To Watch for Christ: John Henry Newman

From “Watching,” in Parochial and Plain Sermons, Volume 4. (1837). 

“Our Savior gave this warning when he was leaving this world  leaving it, that is, as far as his visible presence is concerned.  He looked forward to the many hundred years which were to pass before he came again. He knew his own purpose and his Father’s purpose gradually to leave the world to itself, gradually to withdraw from it the tokens of his gracious presence.  He contemplated, as contemplating all things, the neglect of him which would spread even among his professed followers; the daring disobedience, and the loud words, which would be ventured against him and his Father by many whom he had regenerated: and the coldness, cowardice, and tolerance of error which would be displayed by others, who did not go so far as to speak or to act against him.  He foresaw the state of the world and the church, as we see it this day, when his prolonged absence has made it practically thought, that he never will come back in visible presence: and in the text, he mercifully whispers into our ears, not to trust in what we see, not to share in that general unbelief, not to be carried away by the world, but to “take heed, watch, pray,” and look out for his coming. 

Surely this gracious warning should be ever in our thoughts, being so precise, so solemn, so earnest.  He foretold his first coming, yet he took his church by surprise when he came; much more will he come suddenly the second time, and overtake men, now that he has not measured out the interval before it, as then he did, but left our watchfulness to the keeping of faith and love…..  We are not simply to believe, but to watch; not simply to love, but to watch; not simply to obey, but to watch; to watch for what? for that great event, Christ’s coming….Most of us have a general idea what is meant by believing, fearing, loving, and obeying; but perhaps we do not contemplate or apprehend what is meant by watching…. 

Do you know the feeling in matters of this life, of expecting a friend, expecting him to come, and he delays? Do you know what it is to be in unpleasant company, and to wish for the time to pass away, and the hour strike when you may be at liberty? Do you know what it is to be in anxiety lest something should happen which may happen or may not, or to be in suspense about some important event, which makes your heart beat when you are reminded of it, and of which you think the first thing in the morning? Do you know what it is to have a friend in a distant country, to expect news of him, and to wonder from day to day what he is now doing, and whether he is well?… To watch for Christ is a feeling such as all these; as far as feelings of this world are fit to shadow out those of another.  He watches for Christ who has a sensitive, eager, apprehensive mind; who is awake, alive, quick-sighted, zealous in seeking and honoring him; who looks out for him in all that happens, and who would not be surprised, who would not be over-agitated or overwhelmed, if he found that he was coming at once. 

And he watches with Christ, who, while he looks on to the future, looks back on the past, and does not so contemplate what his Savior has purchased for him, as to forget what he has suffered for him. He watches with Christ, who commemorates and renews in his own person Christ’s cross and agony, and gladly takes up that mantle of affliction which Christ wore here and left behind him when he ascended.  Hence in the epistles, the inspired writers often show their desire for his second coming just as they often show their memory of his first coming and never lose sight of his crucifixion in his resurrection.  

Thus as St. Paul reminds the Romans that they “wait for the redemption of the body” at the Last Day, so too he also says, “If we suffer with him, then we may also be glorified together, Rom 8:17-28.  He speaks to the Corinthians of “waiting for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ,” but also he speaks of “always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body, 1 Cor 1:7, 2 Cor 4: 10.  Writing to the Philippians of “the power of his resurrection,” Paul adds at once “and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death, Phil 3:10 Paul consoles the Colossians with the hope “when Christ shall appear,” of their “appearing with him in glory,” he has already declared that he “fills up that which remains of the afflictions of Christ in his flesh for his body’s sake, which is the Church,” Col 3:4, 1:24.  Therefore the thought of what Christ is must not obliterate from the mind the thought of what he was; and faith is always sorrowing with him while it rejoices. And the same union of opposite thoughts is impressed on us in Holy Communion, in which we see Christ’s death and resurrection together, at one and the same time; we commemorate the one, we rejoice in the other; we make an offering, and we gain a blessing…. 

Christ warns his disciples of the danger of having their minds drawn off from the thought of him by whatever cause.  He warns them against all excitements, all allurements of this world.  He solemnly warns them that the world will not be prepared for his coming, and he tenderly asks them not to take their portion with the world.  He warns them by the instance of the rich man whose soul was required, of the servant who ate and drank, and of the foolish virgins.  When he comes, they will one and all want time; their heads will be confused, their eyes will swim, their tongues falter, their limbs totter, as men who are suddenly awakened.  They will not all at once collect their senses and faculties.  O fearful thought!  The bridal train is sweeping by.  Angels are there.  The just made perfect are there.  Little childrenholy teacherswhite-robed saints, and martyrs washed in blood.  The marriage of the Lamb is come, and his wife hath made herself ready.  She has already attired herself: while we have been sleeping, she has been robing; she has been adding jewel to jewel, and grace to grace; she has been gathering in her chosen ones, one by one, and has been exercising them in holiness, and purifying them for her Lord; and now her marriage hour is come. The holy Jerusalem is descending and a loud voice proclaims, “Behold, the bridegroom comes; go out to meet him!”  But we, alas, are but dazzled with the blaze of light, and neither welcome the sound, nor obey it.  And all for what?  What shall we have gained then?  What will this world have then done for us?…. Year passes after year silently.  Christ’s coming is ever nearer than it was.  O that, as he comes nearer, we may approach nearer heaven! O, my brothers and sisters, pray to Christ to give you the heart to seek him in sincerity.”

John Henry Newman (1801-1890) was among the most widely influential English theologians of the nineteenth century. One of the principal leaders of Anglicanism’s Catholic revival at Oxford in the 1830’s, he became a Roman Catholic in 1845, and was an Oratorian for the remainder of his life. He was made a cardinal shortly before his death and was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church in 2019. His Parochial and Plain Sermons, first published in 1834, were written in his years as an Anglican priest, while serving as vicar of Oxford’s Church of Saint Mary the Virgin. He is commemorated on August 11 on the calendars of several Anglican churches and on October 9 by the Roman Catholic Church.


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