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A powerful Lenten reflection from Blessed John Henry Newman: “Behold the Man”

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“O my God, how can I look you in the face when I think of my ingratitude, so deeply seated, so habitual, so immovable – or rather so awfully increasing!"

Blessed John Henry Newman accompanied me as I entered the Lenten season. That made for a powerful entrance. And my wife, Donna, gets credit for a great assist.

Donna has a keen ear, warm heart and good memory when it comes time for Christmas gift shopping. She will remember a small mention by a person earlier in the year about something they might enjoy, then surprise the person with it under the tree on Christmas morning. Donna did that for me this past Christmas when she presented me with four volumes that comprise the Treasury of Catholic Meditations collection, published by Sophia Press.

Whatever she paid for the books reaped a great dividend the night before Ash Wednesday. That’s when I discovered an amazing reflection written by Blessed John Henry Newman, powerfully entitled “Behold The Man.”

Blessed Newman, a cardinal and theologian in England, lived in the 19th century. He was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010. Not only was he one of the most influential religious leaders in his country, both before and after his conversion to Roman Catholicism, but he was a noted literary figure whose words remain as relevant today as ever.

That holds especially true with “Behold The Man,” which definitely has set a compelling, potent tone for the beginning of my journey this Lent:

“I see the figure of a man, whether young or old I cannot tell. He may be fifty, or he may be thirty. Sometimes he looks one, sometimes the other. There is something inexpressible about his face that I cannot solve. Perhaps, as he bears all burdens, he bears that of old age too. But so it is; his face is at once most venerable, yet most childlike, most calm, most sweet, most modest, beaming with sanctity and with loving kindness. His eyes rivet me and move my heart. His breath is all fragrant and transports me out of myself. Oh, I will look upon that face forever and will not cease.

“And I see suddenly someone come to him and raise his hand and sharply strike him on that heavenly face. It is a hard hand, the hand of a rude man, and perhaps has iron upon it. It could not be so sudden as to take by surprise him who knows all things past and future, and he shows no sign of resentment, remaining calm and grave as before; but the expression of his face is marred; a great welt arises, and in a short time that all-gracious face is hidden from me by the effects of this indignity, as if a cloud came over it.

“A hand was lifted up against the face of Christ. Whose hand was that? My conscience tells me: ‘You are the man.’ I trust it is not so with me now. But, O my soul, contemplate the awful fact. Fancy Christ before you, and fancy yourself lifting up your hand and striking him! You will say, ‘It is impossible: I could not do so.’ Yes, you have done so. When you sinned willfully, then you have done so. He is beyond pain now: still you have struck him, and had it been in the days of his flesh, he would have felt pain. Turn back in memory, and recollect the time, the day, the hour, when by willful mortal sin, by scoffing at sacred things, or by profaneness, or by hard hatred of your brother, or by acts of impurity, or by deliberate rejection of God’s voice, or in any other devilish way known to you, you have struck the All-Holy One.

“O injured Lord, what can I say? I am very guilty concerning you, my brother; and I shall sink in sullen despair if you do not raise me. I cannot look on you; I shrink from you; I throw my arms round my face; I crouch to the earth. Satan will pull me down if you do not take pity. It is terrible to turn to you; but oh, turn me, and so shall I be turned. It is a purgatory to endure the sight of you, the sight of myself – I most vile, you most holy. Yet make me look once more on you whom I have so incomprehensibly affronted, for your countenance is my only life, my only hope and health lies in looking on you whom I have pierced. So I put myself before you; I look on you again; I endure the pain in order to receive the purification.

“O my God, how can I look you in the face when I think of my ingratitude, so deeply seated, so habitual, so immovable – or rather so awfully increasing! You load me day by day with your favors and feed me with yourself, as you did Judas, yet not only do I not profit thereby, but I do not even make any acknowledgment at the time. Lord, how long? When shall I be free of this real, this fatal captivity? He who made Judas his prey has got foothold of me in my old age, and I cannot get loose. It is the same day after day. When will you give me a still greater grace than you have given, the grace to profit by the graces that you give? When will you give me your effectual grace, which alone can give life and vigor to this effete, miserable, dying soul of mine? My God, I know not in what sense I can pain you in your glorified state; but I know that every fresh sin, every fresh ingratitude I now commit, was among the blows and stripes that once fell on you in your Passion. Oh, let me have as little share in those past sufferings as possible. Day by day goes, and I find I have been more and more, by the new sins of each day, the cause of them. I know that at best I have a real share of them all, but still it is shocking to find myself having a greater and greater share. Let others wound you – let not me. Let me not have to think that you would have had this or that pang of soul or body the less, except for me. O my God, I am so fast in prison that I cannot get out. O Mary, pray for me.”

 

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