© Rex A E Hunt
The third of Three presentations to the Network of Biblical Storytellers Australia Gathering in Victoria
(RE)BIRTHING… CHRISTMAS: HOT AND DUSTY, AND HARD TO CHRISTIANISE!
I wish to acknowledge the traditional caretakers
of the land on which we gather this day.
I acknowledge their deep spiritual connections to this land
and thank them for the care they have shown the earth
over thousands of years.
How can we sing in a strange land... when the warmth of Christmas is not from some domestic fire in an iron grate, but from the sun high overhead - 38 degrees celsius and rising? Or when the Spring festival of new life called Easter 'down under', comes in Autumn, the season of little deaths when leaves turn gold, fall, and the grass has turned from green to brown?
Shaping a distinctive Australian liturgical theology is a recurring problem for us in Australia and New Zealand. Because it is not as simple as it sounds. For nearly 10 years I lived in Canberra ACT, a cool to cold climate, where our national fore mothers and fathers were keen to replicate the English/European countryside. So the thousands of imported trees do indeed change their colours in some glorious autumn seasons, and after a cold snap or two, lose their leaves by the millions. But not every tree. Not the native eucalyptus!
And while there is frost, and sometimes light snow in the outer suburbs, there is no general closing down of the land. Spring, for instance, is not the land celebrating life from a winter-induced death, but rather the beginning of an intensification of colour. Australian poet Les Murray writes:
“it can often seem that the seasons comprise essentially summer and non- summer. A reign of heat, flies, snakes, beach culture and burgeoning growth is followed by a cooler time in which the discomforts disappear and both beach-going and burgeoning tail off. And there is that bit of sniffling cold in the middle" (Quoted in Ranson 1992).
Then there are the wild cards of drought, bush fire, and flood, upheavals that can happen at any time “affecting and altering any of the seasons” (Ranson 1992).
So as we begin our look at both Advent and Christmas I invite you to visit the displays of cards on the tables, select one which appeals to you, and then briefly share the story of why you selected that card, with another.
The church season that comes before Christmas we call Advent. It starts again next Sunday. It needs all the encouragement it can get if it is to be ReBirthed, because of the many counter claims for attention operative in our community at this time.
Indeed, our ‘fellow traveller’ Peter Gomes didn’t like Advent much, and was pretty grumpy about it. He says the conventional wisdom is:
“that Advent is the season of hope, and we light our Advent candles, one more on each Sunday, not simply anticipating the light but increasing it. [But Advent]… has become a month-long dress rehearsal for Christmas and a commercial phenomenon that is beyond the power of mere Christmas to defeat” (Gomes 2007:214).
So what is the ‘spirit’ of this season? Listening to the storyteller we call Mark, the season is inviting all of us to ‘stay alert’, ‘keep awake!’—ears tuned, eyes open—but to what? To the presence of the sacred (or God) in the ordinary.
Mark 13: 33-37 (Inclusive Text)
Jesus said to the disciples:
‘Be on your guard, stay awake, because you never know
when the time will come.
‘It is like someone traveling abroad, who has gone from home,
and left servants in charge, all with their own task,
and has told the doorkeeper to stay alert.
‘So stay awake, because you do not know
when the owner of the house is coming,
‘If the owner comes unexpectedly,
you must not be found asleep.
What I say to you I say to all: Stay awake!’
Not looking for some so-called spectacular and mythical supernatural end times… Or in some ‘Frosty the Snowman’ pop song imagination. But by ReBirthing the God-given ‘incognito’ moments, in the ordinary.
In the ordinary... as in flowering Wattle or Jacaranda or Christmas Bush…
In the ordinary… like the ‘click clack’ of two eucalypt tree branches knocking together in the hot Summer wind…
In the ordinary... like rain, and the realisation it is not a singular thing but made up of billions of individual drops of water, each with its own destination and timing...
In the ordinary… like a young woman called Mary or a bloke called John.
