Robert Southwell, an English poet and contemporary of Shakespeare, was also a Jesuit priest and martyr during the reign of Elizabeth I. He wrote beautiful religious poetry that was explicit and bold in its defense of the truths of the faith.
One of his most famous recounts the poet’s vision on a Christmas Day of the infant Christ. The babe is not, however, sleeping peacefully in the manger. He is, rather, burning brightly, as if on fire. The fire which envelopes the babe intimates the trial that Christ will undergo, and the furnace of his passion and death. The flames also beckon the poet to the warmth of Christ’s love and the purification of suffering. Southwell entitles his poem “The Burning Babe,” and undoubtedly means to allude to the burning bush from Exodus 3.
We remember the burning bush, out of which God spoke to Moses and revealed his name and his plan to save Israel from slavery in Egypt. We remember that the bush was on fire but not consumed by the flames. We remember that it was an awesome display of God’s transcendence and mystery, of his power and his glory. St. Robert Southwell seems to be saying that the birth of Christ in Bethlehem is comparable to the theophany of God, the revelation of God himself to Moses, on Mount Horeb.
Way to go, Robert Southwell!
In all of salvation history, in the whole story of Israel told in the Old Testament, there is no one closer to the all-powerful and awesome God than Moses. He is the only one in Scripture who is said to speak to God face-to-face. And even then, Moses always covered his eyes and only got glimpses of God’s glory. He had to veil his face before the other Israelites when he finished speaking with God, because his face had become transfigured with God’s own radiance.
In other words, when God reveals himself personally and nearly completely to Moses in the burning bush and the meeting tent at the time of the Exodus, He does so in all his radiance and glory, with overwhelming power and majesty, as a mystery that produces fear and trembling. He reveals himself as the great and ineffable “I Am Who Am”.
That is, until tonight, on Christmas night. On Christmas night, the burning bush becomes a newborn baby, and the great “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” becomes, unbelievably, as Luke tells us, “an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” Matthew is even more explicit is his Gospel. The great “I Am Who Am” becomes Emmanuel, “God With Us.” “I Am Who Am” becomes “I Am With You.”
Here is how the great preacher, Archbishop Fulton Sheen, put it:
. . .this Child is the Incarnate Word, true God and true man; he is the Creator of the human race become man: he needs milk to nourish him, but it is by his hand that the birds of the heavens are fed; he is born of a Mother, but he is the One who preexisted his own Mother and therefore he made her beautiful and sinless . . .; he lies upon straw on earth, and yet sustains the universe and reigns in Heaven; he is born in time, and yet he existed before all time, Maker of the stars under the stars; Ruler of the earth an outcast of earth; filling the world, lying in a manger. . .
On Christmas night the impossibly infinite, mysterious, ineffable and all-powerful Being, the hidden and remote God, has come out into the open, in Jesus. In Jesus, he is holdable, handable, approachable, visible, lovable. In the sacraments, he becomes communicable, accessible, useable, wearable, repeatable, breathable. In the Eucharist, he becomes even edible!
At the burning bush, by a miraculous sign, human being felt small and insignificant; now, at the crib, through the ordinary birth of a baby, the human soul feels its worth! At the burning bush, Moses took off his sandals and veiled his face; now, at the manger, we gaze into the naked face of God! At the burning bush, the Voice of God inspired awe; now the shivering, speechless infant inspires tenderness.
On Christmas night, God is not far, but near; God is not great, but little; God is not powerful, but vulnerable; God is not above, but beside and beneath; God is not judgment, but mercy; God is not only holy, but also love; God is not against us, but for us.
Archbishop Sheen, again, said it well:
[Christ] came to this poor earth of ours to carry on an exchange, to say to us, as only the Good God could say: “You give me your humanity, and I will give you my Divinity; you give me your time, and I will give you my eternity; you give me your weary body, and I will give you Redemption; you give me your broken heart, and will give you Love; you give me your nothingness, and I will give you My All.”
“I Am Who Am” has become “I Am With You”; now he and we are “with”
In its loose and slightly awkward English translation, the well-known French carol, O Holy Night, speaks of the infant beneath the star and the sages who find him:
The King of Kings lay thus in lowly manger! In all our trials born to be our friend;
He knows our need, to our weakness is no stranger!
