Christmas Day B, 2011
A Liturgy is also available
BLOW FLIES/MOSQUITOS, GENEROSITY, AND HOPE: CHRISTMAS GIFTS
The blow flies are buzzing at the wire screen door
and there’s a smell of smoke in the air.
The dog lies panting and the flowers droop.
Children splash and shout in the pool
wetting granddad’s neatly pressed trousers.
And mum cooks the turkey and the pork for a traditional lunch,
longing for a rest in the shade of the veranda (Thorogood 2001).
Bernard Thorogood, former English-resident-cum-Aussie, is right - well, almost.
While it's a big transition to form a southern Christmas in our imagination
when for so long the Christmas imagery has focused on the north
with snow on the fir tree and a fire in the grate,
this year we need to add 'rain' and 'mosquito' to our usual Christmas weather!
But a fair dinkum contemporary Australian spirituality requires such a transition.
Both in the church and in the general community.
So, does this mean changing Christmas to mid-July? This is not a new suggestion.
Nearly 120 years ago a Sydney journalists suggested
we tickle Santa Claus under his frost-bitten nose with a sprig of wattle bloom! (Illustrated Sydney News, 1890).
Meanwhile, Bishop Jack Spong writes:
“liturgy… helps us connect with the divine by rehearsing divinity as it was revealed in the Christ... In the northern hemisphere it will be
associated with the return of light at the winter solstice, as it has been for centuries. Perhaps the Christian part of the southern hemisphere will someday free itself from the European-imposed liturgical connection of the birth of Jesus with December 25… and begin to celebrate his birth as light coming into the world’s darkness in late June, which would be its winter solstice” (Spong 2001:210).
is to come to terms with the environment,
and then to situate ourselves within the mysterious
of that environment and cosmos.
So in this spirit let me offer a few cameo comments on this festival called Christmas.
Generally speaking now days, Christmas is the time of packaging.
Bows around wrapping paper
around tissue paper
around... whatever it is we really want or desire.
Sometimes we package our desires so tidily that they are barely recognisable.
Look at what advertisements tell us about our deepest needs.
Do you want love? Then buy Rexona roll-on.
In the same way, adventure is a sporty 4x4 drive vehicle.
Passion gets packaged as a vacation at a Fijian resort in the Pacific.
Concern for our family is buying the right laundry detergent.
Jesus, too, is packaged, by both the marketplace and the church.
In the marketplace Christmas has become the expected
economic centre of the year. Certainly it has this year!
Shopping and gift giving, along with tree decorations,
house lights and office parties, have become secular liturgies
representing a new kind of middle-class faith in family and abundance.
And as our Sydney journalist from 1890 wrote, things change very little:
“Being holiday time, people are beguiled to do and to buy things they would little dream about in their normal condition of every-day life… and, contrary to the scriptural injunction, ‘taking much heed for the morrow, what they should eat, what they should drink, and wherewithal they should be clothed” (Anon. Illustrated Sydney News, 1890).
Yet, the biblical stories are extremely brief... about baby Jesus, that is.
So the church has tended to make up for the brevity of the story
with vivid imagination and word.
In ‘old-time’ religious language Christmas is about a sky God out or up there,
coming to us to dwell with us and within us,
to save us from our sin.
In the language of ‘progressive’ religion, Christmas reminds us
that we can discover a broader dimension for our ordinary humanity.
We can rediscover the sacred character of human existence.
And we can find all kinds of ways to celebrate it.
On the other hand, Jesus, as peasant baby, as refugee baby,
has become the loveable infant in his crib, smiling and cooing,
‘no crying he makes’.
But beware! Such a sweet baby Jesus can be dangerous.
The world-shaking message of Christmas gets obscured
by a sanitised religious sugar-coating and a
middle-class faith in family and abundance.
Whether we are Christian or not, that world-shaking message deserves to be heard:
the ‘sacred’, previously perceived as holy other,
is incarnated here in this life, on this earth.
