So, Italy’s Presidente del Cosiglio dei Ministri – Premier – Giuseppe Conte, announced Friday evening that all of Italy will consider itself a “red zone” over the Christmas holiday. 28-30 December (inclusive) and 4 January excepted as “orange zone” days, the boot will basically be on lockdown from Christmas Eve to Epiphany, with a few typically Italian modifiche regarding social visiting and table company during certain hours of certain days. There’s a 10pm curfew, as well.
People have begun to parse the instructions in search of loopholes: Fatta la legge, the saying goes, trovato l’inganno. There are several ways to translate the expression, each with a slightly different shade of meaning, all supported by the turn-of-phrase on its face: “When the law is made, the trick is found,” or “Having made the law, it is [because] the loophole has been discovered,” or more liberally, “The trick to avoiding the law is discovered in its making.” You get the gist of it.
That said, the government’s message about the gravity of the situation in Italy seems to have reached people.
In years past, I’ve written about the sights and sounds – the lights and the aromas – the noises and bustles and smells and flavours of Rome at Christmas. I’ve written of favourite traditions both sacred and profane – and about how such a distinction is neither bright nor solid in this town – and how that indistinction becomes the season in which we mark the first coming of Our Lord into the world He made from nothing.
I’ve seen the pictures, but I don’t really know how Rome is preparing for Christmas this year. That’s mostly because I haven’t been to town that much and when I have been, I’ve not gone about hardly at all.
Folks here have been expecting the development that Conte announced on Friday evening.
“We will consider the epidemiological curve that we will have in December,” said Italy’s premier about mid-November, “but we must not identify Christmas only with shopping, giving gifts and giving a boost to the economy.” Folks liked that. “Christmas,” Conte continued, “regardless of religious faith, is certainly also a time of spiritual recollection.” So far, so good. “Spiritual recollection,” he went on to say, “doesn’t come out well when you have lots of people.” The general consensus was that he should have quit while he was ahead.
Christmas at the end of the world: perhaps that’s rather dramatic, but it is fitting, pandemic or no – more fitting than we often realise, though perhaps we should – as Christmas follows Advent, in which we prepare for the Second Coming.
That’s led me to reflect on the people we have lost this year, whether to the pandemic or to other causes, and that has brought to mind Augustine’s lines from the Confessions: “[M]an, being a part of Your creation, desires to praise You.” The great saint, Bishop and Doctor continues, “Man, who bears about with him his mortality, the witness of his sin, even the witness that You resist the proud, — yet man, this part of Your creation, desires to praise You.
“You move us to delight in praising You; for You have made us for Yourself, and our heart is restless until it rest in You.”
The desire to praise and the carrying about of our mortality – our death – with us: these are constants of nature after the Fall, and always come to us admixed almost indiscriminately.
This is a dark spell for the Church, and for Christians. It isn’t the first, and it won’t be the last, but it is the one in which we find – or lose – ourselves. Still, as Evelyn Waugh wrote in his great paean to St Edmund Campion SJ:
We have seen the Church drawn underground in country after country. In fragments and whispers we get news of other saints in the prison camps of Eastern and South-eastern Europe, of cruelty and degradation more savage than anything in Tudor England, of the same, pure light shining in darkness, uncomprehended.
When I look around the world, at the many places where Christians face dispossession, imprisonment, death for their – no – our faith; then, I wonder that we are at once so thin-skinned and so complacent of our circumstances at home, and so frequently careless of our brethren in the world’s reaches.
I’ve always delighted in the play Waugh makes on “uncomprehended” – as it comes from a root that means “to grasp” or to lay hold of and encompass or envelop – at best a rough synonym for “understand” but usually that’s all we need, so we pass it by. We do not grasp the light that shines at Christmas, it is true; it is true that Our Lord and Saviour’s light is not grasped – not encapsulated, neither caged nor bottled – and it is true that His light rarely is perceived.
Another great saint – one we had just last year – John Henry Newman, composed a hymn: “Lead, kindly light”. How well he knew that the light of Christ, which may lead us if we let it, frequently illuminates mere inches at a time: just far enough to step without finding an abyss.
We weren’t there to see the star that travelled across the heavens to Bethlehem, but the light we have keeps warm enough, and – we are promised by a hope that does not disappoint – is just enough by slow degrees to show us the long route home.