CHRISTMAS in southern Europe seems less secular than here. Catholic memory preserves the astonishing notion that the incarnation is not far away and long ago, but here and now. The nativity happens in Tarragona or Pozzuoli, displayed in the window of the pharmacy, and in the hat shop and the bakery. It is a pizza oven that sustains the Wise Men on the journey, while the locals quaff wine and ale in hailing distance of the crib.
The Reformation deprived us of the insights of this localism, but it did not take away a belief in the significance of place. This significance is what our parish system should represent and defend. Of course, it no longer does. Before the election, the Church of England produced a truly appalling prayer, which appeared to suggest that God’s will was about to be enacted through the wish of the electorate. Twitter commentators predicted that Christmas sermons would be full of spluttering rage as the Left-leaning clergy, encouraged by an increasingly centralised bureaucracy, fail to comprehend why the nation voted for Boris.
For the religion of the incarnation, time and place matter. Christianity is not an ideology, not an equality manifesto — nor, even, a peace movement. It is simply God’s solidarity with the human race, lived in space and time, which is always particular and even peculiar. The desolate towns and villages of the Midlands and the north, unimpressed both by metropolitan liberalism and international socialism, voted as they did because they hoped for better things. They might have been forgotten, but they refuse to be patronised by those who thought that they knew what was best for them. Roots matter. The sacred is here in the midst of us, or not at all.
Last New Year, I was in Palma, Majorca. On 30 December, I attended a mass of the Holy Family in the cathedral. A naked baby Jesus lay in the crib, sheltered by palm branches and surrounded by baskets of nuts, oranges, lemons, and rows of red poinsettias. Under the gold corona, the priest was a tiny figure, his gold and red chasuble blending almost into invisibility in the brilliance of the sanctuary. Streaming down from the ceiling were strings of thousands of little white discs, “neules”, representing sweet wafers, which were originally distributed after midnight mass. When the priest elevated the host, it matched the flowing streams, as though the grace of God, flowing endlessly from above, was, for a moment, held in human hands and seen by human eyes.
This year, in Portsmouth, I talked to staff in shops that were closing for good about feral gangs and homelessness. There was sadness and anxiety, but not — at least, not yet — despair. Christmas, after all, is now and here, family, loved ones, home. “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.”