They Watched for Break of Day

For centuries before He came on earth, prophet after prophet was upon his high tower, looking out for Him, through the thick night, and watching for the faintest glimmer of the dawn. “I will stand upon my watch,” says one of them, “fix my feet upon the tower, and I will watch to see what will be said to me. For, as yet, the vision is far off, and it shall appear at the end, and shall not lie; if it make any delay, wait for it, for it shall surely come, and it shall not be slack.” Another prophet says, “O God, my God, to Thee do I watch at break of day. For Thee my soul hath thirsted in a desert land, where there is no way nor water.” And another, “To Thee have I lifted up my eyes, who dwellest in the heaven; as the eyes of servants on the hands of their masters, as the eyes of the handmaid towards her mistress.” And another, “O that Thou wouldst rend the heavens, and come down! – the mountains would melt away at Thy presence. They would melt, as at the burning of fire; the waters would burn with fire. From the beginning of the world the eye hath not seen, O God, besides Thee, what things Thou hast prepared for them that wait on Thee.”

Now, if there were any men who had a right to be attached to this world, not detached from it, it was the ancient servants of God. This earth was given them as their portion and reward by the very word of the Most High. Our reward is future; the Jew was promised a temporal reward. Yet they put aside God’s good gift for His better promise; they sacrificed possession to hope. They would be content with nothing short of the fruition of their Creator; they would watch for nothing else than the face of their Deliverer. If earth must be broken up, if the heavens must be rent, if the elements must melt, if the order of nature must be undone, in order to His appearing, let the ruin be, rather than they should be without Him. Such was the intense longing of the Jewish worshipper, looking out for that which was to come; and I say that their very eagerness in watching and patience in waiting, were of a nature to startle the world, and to impress upon it the claims of Christianity to be accepted as true; for their perseverance in looking out proves that there was something to look out for.

Nor were the Apostles, after our Lord had come and gone, behind the Prophets in the keenness of their apprehension, and the eagerness of their longing for Him. The miracle of patient waiting was continued. When He went up on high from Mount Olivet, they kept looking up into heaven; and it needed Angels to send them to their work, before they gave over. And ever after, still it was Sursum corda with them. “Our conversation is in heaven,” says St. Paul; that is, our citizenship, and our social duties, our active life, our daily intercourse, is with the world unseen; “from whence, also, we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ.” And again, “If you be risen with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God. Mind the things that are above, not the things that are upon the earth; for ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ shall appear, who is your life, then you also shall appear with Him in glory. . . .”

This energetic, direct apprehension of an unseen Lord and Saviour has not been peculiar to Prophets and Apostles; it has been the habit of His Holy Church, and of her children, down to this day. Age passes after age, and she varies her discipline, and she adds to her devotions, and all with the one purpose of fixing her own and their gaze more fully upon the person of her unseen Lord. She has adoringly surveyed Him, feature by feature, and has paid a separate homage to Him in every one. She has made us honour His Five Wounds, His Precious Blood, and His Sacred Heart. She has bid us meditate on His infancy, and the Acts of His ministry; His agony, His scourging, and His crucifixion. She has sent us on pilgrimage to His birthplace and His sepulchre, and the mount of His ascension. She has sought out, and placed before us, the memorials of His life and death; His crib and holy house, His holy tunic, the handkerchief of St. Veronica, the cross and its nails, His winding sheet, and the napkin for His head.

And so, again, if the Church has exalted Mary or Joseph, it has been with a view to the glory of His sacred humanity. If Mary is proclaimed as immaculate, it illustrates the doctrine of her Maternity. If she is called the Mother of God, it is to remind Him that, though He is out of sight, He, nevertheless, is our possession, for He is of the race of man. If she is painted with Him in her arms, it is because we will not suffer the Object of our love to cease to be human, because He is also divine. If she is the Mater Dolorosa, it is because she stands by His cross. If she is Maria Desolata, it is because His dead body is on her lap. If, again, she is the Coronata, the crown is set upon her head by His dear hand.

And, in like manner, if we are devout to Joseph, it is as to His foster-father; and if he is the saint of happy death, it is because he dies in the hands of Jesus and Mary.

And what the Church urges on us down to this day, saints and holy men down to this day have exemplified. Is it necessary to refer to the lives of the Holy Virgins, who were and are His very spouses, wedded to Him by a mystical marriage, and in many instances visited here by the earnests of that ineffable celestial benediction which is in heaven their everlasting portion? The martyrs, the confessors of the Church, bishops, evangelists, doctors, preachers, monks, hermits, ascetical teachers, – have they not, one and all, as their histories show, lived on the very name of Jesus, as food, as medicine, as fragrance, as light, as life from the dead? – as one of them says, “in aure dulce canticum, in ore mel mirificum, in corde nectar cœlicum.”


