FROM St. Peter’s Complaint, 1595 THE BURNING BABE.
By 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.
A Christmas classic. Jesus is born, burning with love. Do we, the cold, know how to approach him?
At the invitation of a wonderful parishioner of Grace Church, I spent the day today meeting the reality and the people of the Seamen’s Church Institute in Newark, New Jersey. The Institute was founded by the Episcopal Church to respond to the pastoral and human needs of sailors coming into port at various places around the nation. This work of faith and hope and love has been continuous now for 176 years. One hundred and seventy-six years.
Today I met the able administrator and three priests, some of the good folks who make the SCI tick. And there are more: such as the 4500 hidden knitters who are – somewhere! – hand knitting the hats and scarves and sweater vests that are only part of the Christmas at Sea gift packages being distributed in these days before Christmas to the ships of every size from many lands in port in Newark.
Two of the priests are women, one a man, all faithful servants of the One whose birth we are about to recall with love and celebrate with joy. Today I followed one of the priests, Megan. I don’t think I was any real help (!), but I was heartened and fascinated with what I experienced.
We visited three ships today. One was a small container vessel flying the Turkish flag. The other two were huge ships that carry automobiles across the waves to this country. The ships were a revelation: their sheer size, complexity, and audacity. But what hit me more was the human equation. Walk up these huge gangplanks and you find there human persons. You find men and women from the Phillipines, India, Japan, and many other nations. You find senior officers who have been on the high seas for 34 and 37 years, men who have rarely spent a Christmas at home with wife and children in all that time, men whose eyes moisten as they recall that fact, men who look forward now to retirement, to spending time close to the people for whom they have sacrificed so much for so long. You find 20 year old cadets with baby-faces who are away for the first time – and worlds away – from their mothers and girlfriends; cadets so fresh-faced that you feel like you should bring them home to protect them from the world. Meanwhile they have seen more of the world head-on already than most of us ever will.
Some of them are Christian. Some are not. All of them today received gifts given in the name of Jesus Christ, given with respect, given with understanding, with love, with the promise of prayers and with a warm smile, embrace, and wave goodbye until next time they are in port. All, in this case, courtesy of Megan and her co-workers.
Tonight I am in awe of what these men and women seafarers do on the high seas. Most of those I met in port this afternoon are off the coast tonight, in the cold wind on the colder waters on the way to their next port of call. I am in awe as well of the men and women who seek to serve them in the name of Christ. It is a ministry of the moment. Many of the ships are in port in the 21st century only for hours in any one place. Some sailors are able to come ashore, many not. But all are respected and loved, whatever their origin, whatever their destination.
Somehow those who are the Seamen’s Church Institute today, and their forebears for the last century and three-quarters, know from the heart that all these visitors are children of God. They evidence to us that we are all connected, all one in God’s eyes, whatever be our differences of origin, faith, or expectation.
We are all loved. We claim to know that God loves us all. I learned again today that we make that real first and foremost by loving one another.
You can learn more about SCI here – http://www.seamenschurch.org
Be you believer or not, this poem, Church Going, by Philip Larkin is worth much more than the time it takes to read thoughtfully.
What is church for? And is church being now what it is meant to be? Do I hear a hearty yes? A decided no?
For myself, I love the penultimate verse, and the finish as well.
Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation - marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these - for which was built
This special shell? For, though I've no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;