Cardinal Newman begins this sermon by asking: How can we interpret the things and events of this world? And he answers that the Cross of Christ is the great event which is the measure and the key to interpreting the world. He explains that most people have a superficial view of life and the world. They do not reflect upon the state of things in which they find themselves.
The key for Newman: “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 given a meaning to the various, shifting course, the trials, the temptations, the sufferings, of his earthly state. It has brought together and made consistent all that seemed discordant and aimless. It has taught us how to live, how to use this world, what to expect, what to desire, what to hope. It is the tone into which all the strains of this world’s music are ultimately to be resolved.”
“Thus in the Cross, and Him who hung upon it, all things meet; all things subserve it, all things need it. It is their centre and their interpretation. For He was lifted up upon it, that He might draw all men and all things unto Him.”
Newman continues by noting that for many the world seems made for enjoyment, and for these persons the Doctrine of the Cross disarranges their plans. He writes:
“The world, at first sight, appears made for pleasure, and the vision of Christ’s Cross is a solemn and sorrowful sight interfering with this appearance. Be it so; but why may it not be our duty to abstain from enjoyment notwithstanding, if it was a duty even in Eden?” Newman invites us to look under the surface of things, which tells a very different tale when he writes:
“But again; it is but a superficial view of things to say that this life is made for pleasure and happiness. To those who look under the surface, it tells a very different tale. The doctrine of the Cross does but teach, though infinitely more forcibly, still after all it does but teach the very same lesson which this world teaches to those who live long in it, who have much experience in it, who know it. 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.” Newman’s view is that the world has been made miserable by sin.
The Doctrine of the Cross lies beneath the surface of the world, under a veil. In the words of St. Paul, it “is a hidden wisdom” that must be discovered through faith. Newman describes it as the “heart of religion,” “seat of life,” and “vital principle.” It presupposes the other truths of the Gospel and also holds them together, but like the heart it is hidden from view.
The Oxford clergyman closes by countering the notion that the Doctrine of the Cross makes us sad and that thus the Gospel is a sad religion. He quotes the Psalmist who says, “They that sow in tears shall reap in joy;” and our Lord who says that, “They that mourn shall be comforted.” Newman felt that no one should 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.
What is bright and beautiful in this world is a figure and a promise of the joy which comes out of the Atonement of Christ. When Jesus rode in triumph into Jerusalem He was hailed by the people; it was a vain pageant which he did not enjoy. Yet it was a shadow of the triumph that was to come, a presage of the true victory. As Newman writes:
“We commemorate this figurative triumph on the last Sunday in Lent, to cheer us in the sorrow of the week that follows, and to remind us of the true joy which comes with Easter-Day.” But we must begin with faith; we must begin with Christ. Only those who deny themselves can really enjoy this world (…) 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.”