The year was 1595. Elizabeth I was Queen of England and the Catholic faith was outlawed. Shakespeare wrote some his most famous plays: Richard II, Romeo and Juliet, and A Midsummer’s Night Dream.
Early that same year, a distant cousin of Shakespeare wrote his final poetry while imprisoned in the Tower of London. St. Robert Southwell. Southwell a Catholic convert, Jesuit priest, and martyr, would be drawn and quartered on February 21st, after six years of clandestine ministry in England. Later that year, however, he would have the final word with a collection of poems that was published under the title of St. Peter’s Complaint. The historian Michael Wood, in his documentary In Search of Shakespeare, notes that the volume was dedicated to “to my worthy good cosen Maister W. S,” claiming that the dedication was meant to influence Shakespeare’s writing.
Within that volume we find St. Robert Southwell’s most famous poem, “The Burning Babe.”
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, scorchèd with excessive heat,
Such floods of tears did shed,
As though His floods should quench His flames,
Which with His tears were bred:
‘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, shames and scorns;
The fuel Justice layeth on,
And Mercy blows the coals,
The metal in this furnace wrought
Are men’s defilèd 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 vanish’d out of sight
And swiftly shrunk away,
And straight I callèd unto mind
That it was Christmas Day.
Fire and tears. Purity of heart and abandonment. Metal and blood.
St. Robert Southwell shows us so powerfully what is at stake at Christmas. The newborn Christ, though innocent, already suffers from the abandonment of souls. His pure heart burns for love of souls and literally burns up their sins, which fuel the fire of his heart, with the result that souls are purified and made to shine like metal.
I find it fascinating that the day after Christmas is the feast of the first martyr, St. Stephen. The feast of the proto-martyr sharpens our understanding of the Incarnation. Christmas is not simply a quaint feast, but one that requires a decision. The prophecy of Simeon at Christ’s Presentation makes this reality clear:
This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too (Luke 2:34-35).
The newborn Babe brings peace, but a peace that must cut through sin, serve as a sign of contradiction, and ultimately bring repentance. Accepting this Babe and his burning love ultimately will require suffering, accepting the gentle yoke of Christ that will beat us like metal. It will require a sword to pierce our soul, like Our Lady’s, that our tears may join to that of the Babe’s, so that he will no longer suffer alone.
This brings us back to Southwell. The fact that this poem came out in the fateful year of his death, 1595, shows us the power of his understanding of Christmas. He saw his homeland torn away from the faith, increasing the pain received by the Babe, but also increasing the need to suffer with him for souls. Southwell’s vision of the Babe must have strengthened his own resolve to suffer in love, to purify his own soul and those of others. The joyful and fearful power of Christmas prepared him for the sacrifice of his own life.
Shakespeare seems to have taken note of this poem, once again according to Wood, using similar imagery 11 years later in Macbeth Act 1, scene 7. It is in this scene that Macbeth enters into his final contemplation of the evil he is about to commit. Realizing that he cannot escape the consequences of justice and that Duncan is innocent, he says:
And Pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven’s Cherubins, hors’d
Upon the sightless couriers of the air,
Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye,
That tears shall drown the wind.
Here the babe is not necessarily the newborn Christ, but Pity crying out for tears at the injustice done.
How starkly does Lady Macbeth’s answer to Macbeth’s hesitation contrast with the earlier image of a babe:
I have given suck, and know
How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.
And thus evil wins out over the babe of Pity.
The image, though, of dashing the babe, strikes at a primary evil of our own culture. Does the newborn Christ weep for us, as we rejoice at the birth of this Babe and then dash so many others to pieces in our county? Just as St. Stephen’s feast day teaches us about Christmas, so we also find the feast of the Holy Innocents within the Christmas octave. The burning Babe draws to himself those other babes killed unjustly in their innocence. The feast also shows us in particular the need to bring the power of Christmas to bear on our world in repentance and healing!
St. Robert Southwell’s interpretation of the newborn Christ burning to overcome sin and weeping provides a powerful image of God’s love and the effects of our sin. The power of this image may have inspired his cousin Shakespeare, but it can also inspire us as we celebrate this Christmas season. May the martyr’s Christmas poem deepen our understanding of the Incarnation and move us to make this season not only one of joy, but also one of repentance and reparation.