By his entrance into our history and his embrace of our lowly estate, the Son of God shares our human experience. He shares the hidden life in the womb and the jarring expulsion of birth. He shares the miraculous and mundane processes of circulation, respiration, and digestion. He shares our sensitivity to heat and cold and our daytime wakefulness and our nightly sleep. He shares with us gnawing hunger and burning thirst, the grip of sickness and the wrench of pain. He knows what it is to toil, to love, to grieve, even to die.
Of all the things that he has shared with us, however, the one that moves me the most is mentioned in the beloved carol: He shares our need! He is no stranger to our weakness, to our dependencies and reliance on the generosity, goodness and compassion of others. In his incarnation, Jesus enters into our neediness.
Think of the help and the people that he required throughout his life: his mother’s last push from the womb into the world and from the wedding at Cana into his mission; Joseph’s blow to his back and into his nose to get him breathing; clothes and shelter and manger and straw provided by neighbors and strangers; Peter’s net for fish, Andrew’s way with a sail, James’ sense of currents and tides and wind, Susanna’s pouch of seasons and spices for the common pot, the delicate fingers of the wife of Chuza, so much smaller than his, to pluck the splinter or untie the knot; Simon of Cyrene’s shoulders to bear and share his burden; the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, the ointment and tenderness of Mary Magdalene.
Jesus’ way is the way of chosen powerlessness and weakness. He allows himself to be needy and vulnerable in order, perhaps, to reveal to us something we should know about ourselves: that we are meant to share strength and common concern, that we are necessarily connected to and reliant on one another, that we are to weave a graceful web of charity and solidarity together. No one else can save us save Jesus, but he has chosen to manifest and mediate his grace and saving plan through human bonds and human actions, through the cooperation and ministry of others, through the community of disciples, through his Church.
I am grateful for the ways that you have allowed us at St. Paul Inside the Walls to depend on you, and for your generosity to the work of Jesus that happens here. I am grateful for the ways that you have chosen to need us as you grow in your knowledge and love of the Lord. I am grateful for your prayers and your support of the mission of evangelization, which help us to respond to the deep spiritual needs of others, and to the greatest need that the world has, for Jesus.
Our Masses for Christmas, 10 pm on Christmas Eve and 11 am on Christmas Day (with our friend and founding Director, Father Geno Sylva), will be offered for the intention of our benefactors. I will be praying for you with the rest of our staff, and on behalf of all of us, wish you a blessed Christmas.
Father Paul S. Manning
Vicar for Evangelization
How do we respond to the U.S, Supreme Court's decision upholding same-sex marriage? With love for people and with dissent and civil opposition for the legal position.
When it comes to living in a diverse and pluralistic society, we know that Jesus' expectation is that we lead with love. Our deep desire is the good of others, for the growth in wholeness and holiness of our brothers and sisters in the human family. That means, first, responding to their innate dignity and worth with love and respect. It also means loving them enough to share with them the revealing truth of Jesus.
When it comes to discovering our human nature and living as authentically and morally as we can, we are, ultimately, servants of the truth and not its masters.
We can begin to think, as our culture does, that we are the truth's masters. We can begin to think that the truth about our human nature and our relationships is something that we decide and determine for ourselves. And so we can relate to whomever how ever we want.
Or we can recognize, as Christians, that we are merely servants of the truth. We can recognize that the truth about our human nature and relationships is known by God and revealed to us. We must discover that truth, and honor that truth, and abide by that truth and try to conform our lives to it.
The human story in Genesis 2 is repeated again when we make ourselves the masters of the truth. We appropriate for ourselves what is reserved to God, the knowledge of good and evil. We usurp his prerogatives at our own risk, courting loss, alienation and death.
And so our responsibility for love of God and love of neighbor, our service of his truth, supersedes any other duty, decision or human law.
Fr. Robert Barron, as usual, is helpul in clarifying our Catholic perspective on these weighty issues. I recommend the following articles:
One of my poetic heroes, Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ, was inclined to melancholy, and his work sometimes disclosed the gloom he felt in his soul. But he was consoled by the light of Christ and the shadow-shattering truth of His resurrection. For him, Jesus’ Easter triumphed in him as well, dropping and discarding the shrouds of sin and self, and revealing his essence, instilled in creation and restored in baptism, as an image of God after the pattern of His own Son. Hopkins expressed this in the last lines of one of his poems:
In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.
