Saint Robert Southwell, a 16th Century English Jesuit priest, was hung, drawn and quartered by the Elizabethan authorities on the 21st February 1595, ostensibly for treason, but in reality simply for carrying out his mission to administer the sacraments to those Catholics remaining in post-Reformation England (a much greater number than is popularly believed to be so). He is listed as one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales, and was canonised as such (along with Saint Edmund Campion, Saint Margaret Clitherow, etc) by Pope Paul VI in 1970.
He was also an accomplished poet, of high reputation during his lifetime, and (it has been suggested) was a strong influence on other poets such as George Herbert, Richard Crashaw, and William Shakespeare. Ben Jonson even said that had he written Southwell’s The Burning Babe, he would have been content to destroy many of his own poems. I am not going to post that particular poem, but instead his The Nativity of Christ – an intense and wondrous proclamation of the birth of our Lord. This poem deserves special commendation for the first line alone, in which is packed the whole mystery of God’s becoming man in Jesus Christ. But the poem as a whole is not only excellent devotional material, most suitable for the last Sunday in Advent, but also brilliant poetry (and I mean this literally, insofar as it in reading it I actually feel something of the light of Christ welling up within me).
One final point worth reflecting on is the connection between Southwell’s martyrdom and the Incarnation itself. As we look forward to commemorating the birth of Jesus, the enfleshment of God Himself, we should remember that the Incarnation continues through space and time in His Body, the Church, and that it was for the fundamental truth that this Body cannot be broken and cannot be politicised or individualised that Southwell died. As we meditate on the entrance of Christ into the world as man, let us also meditate on the continuation of His presence here, through his Church, and all the witnesses to that sacred presence through the ages:
Behold the father is his daughter’s son,
The bird that built the nest is hatch’d therein,
The old of years an hour hath not outrun,
Eternal life to live doth now begin,
The word is dumb, the mirth of heaven doth weep,
Might feeble is, and force doth faintly creep.
O dying souls! behold your living spring!
O dazzled eyes! behold your sun of grace!
Dull ears attend what word this word doth bring!
Up, heavy hearts, with joy your joy embrace!
From death, from dark, from deafness, from despairs,
This life, this light, this word, this joy repairs.
Gift better than Himself God doth not know,
Gift better than his God no man can see;
This gift doth here the giver given bestow,
Gift to this gift let each receiver be:
God is my gift, Himself He freely gave me,
God’s gift am I, and none but God shall have me.
Man alter’d was by sin from man to beast;
Beast’s food is hay, hay is all mortal flesh;
Now God is flesh, and lies in manger press’d,
As hay the brutest sinner to refresh:
Oh happy field wherein this fodder grew,
Whose taste doth us from beasts to men renew!