The shopping centre carpark opposite was empty. It was lunchtime Christmas Day. Most people were at home or elsewhere with loved ones. Christmas Day is different.
Christmas is a time to gather, to share gifts and display good will to all. For a decreasing but sizeable minority of Australians (43.9% at the 2021 census), Christmas is that and more. They see it first and foremost as the celebration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, or Emmanuel, ‘God-with-us’. In 336AD their predecessors chose 25 December to celebrate Christmas. The symbolism of the sun in the Roman Empire, festivities surrounding the winter solstice and the shift from a lunar to a solar calendar were all influential in that decision. Faith is always mediated through culture. Interestingly, religious affiliation world-wide continues to increase and it is predicted that in a little over a decade Muslims will outnumber Christians.
Christmas and Easter-Pentecost are the ‘bookends’ of Christian belief. Yet the intervening three years of Jesus’ teaching and healing are more domesticated than transformative for many believers. Belief and action are not always consistent. Contrast this with those who draw inspiration from the historical Jesus without making a credal commitment. Of course, being a Christian is not ‘either, or’. Jesus insisted that we are called to love of God and love of neighbour.
In my Catholic tradition, gathering for Sunday worship is the “source and summit” of belief and practice and social justice is “a constitutive dimension of the Gospel”, consistent with the call of the church to be “a sign and instrument” of God’s presence, mindful that the pilgrim people of God are “holy yet sinful and always in need of renewal”. The latter was writ large by the findings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse. This issue in part prompted Pope Francis to call for a “synodal” church or one that is “walking together”. This understanding affords a voice to all, though we still struggle to engage with the poorest. It is predicated on a willingness to be mutually enriched as we listen for the promptings of the Holy Spirit. It is not the parliamentary model where numbers equal power. The hope is for agreement on the essentials and a willingness to live gracefully with difference. Contrast this with winners and losers and ongoing angst.
As Christmas and Easter draw on cultural understandings, perhaps it is opportune in our increasingly diverse society to take a leaf out of the ‘synodality’ book. Acknowledging that all have a contribution to make, it is important that all are heard. The call for inclusivity is premised on diversity, not sameness. However, tensions around religious discrimination legislation seem predicated on the grant of exemptions. On the contrary, religious freedom is foundational to all other rights as it affirms the right of conscience to attribute one’s own meaning and purpose to life within the limits of law. The latter, by virtue of competing rights, calls for a Bill of Rights to resolve matters now cause for interminable division and angst; winners and losers.
Again, Pope Francis insists that an integral or truly inclusive ecology must underpin our approach to the challenge of environmental degradation. Being created in the image and likeness of God is foundational to self-respect, respect for the dignity of others, and a special care for the poor, the first victims of environmental abuse. Pope Francis would have it that unless we are on song with human ecology, we will continue to struggle with the challenges of our physical environment, the first act of God’s revelation. His predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI claimed “the Church has to play her part through rational argument and she has to awaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper.” And his predecessor, Pope John XX111 insisted that if we want peace, we must work for justice.
Talk of ‘spiritual energy’ reminds me of the Canadian Ronald Rolheiser’s observation that “there is deep within us a fundamental dis-ease, an unquenchable fire that renders us incapable, in this life, of ever coming to full peace . . . At the heart of all great literature, poetry, art, philosophy, psychology, and religion lies the naming and analysing of this desire . . . What we do with our longings, both in terms of handling the pain and the hope they bring us, is our spirituality”.
At a 2016 Vatican sports conference it was suggested that love, science, music and sport are the international languages. There is more that unites than divides us. Again, in a connected age affording more real and virtual engagement, the experience of beauty, goodness and truth affirm a shared experience of the transcendent. Yet the spirituality of a growing majority of Australians struggles with the notion of immanence, or ‘God-with-us’. Many create Christmas in their image and likeness, and their own ‘way, truth and life’. However, the fundamental dis-ease remains and this is as good as it will ever get, apparently. On the other hand, Christmas and the public ministry of Jesus culminating in Easter-Pentecost speak good news to our deepest aspirations now and even beyond death. How might we promote shared experience and respectful dialogue for the good of all?
My sister Sharon died recently. Sharon had cerebral palsy. She was a woman of faith and did not bemoan what she could not do but got on with what she could. She had worked as a typist, drove a modified car and later in her electric wheelchair went to concerts and not a few Australian Open finals. My last visit was a bedside vigil. I offered prayer and silent gratitude for Sharon, and that was precious. It was the end of the section but the not the end of the journey.
The day before Sharon’s funeral I attended a breakfast gathering at which journalist and academic, Stan Grant claimed that even when one feels forsaken by God, the seed of love remains and calls us back. Perhaps it is this seed, our dis-ease which sees us variously gather on Christmas Day. We are part of something bigger and on Christmas Day many sense it and that is good, surely. In ‘God’s Grandeur’ (1877), Gerard Manly Hopkins mused:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God,
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then not now reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor feet can feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Peace on earth and good will to all.