Blessed John Henry Newman, whose feast is marked today, stands out as a singular example of holiness and virtue in the anglophone Church of the nineteenth century. His journey from the Church of England to the full communion of the Catholic Church is in a real sense an exterior sign of the interior conversion that, through prayer and study, he underwent throughout his entire life. This double-faceted approach is perhaps an interpretive key for us, who seek to grow in sanctification and grace, in the life of Christ found in His “one true fold”: the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, united in faith and practice with Successor of Peter.
As the Church sets out on a new liturgical year with the celebration of this season of Advent, it is easy for us to allow our gaze to fall only a short distance before ourselves. Surrounded as we are already by the lights and music of the Christmas festivities, and yet some way from the feast itself, we can all-too-easily be caught thinking that the sole purpose of this holy season is our preparation to celebrate the birth of the Lord in a few weeks’ time. Instead, the readings and prayers at this Mass and throughout Advent, point us not simply toward the coming of Christ as the babe in a manger – though of course they do – but also to his second coming when, as we profess in the Creed, he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
Given at St Mary’s, Cadogan Street, on the third Sunday of Lent:
The season of Lent this year takes on a particular character as we begin now to pray for the election of a new successor to Saint Peter as the Bishop of Rome and the Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church. In Pope Benedict XVI we saw a man whose own personal holiness and sincere pursuit of the truth was an example to us all in the Christian life, but of particular significance in understanding the spiritual purpose of this great season: a renewal of our sense of reliance on the very person of Jesus Christ whose passion, death, and resurrection we strive to proclaim in every word, thought, and deed. During Lent, we turn to the Lord with a sense of urgency, fixing our eyes on the one who saves: Oculi mei semper ad Dominum. Our eyes are fixed on the Lord, because it is the Lord who set us free (cf. Introit, Third Sunday of Lent; Ps. 24: 15-16).
That reliance on Christ, that need we have for his mercy and his grace, is reflected in this morning’s reading from the gospel according to Saint Luke. In his telling of the parable of the fig tree, the Lord tells the gathered people of their need to repent: ‘Unless you repent’, he says, ‘you will all perish’. If, like the fig tree, we cease to bear fruit – that is we cease to show signs of the life which God has implanted in us through our baptism – then our lives have very little purpose at all. It’s not simply that we may as well not live without that intrinsic purpose, it’s that, like the fig tree, life without fruit is barren and perfunctory. Without the life which God has given us – the life of grace – we risk bearing no fruit, giving nothing to the world, and being – if anything at all – a sign of death and lifelessness.