December 25 is Christmas Day
This year, we celebrate Christmas in the shadow of terrible bushfires. The reality of climate change and its effects have challenged the simple child-like joy and thanksgiving we associate with Christmas. For people who have suffered in the bushfires and for those who still fear them, to mine Christmas joy out of the unyielding rock of hardship will be difficult.
The conjunction of Christmas with fear and terror, however, is not foreign to Christmas, but is part of the Christmas story. The bushfires that lap at Christmas this year remind us of one of the loveliest English Christmas poems, The Burning Babe. Jesuit Robert Southwell wrote it at a time when his own horizon was bounded by the likelihood of torture and execution. He was tortured, hung, drawn and quartered in 1595. His poem encompasses not only Jesus’ birth, but his rejection and the death that brought us salvation.
The poem is unrelenting in its turning away from easy sentiment. It begins with the narrator shivering. The sudden heat he experiences warms him but makes him anxious about its cause. The burning infant whose apparition is responsible is scorched by the heat and weeps uncontrollably:
As I in hoary winter’s night stood shivering in the snow,
Surpris’d 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, scorched with excessive heat, such floods of tears did shed
As though his floods should quench his flames which with his tears were fed.
Southwell goes on to describe Jesus as a furnace in which we are refined by his sufferings and death. He finds space in his image for all the details of the story of our salvation:
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 defiled souls,
Southwell’s vision, of course, picks up the ominous hints of pursuit and death in the stories of Jesus’ childhood told in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. These stories are a prelude to the principal concern of the Gospels with Jesus’ path to death and rising from the dead. The danger that he will meet is anticipated in Herod’s attempt to have him killed and in the sword which Simeon predicts will pierce Mary’s heart.
In a time of bushfire, Christmas reminds us that Jesus shared our human life with all its uncertainties, its betrayals, its hopes and its afflictions. As we face bushfire we remind ourselves that we join all the people who at this and other Christmas times face flood, famine, exile, homelessness, war and loss of people they love. And we remind ourselves that Jesus shared our life, anxieties and loss. And our heart goes out to them in compassion and in hope. They become part of our family as the Christmas stories bid.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.