Sunday, 29 November 2009

Newman on the Coming of Christ

We too are looking out for Christ's coming,—we are bid look out,—we are bid pray for it; and yet it is to be a time of judgment. It is to be the deliverance of all Saints from sin and sorrow for ever; yet they, every one of them, must undergo an awful trial. How then can any look forward to it with joy, not knowing (for no one knows) the certainty of his own salvation? And the difficulty is increased when we come to pray for it,—to pray for its coming soon: how can we pray that Christ would come, that the day of judgment would hasten, that His kingdom would come, that His kingdom may be at once,—may come on us this day or tomorrow,—when by so coming He would be shortening the time of our present life, and cut off those precious years given us for conversion, amendment, repentance and sanctification? Is there not an inconsistency in professing to wish our Judge already come, when we do not feel ourselves ready for Him? In what sense can we really and heartily pray that He would cut short the time, when our conscience tells us that, even were our life longest, we should have much to do in a few years?

These opposite duties of fearing yet praying to have the sight of Christ are not necessarily inconsistent with each other. Why we should fear it, is not strange. Surely when a man gets himself steadily to contemplate a state of things beyond this life, he is in the way to be overpowered by the thoughts which throng upon him. How dreadful to the imagination is every scene of that unknown hereafter!

When we pray for the coming of Christ, we do but pray in the Church's words, that He would "accomplish the number of his elect and would hasten His kingdom." That is, we do not pray that He would simply cut short the world, but... that He would make time go quicker, and the wheels of His chariot speed on. Before He comes, a certain space must be gone over; all the Saints must be gathered in; and each Saint must be matured. Not a grain must fall to the ground; not an ear of corn must lose its due rain and sunshine. All we pray is, that He would please to crowd all this into a short space of time; that He would "finish the work and cut it short in righteousness," and "make a short work upon the earth;" that He would accomplish,—not curtail, but fulfil,—the circle of His Saints, and hasten the age to come without disordering this.

I have spoken of coming to God in prayer generally; but if this is awful, much more is coming to Him in the Sacrament of Holy Communion; for this is in very form an anticipation of His coming, a near presence of Him in earnest of it. And a number of men feel it to be so; for, for one reason or another, they never come before Him in that most Holy Ordinance, and so deprive themselves of the highest of blessings here below. Thus their feeling is much the same as theirs would be, who from fear of His coming, did not dare look out for it. They indeed who are in the religious practice of communicating, understand well enough how it is possible to feel afraid and yet to come. Surely it is possible, and the case is the same as regards the future day of Christ. You must tremble, and yet pray for it. We have all of us experienced enough even of this life, to know that the same seasons are often most joyful and also most painful. The joy does not change the grief, nor the grief the joy, into some third feeling; they are incommunicable with each other, both remain, both affect us.

Or consider the mingled feelings with which a son obtains forgiveness of a father,—the soothing thought that all displeasure is at an end, the veneration, the love, and all the undescribable emotions, most pleasurable, which cannot be put into words,—yet his bitterness against himself. Such is the temper in which we desire to come to the Lord's table; such in which we must pray for His coming; such in which His elect will stand before Him when He comes.

A slab of Cardinal Newman! Preached in his Anglican days. Advent is both a joy and a mystery. Waiting yet also trembling. Properly observed, there is a solemnity to this season, which while it lacks the austerity and even rigour of Lent, also calls us to a reflectiveness which is quite different in feel from the Lenten season. The reflectiveness springs in part from the thought of the last things and in part from the closing of the calendar year. We muse and consider both endings and beginings, hopes for the future and sorrow for that which is past. And we reflect (hopefully) with a sense of thankfullness and anticipation. Newman knew well that sense of mixed feelings: his parting from the old security of life as an Anglican Oxford Don into the new adventure of life as a Roman Catholic Oratorian. The pain of leaving friends like Keble and Pusey as he followed God's call and his destiny. He is a good and honest companion on the journey and his words still ring true.

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