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Rex A E Hunt November 2011 The third of Three presentations to the Network of Biblical Storytellers Australia/New Zealand 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 mothers 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: Cameo 3:1 it can often seem that the seasons comprise essentially summer and nonsummer. A reign of heat, flies, snakes, beach culture and burgeoning growth is followed by a cooler time in which the discomforts disappear 1

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. oo0oo

ADVENT
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 didnt 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 openbut to what? To the presence of the sacred (or God) in the ordinary. Cameo: 3.2 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 2

when the owner of the house is coming, evening, midnight, cockcrow, dawn. 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 Godgiven 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. Cameo 3:3 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:

Consider the need for a fresh awareness of your creative capacity. 3

For inside each one of us is a marvelous creature with multi-coloured wings. Consider the option of becoming a person infected or inspired by hope. But not just an optimistic hope. The more rugged hopethat says even if things dont turn out all right and arent 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. 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. oo0oo

CHRISTMAS
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 didnt 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 colonya gaol for the 736 convicts and to a

certain extent, the marines and officers who accompanied themhe also won the land for protestant Christianity (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).

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.

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 secular 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 rebirthing by giving him a cooler summer outfit, complete with kangaroo driven sleigh. oo0oo

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 5

Cameo 3:4 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 traditionprobably 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: ... Lukes account is full of strong, vibrant, bright colours with just a hint of umbers in the background. The other, Matthews 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, Lukes birth story of Yeshua bar Yosef has had an enormous influence on the Christian imagination.

For many Christians Lukes 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 heavenall 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 storys 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 wasnt until after Emperor Constantine consciously chose Christianity as his Empires new civil religion (Kennedy 2006:221) in 313 CEthat 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 7

even influence at court, [while] their churches gained new wealth, power, and prominence (Pagels 1988:xxv). Then another extraordinary event happened 12 years laterin 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 faithor 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 thats some shift! oo0oo

As storytellers, interpreters, poets, composers, liturgists and artists, how can we approach the ReBirthing of Christmas down under in the 21st century? Cameo 3:5 Christmas is loud cacophony in the symphony of my year. the sound of crass cash registers beep-beeping in my ears 8

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. I wish it was a simple tune played on a flute or fiddle, that could slip past my defences and touch me in my middle like the sweetness of a baby born all fresh and soft and whole 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 "Christmas Day" 322 TiS 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" (Tune: Reversi) 9 AA 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 can reach! 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, everywhere, anywhere, here on the earth (SEMurray) Star-Child, earth-Child 40(ii) COC Star-Child, earth-Child go-between of God, love Child, Christ Child, heaven's lightning rod, Refrain: This year, this year, let the day arrive, when Christmas comes for everyone, everyone alive! 10

Street child, beat child no place left to go, hurt child, used child, no one wants to know, Refrain: This year, this year, let the day arrive, when Christmas comes for everyone, everyone alive! Grown child, old child, mem'ry full of years, sad child, lost child, story told in tears, Refrain: This year, this year, let the day arrive, when Christmas comes for everyone, everyone alive! Spared child, spoiled child, having, wanting more, wise child, faith child knowing joy in store, Refrain: This year, this year, let the day arrive, when Christmas comes for everyone, everyone alive! Hope-for-peace Child, God's stupendous sign, down-to-earth Child, star of stars that shine, Refrain: This year, this year, let the day arrive, when Christmas comes for everyone, everyone alive! (SEMurray) On the song Star Child Shirley Murray writes: Cameo 3:6

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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. And again: Cameo 3:7 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 Im 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. oo0oo

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

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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.

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(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 feastanywhere between 22 March and 25 Apriltied 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. Its time to ReBirth Christmas.

Notes: Blainey, G. 1987. Sydney 1877 in (ed.) D. J. Mulvaney, J. P. White. Australians. To 1788. NSW: Broadway. Fairfax, Syme and Weldon Associates. Breward, I. 1988. Australia. The Most Godless Place under Heaven. VIC: Mitcham. Beacon Hill Books. Cupitt, D. 2003. Life, Life. CA: Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press. Frazier, R. T. 1992. Christmas should be softly spoken in Quarterly Review 12, 4, 69-74.

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Funk, R. W. 1996. Honest to Jesus. Jesus for a New Millennium. NY: New York. HarperSanFrancisco. Funk, R. W.; R. W. Hoover (ed.). The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. NY: New York. McMillan. Geering, L. G. 1998. Does Society Need Religion? NZ: Wellington, St Andrews Trust for the Study of Religion and Society. Gomes, P. J. The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: Whats So Good About the Good News? New York: HarperOne, 2007. Griffin, G. 1982. The colour of joy in Nigel Watson. (ed.) Jesus Christ for Us. Reflections on the Meaning of Christ appropriate to Advent and Christmas. VIC: Melbourne. JBCE. Inclusive Readings. Year C. 2007. QLD: Toombul. Inclusive Language Project. In private circulation. Kaufman, G. D. 1993. In Face of Mystery. A Constructive Theology. MA: Cambridge. Harvard University Press. Kennedy, J. 2006. The Everything Jesus Book. His Life, his Teachings. MA: Avon. Adams Media. McGaughy, L. 1992. Infancy narratives in the ancient world in The Fourth R 5, 5, 1-3. Miles, C. A. 1912/76. Christmas Customs and Traditions. Their History and Significance. NY: New York. Dover Publications. Pagels, E. 1988. Adam, Eve, and the Serpent. NY: New York. Vintage Books/Random House. Rank-Heinmann, U. 1994. Putting Away Childish Things. Translated by Peter Heinegg. NY: New York. HarperCollins. Roll, S. K. 1995. Toward the Origins of Christmas. The Netherlands: Kampen. Kok Pharos Publishing House. Sanguin, B. 2010. If Darwin Prayed. Prayers for Evolutionary Mystics. Canada: Vancouver. ESC Publishing. Wilson, B. 1982. The church in a secular society in D. Harris, D Hynd, D Millikan. (ed.) The Shape of Belief. Christianity in Australia Today. NSW: Homebush. Lancer Books.

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