AMAC Exclusive – By Seamus Brennan
In an age in which authentic Christian witness has become increasingly difficult to identify in the national culture, many Americans in search of spiritual, moral, and theological guidance have found value in turning to the wisdom of religious figures of generations past. One such faith leader, John Henry Newman—an English theologian and Catholic cardinal declared a Saint by Pope Francis in a 2019 canonization ceremony—was renowned for his rousing sermons and profound spiritual and intellectual insights. In an 1843 Christmas homily that remains widely read by Christians every Advent and Christmas season, Newman discusses what he describes as the “two principal lessons which we are taught” on Christmas—“lowliness and joy.”
Newman describes how the Christmas season allows mankind to rejoice in God’s “heavenly excellence” and take solace in the fact that “though this life must ever be a life of toil and effort,” thanks to the birth of Christ, “we have not to seek our highest good.” Rather, Newman continues, “[i]t is found, it is brought near us, in the descent of the Son of God from his Father’s bosom to this world. It is stored up among us on earth.”
Because Christ “took on himself a rank and station which the world despises,” and the earthly existence which “the Son of God chose for himself” could not be “more humble and more ordinary,” Newman says, Christians can take away these two crucial lessons. First, instead “of a weary search after great things,” he writes, “to be cheerful and joyful,” and second, “to be so in the midst of those obscure and ordinary circumstances of life which the world passes over and thinks scorn of.” In other words, it is in the lowliness of “ordinary circumstances” that, by God’s undying love for all of his creation, we can find everlasting joy.
The “lowliness” of Christmas, Newman goes on, can be most reliably traced to the scriptural account of the shepherds in the Nativity story, who were notably not “better than the common run of men in their circumstances” and “without any great advances in piety, or any very formed habits of religion.” Why then, Newman asks, “should the heavenly hosts appear to these shepherds? What was it in them which attracted the attention of the angels and the Lord of angels?” They were chosen for, in Newman’s words, “their poverty’s sake and obscurity,” because “Almighty God looks with a special love, or affection, upon the lowly.”
The second lesson can also be found in the biblical account of the angel and shepherds. The angel, Newman writes, taught them to “be joyful,” urging them to “Be not afraid” (Luke 2:10). “A little religion makes us afraid,” Newman observes. “When a little light is poured in upon the conscience, there is a darkness visible. The glory of God alarms what it shines around. His holiness, the range and difficulties of his commandments, the greatness of his power, the faithfulness of his word, frightens the sinner.”
But while religion reminds us of God’s glory, Newman continues, “it is a consoling glory, for it is the light of his glory in the face of Jesus Christ. Thus, the heavenly herald tempered the too-dazzling brightness of the Gospel on that first Christmas. The glory of God at first alarmed the shepherds, so he added the good tidings, to work in them a more wholesome and happy temper. Then they rejoiced.”
Newman implores his audience to take “these thoughts with you to your homes,” reminding us that Christmas is “a day of joy.” “It is good to be joyful; it is wrong to be otherwise,” he says. “For one day we may put off the burden of our polluted consciences, and rejoice in the perfections of our Savior Christ, without thinking of ourselves, without thinking of our own miserable uncleanness, but contemplating his glory, his righteousness, his purity, his majesty, his overflowing love.”
This, Newman suggests, is the true meaning of Christmas. Therefore, he concludes: “Let us pray him to give us the spirit of ever-abundant, ever-springing love, which overpowers and sweeps away the vexations of life by its own righteousness and strength, and which above all unites us to him who is the fountain and center of all mercy, loving-kindness, and joy.”
Despite his ground-shifting significance in the Catholic Church, John Henry Newman’s influence extends far beyond the Catholic world. Newman was a poet, scholar, and historian whose thinking and writing have been instrumental in the formation of liberal arts education in university settings.
With every passing Christmas, America’s Christian character and religious spirit appear to be further and further diminished by the national culture. As such, and as Christmas season festivities themselves become increasingly detached from God and the birth of Christ, Newman’s Christmas homily offers a timeless and much-needed roadmap for anyone seeking to find the lasting joy of the Christmas miracle. This Christmas, in the spirit of Saint John Henry Newman, may we warmly embrace the true source of our joy and let it radiate for all to see.