Sunday, January 03, 2021

Reflection on a 400-year old poem

I am thankful for the opportunity to write for our new parish magazine. They invited me to write a reflection on the poem and due date was thanksgiving. Thank you to Husband who edited.

Text I sent in:

Breaking the Bounds of Fear and Sin:                               
The Surprisingly Timelessness of a Small Christmas Poem

A Reflection on Robert Southwell's The Nativity of Christ

by Ana Braga-Henebry, M.A.

After almost five centuries, this small poem by the English Catholic poet and martyr St. Robert Southwell, SJ comes to our aid. Curious that a poem about the Nativity speaks of despair, weeping, deafness and dumbness, death and darkness. Yet these themes are much around us in 2020.

Let us remember that his age was also full of fear, darkness, sickness, and more: persecution, torture, and execution. These loomed every day in the life of Fr. Southwell and the other missionary priests who dared to teach and practice the Catholic faith in Elizabethan England.

His lines, written in prison while he awaited execution, bring us today what he was able to bring then to his readers, mostly fellow prisoners. They were all martyrs for their beloved Catholic faith, in a time and place when religious liberty was but a faint hope. Southwell made this hope alive in his verses.

The first stanza ponders the mystery of Christ incarnate, born a tiny baby and laid upon the hay, feeble. The saving action of God at work through the mire and mess of our human condition. What can bring more hope than the Nativity of Christ? To think that God is acting still in the very messy world as this dreadful year closes! He is here, now, everywhere. With eyes of faith, we see Him in our homes, in our neighbor, and in the myriad opportunities He opens for us.

Joy overcoming darkness jumps at us in the very first line of the second stanza. In how many ways does the joy of salvation insist on overcoming death! The weight of darkness, of numbness, of despair, none of these are a match for the joy of salvation. The poet juxtaposes despairs with repairs—a perfect reminder of the essence of the Nativity.

The third stanza examines Christ as a gift from God. God and gift in alliterative rhythm jump from line to line, pressing the point that no higher gift can ever be given, or received. God sends us the gift of Himself, as we, in turn, can be our best gifts laying our lives and our wills at His feet. God mends our lamentable condition, transforming us "from beast to man".

Southwell closes his poem with two earth-bound lines: Oh happy field wherein this fodder grew/Whose taste doth us from beasts to men renew! In what better manner could the poet bring us such comfort and hope! He reminds us that we are able to transcend our quotidian existence, rooted in soil and in time—the happy field where the fodder grew. By faith and contemplation of the Nativity, we are remade, from beasts to men!

Coming to us through the wheels of the centuries, the small poem by the prison-bound saint is surprisingly timely. The words stem from his dark time to ours, and breaks the bounds of fear and sin. May we all take his message to heart this Christmas season!  

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