A triumph of secularisation
Diary of a City Priest, by Pastor Iuventus, Family Publications (tel 0845 0500 879), £8.95
Though I had a few days off, I dared not make any plans because of the weather, which seemed to be affecting all forms of travel. I knew inside that I needed a few days away.
Monday morning dawned a little warmer, and without much idea of what I was going to do beyond that immediate destination I turned the car in the direction of Walsingham. The journey was part of the relaxation as I drove through snowy Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire with Bach keyboard sonatas blaring on the stereo. The A505 west from Baldock is one of those roads that make for wonderful driving.
You crest a long hill and from the top you can see the road fall away in a dead straight line until it begins to climb another great hill dead ahead and thus it goes on for several miles of dual carriageway with the chalky hills covered in snow and snowy fields on either side and no sign of human habitation save the odd, now derelict, pub by the road. The only things that spoil its appearance are the speed cameras. It was a wonderful stretch of the wheels before slow
ing to a rather tortuous single-lane road as you pass the pet crematorium and the Duxford Aerodrome and pick up the M11.
Perhaps it’s the same for everyone who “lives in” for their employment, but there is something tremendously heady about getting away for a few days. It was as if an hour in the car put a huge gulf between me and the preoccupations that seemed so allconsuming before, with one exception, that is. I still feel in my marrow that there is something wholly ridiculous about celebrating the first Mass of the Epiphany on the January 2. It destroys the shape of the season and means that the ostensible reason for the change – to allow the feast to be celebrated with due solemnity – is more frustrated than ever, since every day since Christmas has been an octave day or a solemnity and so the Epiphany can no longer stands in its own light as something distinct. It comes on top of too rich a diet and as a result cannot be properly savoured. This year it also succeeded as a triumph of secularisation, since it coincided with the last day before schools and businesses re-open, giving the impression that liturgical time is dictated by secular time and that Christmastide was well and truly over in nine days. The celebration of the Epiphany in schools used to be a way of reconnecting with the celebration of Christmas and the mystery of the Incarnation; a way of hallowing the bleak return to a new term and year.
In the parish we repeated our successful Twelfth Night party. It’s hard to pretend that it doesn’t rain on that particular parade when the Epiphany itself is already over and done. Customs like blessing the chalk for marking the doorposts with crosses, the date and the initials of the Three Magi (traditionally Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar – also an acronym for Christus Mansionem Benedicat) and the arrival of the Galettes des Rois – cakes topped with golden crowns and with charms inside – were intended to build a Catholic culture in the home. That is far harder to do when your own religion appears to be enshrining the idea that your observance is secondary to your convenience. I had several phone calls on January 6 from parish
ioners, mostly those who have come from Poland and eastern Europe, asking what time the Epiphany Masses were. I tried to explain to them that they had missed the feast because it had been transferred. Not only were they distraught, but I sensed total incomprehension as to what on earth I was talking about, akin to a fear that they had somehow mistaken us for the authentic Catholic Church that they knew. They could be forgiven for thinking so, since the Holy Father still celebrated it on the correct day, and for that matter so did the Anglicans up the road. I pondered what the effect might be on someone wanting to come back to the practice of their Faith on discovering that a feast which had been kept on January 6 since time immemorial was now, for no reasons remotely connected with its meaning, on some random date beforehand. I thought tradition was supposed to have the force of law? I am praying that our bishops have the courage to reverse this decision, which was forced on the people of this country without any consultation and which remains universally unpopular, before it further damages Catholic piety in this country. As a point of interest, I could not alter the times of my Sunday Masses without first showing that I had consulted my parishioners and obtained a majority of their consent, and then submitted those findings to the Ordinary. It seems the same protocol can be ignored when deracinating the landscape of the Catholic year.
By midday I am driving through Houghton St Giles and can see the Catholic shrine and Slipper Chapel below in the valley. The hillsides are swathed in a covering of snow of a thickness which etches every contour of every furrow and every drill of winter wheat with exquisite precision, as though some giant hand has combed them. Every limb and twig of the trees and hedgerows is picked out in a white outline as frost and snow masters every intricacy of their twisted forms and renders them beautiful even in their bare state. And in my holiday musing, I thought that it was an image of what grace does to us, silently covering what is bare and ugly to reveal its original beauty of form, covering it over even as it delineates it anew.