Historian Clement Miles, 96 years ago, reflected on Christmas
and the way it was being celebrated in his day. He said:
“The God of Christmas is no ethereal form, no mere spiritual essence, but a very human child, feeling the cold and the roughness of the straw, needing to be warmed and fed and cherished.
And then these words:
“Christmas is the festival of the natural body, of this world; it means the consecration of the ordinary things of life...” (Miles 1912/76:157).
I first met Doug Adams in Sydney in 1985.
At that time he was professor of Christianity and the Arts
at the Pacific School of Religion in the USA.
He died some time back now.
But I reckon he always had some important things to say,
on the great church festivals - Christmas being one of them.
And that's why I nearly always refer to his words at this time of the year!
He used to say that in many painted or artistic nativity scenes,
the great artists often portrayed the child Jesus
as drawing together the full diversity of humanity.
Shepherds appear ragged and poor.
Wise men appear elegant and wealthy.
One of the wise men is old.
Another middle aged. And another young.
All the wise men are foreigners.
And one may be black.
Closest to the child Jesus is a woman, Mary his mother, who is visible to all.
The so-called ‘unrighteous’ as well as the so-called ‘righteous’ are in Jesus' company.
Such diversity within a community
would be a scandal in some countries.
But Christmas is more than just a nativity scene or the story of the birth of a child.
There are other Christmas stories in this story as well.
Other reflections which can get lost in our desire
for nostalgia and sentiment.
• There is the story of sisterhood.
Mary and Elizabeth rejoicing and sustaining each other
in the wonder of their circumstances.
• There is the story of glory come to the poor.
Whatever the exact nature of their material state,
Mary and Joseph are hardly people of power and wealth.
• There is the story of civil disobedience.
Wise ones, instructed by the political leader of the day to report to him,
are warned in a dream, and in an act of defiance and courage,
depart into their own country ‘by another road’.
• There is the story of exile and refugee.
When political leaders conspire to detain and murder,
Mary and Joseph flee as asylum seekers into Egypt.
• There are all the political undertones of this story.
For centuries this meaning has been downplayed, because
we have domesticated the stories.
Such domestication started in the fourth century
“when Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire and subsequently the dominant religion of Western cultures… Not to see it seems a kind of blindness, whether habituated or wilful” (Borg & Crosan 2007:237).
Remember... an oppressive Empire and resistance to it,
also lies beneath the early Christian story.
So I agree with the suggestion of others that it is important not to read or hear
the religious Christmas stories too narrowly.
But rather to feel their texture and discern their breadth.
They are indeed the bearers of many messages. (Shea)
So this Christmas, this day, in spite of the stress-filled economic worlds
we usually live in, I invite us all to be:
moved by generosity,
encouraged by hope,
awed by wonder and beauty.
Bring these gifts out from under the tinsel trappings
of both the marketplace and the church.
And add to them three more:
engage meaningfully in life,
be all that we can be (Spong).
We need them all to be human and to be more at peace with ourselves,
and more in tune with our social and natural worlds.
And to discover our sacred centre.
Because religion functions to both maintain and transform human selves.
Anonymous article in “The Illustrated Sydney News”, 9 January 1890.
Borg, M. J.; J. D. Crossan. 2007. The First Christmas. What the Gospels really teach about Jesus’ birth. New York. HarperOne.
Miles, C. A. 1912/76. Christmas Customs and Traditions. Their history and significance. New York. Dover Publications.
Shea, J. 1993. Starlight. Beholding the Christmas miracle all year long. New York. Crossroad Publishing.
Spong, J. S. 2001. A New Christianity for a New World. Why traditional faith is dying and how a new faith is being born. New York. HarperSanFrancisco.
Thorogood, B. 2001. “Southern Christmas” in G. Duncan (ed) Shine On, Star of Bethlehem. London. Canterbury Press.
Hunt, R. A. E. Cards, Carols, and Claus: Christmas in Popular Culture and Progressive Christianity. Melbourne: Morning Star Publishing, 2014.