Mark 1: 4-7 (Inclusive Text, adapted)
And so it was that John the Dipper appeared in the wilderness,
proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
All Judaea and all the people of Jerusalem made their way to John,
and as they were baptised by him in the river Jordan,
they confessed their sins.
John wore a garment of camel-skin,
and lived on locusts and wild honey.
In the course of preaching John said,
'Someone is following me, someone
who is more powerful than I am,
and I am not fit to kneel down
and undo the strap
of his sandals…’
In the ordinary... like the lovemaking songs of the Green Grocer cicadas...
In the ordinary... Otherwise we may miss what actually is.
So in this coming Season of Advent I invite you to consider a couple of things:
(i) Consider the need for a fresh awareness of your creative capacity. For inside each one of us is a marvelous creature with multi-coloured wings.
(ii) Consider the option of becoming a person infected or inspired by hope. But not just an optimistic hope. The more rugged hope—that says even if things don’t turn out all right and aren’t all right
“we endure through and beyond the times that disappoint or threaten to destroy us… This kind of hope requires work, effort, and expenditure without the assurance of an easy or ready return” (Gomes 2007:220).
It is Creativity God who acts in us. And God in other people who receive our actions.
(iii) Consider the invitation to re-tune your senses
to a watchful presence of God
in the ordinary,
in the every day,
in the outsider,
in the new.
Advent is a time to be surprised by the ordinary and empowered by the symbolic as we re-imagine the world.
The Christmas Australians celebrate today might seem like a timeless weaving of customs and feelings. Yet the familiar mix of cards, carols, parties, presents, tree and Santa that have come to define 25 December is little more than 130 years old.
As a ‘pre-Christian’ festival, its traditions go way back in time to changes in the seasons and the affects these changes had on people, their social life and work situations. As a Christian celebration, the ‘Feast of the Nativity of our Lord’ didn’t make the church calendar of feasts until sometime in the 4th century and then only as a result of a series of mixed motives, including the take-over of a number of rival so-called ‘pagan’ festivals, political expediency, and the removal of thinking tagged ‘heresy’.
In 1788 when the First Fleet arrived in Australia from England, Governor Arthur Phillip not only established a penal colony—a gaol for the 736 convicts and to a certain extent, the marines and officers who accompanied them—he also won the land for ‘protestant’ Christianity. Church Historian Ian Breward writes:
"Richard Johnson, the first chaplain, was appointed through the good offices of influential [British] Evangelicals… They instructed Phillip to ensure that the Book of Common Prayer was read each Sunday and Holy Days. [Phillip’s] oath of allegiance at the foundation of the colony included a rejection of the doctrine of transubstantiation, presumably to ensure that no taint of Romanism entered even a prison colony" (Breward 1988:2).
In reality, Christianity was in the main rejected by the convicts and only slightly embraced by the free settlers in latter years. Which has led some to conclude that in Australia, Christianity has always been rather a casual affair. At best, "the nation was only ever superficially christianised" (Wilson 1982:6). By contrast to the European settlement of America, Australia was not in the main settled by religious refugees on a mission of hope, but rather was a gaol for criminals and social outcasts—an ordeal of exile.
In early days of the colony Christmas held little importance. Unless Christmas Day fell on a Sunday, a holiday was not declared. The day was usually celebrated with a compulsory Anglican Church parade. If punishment had to be administered to a convict, perhaps a reduction in the sentence was ordered. Indeed, it would appear that on the first Christmas Day in 1788 a convict was arrested and, because it was Christmas Day, had his sentence of 200 lashes reduced to 150! At other times, a double share of rum and rations was offered.
Much later, when Christmas did begin to influence the social and religious life of the colony, in the latter part of the 1800s, it was mostly through ‘nostalgia’ rather than religious leanings. Old customs and symbols were yearned for, and the arrival of food stuffs and other items were eagerly awaited as ships from England docked in December. These old traditions were never totally abandoned, but aspects of the festival were ‘Australianised’ and became increasingly nationalistic.
