From daily gifts tucked behind tiny doors in the advent calendar, to children’s shoes stuffed with treats on St. Nicholas Day, from stockings hung empty at night and magically filled by early morn, to presents veiled by colorful wrap and knotted bows, Christmas is a fête of wonder, a laud of mystery, a celebration of surprise.
No wonder a popular category of viral videos this time of year captures military members making surprise visits home—like the one that records a mother’s shock, followed by joy, upon unwrapping what turns out to be a mirror artfully positioned to reflect the daughter waiting in hiding behind her.
Or consider the most famous tale about unexpected Christmas gifts, O. Henry’s short story, “The Gift of the Magi.” A poor young husband and wife with little more than pennies to spend on Christmas sell their most valuable possessions, each without the other knowing, in order to buy each other a gift. The wife sells her long hair to buy a chain for her husband’s watch, and he sells his beloved watch to buy her a set of beautiful combs for her hair. Once their gifts (and the irony) are revealed, the pair takes the blunder in stride, and the narrator closes the story by observing (for those who fail to make the connection from the story’s title) that “of all who give gifts these two were the wisest.” The story exemplifies the delightful surprise endings for which O. Henry is so well known.
Of course, even O. Henry could not create a fiction stranger than the truth of Mary’s surprise in being told by an angel that she had found favor with God and would, as a virgin, conceive and bear his Son. Mary’s wonder and embrace of the shocking message is the inverse of surprise of her ancestor Sarah who, centuries before, as a barren woman well past her childbearing years, also received unexpected news that she would conceive and bear a son. While Mary willingly assented to her news, Sarah simply laughed in disbelief.
So how do we meet the surprise that is at the heart of Christmas?
The nature of modern life does not lend itself easily to surprises. These days, Christmas (along with a host of other occasions, such as engagements, weddings, birthdays, and births) is often overtaken by our impulse to curate, micromanage, over-plan, and Instagram. The weeks and days leading up to the holiday are filled with decorating, shopping, baking, and all kinds of preparations. Even the renewed emphases on the observance of Advent in recent years (a resurgence seen particularly in less traditional, low church denominations) seems connected to our modern need to plan and schedule. Notably, “advent” comes from a word that means “coming.” We would do well to remember that, although some arrivals are expected, some of the best arrivals in life are not.
Of course, we who live in the age that follows the first coming of Christ will never experience the surprise of his arrival in the same way that Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the Magi did. Yet perhaps there are ways we might seek to keep some of the awe and wonder of the first Christmas before us.
This is what the sixteenth-century English poet Robert Southwell depicts in one his best-known poems, the title of which is in itself unforgettably shocking: “The Burning Babe.”
As I in hoary winter’s night stood shivering in the snow,
Surpris’d 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, scorched 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 defiled 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 vanish’d out of sight and swiftly shrunk away,
And straight I called unto mind that it was Christmas day.
Southwell (1561-1595) was an English-born Catholic who left his homeland while a young man to enter the Jesuit priesthood. Upon taking holy orders, he requested to return to his home country to minister during the tumultuous and violent years that followed the English Reformation. At that time, doing so had been declared by the monarchy to be an act of treason. Southwell expected he would become a martyr. Indeed, after several years of underground ministry, he was betrayed and arrested. He spent three years imprisoned, undergoing horrific torture multiple times. Finally, in 1595, he was tried for treason, found guilty, and given the customary sentence for Catholics and other dissenters: he was carried in a cart to the gibbet where he was hanged and disemboweled. His body was quartered and his head held aloft to the watching crowd.
A longtime writer of poetry, hymns, and prose, Southwell had been permitted writing materials in prison (a privilege likely owing to family connections—he is believed, too, to be a cousin of Shakespeare). A number of poems he wrote in prison were published following his death in the same year. Knowing the circumstances under which this poetry was written, one can’t help but connect the power of the prophetic vision of “The Burning Babe” with the solace its message surely offered to one who knew he faced certain and cruel death for his faith.
Instead of the silent, static manger setting that forms today’s typical Christmas tableau, Southwell’s poem presents a dynamic drama between the speaker and the holy infant mysteriously appearing in the sky, like an angel, on fire. Rather than the usual yuletide depiction of seekers in search of the Christ child, in these lines a cold, shivering man is taken unaware by a sudden, intrusive presence, first felt by its warmth, then seen by its fire. And rather than focusing solely on the scene of the nativity, the poem compresses the entirety of the gospel into this brief flash of the Christ child’s appearing. In contrast to the quiet infant of the carol who “no crying he makes,” this child tells the good news of his coming and prophecies his future as a sacrifice for mankind.
The poetic power of the work is in its central figure of speech, the metaphysical conceit that compares Christ’s sacrificial love to a fiery furnace that heats the metal of human souls so they can be formed into something new. The Christ child’s sinless breast is the furnace where the fire of his love burns. The fuel (or coal) is human sin (“wounding thorns”), a fuel laid by justice and fanned by mercy. The fire that is love burns so hot that it will eventually melt the furnace itself—the body of Christ.
Only when the burning babe vanishes from sight does the speaker—who seems to have been dumbfounded at this surprising sight—understand the meaning of the vision in realizing that it is Christmas morning. It is an epiphany.
The restraint in the speaker’s retelling of his encounter belies the extraordinariness of the event. Yet this same restraint helps convey the immediacy of the vision. The dark, even frightening nature of the scene is oddly tempered by a lighthearted ballad meter (which can be enjoyed in this rendition by Sting), reinforcing the theme of surprise.
The overall effect of the vision for the speaker—and of the poem for the reader—is marvel and mystery. It demands an affective response—like the glow of the speaker’s heart brought by the babe’s “sudden heat,” like the warm fires of the tinsel, lights, and candles of Christmas. The surprising contrasts of images—hoary (frosty) night and glowing warmth, flames and tears, flood and fire, faultless breast and wounding thorns, bath and blood—recall the central paradox of Christmas: that God became man. Christmas—indeed, Christianity itself—is characterized by such paradoxes: the mysteries of the Word becoming Flesh, of justice being tempered by mercy, of the law being fulfilled by love, of love that burns itself out for the life of another, of losing one’s life in order to gain it.
While the rhythms of the church calendar and the demands of our own personal planners offer needed reminders to every heart to prepare Him room, we must also allow for—even expect—surprise.
The small surprises and sacrifices of Christmas—the time, resources, and care our loved ones expend in order to place under glowing trees those bright bundles on which our own names are written—recall the marvel of Christ’s entry into the world in order to sacrifice himself for those he calls by name. His body did indeed, as Southwell writes, “melt into a bath to wash” sinners in his blood. This is the unexpected gift for which so many martyrs, like Southwell, have died—and which we who suffer so much less ought to be surprised by, over and over, every Christmas, indeed, every morning.