(from “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection”)
The Resurrection of Jesus is ours, too, since He was what we are. In the course of our lives, we observe ourselves in many states and stances, not all of them noble. We know ourselves as brutish and ordinary, as laughable, as broken and edgy, as partial, as splintered and brittle. In the midst of all this, though, or beneath or within it, is something in us that is enduring and beautiful and capable of brilliance. Christ reveals this to us. Christ enlivens this in us. Christ brings this to the fore. In spite of everything else we are, if we unite ourselves to Him, we are what He is: immortal diamond.
Diamonds, we know, are the product of great turmoil, high temperature and extreme pressure. They are formed in the crucible of nature’s forces from raw and unstable elements. They are mined from earth’s depths, and formed and faceted in the hands of a master cutter. They emerge, through trial, suffering and subtraction, as indestructible beauties. The Greeks called them “adamas”, adamantine, unbreakable. They are apt images for the passion and death that He and we all must undergo. They are also apt images for the enduring beauty of the eternal life that Jesus first is, and that He shares with us who entrust our lives to Him.
Saint Paul Inside the Walls is a place where diamonds in the rough are discovered, and where diamonds already fashioned are reset or polished or appreciated. It invites within its walls people who are seeking the great truth about themselves in relationship to God, or who are discovering its riches, or who are eager to reflect it in multi-faceted ways. I am grateful to you for allowing us to do this here, through your prayers and presence and support.
Our staff and community will remember you at Masses during this Easter season.
Rejoicing in the Resurrection and in you, sincerely,
Father Paul S. Manning
One of the forbidden things to say to another in the household of my youth was "Shut up!" To my parents, I think, not only was it rude, but it assumed an improper and disproportionate authority over other siblings.
I was curious, therefore, when I realized how Jesus speaks in Mark 1: 25. In his first healing in Mark's Gospel, of a man with an unclean spirit, Jesus speaks only five words composing two short commands. Our New American Bible politely translates them as "Quiet! Come out of him!" But the Greek is harsher: "Put a muzzle on it!" Jesus pretty much says, "Shut up! Get out!"
The harshness of Jesus' commands make sense when we realize he is addressing not the man, not a fellow human being, but the evil spirit who has imprisoned him. To the unclean spirit that defiles, divides, disrupts and desecrates, Jesus says "Shut up and get out! Get out of hearts, get out of my people, get out of the Temple, get out of the world!" And he commands, of course, with the authority that only he possesses as God.
In contemporary discourse, we hear and say the equivalent of "Shut up and get out!" more than we ought, and we speak it to one another. We no longer practice civility and reserve in how and what we say. Yet, to speak to our brothers and sisters this way is to usurp an authority that is not ours, and to assume a disproportionate and improper authority over other siblings.
But in the name of Jesus, to speak these words, first and foremost, and maybe even solely, to the unclean spirits that live in us is not a bad idea. We need to address our demons firmly and definitively with the authority of him who wants our wholeness and holiness. How often we let them scream, rage and run rampant over our good intentions and control our actions toward others. We need to tell them, in no uncertain terms, "Shut up! Get out!"
Excerpts from Homily for Christmas 2014
With our attention focused on the infant in the arms of Mary and in the care of Joseph, we might not grasp the great reversal that Christmas is for each of us.
Most of the time we want God to care for us. We expect that we will be the child, and that God will guide us and protect us and comfort us and love us. But Christmas reverses the roles.
Christmas asks us to care for God, to assume an adult responsibility for the infancy of God in the world. Christmas asks us, each of us, to care for the newborn, tiny presence of God, and to care for and grow him in our own lives, in our families, and in our world.
Somehow we think that Christ is going to become more obvious and more present and more loved in the world all by himself, without us. But he created and called us (not somebody else!) to do that. God cares enough about us and trusts us enough to have us care about him. And he comes as a child every year so that we can step up and become adults in faith.
If we celebrate Christmas every year "oohing" and "ahhing" over the cute baby Jesus and getting misty eyed and nostalgic about Christmases past, but never grow beyond our childish faith, and never take responsibility for the growth of the Christ-life in us or in others, we are missing the point of Christmas. Christ comes as a child so that we can become more faithful, generous, more loving, more providing, more protecting. Christ comes as a child so that we can become responsible adults, responsible for him.