While American artist Thomas Nast introduced a ‘winter’ Santa Claus to the world in the 1860s some enterprising Australian artists a few years later attempted a re-birthing by giving him a cooler ‘summer’ outfit, complete with kangaroo driven sleigh.
In popular belief it is said the foundational stories of Christmas can be found in the nativity stories by the anonymous storytellers we call Matthew and Luke, in the Bible. That is, early Christianities felt something novel had occurred with the birth of Jesus. So let me spend a brief moment on these stories.
Both stories are very different from each other in general shape, atmosphere and content…
Luke 2:1-7 (Inclusive Text)
Caesar Augustus issued a decree for a census
of the whole world to be taken.
This census - the first - took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria,
and everyone went to their own town to be registered.
So Joseph set out from the town of Nazareth in Galilee
and travelled up to Judea, to the town of David called Bethlehem,
since he was of David's House and line,
in order to be registered with Mary,
his betrothed, who was with child.
While they were there, the time came for her to have her child,
and she gave birth to a son, her first-born.
She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger
because there was no place for them at the inn…
Matthew 2:1-3 (Scholars Edition)
Jesus was born at Bethlehem, in Judea, when Herod was king.
Astrologers from the East showed up in Jerusalem just then.
“Tell us,” they said, “where the newborn king of the Judeans is.
We have observed his star in the east
and have come to pay him homage.”
When this news reached King Herod, he was visibly shaken,
and all Jerusalem with him…
Both came rather later in the biblical tradition—probably anything from around 85 CE – 125 CE. And in spite of the modern tendency to homogenise them into one classic tale, they are very different. As a former theological seminary professor of mine has written:
“... Luke’s account is full of strong, vibrant, bright colours with just a hint of umbers in the background. The other, Matthew’s account, is rich but sombre, darkly hued, and strangely shaded. Luke tells a cheerful tale, a buoyant, hopeful, joyous tale. Matthew tells a gothic tale, fascinating, disturbing, disquieting” (Griffin 1982:55).
Of these two stories (or “fairytales” as another calls them (Ranke-Heinemann 1994)), one, Luke’s birth story of Yeshua bar Yosef has had an enormous influence on the Christian imagination.
For many Christians Luke’s story is the Christmas story, even though the birth itself is only briefly mentioned and is not really the focus of the story. The story brings together the imperial power of the divine saviour Augustus, lowly shepherds, and angels from heaven—all around the birth of a baby in makeshift accommodation far from home. The humble physical setting and the supernatural splendour of a chorus of angels are strong storyteller clues as to how the story’s listeners are to make sense of this story.
Why these stories? Scholars suggest there are two possible ways of accounting for the creation of these stories. I will only mention one: the comparative study of Hellenistic biographies.
To account for Jesus’ unusual life and noble death in terms that enhance his comparison with other famous people, the nativity stories mimic the pattern of Hellenistic biography where the stories of their heroes lives were read and interpreted backwards. Each biography followed a set structure of at least five elements:
(i) a genealogy revealing illustrious ancestors,
(ii) an unusual, mysterious, or miraculous conception,
(iii) an annunciation by an angel or in a dream,
(iv) a birth accompanied by supernatural portents, and
(v) praise or forecast of great things to come, or persecution by a potential competitor (McGaughy 1992).
In general terms these elements can be found in the biblical infancy stories. Yet it wasn’t until after Emperor Constantine “consciously chose Christianity as his Empire’s new civil religion” (Kennedy 2006:221) —in 313 CE—that there was a significant change in both attitude and authority surrounding Christianity, its stories and developing doctrines.
Having been oppressed and persecuted by Rome for some 300 years, Christianity suddenly came into imperial favour, even becoming the official religion of the empire:
“... bishops, once targets for arrest, torture, and execution, now received tax exemptions, gifts from the imperial treasury, prestige, and even influence at court, [while] their churches gained new wealth, power, and prominence” (Pagels 1988:xxv).
