Monday, December 10, 2012

This Little Babe

Homily for the Second Sunday of Advent, 2012

When I was younger, from the time I was 9 until I was 14 or so, I was a member of a boy choir in the Portland area.  Christmas was always a busy time of year with all the concert engagements: we learned and sang so many Christmas songs and carols over the years.  And as I reflected on the readings for this 2nd Sunday of Advent, I was thinking back to a particular piece we used to sing by Benjamin Britten in his Ceremony of Carols called ‘This Little Babe.’

‘This Little Babe’ is a song about the Christ child unlike any I have heard.  Benjamin Britten set the music to a poem written by the English Jesuit priest and martyr saint: Fr. Robert Southwell, who was martyred for his faith in the English Catholic persecution of the 16th century.

The melody written by Benjamin Britten is very difficult to sing, and it fits well with Fr. Southwell’s poem, which I might call a Christmas battle hymn.  I’m not going to sing it because when I used to sing it I was a soprano, but I will read the poem to you as best I can:

This little Babe so few days old,
Is come to rifle Satan’s fold;
All hell doth at his presence quake,
Though he himself for cold do shake;
For in this weak unarmèd wise
The gates of hell he will surprise.

With tears he fights and wins the field,
His naked breast stands for a shield;
His battering shot are babish cries,
His arrows looks of weeping eyes,
His martial ensigns Cold and Need,
And feeble Flesh his warrior’s steed.

His camp is pitchèd in a stall,
His bulwark but a broken wall;
The crib his trench, haystalks his stakes;
Of shepherds he his muster makes;
And thus, as sure his foe to wound,
The angels’ trumps alarum sound.

My soul, with Christ join thou in fight;
Stick to the tents that he hath pight.
Within his crib is surest ward:
This little Babe will be thy guard.
If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy,
Then flit not from this heavenly Boy.

Fr. Southwell, a young priest, saw in the meek and humble nativity scene nothing short of a mighty Lord come to rescue his people.  It is such an odd combination of thoughts: Of a baby being your guard.  His cries being battering shots.  Looks from weeping eyes his arrows.  His enemies foiled with joy.

Yet how very Christian: how much the sentiments of this poem resonate with the beatitudes and with so much of the teaching of our Lord, who shows us that it is in weakness that God is strong, that his work of redemption is most visibly and powerfully manifest in those who seem most vulnerable in the eyes of this world.

The nativity scenes are starting to go up in preparation for Christmas.  As we look upon the figures, and upon the little child in their midst, it is important to reflect on what we are seeing.  What Fr. Southwell’s poem makes so clear is that this little babe is our savior, is our redeemer.  And so looking upon him in the manger should elicit in us more than a vague sentimentalism as we see this cute baby and think about shepherds and angels singing.  This child is God with us, the Lord Jesus Christ who frees us from sin and death, who preserves our lives from the grave, who rescues us from darkness.  The shepherds and magi came to adore him, not to pinch his cheeks.  Yes, I’m sure he was a cute, cuddly baby; I’m sure Jesus and Mary snuggled a lot.  But we must remember that his cuddling, his snuggling was a cosmic act that shook this world to its foundations.

“Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” John the Baptist carries out Isaiah’s prophecy in the Gospel today.  And the prophet Baruch speaks to us words of great expectation, telling us that our day of liberation is at hand, that our slavery is almost at an end, that we are favored by God.  They do not speak of superficial salvation, a vague sense of well-being in our Savior’s presence.  No, they talk about valley’s being leveled, mountains made low, highways prepared: about our world being completely converted and renewed and redeemed.

How you and I prepare to welcome a child who is our divine savior must be different from how we would prepare to welcome a child who has no power to save us.  You don’t just get the crib ready, get the house in good order – or in our case undertake the customary preparations like putting up the tree, buying the presents, baking the cookies.  These things are all well and good, but today the prophets urge us to allow the gravity, the immensity of who we prepare to welcome to sink in.  To step back a bit in the midst of this chaotic season: to make the time to open our hearts to the renewing work of the Holy Spirit who approaches us to  prepare a way for the Lord to enter, to level some of the valleys and smooth some of the mountains so that a straight highway can be prepared for him.

Our Catholic faith teaches us that this is best accomplished through intensified prayer and a good confession during Advent, and especially through many works of service, generosity, and friendship.  These spiritual efforts to prepare for Christ need not be arduous tasks – but preparations carried out with excitement and joy because Our Lord comes to meet us, to redeem us and free us.  Really: are any of these spiritual preparations more arduous than Christmas shopping?  But they do take a conscious effort, a bit of trust and courage, and sometimes a friendly nudge from your priest.

Where do you need the salvation this little child brings in your life this year?  Where are you bound, what keeps you tied up, what causes you anxiety and fear?  What areas of your life need to be revitalized and renewed and softened by this little one who comes to dwell with us?
The Christ child looks little, he looks meek: it is hard some days to imagine that he has the power to free us from our sins and anxieties, to convert us and sanctify us and make us his own.

At the time Fr. Southwell penned the lines of his poem, his life was in constant danger and he very well may have been in prison.  In the face of such violent persecution he urged his own soul to trust in this little babe:

My soul, with Christ join thou in fight;
Stick to the tents that he hath pight.
Within his crib is surest ward:
This little Babe will be thy guard.
If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy,
Then flit not from this heavenly Boy.

Let us ask today for the grace that St. Fr. Southwell was given: the grace to recognize in this little babe our Lord come with power to save us.  And to prepare to meet him, deliberately setting aside time during the next few weeks to open our hearts to his redemptive work so that our he can rest with us, and our hearts can rest with him, our child Savior, comfortably and peacefully on Christmas day.

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