John Henry Newman preached the sermon The Cross of Christ the Measure of the World on April 9, 1841 (Parochial and Plain Sermons, Vol 6). In this sermon preached on a Fifth Sunday of Lent he offers a keen diagnosis of the superficial human pursuit of happiness in this world and points his listeners to the spiritual doctrine of Christ’s death on the Cross. He begins by noting how so many men live in a superficial way without paying attention to life’s events and without finding the true meaning of these events. He asks: what is the true measure of life and the world?
Newman answers: “It is the death of the Eternal Word of God made flesh, which is our great lesson how to think and how to speak of this world. His Cross has put its due value upon every thing which we see, upon all fortunes, all advantages, all ranks, all dignities, all pleasures; upon the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. It has set a price upon the excitements, the rivalries, the hopes, the fears, the desires, the efforts, the triumphs of mortal man.”
By this we are to understand that what gives meaning to men’s desires and actions and to their failings is how these draw men either close to God or away from Him. The death of the Incarnate Son of God for the salvation of mankind indicates the importance of human choices and pursuits.
However, a large number of people fail to see this and live bent on finding pleasure in this world. Newman writes: “The world seems made for the enjoyment of just such a being as man, and man is put into it. He has the capacity of enjoyment, and the world supplies the means. How natural this, what a simple as well as pleasant philosophy, yet how different from that of the Cross!”
This, indeed, is folly; a deeper look at the world reveals the truth. “The world is sweet to the lips, but bitter to the taste. It pleases at first, but not at last. It looks gay on the outside, but evil and misery lie concealed within. When a man has passed a certain number of years in it, he cries out with the Preacher, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”
Newman teaches that through suffering men can atone for their sins, but if they do not they will at length suffer punishment for them: “Therefore the doctrine of the Cross of Christ does but anticipate for us our experience of the world. It is true, it bids us grieve for our sins in the midst of all that smiles and glitters around us; but if we will not heed it, we shall at length be forced to grieve for them from undergoing their fearful punishment. If we will not acknowledge that this world has been made miserable by sin, from the sight of Him on whom our sins were laid, we shall experience it to be miserable by the recoil of those sins upon ourselves.”
The doctrine of the Cross is not on the surface of the world; it is a hidden doctrine. Men like a bright and cheerful religion. They rebel from the Cross and suffering. Instead, “Religious men, in the words of Scripture, “live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved them and gave Himself for them:” [Gal. ii. 20.] but they do not tell this to all men; they leave others to find it out as they may.” Christians live with a cheerful countenance in the midst of suffering. They embrace Christ Crucified as a “hidden wisdom,” hidden from the external view of men.
Newman comments that the doctrine of the Cross is to Christian faith what the heart is to the body; it is a vital yet hidden principle: “the sacred doctrine of Christ’s Atoning Sacrifice is the vital principle on which the Christian lives, and without which Christianity is not. Without it no other doctrine is held profitably; to believe in Christ’s divinity, or in His manhood, or in the Holy Trinity, or in a judgment to come, or in the resurrection of the dead, is an untrue belief, not Christian faith, unless we receive also the doctrine of Christ’s sacrifice.” At the same time it presupposes the belief in Christ’s divinity, his incarnation and man’s sinful state.
Following this description, Newman notes that this high doctrine is one to be adored secretly, “not to be used as a necessary instrument in the conversion of the ungodly, or for the satisfaction of reasoners of this world, but to be unfolded to the docile and obedient; to young children, whom the world has not corrupted; to the sorrowful, who need comfort; to the sincere and earnest, who need a rule of life; to the innocent, who need warning; and to the established, who have earned the knowledge of it.”
Newman concludes asserting that the doctrine of the Cross does not make the Gospel a sad religion. “The Psalmist says, “They that sow in tears shall reap in joy;” and our Lord says, “They that mourn shall be comforted.” Let no one go away with the impression that the Gospel makes us take a gloomy view of the world and of life. It hinders us indeed from taking a superficial view, and finding a vain transitory joy in what we see; but it forbids our immediate enjoyment, only to grant enjoyment in truth and fulness afterwards. It only forbids us to begin with enjoyment.”
It is through suffering with Christ that men will find true and lasting joy: “That Cross will lead us to mourning, repentance, humiliation, prayer, fasting; we shall sorrow for our sins, we shall sorrow with Christ’s sufferings; but all this sorrow will only issue, nay, will be undergone in a happiness far greater than the enjoyment which the world gives…”
Newman bids us to go beyond the bright and beautiful things on the surface of the world, to seek the substance in the things of the world, not remaining in the shadows. Palm Sunday is but the shadow of the joy of Easter Sunday. He exhorts all to embrace the Cross with faith and humility, seeking after Christ rather than the world’s enjoyments. “Let us “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,” and then all those things of this world “will be added to us.” They alone are able truly to enjoy this world, who begin with the world unseen. They alone enjoy it, who have first abstained from it. They alone can truly feast, who have first fasted; they alone are able to use the world, who have learned not to abuse it; they alone inherit it, who take it as a shadow of the world to come, and who for that world to come relinquish it.”