Upon returning from his tour of the Mediterranean, which included a near brush with death, St. John Henry Newman discerned a deep sense of calling and mission from the Holy Spirit. He had arrived at the island of Sicily increasingly persuaded of this, and after recovering from a delirious fever, in the midst of weeping, he told his hired servant, “I have a work to do in England” (See Apologia Pro Vita Sua Chapter 1).
Newman’s life demonstrates that Christian discipleship is not for the faint of heart. It is challenging, requires effort, and is sometimes agonizing. St. Paul himself suffered, like Newman, with a burning Apostolic heart, saying things like “I urge you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice…” (Romans 12.1). St. Paul was in agony to convey the urgency of offering our whole selves to God. Newman’s sermon, “The Work of the Christian,” the first in a series called “Sermons on Subjects of the Day,” exhorts us to put the full effort of mind, heart and soul into our Christian discipleship, not presuming upon God’s mercy but drawing down the full power of God’s grace by our hearty “yes” to Him and all He asks of us. Although the sermon was written for Septuagisima Sunday, which occurs three Sundays before Ash Wednesday in the Tridentine calendar, the reflections are ripe with fruits for the season of Lent as we persevere in our self-denial.
Tracing the notion of “work” to the beginning, Newman says that our current earthly labor, earning our bread by the sweat of our brows, is marked by the curse of Adam. And even if the fall had not made our work more laborious, God created the cosmos with spans of time in which we rise and sleep, work and rest. God himself works for six days, gives man the task of tending the garden, places him as lord and steward over animals and the creation. Even when man rebelled, God “in his mercy did not desert him,” but engaged in a new work of bringing about redemption in the fullness of time. Metaphorically speaking, as in the parable, God hired laborers for his vineyard—prepared the way of Jesus Christ through the nation of Israel. God Himself, as Creator and Redeemer, shows us a model of grace-filled work, even as we struggle along under the lingering curse in the disorder of the fall.
But gloriously, in Christ, our curse-laden labors can be sanctified and caught up in Christ’s work, who says “My Father works until now, and I work” (John 5.17). The Scriptures show us that the work of Christ is, above all, Apostolic—it is the work of spreading the Gospel and saving souls. By our self-denial, sacrifice, discipline, and good works for others, we draw upon the merits of Christ and cooperate with his work such that our work may also have eternal value. Newman suggests that this is the fundamental orientation of the season of Lent and its surrounding seasons: “whereas our Lord, in His Sermon on the Mount, speaks of three great duties of religion, prayer, almsgiving, and fasting—our duties towards God, our neighbor, and ourselves—we may consider the Epiphany to remind us of worship in the temple, Septuagesima of good works, and Lent of self-denial and self-discipline.”
In Christ, and only in Christ, our work and our suffering have meaning. This is why we are so encouraged to exercise prayer, fasting, and almsgiving during Lent. “God will o’erbrim the measures you have spent / With oil of gladness,” writes the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, a convert discipled by Newman, in his poem “Easter Communion.” The more deeply we can mortify our own desires and inclinations, the more deeply God can take root in our soul and work in us, allowing our own efforts to be perfected in full cooperation with His will His work.
Some in Newman’s age and ours, in the historic wake of Protestantism, think the teachings of Christ annul or abrogate the need for works, contrasting the Old Testament Law too heavily with the so-called “grace” of the Gospel, as if grace had nothing to do with work or human cooperation. Scripture itself demurs. Christ declares that he came to fulfill, not abolish, the Law, and St. Paul makes it clear: “‘Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid. Yea, we establish the law… as sin hath reigned unto death,’ grace reigns ‘through righteousness…” (cf. Matt. 5:17, Rom. 3.31). Newman adds, “The Gospel does not abrogate works, but provides for them.” Christians in fact have a higher duty to fulfill all perfection and law, because unlike the Israelites, they are in fact given the gifts and graces they need to keep the law, to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect (Matt. 5:38). We have a Christian duty to work, to work to overcome temptation and avoid sin, and to work at sanctification and evangelization. The “original paradise” is not yet restored to us; “our duties still are not those of Adam innocent, but of Adam fallen.” Within this broken world, we are given the graces necessary to work, to work hard, and to work, in Christ, to perfection. Grace and forgiveness do not give us a free-pass from effort, work, or difficulty.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ is not an excuse for wallowing in ease and comfort. Christ himself gravely warns against it and depicts a quite contrary portrait of the Christian (Matt. 16:24-26). Consider Newman’s stirring exhortation: “It is not that our work is lighter, but our strength is greater.” Christians are given what they need to perform what without God’s grace would seem, and be, impossible. The gift of Christ, and its attendant responsibilities, are great indeed.
In the light of Christ there are no shadows, no extenuating circumstances, no excuses or qualifications. This Lent, “let us attempt, through God’s grace, to advance and sanctify the inward man. We cannot be wrong here. Whatever is right, whatever is wrong, in this perplexing world, we must be right in ‘doing justly, in loving mercy, in walking humbly with our God;’ in denying our wills, in ruling our tongues, in softening and sweetening our tempers, in mortifying our lusts; in learning patience, meekness, purity, forgiveness of injuries, and continuance in well-doing” (cf. Micah 6.8). Augment your Lenten disciplines with this seasoning of the sanctified inner man: a sincere and firm resolution to let every thought, word, and deed be to the glory of God. Adopt a truly Apostolic spirit that seeks above all the salvation of souls, and nothing less.