24 December 2011

Midnight Mass

It being Christmas Eve, and with Christians imperilled in the most ancient heartlands of the Faith, this seems as good a time as any to type this up....
 'The 24th of December 1099 was the first Christmas Eve for more than 450 years on which free, armed Christians might celebrate the Nativity in Bethlehem. The great marble basilica built by the great Constantine was packed to overflowing. Many of the congregation had been there all day, to make sure of getting in; but places had been kept for the distinguished lords come down from the north, Bohemond of Antioch and Baldwin of Edessa, and tall Tancred had pushed his way in to kneel beside his uncle.

The Midnight Mass of Christmas, after the Latin rite which was now the only use in Bethlehem, was to be offered by Daimbert, Archbishop of Pisa, the newly arrived papal legate with the pilgrimage. The new legate was evidently as tough as his predecessor; for he proposed, after offering the Midnight and Dawn Masses in the Church of the Nativity, to ride to Jerusalem and sing the Morning Mass of Christmas within the Holy Sepulchre. Of course he had been fasting throughout the Vigil of Christmas, and he must continue the fast until dinner on Christmas Day.

When the clergy entered Bohemond had been kneeling on the marble pavement for some hours. This was the very place, the very time, of the Incarnation; the manger in which God had become Man was only a few feet away. To be free to kneel here at this hour the best knights in Christendom had left their homes; for three years they had marched and fought, until the greater part of them were dead; but the survivors had accomplished all they set out to do. Tears streamed down Bohemond's cheeks as he tried to thank God for the Incarnation. Then he began to pray for the souls of dead comrades. But they were martyrs who had gone straight to Heaven. they would not need his prayers.

He was accustomed to long hours in church, to kneeling on bare stone pavements. But it was difficult, tonight of all nights, to keep secular thoughts out of his head. Our Lady had lain on this spot of earth in the agony of childbirth, while St Joseph cleared up the droppings of the ass and the ox. But it had been a tricky moment when Tancred pushed in to kneel on his right, within arm's length of Count Baldwin kneeling on his left. Luckily the two had smiled at one another; this was not a place for enmity.

The bell tinkled for the Consecration. God was present again in body as He had been for the first time more than a thousand years ago. Peals thundered from the tower in token of rejoicing. That brought a comforting memory. Only a few months ago Tancred had hung those loud bells. The infidels who had ruled here so long did not tolerate bells in Christian churches.

Here was the Pax coming round. They had brought it to him gratifyingly early, probably the first among the laity. but politics could not be ignored even on this sacred occasion. He motioned to the subdeacon to present the little olive-wood carving first to Baldwin and then to Tancred. As he himself kissed it in third place he knew with joy that those two had once again exchanged the Kiss of Peace. In a few moments they would receive Communion side by side. In Cilicia Baldwin had compassed the deaths of many Apulians, and the injury was still unavenged; but after such a reconciliation in such a place the blood-feud could never be revived.

As he received Communion the love of God entirely filled his mind. But he was not a mystic, and he could not keep his soul at full stretch for very long. As often happens, the Devil began to tempt him while he was making his thanksgiving. Was he worthy to receive the Body of God? Was he truly in a state of grace? Was he genuinely a pilgrim?

Such thoughts must be faced, and dismissed. No Christian was worthy of anything, but in receiving Communion he was obeying the Will of God. If there was such a thing as a Church, he was in a state of grace; he had been absolved by a priest who had received the power of absolution in unbroken descent from the Apostles. Was he also a pilgrim, entitled to the Great Pardon promised by Pope Urban?'
And so on.

That's from Count Bohemond, a 1964 historical novel by Alfred Duggan, a good friend of Evelyn Waugh, and a man whose sense of the grittiness of Christianity seems to have been just as clear as Waugh's. I first read that passage on a now-defunct blog some years ago, and intrigued by it I sought the book out.

In the main the book's not nearly so explicitly theological as in the passage above, and concentrates on the characters, the violence, the rivalries, and the intrigues that marked the First Crusade. It doesn't go into the historical roots of the conflict, which it presents -- as in some ways it must have seemed to those first crusaders -- as being in many ways just another stage in the Norman expansion that had in previous decades seen them conquering England, southern Italy, and Sicily. They were warriors; fighting was what they did.

Still, good though it's been to revisit Duggan's book this evening, it's left me feeling somewhat maudlin. I don't know why it is that I didn't visit Bethlehem when I was in the Holy Land years ago. I wish it were practical to go to Midnight Mass this evening, as I've never been before. And far more important than my own petty regrets, it strikes me as a tragedy that throughout the world this evening and tomorrow there'll be Christians who'll be unable freely to celebrate the Incarnation. 

But this has always been the way. We shouldn't leave Herod out of our Nativity plays. The Church was born in the jaws of the wolf.

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