This essay originally appeared in the October 1998 edition of Crisis Magazine.
In the Fifth Sermon, entitled “Equanimity,” in the fifth book of his Parochial Sermons, delivered mostly in the 1830s, Newman speaks of the preparation for Christmas. Sometimes in Scripture, Newman points out, Christ’s coming seems a fearful thing. A “holy” fear or the “fear of the Lord,” no doubt, has its useful place, not only in a negative sense, but as our witness to, our awareness of, the divine majesty before which we stand in creation and redemption—“that awful subject, the coming of Christ.”
Yet, if we look especially at St. Paul, Newman recalls, we do not find him often telling us to fear. Rather he encourages us to “rejoice,” to be “thankful, to be “moderate,” to be at “peace.” Thus, Newman adds, “it may be useful to show that the thought of Christ’s coming leads not only to fear, but to a calm and cheerful frame of mind.” We cannot forget that classic Christian writings are “comedies,” not tragedies. In the end, there is light, light and life, our life, the divine light.
We live in a time of much public and private corruption. Many insist, even when kingdoms are in turmoil because of it, that what is called “sinful” in Scripture and morally “disordered” in the philosophic tracts means little personally with no public scope. We have heard too little from our moral teachers about the sins we all need repeatedly to be defined for us.
“St. Paul enjoins us not to sin. When St. Paul warns us against sadness and heaviness,” Newman observes,
of course he warns us against those things which make men sad and heavy; and therefore especially against sin, which is an especial enemy of joyfulness. It is not that sorrowing for sin is wrong when we have sinned, but the sinning is wrong which causes the sorrowing. When a person has sinned, he cannot do anything better than sorrow. He ought to sorrow; and so far as he does sorrow, he is certainly not in the perfect Christian state; but it is his sin that has forfeited it. If we are not in “the perfect Christian state,” it is our sin, not something else, that caused it. Sin is the enemy of precisely “joyfulness.”
Newman surveys his age. We see that the roots of our disorders are implanted long before our era, in ideas that live on among us:
In this day especially it is very easy for men to be benevolent, liberal, and dispassionate. It costs nothing to be dispassionate when you feel nothing, to be cheerful when you have nothing to fear, to be generous or liberal when what you give is not your own, and to be benevolent and considerate when you have no principles and no opinions. Men nowadays are moderate and equitable, not because the Lord is at hand, but because they do not feel that He is coming.
We have here the very principles of modernity. Modern democratic culture is founded on nothing. Having “no principles and no opinions” is the presupposition of tolerance, the theory on which our political systems are now said to be built. If we do not “feel” the Lord is coming, there is no fear of the Lord. There are no standards but those we give to ourselves. “It costs nothing to be dispassionate when you feel nothing.” What a strikingly contemporary sentence that is!
Newman wanted to depict the condition of the Christian awareness of the coming of Christ into the world. We recall the words of John Paul II when he first was elected to the papacy—“be not afraid,” powerful words echoing the Angel’s words to Mary. Newman himself was quite astonished that a volatile character like St. Paul should have given us a view of the Lord’s coming as a thing of “cheer” and calmness.
St. Paul draws “a picture of the Christian character as free from excitement and effort, as full of repose, as still and as equable, as if the great Apostle wrote in some monastery of the desert or some country parsonage. Here surely is the finger of God; here is the evidence of supernatural influences making the mind of man independent of circumstances!” At Christmas, at the coming of the Lord into the world as a Child, we again realize that, whatever else goes on the world, it is already redeemed. We need not be afraid. We need to sorrow for all the sins and disorders of our time, beginning with our own, knowing their cause. But, in the end, because of the Incarnation, we can face them, to greet what is in creation, with “a calm and cheerful state of mind.”