Then another extraordinary event happened 12 years later—in 325 CE, when Emperor Constantine stepped in to resolve an internal church dispute threatening civil strife. Constantine took the unprecedented step of calling what was to be the first general council meeting of the church, in Nicea.
Representatives came from all over: Antioch, North Africa, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Constantinople, Rome and Northern Italy. The Council of Nicea was about merging the Jesus of history with the Christ of faith—or as it has been called, implementing the ‘divinity test’. It was also about solidifying or standardising the beliefs and liturgies of the church. And of course, its flip side: excluding those who taught or believed or did, something different.
Also worth noting: the establishment of the Christmas feast first appears on the liturgical calendar in Rome in 336 CE, 10 years after Nicea. Prior to that Epiphany (or ‘old Christmas’ celebrated on 6 January) was seen as more important than Nativity (celebrated on 25 December). The conflict was finally smoothed over with a decision to combine Christmas with Epiphany, which liturgically became know as the ‘Twelve days of Christmas’.
So the development goes like this: from birth of a human person, a brother; to the transcendence and distance of God “modelled after an exalted royal emperor” (Roll 1995:177) —Jesus of history to Christ of faith. Or as one of my mentors has put it: Jesus the iconoclast to Christ the icon (Funk 1996:44). Now that’s some shift!
As storytellers, interpreters, poets, composers, liturgists and artists, how can we approach the ReBirthing of Christmas ‘down under’ in the 21st century?
is loud cacophony
in the symphony of my year.
the sound of crass cash registers
beep-beeping in my ears
and all day long in every place
no matter where I go
relentless sentimental songs
that keep on mentioning snow.
and the clash of garish glitter
and tawdry tinsel-shine
and buy! buy! buy! buy!
on every second sign.
a simple tune
played on a flute
that could slip
past my defences and
in my middle
like the sweetness
of a baby
to light a lamp of wonder
in the midnight of my soul (Fay White).
Fiddle we may or may not have. But some simple ‘down under’ tunes and songs we do.
Back in the late 1940s when Australia was not long out of the Second World War but still under the influence of the British Empire, Australian John Wheeler penned this now popular song…
The north wind is tossing the leaves,
The red dust is over the town;
The sparrows are under the eaves,
And the grass in the paddocks is brown;
And we lift up our voices and sing
To the Christ-Child, the Heavenly King (JWheeler).
But it is to New Zealand we turn for some of the best of the more modern of them, and the creative genius of Shirley Erena Murray.
"Carol Our Christmas"
Carol our Christmas,
an upside down Christmas;
snow is not falling and
trees are not bare.
Carol the summer, and
welcome the Christ Child,
warm in our sunshine and
sweetness of air.
Sing of the gold and the
green and the sparkle,
water and river and lure
of the beach.
Sing in the happiness
of open spaces,
sing a nativity summer
Shepherds and musterers
move over hillsides,
finding, not angels,
but sheep to be shorn;
wise ones make journeys
whatever the season,
searching for signs of the
truth to be born.
Right side up Christmas belongs
to the universe,
made in the moment
a woman gives birth;
hope is the Jesus gift,
love is the offering,
here on the earth (SEMurray)
go-between of God,
love Child, Christ Child,
heaven's lightning rod,
This year, this year,
let the day arrive,
when Christmas comes
Street child, beat child
no place left to go,
hurt child, used child,
no one wants to know,
This year, this year,
let the day arrive,
when Christmas comes
Grown child, old child,
mem'ry full of years,
sad child, lost child,
story told in tears,
This year, this year,
let the day arrive,
when Christmas comes
Spared child, spoiled child,
having, wanting more,
wise child, faith child
knowing joy in store,
This year, this year,
let the day arrive,
when Christmas comes
God's stupendous sign,
star of stars that shine,
This year, this year,
let the day arrive,
when Christmas comes
everyone alive! (SEMurray)
On the song ‘Star Child’ Shirley Murray writes:
"The whole thrust of ‘Star-Child’ is for the entire world to experience Christmas, from street kids to the forgotten elderly, and this has to be expressed in language we now relate to. Hence [such language]… represents an attempt to make our imaginations work in the present world rather than the unreal past….
