he Old Testament is not a dead letter, but contains vital truths that Christians need to hear. John Henry Newman makes that abundantly clear in a number of his sermons, including the one (“Life the Season of Repentance”
) that we read for this week’s meeting of the Lenten Series at NINS. In this sermon, Newman looks back to the example of Esau
to warn his listeners against neglecting the gifts of God. Newman notes that, in selling his birthright
to his younger brother Jacob, Esau demonstrated that he “thought lightly of God’s great gift.” Because he failed to recognize “the worth of the birthright,” Esau ended up giving away something of almost inestimable value for a single bowl of stew.
It’s easy to read this account from Scripture and to cast aspersions on Esau. “How could he have been so foolish?” we wonder. “I’d never act that rashly,” we tell ourselves. Yet how often in our own lives do we make a similar, yet graver mistake by squandering the gifts of God—in our case, the graces that we receive through the sacraments—in exchange for some lesser good? As those who have been baptized into the family of God, we have such rich treasures available to us: the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the real presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, absolution in the confessional, etc. Yet so often our focus is elsewhere, on the things of this world, which may be good at some level but will not bring us lasting fulfillment.
When Newman first delivered this sermon, he did so during the season of Lent, so he used the opportunity to spur his listeners onto repentance. As we know from both experience and from divine revelation, the only time that is guaranteed to us is the time we have available now. Living in the light of this truth is so crucial in the search for lasting peace. Those who turn to God in their youth, Newman indicates, will be able to look back on their life in years to come and feel at peace about how they responded to God’s grace. On the flipside, persisting in sin after having been convicted about it will only be a source of regret as one grows older. This is what Newman is driving at when he contrasts the cry of authentic contrition with “the great and bitter cry” that Esau uttered when he realized the blessings of the birthright were lost to him forever (Gen. 27:34). Newman, with his characteristic forthrightness, captures the essential difference between these two types of cries:
“Which is better, to utter a bitter cry now or then [i.e., on the last day]?—then, when the blessing of eternal life is refused [us] by the just Judge at the last day, or now, in order that [we] may gain it? Let us be wise enough to have our agony in this world, not in the next. If we humble ourselves now, God will pardon us then. We cannot escape punishment, here or hereafter; we must take our choice, whether to suffer and mourn a little now, or much then.”
As I highlighted in a previous article, Newman’s Lenten-inspired insights can be difficult words to hear. Ultimately, though, his goal was not to saddle his audience with guilt, but to challenge them to seek God’s mercy. Thus, in the sermon under consideration Newman ends with a stirring affirmation that if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins (1 Jn. 1:9). As Newman summarizes the matter:
“And for those who have in any grievous way sinned or neglected God, I recommend such persons never to forget they have sinned; if they forget it not, God in mercy will forget it. I recommend them every day, morning and evening, to fall on their knees, and say, ‘Lord, forgive me my past sins.’ I recommend them to pray God to visit their sins in this world rather than in the next … Let them not cease to pray, under all circumstances, that God will pardon them, and give them back what they have lost. And thus, by God’s grace, it shall be restored to them, and Esau’s great and bitter cry never shall be theirs.”
If you’ve been away from the confessional for awhile, this Lent is as good a time as any to return, being fully confident that the mercy of God far exceeds any sins that you may have committed. Let us not be like Esau by squandering our spiritual inheritance, but instead fully embrace the privileges that are available to us as sons and daughters of God.