Friday, May 8, 2020

Preview: "The Spiritual Presence of Christ in the Church"

On Monday, May 11, Matt Swaim, co-host of the Son Rise Morning Show, and I will discuss another Parochial and Plain Sermon by St. John Henry Newman for the Easter Season (at the usual time: about 7:50 a.m. Eastern/6:50 a.m. Central).

Since we are approaching the Solemnity of the Ascension of Our Lord, we've selected "The Spiritual Presence of Christ in the Church" from volume 6, sermon number 10, which Newman preached on May 6, 1838 (Easter had been on April 15 that year).

Inspired by the verse "A little while, and ye shall not see Me: and again, a little while, and ye shall see Me, because I go to the Father" (from the Gospel according to John 16:16), Newman begins by contrasting two reactions to the departure of Jesus from the Apostles. In the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus says that while the Bridegroom (He) is with the disciples, they cannot fast--but once He is taken away from them, they will fast. (Matthew 9:15). In the verses following the text cited from St. John, however, Jesus promises them joy even after He leaves them, and Newman says this explains a great paradox of Christianity:

Yet in the words following the text, spoken by Him when He was going away, He says; "I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you." And He says shortly before it, "It is expedient for you that I go away." And again: "I will not leave you comfortless, I will come to you. Yet a little while, and the world seeth Me no more: but ye see Me." Thus Christ's going to the Father is at once a source of sorrow, because it involves His absence; and of joy, because it involves His presence. And out of the doctrine of His resurrection and ascension, spring those Christian paradoxes, often spoken of in Scripture, that we are sorrowing, yet always rejoicing; as having nothing, yet possessing all things.

Newman continues by commenting on how we know Jesus today even though He is not physically, Incarnately, present on earth today:

This, indeed, is our state at present; we have lost Christ and we have found Him; we see Him not, yet we discern Him. We embrace His feet, yet He says, "Touch Me not." How is this? it is thus: we have lost the sensible and conscious perception of Him; we cannot look on Him, hear Him, converse with Him, follow Him from place to place; but we enjoy the spiritual, immaterial, inward, mental, real sight and possession of Him; a possession more real and more present than that which the Apostles had in the days of His flesh, because it is spiritual, because it is invisible. We know that the closer any object of this world comes to us, the less we can contemplate it and comprehend it. 

He clarifies that we know Christ in His Church, even more than the Apostles did when He walked the earth:

Christ has come so close to us in the Christian Church (if I may so speak), that we cannot gaze on Him or discern Him. He enters into us, He claims and takes possession of His purchased inheritance; He does not present Himself to us, but He takes us to Him. He makes us His members. Our faces are, as it were, turned from Him; we see Him not, and know not of His presence, except by faith, because He is over us and within us. And thus we may at the same time lament because we are not conscious of His presence, as the Apostles enjoyed it before His death; and may rejoice because we know we do possess it even more than they, according to the text, "whom having not seen (that is, with the bodily eyes) ye love; in whom, though now ye see Him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory: receiving the end of your faith, even the salvation of your souls." [1 Pet. i. 8, 9.]

As Newman continues, it is appropriate to consider this mystery during the Easter season, so he will "say some few words" (!).

He looks first at the promise cited often in Scripture of "a day of the Lord", stating that we are now in a certain Day of the Lord: the Day of the Church:

And another special day predicted and fulfilled, is that long season which precedes and prepares for the day of heaven, viz. the Day of the Christian Church, the Day of the gospel, the Day of grace. This is a day much spoken of in the Prophets, and it is the day of which our Saviour speaks in the passage before us. Observe how solemn, how high a day it is: this is His account of it, "I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice; your joy no man taketh from you. And in that Day ye shall ask Me nothing. Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in My Name, He will give it you. Hitherto have ye asked nothing in My name; ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full ... At that Day ye shall ask in my Name, and I say not unto you, that I will pray the Father for you, for the Father Himself loveth you, because ye have loved Me, and have believed that I came out from God. I came forth from the Father, and am come into the world; again I leave the world, and go to the Father." The Day, then, that dawned upon the Church at the Resurrection, and beamed forth in full splendour at the Ascension, that Day which has no setting, which will be, not ended, but absorbed in Christ's glorious appearance from heaven to destroy sin and death; that Day in which we now are, is described in these words of Christ as a state of special Divine manifestation, of special introduction into the presence of God. . . . Thus we Christians stand in the courts of God Most High, and, in one sense, see His face; for He who once was on earth, has now departed from this visible scene of things in a mysterious, twofold way, both to His Father and into our hearts, thus making the Creator and His creatures one . . .