"Maybe our re-awareness of the full humanity of Jesus, rather than his divinity, is the point which allows us to move from Church language to ‘secular’ language… I’m thinking of the impact of the parables (people stuff, ‘everyday’ language), as well as the fierce arguments of Jesus with the religious lot in more ‘religious’ language. ‘Telling the story’ is a ‘secular’ thing, while preaching the doctrine the Church thing".
While the religious ‘infancy stories’ around the birth of Jesus of Nazareth may have come to provide the fundamental rationale for the festival within the Christian Church, for the most part and for most people, they no longer function as determinative. Christmas is a global and hybrid celebration, which weaves together religion-media-culture, creating a legitimacy of its own. And for many people today Christmas is just that... Christmas! Something to be entered into and enjoyed, if possible.
Christmas has always been an extremely difficult festival or holiday to christianise! No matter how vehemently preachers or theologians or ordinary churchgoing folk might decry the fact, or stage mock assassinations of Santa Claus, or try to establish who influenced whom for what purposes,
“the Christian feast integrated certain originally non-Christian elements, and that has remained precisely the case down to the present moment... Christmas is firmly established in its socio-cultural environment, in terms of that environment” (Roll 1995:257, 269).
Christmas is the most human and loveable, and easily the most popular, festival of the year involving nearly all the population. It would never have achieved the level of importance which it enjoys today
“unless it had struck deep folk roots... and called forth a natural, spontaneous human response” (Roll 1995:271).
Why? Both the pre-Christian folk-festivals and our modern popular culture celebrations are essentially life-affirming. They say ‘yes’ to life. For life is not a great ready-made thing out there. Life is ourselves, and what we make it. "Life is a buzz that we generate around ourselves. It includes everything and excludes nothing" (Cupitt 2003).
Such a view stands in shape contrast to many church-going Christians with their unchanging Sky God, and who still are “pessimistic as regards this earth, and value it only as a place of discipline for the life to come” (Miles 1912/76:25). No wonder popular culture wins out all the time!
At its best, Christmas is a mirror in which we see reflected the very best life can be. Where we see ourselves moved by generosity, inspired by hope, and uplifted by love, not only for ourselves but for the whole evolving universe. Not only a celebration of the birth of Jesus, but also an invitation “to assume responsibility for this sacred birth happening in and through us” (Sanguin 2010: 18).
Likewise, I suggest, the problem with Christmas is not ‘commercialisation’. The problem is, there is no longer any ‘surprise’. Both the church and the business world encourage us to ‘celebrate’ but their messages are rehashed and blatant. There can be no surprise, for there is no subtlety. As one scholar has suggested:
“The dynamic is similar to the difficulty we have seeing rainbows and smelling roses. Rarely do we experience beauty in depth. Instead we move on to something else, distracted just enough to miss that which is most important and immediate” (Frazier 1992:71).
Both Advent and Christmas through a southern hemisphere lens, are best seen as we are open and receptive to their simple mystery: being sensitive to and surprised by, opportunities from the present moment when an incognito God is in the midst of ordinary daily events. When both are parables, in which everyday, ordinary events, take completely unexpected turns.
(As an aside… it is interesting that both Christmas and Easter are related to the cycles of the earth rather than to any actual dates of Jesus’ birth and death. We do not know when in the year Jesus was born. We do know when he died. Christianity tied his birth to the northern hemisphere winter solstice, and his death to the northern hemisphere spring equinox, the latter being a ‘moveable feast’—anywhere between 22 March and 25 April—tied to the moon cycle as well as that of the earth. Christianity is a latecomer to the elemental rituals and celebrations of humanity!)
It takes a lot of trouble-makers to change history.
It’s time to ReBirth Christmas.
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