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Christmas in a time of fire



The contrast between the European imagery of Christmas and its Australian reality has struck all immigrants since settlement. Christmas carols sing of cold starry nights and snow. The re-creation of an English Christmas dinner with its hot turkey, roast potatoes and steamed pudding in 40 degree heat, preceded by an appearance of a sweat-drenched Father Christmas, has continued to try the endurance of cooks and the temper of families.

The sun sets behind St Mary's Cathedral in smoke-hazed Sydney on 6 December 2019 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)This year the contrast between the original story of Christmas and its Australian circumstances has cut even deeper. Bushfires have taken lives, destroyed properties and spread smoke and ash over cities. Even holiday-makers who leave the city for the seaside and the country will cautiously study the weather forecasts and listen for fire alerts.

If the theme of the first Christmas was one of hope and joy, behind the bushfires this year lurks anxiety about the future of Australia, and indeed of the world. Are the high temperature, drought and destructive fires of this Christmas a preparation for a man-made world to come of merciless sunshine and burning?

The conjunction of Christmas with fear and loss, however, is not foreign but is part of the Christmas story. The bushfires that lap at Christmas this year remind us of one of the loveliest of the 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 the rejection, torture and death that brought salvation.

Given the circumstances of its composition, the poem is understandably unrelenting in turning away from easy sentiment. It begins with the narrator shivering. A sudden heat he experiences warms him but makes him anxious about its cause. The burning infant whose apparition is responsible for the rise in temperature 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 humanity is refined by his sufferings and death. In the image of the burning babe he finds space for all the details of the story of the salvation won by Christ.

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, extends beyond Jesus' birth to the death that brought salvation to the human race. That was the focus, too, of the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, in which the stories of Jesus' childhood are a prelude. Jesus' path through death to rising is anticipated in Herod's attempt to have him killed and in the sword which Simeon predicts will pierce Mary's heart.

The pain and conflict inherent in these details of the Christmas stories challenge any attempt to sentimentalise them. They are more than a celebration of family and of the gift of a new life. If the stories are domestic in their focus, it is because domestic situations are inherently precarious. Birth is never far from death; the peace and comforts of home are never safely distant from the terrors of violence, illness, unemployment and fire.

The Gospel stories, including those of Christmas, test any easy faith, any easy hope, by confronting them with the loss of all that we treasure. To believe in a loving and caring God must reckon with a God who allows a chosen one to be born in a stable and be a hairbreadth away from slaughter by Herod's soldiers. To trust in a God who promises a more just world must reckon with the knowledge that God allows that chosen one to be cut to pieces by the forces of injustice.

These challenges to faith and trust can be met only by a deeper trust in a God whose love is to be found in a death. To embroider Southwell's confronting image, radical trust invites us to hug the burning babe.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Main image: The sun sets behind St Mary's Cathedral in smoke-hazed Sydney on 6 December 2019. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Christmas, bushfires



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Existing comments

Thank you, Andrew. In the same sobering, paradoxical vein, Eliot's "Journey of the Magi" ends: " . . . this Birth/Was hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death./We returned to our places, these Kingdoms/But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,/With an alien people clutching their gods./I should be glad of another death."

John RD | 17 December 2019  

Brilliant, Andy. Like John RD, I turn to Eliot's poetry most especially at this time of the year. His "Journey of the Magi" is a masterpiece. The themes of paradox most beautifully illustrated in the poetry of Isaiah show the two-sided nature of God's character: mercy and judgment, grace and discipline, justice and forgiveness, exile and salvation. Isaiah's poetry is a vital part of the lectionary at Advent and Lent, a most notable combination. Where we live, either in a European winter or scorching Australian summer, is immaterial to the deep themes of Christmas.

Pam | 17 December 2019  

My thanks for this the third in the Christmas Commentary series. They were a catalyst in teasing out long forgotten memories which probably needed processing in more life affirming ways. Back in the 50's I lived in what was , at the time, the biggest aboriginal station in NSW. My parents were school teachers and very much missionary types. I have my father's diary written during that time and his notes reveal his struggles with bureaucracy and "the system" prevailing at the time. He also sacrificed his opportunities for quick promotion because of his principles. Later he was to work for many years with moderately mentally handicapped children. Our experiences ensured that we grew up restless for a better world for the marginalized. These Christmas pieces have thunderously promoted my desire to "live in the Kingdom" every day and to share this vision with all whom I meet. Bravo (and thanks) to all the writers and the commentators.

Ken Bridge | 18 December 2019  

Yes Fr Andrew, the life of Jesus was one of poverty, paradox and clashes with secular and religious leaders. Thrown to the Roman executioners to appease the Pharisees so they wouldnt lose their grip on power. Without our politicians taking off their rose coloured glasses and committing to some macro changes, like the channel from the Burdekin, Ross, Palmer to the Darling, all that annual Northern wet season rainfall will wash out to sea. We need to plant 5 billion trees to bring the rain back and we need national commitment to cloud seeding. And while we talk about different methods to create rain, like NASA's cloud machine touted by Jeremy Clarkson, the Gold Coast desalination plant remains idle. "The Gold Coast City Council initially developed a plan for a 55 ML/day desalination plant during 2005 which was anticipated to cost around $260 million. Due to worsening drought conditions, in 2006 the Queensland Government joined with the Gold Coast to expand the plan to a 133 ML/day plant that could share output with the entire region. The Queensland Government contributed $869 million to the expanded project, which was to be developed through a 50:50 joint venture. " (GC Fact sheet)

francis Armstrong | 18 December 2019  

Many thanks Andrew. Inspiring stuff!