Nor is it necessary to be a saint thus to feel: this intimate, immediate dependence on Emmanuel, God with us, has been in all ages the characteristic, almost the definition, of a Christian. It is the ordinary feeling of Catholic populations; it is the elementary feeling of every one who has but a common hope of heaven. I recollect years ago, hearing an acquaintance, not a Catholic, speak of a work of devotion, written as Catholics usually write, with wonder and perplexity, because (he said) the author wrote as if he had “a sort of personal attachment to our Lord”; “it was as if he had seen Him, known Him, lived with Him, instead of merely professing and believing the great doctrine of the Atonement.”

It is this same phenomenon which strikes those who are not Catholics, when they enter our churches. They themselves are accustomed to do religious acts simply as a duty; they are serious at prayer time, and behave with decency, because it is a duty. But you know, my Brethren, mere duty, a sense of propriety, and good behaviour, these are not the ruling principles present in the minds of our worshippers. Wherefore, on the contrary, those spontaneous postures of devotion? why those unstudied gestures? why those abstracted countenances? why that heedlessness of the presence of others? why that absence of the shame-facedness which is so sovereign among professors of other creeds? The spectator sees the effect; he cannot understand the cause of it. Why is this simple earnestness of worship? we have no difficulty in answering. It is because the Incarnate Saviour is present in the tabernacle; and then, when suddenly the hitherto silent church is, as it were, illuminated with the full piercing burst of voices from the whole congregation, it is because He now has gone up upon His throne over the altar, there to be adored. It is the visible Sign of the Son of Man, which thrills through the congregation, and makes them overflow with jubilation. . . .

There is just one Name in the whole world that lives; it is the Name of One who passed His years in obscurity, and who died a malefactor’s death. Eighteen hundred years have gone since that time, but still It has Its hold upon the human mind. It has possessed the world, and It maintains possession. Amid the most various nations, under the most diversified circumstances, in the most cultivated, in the rudest races and intellects, in all classes of society, the Owner of that great Name reigns. High and low, rich and poor acknowledge Him. Millions of souls are conversing with Him, are venturing at His word, are looking for His presence. Palaces, sumptuous, innumerable, are raised to His honour; His image, in its deepest humiliation, is triumphantly displayed in the proud city, in the open country; at the corners of streets, on the tops of mountains. It sanctifies the ancestral hall, the closet, and the bedchamber; it is the subject for the exercise of the highest genius in the imitative arts. It is worn next the heart in life; it is held before the failing eyes in death.

Here, then, is One who is not a mere name; He is no empty fiction; He is a substance; He is dead and gone, but still He lives,—as the living, energetic thought of successive generations, and as the awful motive power of a thousand great events. He has done without effort, what others with lifelong, heroic struggles have not done. Can He be less than Divine? Who is He but the Creator Himself, who is sovereign over His own works; towards whom our eyes and hearts turn instinctively, because He is our Father and our God?

My Brethren, I have assumed that we are what we ought to be; but if there be any condition or description of men within the Church who are in danger of failing in the duty on which I have been insisting, it is ourselves. If there be any who are not waiting on their Lord and Saviour, not keeping watch for Him, not longing for Him, not holding converse with Him, it is they who, like ourselves, are in the possession, or in the search, of temporal goods.

Those saintly souls, whose merits and satisfactions almost make them sure of heaven, they, by the very nature of their state, are feeding on Christ. Those holy communities of men and women, whose life is a mortification, they, by their very profession of perfection, are waiting and watching for Him. The poor, those multitudes who pass their days in constrained suffering, they, by the stern persuasion of that suffering, are looking out for Him. But we, my Brethren, who are in easy circumstances, or in a whirl of business, or in a labyrinth of cares, or in a war of passions, or in the race of wealth, or honour, or station, or in the pursuits of science or of literature, alas! we are the very men who are likely to have no regard, no hunger or thirst, no relish for the true bread of heaven and the living water.

“The Spirit and the Bride say, Come; and he that heareth, let him say, Come. And he that thirsteth, let him come; and he that will, let him take of the water of life, freely.” God in His mercy rouse our sluggish spirits, and inflame our earthly hearts, that we may cease to be an exception in His great family, which is ever adoring, praising, and loving Him.


*Image: The Adoration of the Shepherds by Lorenzo Lotto, c. 1534 [Musei Civici d’Arte e Storia, Brescia, Italy]. Below is an expanded part of the painting – the Lamb of God and a lamb:

John Henry Newman (1801-1890) was made a cardinal by Leo XIII in 1879, beatified by Benedict XVI in 2010, and canonized by Pope Francis on October 13, 2019. He was among the most important Catholic writers of the last several centuries.