A sign

A few astute readers, rooting through my archives, have noticed not only the disappearance of Comments from old posts, but too, the gradual disappearance of the posts themselves. This is to some purpose, for I’ve begun to take old posts and trash them, if that’s what they deserve; or revise and re-post what I think can be salvaged. There is something called the Wayback Machine somewhere in the Internet (here, in fact), which I have not bothered to master. I am told that the diligent may find all the original Idleposts and Comments in there, should they insist upon exhumation. I mention this today because for the first time I am, indeed, drawing fragments forward from an old and deleted post. Should gentle reader suffer an experience of déjà vu, he should take heart; for it is entirely possible that he is not losing his mind.


Once upon a time, in the early spring, I was riding through Warwickshire. It happened that in those days I owned an art calendar, with magnificent reproductions from a Book of Hours. It was never for the right year: I had bought it remaindered. But I’d sliced off the numbers, and hung it on my wall anyway, changing each month; for it was so beautiful. And while driving north towards Warwick Town, through an icy fog that seemed to brush all modernity away, I could construe the old, mediaeval landscape.

A most extraordinary thing happened. From a single steeply rolling field, the fog had lifted. A farmer was leading a bullock and a plough. It was a scene right out of that Book of Hours. No doubt an eccentric person, the farmer appeared even to be dressed for another century: tunic and cloak, leggings, an arming cap. Perhaps he was a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism; they were legion then. But no, I hadn’t imagined it, for the driver of the car hit the brakes, and backed up for a better look.

Now, Jesus was born in a manger. He was born into the condition of most men, through most of history. Few of us lived in palaces, or even cities until quite recently. We make a crèche to remind us of the circumstances. Yet we would be terrified to live like that, in a world sans media, sans malls and shopping, sans penicillin and painkillers, sans mobile devices. Conversely, our world, though it makes room for a lot of stuff, makes little for Christ. And we are not happy. We live in sin, and do not realize that sin makes us sad.

Illness and pain are a kind of cure, however. They can return us to that older and simpler condition without any effort on our part. To be cold and shivering; to be dizzy from lack of food; to lose all pleasure in toys and gadgets; to discern death in a face that we glimpse in our own mirror. One could say too much for suffering; these days we say hardly enough.

Can that infant Jesus talk to our world? To people habituated to hearing only what they want to hear? Who would rather tell Christ what he ought to say, than listen? Can one hear a voice effectively jammed in the electronic aether? Perhaps this is why He is heard more in Africa, at this moment; in Africa where so much less is in the way.

I do not, incidentally, enjoy pain or illness; I don’t think many people do. I am only saying that they have their uses. What I find remarkable, looking back in remembrance of our Western “Age of Faith,” is not the cry of the afflicted. It is that Christ could be heard, could be known, could be welcomed, even by people in perfect health. When the grand verities of human life have not been pushed away, one has a sense of angels.

God keep us and return us to the simple way, no matter what the cost. Let us somehow come to hear the bells ring forth, out of the darkness from the Yule’s First Mass, over the land that men once tilled with their own hands. Let us remember exactly what came ad pastores — to the shepherds, towards Christmas morning.

For there were in that country shepherds, keeping their watch by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood by them, and the brightness of the Lord shone round them, and they were very afraid. But the angel said: Fear not. I bring good tidings of great joy, that shall be unto all men. For unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Saviour who is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign: You shall find the child wrapped in swaddling, laid in a manger.

Gloria in altissimis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.