“At Christmas” by Frank O’Malley

Ernst, Max_Thirty-Three Little Girls Set Out for the White Butterfly Hunt
Max Ernst (German French, 1891–1976), Thirty-Three Little Girls Set Out for the White Butterfly Hunt, 1958. Oil on canvas, 137 × 107 cm. Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Let the Christbrand burst!
Let the Christbrand blazon!
Dartle whitely under the hearth-fire,
Unwind the wind, turn the thunderer,
And never, never thinning,
Forfend fear.
Flare up smartly, fix, flex, bless, inspire,
Instar the time, sear the sorcerer,
And never, never sparing,
Save all year.
Let the Christbrand burst!
Let the Christbrand blazon!

This poem appears in Scholastic 115, no. 10 (March 1, 1974), a publication of the University of Notre Dame. It is also kept in the Francis J. O’Malley Papers in the university’s archives (see CFOM 7/26), though they do not own the copyright and do not know who does. I post it under Fair Use.

Born in Massachusetts in 1909, Francis (Frank) J. O’Malley studied at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana as an undergraduate from 1928 to 1932 and earned his master’s in history there the following year. He wanted to pursue further studies in literature, but there were no UND doctoral programs in that field at the time. Even without a PhD, he was hired by Notre Dame to teach in the English department, which he did for forty-one years, until his death in 1974. For the entire duration of his career, he lived on campus in Lyons Hall, and he is buried in the university’s Holy Cross Community Cemetery.

O’Malley had a huge influence on students—not just literary but also moral and religious. His “Modern Catholic Writers” and “Philosophy of English Literature” courses are legendary, and he served as a mentor to hundreds. He also dabbled in writing poetry, his style influenced by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and he maintained correspondence with writers like Willa Cather and Jacques Maritain.

I don’t know what year O’Malley wrote his Hopkins-esque poem “At Christmas,” but it was sometime before 1966. Using the metaphor of a firebrand, it anticipates the kindling and flaring up of Christ’s kingdom in the world. I read it as an Advent prayer. I love not only its central image of the Incarnation as an ongoing blaze, but also its clever play with language and its rhythmic quality, formed in part by consonance (the repetition of consonant sounds).

To dartle means to shoot forth repeatedly, so the image in that line is of a crackling hearth fire, something homey and welcoming. The image then shifts to a piece of burning wood held aloft for light and protection—casting out shadows, thwarting attackers. (To forfend is to ward off something evil.)

An “instar” is a stage in the life of an insect between two successive molts. O’Malley uses the word as a verb, suggesting that Christ’s birth means the old is gone and the new is come. It’s a turning point in world history.

The sorcerer in line 8 likely refers to Satan, a reference reinforced by the alliteration of the letter s, which hisses like a serpent.

“Sparing” can have multiple meanings, but I think of Romans 8:32: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all . . .” The speaker asks God to not withhold himself, to come again for his people, bringing redemption.

The word “firebrand” is commonly used to describe a person who is divisive, someone who creates trouble, who instigates. Jesus definitely fits that description! He rattled the powers and authorities of his day and initiated a new covenant through his blood, through the scandal of the cross. His coming lit a fire that has never thinned or tapered off but, on the contrary, gained intensity as it spread from Judea and Samaria into the uttermost parts of the earth. And that fire continues to burn brightly in communities from east to west, north to south, where the gospel is lived out and proclaimed.

5 thoughts on ““At Christmas” by Frank O’Malley

  1. Oh, thank you! Amen and amen. This will be our reading tonight. I am blessed by your posts and will be giving you a more elaborate thank you later. A Merry and Blessed Christmas to you and yours. Sincerely, Roberta Van Haitsma

    Sent from my iPhone

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