Category Archives: poetry

Reflections on Midnight Mass

A parishioner who came to our midnight Mass kindly wrote to say “I just wanted to let you know how much we loved the Midnight Mass. Everything was beautiful, as always. We absolutely loved having ‘In Dulci Jubilo’ as the final hymn after you had invited everyone to visit the gorgeous presepio. We hope that becomes an annual tradition as our final hymn.”

Another parishioner enjoyed hearing the Canon in Latin, with its timeless quality: “Hearing the Roman canon done in Latin is amazing, something like a time machine. Latin may not be natively spoken by anyone, but if there are 10s of 1000s of priests who can manage it, then it isn’t dead, either. Every now and then it’s good to bring in extended passages of Latin to remind us, through the sense of hearing, that the church goes back along an unbroken cable through time, all the way back to the days of imperial Rome.”

Christmas13-65It is most fitting to celebrate Mass at Christmas, not just to gather to sing joyful carols. Saint Peter Julian Eymard directly links Christmas and the Eucharist in this passage:

“The sacrifice begun at Bethlehem is consummated on the altar at Holy Mass. Oh! How touching is the Midnight Mass in the Christian world! We greet it long beforehand and are always glad to see it come around again. What is it that gives to our feast of Christmas its charm and that pours joy into our carols and rapture into our hearts, if not that on the altar Jesus is really born again, although in a different state? Do not our carols and our homages go straight to His very person? The object of our festive celebration as of our love is present. We really go to Bethlehem and we find there not a memory, not a picture, but the Divine Infant Himself.

He concealed His Divinity in order to familiarize man with God. He veiled His Divine glory as a first step to the veiling of His humanity… later in the Eucharist, He would ask man for a shelter for Himself, the matter for His Sacrament, vestments for His priest and His altar. This is how Bethlehem heralds the Eucharist.”

To quote Robert Southwell again, on God’s gift of himself to us:

“Gift better than Himself God doth not know,
Gift better than God no man can see;
This gift doth here the giver given bestow
Gift to this gift let each receiver be;
God is my gift, Himself He freely gave me,
God’s gift am I, and none but God shall have me.”

Christ Is Coming

As daylight leaves and winter twilight pours over the city on Christmas Eve, quiet follows. Time has run out to shop and cook. Everyone is tired and glad to sit down. But candles are burning and it feels like the world is waiting. Christ is coming. From the Cherubikon, Byzantine Divine Liturgy:

We, who mystically represent the Cherubim,
And chant the thrice-holy hymn to the Life-giving Trinity,
Let us set aside the cares of life
That we may receive the King of all,
Who comes invisibly escorted by the Divine Hosts.

He comes at Christmas, and he comes hidden in the Sacrament of the Altar. This birth is to the wonderment of nature, and to us. Enjoy this poem on the Nativity of Christ from Jesuit priest, poet, and martyr.

The Nativity Of Christ
By Robert Southwell

Behold the father is his daughter’s son,
The bird that built the nest is hatch’d therein,
The old of years an hour hath not outrun,
Eternal life to live doth now begin,
The word is dumb, the mirth of heaven doth weep,
Might feeble is, and force doth faintly creep.

O dying souls! behold your living spring!
O dazzled eyes! behold your sun of grace!
Dull ears attend what word this word doth bring!
Up, heavy hearts, with joy your joy embrace!
From death, from dark, from deafness, from despairs,
This life, this light, this word, this joy repairs.

Gift better than Himself God doth not know,
Gift better than his God no man can see;
This gift doth here the giver given bestow,
Gift to this gift let each receiver be:
God is my gift, Himself He freely gave me,
God’s gift am I, and none but God shall have me.

Man alter’d was by sin from man to beast;
Beast’s food is hay, hay is all mortal flesh;
Now God is flesh, and lies in manger press’d,
As hay the brutest sinner to refresh:
Oh happy field wherein this fodder grew,
Whose taste doth us from beasts to men renew!

Robert Southwell, Poet, Witness, Saint

To be a martyr is to be a witness. A man who wishes to witness will bring forth treasures he has from his storehouse, to spend them on behalf of his Master. When those treasures consist of Holy Orders, an education with the Jesuits, a brave spirit, and the imagination of a poet, the result is a Saint Robert Southwell, a priest and a writer of prose and poetry. One of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales, he was executed in 1595, for the alleged crime of treason.

His writing was circulated and was popular in his lifetime. Some was probably set to music. (Modern composers including Benjamin Britten still set some of his works to music. See parts of Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols). His writing influenced English writers of the time, probably including Shakespeare. He was a missionary in England for six years before he was arrested. Once imprisoned, he was treated cruelly, left in the Tower for three years and tortured thirteen times.

Finally his execution date was set. From “They Died at Tyburn”: ‘Arrived at Tyburn he made the sign of the Cross as well as he could with his manacled hands, and then began to speak to the people in the words of the Apostle”: “Whether we live, we live to the Lord, or whether we die, we die to the Lord; therefore, whether we live or whether we die, we belong to the Lord.”‘

Many were grieved at his execution, possibly including queen Elizabeth. He seems always to have been determined to place all of his life, including his literary gifts, into the service of Christ, as a witness. Here in this season of Advent, enjoy this poem by Southwell.

The Burning Babe
By Saint Robert Southwell

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, scorchëd with excessive heat,
such floods of tears did shed
As though his floods should quench his flames
which with his tears were fed.
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 shame and scorns;
The fuel justice layeth on, and mercy blows the coals,
The metal in this furnace wrought are men’s defilëd 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 vanished out of sight and swiftly shrunk away,
And straight I callëd unto mind
that it was Christmas day.

Please see these links for more poems and information on Robert Southwell, SJ, poet and martyr:

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/robert-southwell  – A good essay
http://www.pbs.org/shakespeare/players/player40.html
http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14164a.htm
http://www.luminarium.org/renlit/southbib.htm
http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=4620
http://www.therealpresence.org/archives/Saints/Saints_021.htm