I have been reading the stylish and thought-provoking sermons of St John Henry Newman. They start with the Advent Scripture’s exhortation to watch, as in Jesus’s words in Mark’s Gospel: “Watch and pray, for you do not know the hour”, or St Paul’s admonition that it is high time to wake from sleep, to keep vigil.
Newman says that the attitude of watching for Christ characterises the true Christian even more than believing, loving or obeying. This is surprising until one hears more, and realises that for Newman watching is a kind of active, Christ-centred dynamic of a faith which is real. Elsewhere, Newman describes distinctive degrees of assent to faith, and by urging on us the need to watch, he is describing in another way the difference between notional assent, which knows something with the intellect and consents to the truth of the proposition, and real assent, in which one’s whole life is to be changed by living according to the truth expressed in the proposition.
Newman’s description of a caste of religious people who are not without good qualities and who are sincere, but who do not watch for Christ, makes for uncomfortable reading. It’s not that such people don’t love or serve God, but that their religiosity is not the same as finding their highest good in God and whatever God’s loving providence allots them. They are attached to the comfort and values of the world and regard these as equally important and durable; they do not live “as though they expect one to day to be separated from the world and all those created things which they seek”.
In practice theirs is a kind of mixture of religion and unbelief, which serves God indeed, but loves the “fashions, the distinctions, the pleasures, the comforts of this life”. Such refuge in sensual comfort is matched by an intellectual resistance:
“They have reservations, make distinctions, take exceptions, indulge in refinements, in questions where there are really but two sides, a right and a wrong … And so they are rid of the trouble of looking out for their God, for they think they have found Him in the goods of this world.”
Christians who watch have an altered relationship to the visible world, realising that they are “called to be strangers and pilgrims upon the earth, and that their worldly lot and worldly goods are a sort of accident of their existence”.
Newman doesn’t judge people’s motivations, but rather the character of two types of Christian: those who consistently place the love of Christ above other considerations and those who only do so when it does not conflict with some worldly good.
Watching for Christ makes us consistent. In a piece of characteristic oratory Newman explains that watching has simple parallels in human experience: anyone who has watched for a friend’s arrival when he has been delayed longer than he said, or has been in a distant country and is awaiting news, or when you “so live upon a person who is present with you, that your eyes follow his, that you read his soul, that you see all its changes in his countenance, that you anticipate his wishes, that you smile in his smile, and are sad in his sadness, and are downcast when he is vexed, and rejoice in his successes”.
As for a beloved friend does the true Christian watch for Christ in Advent. “This then is to watch: to be detached from what is present, and to live in what is unseen; in the thought of Christ as He came once, and as He will come again; and to desire His second coming, from our affectionate and grateful remembrance of His first.”