I know we long to be held, cared for, and taken care of, but not tonight. Tonight God gets to be the baby. He needs us to be the adults.
Of all the apostles and disciples that loved and followed Jesus, that kept his company and travelled on the road with him and broke bread at his table, only a rare few stood by him in his greatest moment of need. Only John mentions that they did, and indicates, in part, who they were: the beloved disciple, a couple of his faithful femaie followers, and his Mother, saying and living the first "yes" to Jesus to the very last.
How many of us are willing to love Jesus and accept his favor until he asks us to stand with him in time of trial, or stand by him on the cross of suffering. Unlike Mary's, our "yes" is often conditional, partial, or impermanent.
How blessed would we be it what was said of her could be said of us, and we were found, in the end, "standing by the cross of Jesus."
Curiously, the Gospel text chosen for the Feast of the Birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary is Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus. Dominican Father Donagh O’Shea, in his commentary on the website Today’s Good News, gives a reason to ponder this text, Mt. 1:18-23 ,on the feast that celebrates the birth of his mother. “In a sense,” he says, “when a child is born, a mother is born.” In that moment, or perhaps when a child is first conceived in her womb and she knows it, a woman is redefined and newly conscious of herself as “mother”. Though Mary’s motherhood of Jesus was planned from all eternity, she experiences it first and for herself when Jesus takes flesh in her and is born of her. So on the feast of her birth, the Gospel of Matthew has us thinking of two births—her birth in flesh and grace from Joachim and Anna, and the birth of her beautiful, powerful motherhood of all of us at the birth of her son.
The prophet has foretold that he will be called “Emmanuel” or “God-with-us.” Matthew will reiterate the nearness and “everywhereness” of God in Christ Jesus at the end of his Gospel. Jesus appropriates the name foretold by the prophet when he says, “And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” In him, we will know a God who draws near and stays with us.
The first to know this, however, and to know the God who is this and who does this, is Mary. Remember that another evangelist, Luke, tells us that the angel said to her, when Jesus was conceived in her womb, “The Lord is with you.” In other words, Emmanuel, who will be “God-with-us”, first draws immediate and close to Mary. She experiences first and most deeply what Jesus will be for the whole human race. No wonder she is our mother. She is mother not only of Jesus born from her, but also of us, when he is born again in us.
Dear Friends of St. Paul Inside the Walls:
As I write to you in the latter part of March, cold and snow have yet to loosen their grip completely on our life and landscape. Our Lenten springtime has felt like winter.
And yet, in emerging buds and returning birds and spells of balmy weather, we sense that Easter is coming. With the 19th century poet Christina Rossetti, in her poem The Better Resurrection, we might hear ourselves saying:
My life is like a frozen thing,
No bud nor greenness can I see:
Yet rise it shall the sap of Spring;
O Jesus, rise in me.
Rise in us, he does, when we allow him into our lives. When our hearts soften and respond to beauty, singing conscious or unconscious praise to the One who created it; when our minds search for and begin to seize great truths that come from Truth itself; and when our wills conform themselves more closely to goodness, and our conduct begins to imitate the One who is Good, then the sap of Spring, the new life of the Resurrection, rises in us.
Even more, we rise in him. Jesus has, objectively and certainly, conquered death and passed over into life eternal. When we are united to him in baptism, and when that initial communion with him is sustained and promoted by the life of grace, especially through the other sacraments, we rise in him. The eternal life of intimate communion with God, first depicted in the Garden of Eden, begins already, to dwell and grow in us. And so we begin to see this world differently--as passing, yet full of potential. We begin to live differently--passionately here and now, and yet set on a higher purpose. And we face death differently--not as a painful end only, but as a challenging, hopeful transition and a bright beginning.
Saint Paul Inside the Walls is a place where his rising in us is intimated and experienced and proclaimed. It invites into its fold people who already know this, or who seek to know this, or who need to know this. I am grateful to you for allowing us to do this here, through your prayers and presence and support.
I will remember you at Masses during this Easter season.
Rejoicing in the Resurrection and in you, sincerely,
Father Paul S. Manning