As this is the last Sunday of Advent, I thought I would share a poem that looks forward to the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord – Christmas Day. The poem in question is the The Burning Babe by Saint Robert Southwell; a piece that is shot through with a deep sense of urgency and wonder, piling on a series of startling images that take what we know about the Nativity of Christ and re-present them in order to allow us to see just how radical an event the Incarnation really is. The method employed by Southwell is partly rooted in scriptural typology, in the sense that he makes Christological connections to reference points from the Old Testament (principally the episode of Moses and the Burning Bush in Exodus 3), but he does so in a way that draws imaginative parallels instead of connecting Christ to the older narratives in terms of prophecy.
Just as Moses, when confronted with the presence of God in the Burning Bush, was afraid of what he had encountered, falling to the ground because of the holiness that was before him, here Saint Robert Southwell imagines himself in a bitterly cold winter’s night suddenly coming across an intense heat and light. Just like Moses, he lifts up a ‘fearful eye’ to see from whence the heat and light came, but finds there instead a lonely child. Moreover, the great burning heat that emanates from the babe is revealed to be fuelled and stoked not by any earthly means, but by justice and mercy, whilst the fire itself is Love. The Babe goes on to explain that ‘the metal in this furnace wrought are men’s defilëd souls’ – that whilst the intensity of the heat and light of the encounter is borne of a great tenderness, it is no less holy, no less a challenge to us:
As I in hoary winter’s night stood shivering in the snow,
Surprised I was with sudden heat which made my heart to glow;
And lifting up a fearful eye to view what fire was near,
A pretty babe all burning bright did in the air appear;
Who, scorchëd with excessive heat, such floods of tears did shed
As though his floods should quench his flames which with his tears were fed.
Alas, quoth he, but newly born in fiery heats I fry,
Yet none approach to warm their hearts or feel my fire but I!
My faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel wounding thorns,
Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns;
The fuel justice layeth on, and mercy blows the coals,
The metal in this furnace wrought are men’s defilëd souls,
For which, as now on fire I am to work them to their good,
So will I melt into a bath to wash them in my blood.
With this he vanished out of sight and swiftly shrunk away,
And straight I callëd unto mind that it was Christmas Day.
By describing the Nativity of Our Lord in terms of the great and terrible holiness of the Burning Bush, and employing the language often found in the Prophets of divine furnaces honing the souls of men, Southwell reminds us that, whilst Christmas should indeed be a comfort to us (the fire, he writes, ‘made my heart to glow’) we do not therein encounter something insipid or saccharine, and are not merely told that we are ‘alright as we are’ and left to dwell in self-satisfied ease. Christ comes in weakness and humility, as a wailing child, born into poverty and peril; but His coming in this way, shows us what God (who will one day judge us all) is like and what He truly values – that ‘his mercy is on those who fear him’ and that the proud are therefore scattered ‘in the imagination of their hearts’ whilst He has ‘exalted those of low degree’ (Luke 1:50-52).
This revelation of God’s true nature and what He deems important should be deeply challenging to us all, given how deeply we cling to the stories we tell ourselves of our innate goodness and prestige, how much we deserve from God and neighbour and the excuses we so creatively conjure up to mask the reality of our connivance, jealousies, malicious speech, and the acts of dishonesty or meanness committed when we think noone is looking. The subtlety of our sins, and the degree to which we have become used to them, does not do anything to erase them, and so Christmas, if we take seriously what it means, must remain a great interruption for us – a shock to wake us from our indolence and complacency.
Saint Robert, in another poem of his (New Heaven, New War – memorably set to music by Benjamin Britten in his Ceremony of Carols), wrote of Our Lord that ‘His battering shots are babish cries, His arrows looks of weeping eyes’. This captures well the central import of the poem above and thus of Christmas in general – namely that, though it be by meekness and not by force, God wishes to conquer the sin in us and make clean our souls, putting a right spirit within us; to thereby make right His creation through us and finally to make us His. He knows that the things we so often put first are wants of a secondary nature and that the desires of our hearts can only find true fulfilment in Him, and so He means to bring us to Himself in and through the furnace of divine Love – a love that was first revealed in the clamours of the Child at Bethlehem.