Today we celebrate with awe and joy the birth of our Savior. Christmas is a time of great joy, a joy that comes with the knowledge of what this birth means. This joy exists, no matter what the circumstances, even sorrow. The saints – John Henry Newman included – experienced small and big sorrows at Christmas yet still lived these feasts with deep joy in their souls.
One Christmas which gives us a glimpse of a small sorrow is when he was a young Anglican clergyman. As he traveled in the Mediterranean in 1832, the steamer docked at Malta, and he was quarantined – he and his party spent Christmas day locked up in an old building while the church bells announced the birth of Christ. Imagine how he must have felt, hearing the bells of Christmas day but unable to celebrate appropriately!
Many years later as a Catholic priest he experienced a different kind of quarantine; he had to spend Christmas Day in bed from weakness and was unable to celebrate Mass that day. Other years, however, he was able to sing Mass at 5 am. In the frigid Birmingham winters, he often had colds that turned into bronchitis. On occasions, for example in 1859, he sang Christmas Mass but then had to go to bed with a cold. That year he was confined to bed the whole week. On Christmas Day, 1860, he and his brothers at the Birmingham Oratory had a great shock when their gardener suddenly fell down and died.
But there were joys too for Christmas. On Christmas eve 1859, a great joy, for he received Richard Hurrell into the Church, the eldest son of one of his friends, William Froude.
As do many of us, John Henry would receive Christmas greetings and letters from friends; these letters and greetings he promptly returned. Sometimes friends would send food such as a turkey. In December 1873, he wrote to his longtime Anglican friend, and once vicar, W. J. Copeland: “A turkey came to us –a fine one – We believe it to come from you., but it can’t speak and solve the mystery. We are sure it comes from you, and thank you, and wish you a happy Christmas.”
In one of his Anglican sermons Newman wrote: “OUR Saviour’s birth in the flesh is an earnest, and, as it were, beginning of our birth in the Spirit. It is a figure, promise, or pledge of our new birth, and it effects what it promises. As He was born, so are we born also; and since He was born, therefore we too are born. As He is the Son of God by nature, so are we sons of God by grace; and it is He who has made us such.” (PS V)
As St. John the Evangelist teaches: “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (Jn 1: 16-17). The Holy Spirit makes us God’s children at Baptism. And St. Leo the Great reminds us:
“Christian, acknowledge your dignity, and becoming a partner in the Divine nature, refuse to return to the old baseness by degenerate conduct. Remember the Head and the Body of which you are a member. Recollect that you were rescued from the power of darkness and brought out into God’s light and kingdom.”
And so for us, no matter our circumstances, let us have joy. Many families are separated because of Covid or other ailments, but each of us in our hearts can rejoice! Let us come today before the Child in the Manger, the Son of God, the King of Kings. Let us adore Him together with the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, the angels and shepherds. And like St. John Henry we bring our sorrows, small or big, and return with hearts full of peace and joy. Merry Christmas, and may God richly bless you!