Homily for 125th Anniversary of death of Bl. John Henry Cardinal Newman, Mary Immaculate Church, Annerley, 11 August 2015
prepared by Rev Dr Scot Armstrong and delivered by Rev Fr Paul Chandler
“God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me….I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next….Therefore, I will trust Him….He knows what He is about.” (Bl John Henry Newman)
+ In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I Only three weeks ago, we celebrated 500th anniversary of the dies natalis naturalis, the day of birth in the order of nature, of St. Philip Neri – a fitting celebration for an Oratory coming to birth in Annerley, Brisbane. Today, we celebrate 125th anniversary of the dies natalis to the Beatific Vision of Bl. John Henry Newman. His transitus, or passing-over, was a well-established pattern in his life long before his final passing. His conversion, the actual day of his feast (October 9), involved a death of sorts: a total renunciation of his own will, of the bonds of family and friends, of professional advancement, even – in a certain sense – of his own way of thinking. In his burial, we are confronted by an almost total annihilation, there being nothing left of his body, or of the vestments in which it was clothed, from which relics might be taken. Such totality in the service of God is required no less from us who now follow in the Oratorian way. It is fitting, then, that this anniversary be kept also at the beginnings of the Brisbane Oratory, so that we might be aided by his example, and his intercession, in the daily oblation of our selves and of our lives, in union with the Sacrifice of the altar.
II The circumstances of Bl. John Henry’s conversion may be said to have enabled him to discover the answer to the present historical crisis through which we are passing. Fr Louis Bouyer thought that Providence brought him into full communion on the eve of a cultural disintegration that would present difficulties for the faith not experienced before (or, at least, not to the same extent): namely, the disappearance from the ordinary run of daily life of the natural human preparations for faith in Christ, the so-called pre-ambula fidei (pre-ambles to faith). Such an “eclipse” would prepare the terrain of the human soul for mass apostasy, widespread confusion, scandal and profound distress on the part of the faithful. Newman thought, however, that it had already happened before in principle, in the Arian crisis of the 4th century, and in the historical continuations of that crisis which followed. While the crisis of modernity is a new sounding composition to the ears of superficial listeners, upon closer examination, its themes are merely variations (metallic and plastic sounding – in other words, a mechanistic de-humanising) on an ancient and hollow error. This insight allowed him to elaborate, again in principle, a response to our present crisis, and chart a course as sure-footed as it is consoling.
This way is the way of the Living Tradition: not old things for the sake of old things, but something ever new because animated by the Divine Life, a principle infinitely greater than the realities which militate against it, capable of being passed on from the apostolical succession of antiquity uncorrupted because it throws-off diseases which attack it in the course of time. Patiently, and serenely overcoming (even when our experience of it is far less than patient or serene) attempts to divert, to dilute, to dissemble, and – yes – even to destroy its continuous Living substance, this Tradition not merely survives but even grows and develops, bearing witness to the victory of the Crucified and Risen Christ down the long centuries of salvation history. The task assigned by Providence to individuals at signal moments in this process will often seem to embody more of the crucified than of the risen Lord. Such was the life of Newman. One very minor example among hundreds of greater ones: after having published his Arians of the Fourth Century, he was visiting family, when his brother Frank decided to good-naturedly poke fun at his brother’s contention that Arianism had risen again, in order to provoke a spluttering defence. Newman had to endure laughter at his earnestness, as he strove to explain the seriousness of the crisis he saw approaching. How often do we have to charitably endure misunderstanding, from our families, communities, and the people of our time? May the Lord grant him rest from his labours, and us strength for ours.
He saw things not just in general outline, but in very precise detail. What is it that is implied in the Arian denial of the divinity of Christ? If He is merely a man of God and not God in Person, the Second Person of the Trinity, He cannot redeem, and we must (futilely) strive to lift ourselves up by our own bootstraps by means of the folly of developing technology apart from moral and spiritual growth, thus treating only the symptoms of our moral problems but never the disease. This is the phenomenological level of our present crisis. At the metaphysical level, we must attempt to make ourselves into God, an undertaking as frightening as it is impossible when considered in persons of dubious moral character. This latter tendency would correspond to the perverse metaphysic at the heart of secularist liberalism. To dictate the terms on which God may be God, corresponds to the perverse metaphysic at the heart of liberalism in religion.
In this connection, it ought to strike us as profoundly important that the central tenet of Arianism is not so much the denial of the Divinity of Christ, which follows upon a more subtle denial – the claim that the nature of God is inexpressible. This is why the Arian Logos could not be God, if He is the Father’s Word. The Logos, a mere “halfway” creature, made flesh, would no longer be Emmanuel, God-with-us, and the way to God is barred. It is in fact true that the nature of God is inexpressible – not in itself, but in the limited expression of creatures. Hence the need for incarnation of the Christ, in whom are united – an inexpressible Divine nature and an expressible human nature, and thus constructed – a Bridge who is the Eternal Pontifex. To make the inexpressibility of the Divine Nature an obstacle along that Bridge, is to deny the reality and purpose of the Incarnation. We are told in 1 John that to deny that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is to be an anti-Christ. In the ever deepening understanding of the faith in the life of the Church, Lateran IV (1215) would provide a definitive answer: whatever similarity exists between human nature and the Divine nature, there is always implied an even greater dissimilarity – but there is some similarity, and that is the point. The way of the Pontifex implies that our participation in the Divine nature will, even in the definitive state of the next life, be constituted by ever growing beatitude. The Arian denial which seeks to keep alive the longing for God by denying that we can ever really be with Him sits down on the bridge, the greying hair brushed back into a ponytail, the circle singing to itself in self-referential affirmation, refusing to go forwards or backwards, prompting the question: why even begin the journey if you do not wish to arrive at the destination?
III There is a creature in whom the Inexpressible was “contained”, and the incommensurability of human nature and Divine nature was overcome by a communion of persons (one human, the other Divine) – bridging the distance, as the Divine Person drew from the human that human flesh which would enable Him to speak the truth of God in the words of men. (cf. Dei Verbum, 1) Newman spoke of Her as the “Daughter of Eve Unfallen”. Already we bask in the light of the glorious solemnity of the Assumption of the Theotόkos, to be celebrated in a few days’ time. May She, our mother in the order of grace, together with Bl. John Henry, teach us the serene way of God: how to live in the Living Tradition which rises above its troubles even as it continues to grow and bestow the Divine Life on those who walk in its way.
Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever. Amen.