Robert_SouthwellYear B Christmas

Not everyone knows this, but William Shakespeare had a distant cousin, the now-sainted Robert Southwell. Southwell became a priest at a time when it was actually illegal to be a priest in England, during the 17th century under the reign of Queen Elizabeth. He government was secularist and aggressive and, like so many other martyr-priests before him, Southwell offered secret Masses at night and spent his days hiding like a rat in a priest hole. Eventually he was caught, sent to the Tower of London, and paid for his faith with his life, but he spent his time in prison well. In addition to being tortured for three years, he wrote poems. He wrote really, really good poems. So good, in fact, that Shakespeare says that out of the two or them, Southwell is more talented. It’s funny, he’s one the greatest poets of the age, but instead of lasting fame he received a martyr’s crown. I imagine that now that he is heaven he is happy with the trade.

One of the last poems he wrote was actually a Christmas poem called “The Burning Babe.” In it, he describes standing the winter snow and having a vision of a child, all on fire but unharmed like the burning bush that Moses saw. The child says,

‘My faultless breast the furnace is;
The fuel, wounding thorns;
Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke;
The ashes, shames and scorns;

And then Southwell wakes from his vision and remembers that it is Christmas day. He has spoken to the Christ child, newly born and yet already crowned with thorns, surrounded by fire and tears.

This is so important for us to realize. The joy of Christmas, the overwhelming sense of goodwill and happiness, the angels shouting the good news, the children dressed up like sheep in the Christmas play, tomorrow morning when we’re all tearing into the gifts and throwing wrapping paper all over the living room, our local crew from Babe’s who go through the neighborhood caroling and having a great time, all of this hits so close to our hearts not because this is a holiday where we simply play around for the sake of having a good time, the joy of this Day is because it is very, very serious. God has joined us, and even in his crib as an infant he is ready to abandon his own life to save us. And the good news is that, because God takes sin and death seriously, we can too, without guilt but embracing forgiveness and the freedom to move on to the future because he has finally provided a way for us to conquer our weaknesses. And when we take our spiritual life seriously and come to the side of the Christ child and adore him and repent of our sins, love becomes the fire that burns away our past and we are made ready for the future. This is how much God loves you.

It isn’t simply December 24(25) today. It the anniversary of the day the world changed forever. Christmas is a privileged opportunity to meditate on the meaning and mystery of our existence, to encounter anew the merciful kindness of God and his saving power. With humility and rejoicing, may we make ourselves ready to receive his gift.


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