Stand thou for ever among human Houses,
House of the Resurrection, House of Birth;
House of the rooted hearts and long carouses,
Stand, and be famous over all the Earth.
— Hilaire Belloc
One of the few joys of this year, a year that has proved particularly joyless, happened back at the end of January when I was able to make a little pilgrimage with friends to the Holy House in Loreto, Italy. I had been once before, way back in the 1980s, and had always remembered what a powerful impact it had on me. In the year of my twenty-fifth anniversary of priesthood, I wanted to go again. God had other plans (or His permissive will) allowed other things to happen for the rest of the year. Enough of that!
The Holy House is a shrine of the Incarnation. Tradition tells that it is the house of Joseph, Mary and Jesus from Nazareth. It is not necessary, however, to believe that it was transported to Loreto by angels (although it is also not wrong to believe such a thing.) Most historians now suppose that the Angeli family rescued the Holy House from Saracen invaders, and transported the House to Italy in the 13th century. Research has proved the stones used for its construction are from the time of Christ, and the same as stones found in Palestine and, in particular, Nazareth.
The other Holy House, which made no claims to be the house of the Holy Family, yet was erected at the direct command of the Blessed Virgin Mary, was called “England’s Nazareth,” in Walsingham. In 1061, Our Lady asked the Lady Richeldis to build this Holy House for the same reason that the true Holy House in Loreto is so important; it is because of the great Feast we are about to celebrate.
At Christmas morning Mass, the prologue of Saint John’s Gospel is read, reminding the world of the stupendous claim of Christmas and Christianity—that the “Word became flesh, and dwelt amongst us.”
Also at Christmas Mass, and at one other Feast during the year—the Feast of the Annunciation—the entire congregation kneels in silence for a few moments at the section of the Creed when the words “He was born of the Virgin Mary and became Man,” are spoken. This moment of adoration, for such it is, should not be rushed. It is an acknowledgment of the truth of the Incarnation; a moment when both our words and our bodies revere the reality of “the Word made Flesh”.
This reverence is the function also of the Holy House of Loreto and the rebuilt shrine in Walsingham. (Henry VIII, of course, destroyed the original shrine, as he did with so many other ancient places of devotion and pilgrimage.) The Holy House tells us that God had a home among men—a local habitation. The Christmas story and the reason for joy and celebration is not sentimentality, sleigh bells, or the birth of Santa Claus; it is because the Baby we venerate in the crib—the Child first worshipped by shepherds and Men who were wise—is God Himself.
Chesterton, who loved Christmas with a special passion, countered the blathering of so-called experts and intellectuals, still heard today, that the claim of Christmas and of Christianity itself, was fantasy—“how could God,” they said and say, “live on earth, and especially be born in a lowly stable?”
The simple people, Chesterton said, had been wrong about many things, but they had not been wrong in believing that “holy things could have a habitation, and that divinity need not disdain the limits of time and space.”
Belloc, dearest friend of Chesterton and one of England’s finest essayists, had an almost mystical reverence for the family home and its importance. When he was writing in the early years of the twentieth century, and up to the great upheaval of the Second World War, the normality of a permanent family home from nativity to death was, for most families, beginning to disappear already. Belloc regarded this as something of a sacrilege. Writing of passing the former family home, he said that it is “impossible to believe that other souls are inheriting the effect of those familiar rooms. It is worse than a death; it is a kind of treason.”
Spending a few moments in the Holy House of Loreto, feeling the stones and inhaling the silence, is in itself a form of genuflection to the “sacramentality” of the Christian faith. He counters, in a tangible form, the words of Theseus in Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ (who might be a contemporary Richard Dawkins) when he accuses both poets and, we might say, believers, of “[giving] to airy nothing a local habitation and a name.”
Christmas is not just about a stable, but a house—a house above all other houses—which blesses all of our homes. The house, said Belloc, is “an undying thing, of which those subject to mortality within it are members, sharing in its continuous survival.”
Divinity did not disdain the limits of time and space. He became a baby, He had a Mother and a beloved foster Father, He had a home, and a habitation; He truly had “a local habitation and a name.” The Word became Flesh and lived among us—that is what we celebrate—and there is no greater joy to be had than to know that, believe it, and celebrate it.
[Image: The Holy Family by Dosso Dossi]