On the evening of Good Friday, as on the evening of every Good Friday as far back as I can remember, I was reading from Saint John Henry Newman’s Parochial and Plain Sermons, published by Ignatius Press. (I was surprised and disappointed to learn recently that Baron Friedrich von Hugel, the Catholic spiritual writer of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, found his work depressing, and speculated that for that reason he would never progress beyond “Blessed” John Henry Newman. Flannery O’Connor, incidentally, was among the baron’s many admirers.) Of the several sermons from the collection that I read, all written while he was still an Anglican, one of them in particular struck me. It’s called “Christ’s Privations: a Meditation for Christians,” preached for the Fifth Sunday of Lent.
Here Newman addresses the question, “Why is it, my brethren, that we have so little feeling on the matter [of Christ’s sufferings during His Passion] as we commonly have?… We are not moved when we hear of the bitter passion of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, for us. We neither bewail our sins which caused it, nor have any sympathy with it. We do not suffer with Him. If we come to Church, we hear, and then we go away again; not distressed at all; or if distressed, only for the moment.” In another sermon, “The Crucifixion,” Newman observes that Scripture calls Our Lord a lamb, and invites us to ask ourselves how it is that we who can scarcely bear to read accounts of defenseless and innocent animals—and, indeed, other brutes—suffering cruelties inflicted on them, yet remain unmoved by the horrible sufferings of the Lamb of God Himself.
Among so many other things, Newman was endowed with a penetrating understanding of human psychology that he employed continually and as a matter of course. The answer he gives is simply that “you so little meditate. You do not meditate, and therefore you are not impressed.” And yet, “consider, if Christ thought your salvation worth the great sacrifice of voluntary sufferings for you, should not you think… your own salvation worth the slight sacrifice of learning to meditate upon those sufferings? Can a less thing be asked of you, than, when He has done the work, that you should only have to believe in it and accept it?”
What Newman is calling us to do is to enter, naturally and spontaneously, into the Passion with the imaginative and emotional completeness of a great actor whose theatrical role has fully taken possession of him—not indeed the role of Christ Himself, but that of, say, one of the apostles or holy women. Yet the vast majority of us are not actors, let alone great ones. And, so, Newman recognizes, “we cannot force ourselves into… feeling. We cannot work ourselves up into such feelings; or, if we can, it is better we should not, because it is a working up, which is bad. Deep feeling is but the natural or necessary attendant on a holy heart.” Yet feeling of such depth and poignancy is possible only after frequent and heartfelt meditation, made possible by the almost unconscious habit of meditation.
Newman’s sermon is for me a very personal matter, as I have been so often dismayed by my own failure to enter as I should into the Passion, whether reading it at home or aloud with the congregation during the Sacred Liturgy. I’ve asked myself for some years, Why this inability to feel the compassion I should for Jesus Christ and Him Crucified? I think I have found the very unpleasing and uncomfortable answer.
It is that the historical Passion occurred two millennia ago; that it was over for Christ after three days and three nights; that He then, after an interval of forty days, ascended into Heaven; and that He has been sitting at the right hand of the Father ever since. In other words, He is risen, and He is well. All turned out okay for him, as we say.
This is, of course, a terrible way to think about the events of Holy Week. But I fear it is also a very human one. I wonder whether it occurred also to Saint John Henry Newman, and if he refrained from stating it for fear of suggesting a natural but ignominious excuse for the failure of some of us to respond in feeling as we should to the horrific aspect of the greatest event in the history of the world.
Image: The Crucifixion by Giotto