John Henry Newman (1801-1890), a prominent member of the Anglican Church, was canonized a saint by Pope Francis in Rome on October 13, 2019. Newman was received into the Catholic Church by the Italian Passionist, Blessed Dominic Barberi.
I’ve often wondered why Newman asked for Dominic to receive him into the church. Dominic, a Passionist missionary recently from Italy, was more than a zealous Catholic priest and religious. I think Newman saw in him something he treasured: the mystery of the Passion of Jesus.
For Newman the mystery of the Cross interpreted everything. “The death of the Eternal Word of God made flesh is our great lesson how to think and how to speak of this world. His Cross has put its due value upon everything which we see.”
Shortly after his conversion Newman wrote “The Mystery of Divine Condescension.” (Discourses to a Mixed Congregation” 14) It’s a wonderful reflection on the mission of Jesus described by Paul the Apostle in his Letter to the Philippians, “Though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at, but he emptied himself…” The reflection also reveals in a striking way Newman’s personal relationship to God.
He begins by considering at great length the mystery of God. God is beyond anything we know. God is infinitely beyond us. “There is a gulf between me and my great God.” Yet, “I’m a human being, I need someone who can weep with me, and rejoice with me, and in a way minister to me. How can I hope to find that in the Infinite and Eternal God.”
“(God) is so far above us that the thought of Him does but frighten me; I cannot believe that He cares for me…I know that He is loving towards all His works, but how am I to believe that He gives to me personally a thought, and cares for me for my own sake? I am beneath His love; He looks on me as an atom in a vast universe. He acts by general laws, and if He is kind to me it is, not for my sake, but because it is according to His nature to be kind…”
My complaint is answered in the great mystery of the Incarnation,” Newman continues.
God discloses himself to us. God discloses himself, first of all, in nature. Nature is part of the mystery of divine condescension. Newman has a beautiful section in his reflection about finding God in nature.
But nature gives us only a glimpse of the glory of God. God’s condescension goes so much further. In the mystery of the Word made flesh, the Creator humbles himself to the creature.”Your God has taken on Him your nature.”
What form do we humans expect God to take? “Doubtless, you will say, He will take a form such as “eye hath not seen, nor ear heard of” before. It will be a body framed in the heavens, and only committed to the custody of Mary; a form of light and glory, worthy of Him, who is “blessed for evermore,” and comes to bless us with His presence….He will choose some calm and holy spot, and men will go out thither and find their Incarnate God. He will be tenant of some paradise, like Adam or Elias, or He will dwell in the mystic garden of the Canticles, where nature ministers its best and purest to its Creator.”
But, “the Maker of man, the Wisdom of God, has come, not in strength, but in weakness. He has come, not to assert a claim, but to pay a debt. Instead of wealth, He has come poor; instead of honour, He has come in ignominy; instead of blessedness, He has come to suffer. He has been delivered over from His birth to pain and contempt; His delicate frame is worn down by cold and heat, by hunger and sleeplessness; His hands are rough and bruised with a carpenter’s toil; His eyes are dimmed with weeping; His Name is cast out as evil.
He is flung amid the throng of men; He wanders from place to place; He is the companion of sinners. He is followed by a mixed multitude, who care more for meat and drink than for His teaching…And at length “the Brightness of God’s Glory and the Image of His Substance” is fettered, haled to and fro, buffeted, spit upon, mocked, cursed, scourged, and tortured. “He hath no beauty nor comeliness; He is despised and the most abject of men, a Man of sorrows and acquainted with infirmity;” nay, He is a “leper, and smitten of God, and afflicted”. And so His clothes are torn off, and He is lifted up upon the bitter Cross, and there He hangs, a spectacle for profane, impure, and savage eyes, and a mockery for the evil spirit whom He had cast down into hell.”
O Jesus, I cannot comprehend you more than I did, before I saw you on the Cross; but I have gained my lesson. I have before me the proof that in spite of your exalted nature, and the clouds and darkness which surround it, you can think of me with a personal affection. You have died, that I might live.
“Let us love God,” says your Apostle, “because He first loved us.” I can love you now from first to last, though from first to last I cannot understand you. As I adore you, O Lover of souls, in your humiliation, so will I admire you and embrace you in your infinite and everlasting power.”