Jim Bowler | 18 December 2019  

A lovely thought Father Andrew as we choke through a smoke laden Christmas in Eastern Australia , not to mention the forecast heatwave on its way. While in the UK and Northern Europe, they are wearing many layers during the dark, cold winter season , enjoying roasts and hot meals, we are experiencing near Armageddon like conditions in Australia, thanks to our profligate use of fossil fuels to power our lives. Having lived in both climes, the contrast is mind blowing!

Gavin O'Brien | 18 December 2019  

Again, Andy, one of your best—spot on both the ancient stories and our present situation.

Brendan | 18 December 2019  

Sting sings this poem at a concert in Durham cathedral... just google it... vibrant and, as he says, ‘jolly’... though I think the subject matter might be a little more sobering than the music suggests.

Mike H | 18 December 2019  

Thank you Andrew for your deeply, thought provoking article. Your words: 'The pain and conflict inherent in these Christmas stories challenge any attempt to sentimentalise them.....they are more than a celebration of family and of the gift of a new life....' They are a strong reminder to all of us that the Christmas story needs to be made relevant once again in peoples' lives. It means we have to look beyond our own comfort zones and become people who are prepared to reach out to do what we can for those who lack even the basic necessities of life.

Peggy Spencer | 18 December 2019  

I can't share the article's enthusiasm for the poem or the contention that the Babe was the furnace..Andrew left out the salient lines: “Alas!” quoth he, “but newly born, in fiery heats I fry, Yet none approach to warm their hearts or feel my fire but I! This would indicate a (young) Jesus complaining about his situation, being in the same furnace which shapes men's defiled souls. I excuse Southwell the metallurgical ignorance of the period, but Andrew doesn't get off so lightly... Southwell sees himself as the inspired, warmed smithy. The closing stanza lines Southwell says: 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.” That's the quench and temper, in fact, around that period various tools and weapons were tempered in blood (or urine), particularly favorite were red heads! Southwell wants to be the shaper of mens souls and the medium in which to toughen them. Exit Jesus, he's done his job. I think you've misconstrued the piece and should be more cautious in its use. Merry Christmas!

Ray | 18 December 2019  

Fr Andrew, correction to my remark about the Tugun desalination plant. Its to commence production by the end of the month able to produce 133 million gallons a day at a cost of $100,000 a week. No one knows the effect on local water bills but at least its going into production as the Hinze and Wivenhoe dams fall to 61% capacity.

francis Armstrong | 19 December 2019  

I can understand some not liking Robert Southwell's poem. There is, I think, the hint of Alchemy and transmutation by fire about it, but I think that wouldn't get through to the average person these days. The Elizabethan Age is remote from 21st Century Australia. Both Southwell and Jesus would've been regarded as traitors by their contemporaries, Southwell to the Church of England by Law Established of his day and Jesus both to the Jewish religious establishment of his time and the Millenarian Jews who expected him to establish the Kingdom by force of arms.

Edward Fido | 20 December 2019  

I was struck a few years back by Scott Hahn's observation that the occupants of heaven would find hell to be freezing cold. But, as he said, the translation of "Seraphim", the Hebraic name for the highest choir of angels, standing closest to God, is: "the burning ones". Hell is far from that "hunk o' burnin' love", as Elvis might have put it. "To Jesus' Heart all burning with fervent love for men ..." A little syrupy for our modern tastes, but the same essential truth. God bless.

HH | 20 December 2019  

The first line of The Burning Babe, "As I in hoary winters night stood shivering in the snow" contains a chilling echo of the poet's exploits in the winter of 1588 as described in a letter to Father General Aquaviva. "I have been on horseback round a great part of England in the bitterest time of the year, choosing bad roads and a foul sky for my pilgrimage, rather than waiting for the fair weather when all the Queen's messengers (informers) are on the prowl, much worse than any rainstorm or hurricane." I'm not surprised a missionary like Robert Southwell with his poetic sensitivity and irrespressible zeal to care for his fellow Catholics should be granted an apparition or an imagined vision of the Infant Jesus to console him in his discomfort. The poem reads to me like an answer to the prayer: "Sacred Heart of Jesus, burning with love of me, enflame my heart with love of Thee". The poem is a fine example of Wordsworth's dictum about poetry. "It takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity." I've never experienced burning zeal myself but Southwell gives me some insight into what motivated the English Martyrs under Elizbeth I.

Joseph Quigley | 20 December 2019  

Looking back on this which was written for Christmas 2019 is sobering... in fact so helpful Andrew because the intensity of fires have brought about a discussion about God.. and why some have been near to fires and survived and others who didn’t. Claims that some had Gods miracle and others who didn’t is fraught with danger.. Your article has a theological position that is balances and shows: “that the world must reckon with the knowledge that God allows that chosen one ( or any chosen one ) to be cut to pieces by the forces of injustice” Death is a reality that can touch anyone at any time... faith is another matter that keeps us beyond death.

Sheila | 19 January 2020  

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