Waiting for Christ
Meditations for Advent and Christmas
By Blessed John Henry Newman
Edited by Christopher O. Blum
Augustine Institute, 2018
160 pages; $14.95
Believing that it is “better for Newman to be read in part than not at all,” Christopher Blum of the Augustine Institute has excerpted passages primarily from Blessed John Henry Newman’s Anglican Parochial and Plain Sermons for daily readings during the Advent and Christmas seasons, from Nov. 30 through Jan. 6. To remove any obstacles for readers concerned about Newman’s Victorian eloquence, Blum has also shortened some sentences by replacing semicolons with periods; he has also updated spelling and replaced scriptural quotations from the King James Bible with the Revised Standard Version, Second Catholic Edition.
Readers unfamiliar with Newman’s sermons will discover his spiritual depth, devotion to Jesus Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary, and firm belief in the providence of God. Catholics preparing during Advent to celebrate Christmas will benefit from his consistent concern that his flocks, Anglican and Catholic, took their faith seriously, knew and understood what they believe, and lived according to those beliefs. These same goals can provide a framework for our four-week spiritual journey to Bethlehem. In the selection for Dec. 11 from “Unreal Words,” for example, Newman exhorts us:
“Aim at seeing things as God sees them. Aim at forming judgments about persons, events, ranks, fortunes, changes, objects, such as God forms. Aim at looking at this life as God looks at it. Aim at looking at the life to come, and the world unseen, as God does. Aim at ‘seeing the King in his beauty.’ All things that we see are but shadows to us and delusions, unless we enter into what they really mean.”
The closing sentences of “Watching” (Dec. 13) combine in a powerful reminder to prepare for the coming of Christ:
“Life is short. Death is certain. The world to come is everlasting.”
Speak those words aloud — for Newman read these sermons to his congregation — and you will feel the impact.
Editors and compilers of devotional books for liturgical seasons have choices to make about how to select and organize their material. Blum has chosen to use the Sanctoral Calendar, not the Liturgical Calendar; he does not provide readings for the First through Fourth Sundays of Advent, but matches sermons to feasts on many dates: On Dec. 8, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, Blum selects a Catholic homily, “The Glories of Mary for the Sake of Her Son”; on Dec. 26, he offers Newman’s Anglican sermon on “Martyrdom” for the protomartyr St. Stephen. Newman did not know a few of the saints (St. Juan Diego, St. John Neumann and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton were all canonized after Newman’s death), and he did not preach specifically on some that he did know of (St. Ambrose, St. John of Damascus and St. Thomas Becket), but Blum finds appropriate selections nevertheless.
Other sermons address Advent themes of waiting, watching, preparing, repenting of sin, and practicing the virtues of faith, hope and love. The Christmas sermons describe love, joy, gladness, humility and all the ways we should recognize that Jesus has come and how that fact should change us:
“May it be our blessedness, as years go on, to add one grace to another, and advance upward, step by step, neither neglecting the lower after attaining the higher, nor aiming at the higher before attaining the lower. ... May we learn to mature all graces in us: fearing and trembling, watching and repenting, because Christ is coming; joyful, thankful and careless of the future, because he is come” (from “Equanimity”).
Blum does not provide discussion or reflection questions, but, rather, lets Newman’s message inspire and guide us to action and prayer.
He hopes that readers will find the complete sermons and read them as Newman wrote them. To assist readers, Blum should have provided information on where to find the complete sermons: which volume of the Parochial and Plain Sermons the Anglican sermons are published in and which book of collected discourses and homilies the Catholic selections came from. (The online “Newman Reader” of The National Institute for Newman Studies provides a list organized alphabetically by title.) This minor issue, however, does not detract from a book filled with so much wisdom and devotion, the reading of which is especially timely now that a second miracle has reportedly been approved for Blessed John Henry.
Stephanie Mann writes from Wichita, Kansas.