This is the mystery that Newman continues to unfold to his congregation, exploring as he does so Trinitarian and Christological doctrines. He describes how Christ is present to us now spiritually, but still in His Person, God and Man, as "the Incarnate Mediator":

First, that Christ really is with us now, whatever be the mode of it. This He says expressly Himself; "Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world." He even says, "Where two or three are gathered together in My Name, there am I in the midst of them." [Matt. xxviii. 20; xviii. 20.] And in a passage already quoted more than once, "I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you." Christ's presence, then, is promised to us still, though He is on the right hand of the Father. You will say, "Yes; He is present as God." Nay, I answer; more than this, He is the Christ, and the Christ is promised, and Christ is man as well as God. This surely is plain even from the words of the text. He said He was going away. Did He go away as God or as man? "A little while, and ye shall not see Me;" this was on His death. He went away as man, He died as man; if, then, He promises to come again, surely He must mean that He would return as man, in the only sense, that is, in which He could return. As God He is ever present, never was otherwise than present, never went away; when His body died on the Cross and was buried, when His soul departed to the place of spirits, still He was with His disciples in His Divine ubiquity. The separation of soul and body could not touch His impassible everlasting Godhead. When then He says He should go away, and come again and abide for ever, He is speaking, not merely of His omnipresent Divine nature, but of His human nature. As being Christ, He says that He, the Incarnate Mediator, shall be with His Church for ever.

For those who say that the Holy Spirit is with us now, not really Jesus, Newman provides correction:

But again: you may be led to explain His declaration thus; "He has come again, but in His Spirit; that is, His Spirit has come instead of Him; and when it is said that He is with us, this only means that His Spirit is with us." No one, doubtless, can deny this most gracious and consolatory truth, that the Holy Ghost is come; but why has He come? to supply Christ's absence, or to accomplish His presence? Surely to make Him present. Let us not for a moment suppose that God the Holy Ghost comes in such sense that God the Son remains away. No; He has not so come that Christ does not come, but rather He comes that Christ may come in His coming. Through the Holy Ghost we have communion with Father and Son. "In Christ we are builded together," says St. Paul, "for an habitation of God through the Spirit." "Ye are the temple of God, and the Spirit of God dwelleth in you." "Strengthened with might by His Spirit in the inner man, that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith." The Holy Spirit causes, faith welcomes, the indwelling of Christ in the heart. Thus the Spirit does not take the place of Christ in the soul, but secures that place to Christ.

And Newman explores other aspects of this mystery of how Jesus is present to us in the Church while not being present on earth.
In a particularly fascinating passage, Newman describes how the Jesus's Resurrection appearances to St. Mary Magdalen, the Apostles, the two disciples on the way to Emmaus were signs of how Jesus would be seen on earth after His Ascension: By Faith:

Now observe what was the nature of His presence in the Church after His Resurrection. It was this, that He came and went as He pleased; that material substances, such as the fastened doors, were no impediments to His coming; and that when He was present His disciples did not, as a matter of course, know Him. St. Mark says He appeared to the two disciples who were going into the country, to Emmaus, "in another form." St. Luke, who gives the account more at length, says, that while He talked with them their heart burned within them. And it is worth remarking, that the two disciples do not seem to have been conscious of this at the time, but on looking back, they recollected that as having been, which did not strike them while it was. . . . For so it was ordained, that Christ should not be both seen and known at once; first He was seen, then He was known. Only by faith is He known to be present; He is not recognized by sight. When He opened His disciples' eyes, He at once vanished. He removed His visible presence, and left but a memorial of Himself. He vanished from sight that He might be present in a sacrament; and in order to connect His visible presence with His presence invisible, He for one instant manifested Himself to their open eyes; manifested Himself, if I may so speak, while He passed from His hiding-place of sight without knowledge, to that of knowledge without sight.

Or again: consider the account of His appearing to St. Mary Magdalene. While she stood at the sepulchre weeping He appeared, but she knew Him not. When He revealed Himself, He did not, indeed, at once vanish away, but He would not let her touch Him; as if, in another way, to show that His presence in His new kingdom was not to be one of sense. The two disciples were not allowed to see Him after recognizing Him, St. Mary Magdalene was not allowed to touch Him. But afterwards, St. Thomas was allowed both to see and touch; he had the full evidence of sense: but observe what our Lord says to him, "Thomas, because thou hast seen Me, thou hast believed; blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed." Faith is better than sight or touch.

As Newman concludes this sermon--which I'll post on Monday--he returns to the theme of the Day of the Lord, the Day of the Lord in His Church, the Day of the Lord we are living in today just as the congregation in the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Oxford heard it described to them 182 years ago.

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