not on the surface of the world,” states Newman. “[T]he Cross is sorrowful; it is a hidden doctrine; it lies under a veil; it at first sight startles us, and we are tempted to revolt from it.” 

To understand the truth of the Cross, we must look “in the depths,” where it is concealed, hidden deep. Even in the confines of a faithful heart that has received the truth, it abides as a secret living principle, not something to be displayed superficially. That’s why Jesus commanded the disciples to anoint their heads and wash their faces when they fast. “Thus they are bound not to make a display, but ever to be content to look outwardly different from what they are really inwardly. They are to carry a cheerful countenance with them, and to control and regulate their feelings, that those feelings, by not being expended on the surface, may retire deep into their hearts and there live.” 

Jesus Christ himself is, “as the Apostle tells us, ‘a hidden wisdom’ — hidden in the world, hidden in the faithful soul” in such a way that, on the surface, believers seem “to be living but an ordinary life,” but are really “in secret holding communion with Him who was ‘manifested in the flesh,’ ‘crucified through weakness,’ ‘justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, and received up into glory.’”

That being the case, Newman says, “the great and awful doctrine of the Cross of Christ” may rightfully be called “the heart of religion.” Just as the heart sustains us, the “sacred doctrine of Christ’s Atoning Sacrifice is the vital principle on which the Christian lives, and without which Christianity is not.” Every other doctrine is unhelpful without it. And yet, every other doctrine is encompassed in it. “[T]he sacred doctrine of the Atoning Sacrifice is not one to be talked of, but to be lived upon; not to be put forth irreverently, but to be adored secretly; not to be used as a necessary instrument in the conversion of the ungodly, or for the satisfaction of reasoners of this world, but to be unfolded to the docile and obedient; to young children, whom the world has not corrupted; to the sorrowful, who need comfort; to the sincere and earnest, who need a rule of life; to the innocent, who need warning; and to the established, who have earned the knowledge of it.”

The Cross of Christ, the very Gospel itself, “hinders us indeed from taking a superficial view… [I]t forbids our immediate enjoyment, only to grant enjoyment in truth and fulness afterwards. It only forbids us to begin with enjoyment. It only says, ‘If you begin with pleasure, you will end with pain.’ It bids us begin with the Cross of Christ, and in that Cross we shall at first find sorrow but, in a while, peace and comfort will rise out of that sorrow. That Cross will lead us to mourning, repentance, humiliation, prayer, fasting; we shall sorrow for our sins, we shall sorrow with Christ’s sufferings; but all this sorrow will only issue, nay, will be undergone in a happiness far greater than the enjoyment which the world gives…”

And this is where Newman reminds us of an essential truth. “[A]ll that is bright and beautiful, even on the surface of this world, though it has no substance… is a figure and promise of that true joy which issues out of the Atonement.” The Cross of Christ “is a promise beforehand of what is to be: it is a shadow, raising hope because the substance is to follow.”

This is “God’s usual mode of dealing with us,” Newman states. “In mercy to send the shadow before the substance, that we may take comfort in what is to be, before it comes.” Think of Jesus and His triumphal entry into Jerusalem before His Passion. It was a “vain and hollow pageant” that Jesus could not take pleasure in, since “the Passion had not been undergone by which His true triumph was wrought out.” 

That’s how we are to think of the world. Don’t trust its superficial enjoyments. Don’t give our hearts to it. Don’t begin with its illusions of pleasure and fulfillment. “Let us begin with faith; let us begin with Christ; let us begin with His Cross and the humiliation to which it leads. Let us first be drawn to Him who is lifted up, that so He may, with Himself, freely give us all things. Let us ‘seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,’ and then all those things of this world ‘will be added to us.’ They alone are able truly to enjoy this world, who begin with the world unseen. They alone enjoy it, who have first abstained from it. They alone can truly feast, who have first fasted; they alone are able to use the world, who have learned not to abuse it; they alone inherit it, who take it as a shadow of the world to come, and who for that world to come relinquish it.”

PRAYER

God help us to see the world as it truly is, and not as it appears to be. God help us to see the Cross of Christ, not as it appears to be, but as it truly is. Give me the eyes to see myself and others in the light of the Cross, as an expression of Your love, as the hope of all mankind. And let my sight be an inspiration, a motivation, to serve You in the sacrificial way Your Son served us. Amen.

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Written by Paul McCusker

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