In the midwinter and the turning of the year to new things, Christendom has fixed the Mass of the Incarnation: of the divine birth, the renewal, the recovery of mankind.
Those who sneer at our origins tell us that the long dark Pagan time, which ended in a dawn, made this season also sacred to the Nativity of the Light. Let them learn that we glory in such coincidences. All those groping instinctive worships, symbols and imaginations, with which our Fathers sought to mitigate human despair, are the advent of the Faith. The Faith put substance suddenly into those shadows, and the forms of myth became alive with reality. The Child was born.
The Child is born; it is the Mass of Nativity, and the growth begins of That by which mankind is to be saved.
So long as Christendom held in one body and was quickened by a universal life – so long as our western world, the leader and teacher of the globe, was Catholic – the season was one of recognition and mere happiness. A Guest had arrived and was to be received with general ecstasy.
All men were brethren in the feast for all were hosts and subjects of that Guest. After the promise of this holy night, the sun which rose would shine forever. Such a spirit inhabited Christmas and the Twelve Days.
But can a secure rejoicing be the spirit of Christmas today? Hardly. Within the household of the Faith it remains undimmed, but without these walls, in the growing murk of the modern world, it is fading or has gone. For long, even those who had abandoned unity (and, at last, all doctrine) retained some savor of the thing. It was weakened, lessened and diffused into a vague kindliness, the cherishing of human ties and a sort of sentimental pretense to forget mortality for a while.
Later, even that vague reminiscence grew tenuous. Now at last, in our very time, for millions, increasing in number, the faint vestiges of Christmas glory are disappearing: have disappeared. The old despair returns.
What, then, is the command issued at Christmas to us of the Faith? It is our pride and boast that we have stood the siege and that, within our fortress, the Feast retains its splendor of reality. If we only look inwards, we may have the same business with Christmas and the Epiphanal uprising as has been the practice of all our blood for fifteen hundred years.
But what if we look outwards? From our walls we survey twilit and ever darkening plains whereon the great mass of men sinks back from the high order which the Faith had erected, into chaos.
The shades, as they spread, grow confused by an extending cloud wherein men clash at random stumbling through fruitless effort and envenomed with mutual hatreds, following uncertain lights that drift and fail again, float tenuously for a moment in the thick night air and lead no whither. The host has become a herd. Its blind energies move towards its own destruction.
It would seem that in such a peril the command we receive at Christmas is to recover the world – if that may be – before it shall be lost. The ancient joy, the unchanging beauty, of the Twelve Days and their music we may cherish for our own heritage; but that does not redeem those who feel them not any more, nor can conceive them.
Yet it is the spring of growth, the entry into life, this season of the Twelve Days; and the command issuing from it is that we restore the world: for, lacking extension of the Faith, even the mere material body of the modern world is doomed.
The task to which, in the crisis of such new but final evils, we are summoned has about it little of festivity and nothing of repose. Each of those who obey must prepare himself for an encounter. He will not carry with him the warmth and brightness of the Stable. He will enter the darkness and the mist. He will himself be enveloped by them and will be struck by the mortal chill. He will live an enemy among enemies, and very probably alone. Such trials are the conditions of his challenge, the essence of the cause he serves.
No one of those who undertake this task today will live to experience triumph. Those who are granted the supreme gift of perseverance will be disappointed. They shall not see victory nor be present (on earth at least) to hear the cry: Vincit Regit Imperat.
But the Child is born and shall command us through what will have the semblance of a losing fight. That air of failure and those temptations to abandon the effort shall be our guarantees, our witnesses to divine inspiration. The ever-wavering line can only advance at the cost of such wounds, and they that are the victims of them are, even as thy renew their suffering, victors.
We shall be told that, from the outset, the cause is hopeless and the battle already lost before it is begun.
What weapons are provided us with which to attack the spreading evil? What common ordering have we? What accepted tactic which can even doubtfully reassure us? We cannot but be starved by impoverishment, abandoned to neglect, left unheard: we must act isolated and alone without companions, and, as intelligence and instruction decline, our high message has a lesser and a lesser audience. How, against these odds, can we do anything at all?
Long ago such a war was waged and won. The heathen was thrust back and Christendom was established: the struggle was desperate and long but hopeful and united, and it was concluded – or seemed concluded – on our own terms. The Catholic Faith at last illuminated all Europe. But the settlement did not endure. Four hundred years ago it was menaced. Unity, by which alone a thing is what it is, suffered shipwreck and the fragments drifted apart into the welter before which, today, we stand appalled.
The old victory was won upon a rising curve. But a summit was passed, and now for long the curve has been falling. We have lost ground unceasingly for generations and are still losing ground. What prospect can there be of reversing such a tide?
To all of which questions, and many more (and worse) to come, the answer in the proclamation of this season: The Child is born.
[First published in The Universe, Advent, 1936]
*Image: The Holy Family with a Lamb by Raphael, 1507 [Museo del Prado, Madrid]