Christmas story trumps the games that power plays

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For most people Christmas concludes a gasping sprint to the end of the year. It also offers an opportunity to reflect on the events of the past year, and perhaps to set these against the generous values associated with the Australian celebration of Christmas.

TS Elliot's 'Journey of the Magi'For Christians it offers the additional invitation to evaluate both the events of the year and the cultural celebration of Christmas in the light of the story of the first Christmas and the values embodied in it. As in all comparisons of this kind the evaluation will always suggest a mismatch.

The mismatch and the weariness associated with its recognition are caught sensitively in the last lines of TS Eliot's 'Journey of the Magi':

'I had seen birth and death / But had thought they were different; this Birth was / Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death. / We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, / But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, / With an alien people clutching their gods. / I should be glad of another death.'

The poem seems freshly minted when we reflect on the large movements of 2016: the denial of hospitality and solidarity involved in Brexit and the exclusion of refugees fleeing from conflict in Syria and Libya; the brutality of rhetoric and the countenancing of brutal action in the United States election; in Australia, the acceptance of brutality and discrimination as a normal response to strangers and the fragmentation of interest groups.

Taken together these amount to a birth of something quite unwelcome — like the armed men that sprang forth from the earth after the autumn sowing of dragons' teeth. The dragon of economic liberalism with its project of further enriching the wealthy lies rotting, but it is sowing an even more toxic, competitive and unequal society. If this is a birth, we may well welcome another death.

The first Christmas story stands out against that dark background, just as it stood out against the dark background of its own day.

An occupied nation in which citizens could be compelled to walk for many days so that they could pay taxes to a distant Emperor; a local ruler ready to kill children in order to eradicate potential rivals; the lack of hospitality in a tourist town; the constant compromises, rivalries, revolts, rumours of revolts and bloody reprisals that punctuated public life were the stuff of people's lives.

 

"The newborn Jesus is caught up in the savage games that power, wealth, competitiveness and violence play; his last days ended brutally in a death devised to alienate, deter, intimidate and to speak power to powerlessness."

 

In the foreground of the story was a God who became poor to join the poor, dependent to join the powerless, vulnerable to join those without security, who was born outside Jerusalem, even outside Bethlehem, with despised shepherds for company. It spoke of invitation and not exclusion, welcome and not refusal, breaching of walls and not building them, connection and not isolation, cooperation and not competition, constancy and not violence, vulnerability and not armour plating, trust and not anxiety, simplicity and not wealth, love and not power.

The ending of the story, too, was foreshadowed in its beginning. In Matthew's Gospel the newborn Jesus is caught up in the savage games that power, wealth, competitiveness and violence play; his last days ended brutally in a death devised to alienate, deter, intimidate and to speak power to powerlessness. And through the love and constancy in which that death was accepted came a birth into new life that made a mockery of the games that power played. In the large picture this was a Birth like Death.

Eliot's poem ends with the ambiguous line, 'I would be glad of another death'. If we set alongside one another the birth of a new and sour political order and the birth that is central to the story of the first Christmas, we are challenged to resolve the ambiguity. We may give up our hopes for a just and peaceful world, retire from it as gracefully as we can, accept the victory of power, wealth and brutality, and allow hope to die within us.

Or we can return to the Christmas story and to the hope that is central to it, and work and pray for the death of the new political order. This is the path of constancy, of faithfulness to little people in small things, of being a midwife in the hard labours of a Birth like Death.

 


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

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"The Journey of the Magi" and "A Song for Simeon" are poems I love to read at any time but there's a special comfort to be drawn from this powerful writing at this most challenging time of the year. Thanks for this message of hope, Andy.
Pam | 16 December 2016


Thanks Andy, as always offering great reflection.
Rosemary Sheehan | 19 December 2016


Thanks, Andrew, for another great piece. Amongst other things, you offer rich insights into Eliot's poem. My Christmas present to you, such as it is, would be a tribute to the extraordinary body of writing you've given us over the years - a truly extraordinary opus - ranging effortlessly over a wide range of topics, each piece sharp, concise and full of insight, always reminding us of what is expected of our humanity and our Christianity. I hope I'll be able to offer the same Christmas present for many years.
Joe Castley | 19 December 2016


Andy in true biblical tradition you kept the best for last
Mike Bowden | 19 December 2016


Yesterday I celebrated at Beaumont St Uniting Church in Newcastle. That lifegiving community opens its church annually to local charities to decorate a Christmas tree. The church makes an initial donation to the charity, and people who visit across a few weeks expand the donations. The church is a place of welcome at that time, with a café offering hospitality as people move around the trees - 16 this year They are decked with love and often handmade decorations - a number by schools. Yesterday's liturgy was indeed joyful, as final cheques were presented to the charities, including refugees, the homeless, women's refuge, SvdP, and many others - local groups, who, in many different ways, walk the Christmas path of 'constancy, of faithfulness to little people in small things'.
vivien | 19 December 2016


Thank you for the finest Christmas homily I have read, heard in a long time. It put me in mind of John of the Cross's striving, struggling soul: The greatest conquest ever won, I won in blindness, like the night,. Because love urged me on my way I gave that mad, blind, reckless leap, that soared me up so high and steep, That in the end I seized my prey.
John Nicholson | 19 December 2016


Andrew , your eloquence, spiritual nourishment and tenacity have been a beacon of hope both in Eureka Street and Prayer .com.throughout the year. Thank you sincerely .May the beauty and joy of Christmas fill your wonderful soul..
Celia | 19 December 2016


Here’s to Christmas, and all those whose love witnesses to such a thing.
David Moloney | 19 December 2016


"And the light shone in the darkness".... Thanks, Andy
Brendan Callaghan SJ | 21 December 2016


I must confess, as favourite Christmas reading, Charles Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol' trumps Eliot for me. Christ was born, as you say, into a flawed world. There is a dreadful heresy abroad today in the secular world: the myth of human perfectibility. Christ was perfect and transcended this flawed and ambiguous world by his own life and action. This message is, to me, implicit in Dickens. Scrooge, in his own way, gets the message that you have to act now, in real time, to make a difference. Dickens didn't overtly preach Christianity but he certainly got the message across.
Edward Fido | 21 December 2016


I really appreciated Andrew's homily. It spoke equally, I think, to believers and unbelievers. For me, the literal trueness or otherwise of the Story is not important, it's the truth that it contains that is so powerful. I'm less convinced than Edward that his 'myth of human perfectibility' has much currency in my 'secular world'. Rather the pursuit of truth and what the old Methodists called 'holiness' on the one hand and the achievement of a just and caring society on the other, is, and will always be, an on-going struggle between those ideas that Andrew associates with birth and those that he associates with death. I think that is consistent with what Andrew has written although the way that I have expressed it falls far short of his in style. A happy and blessed new year to all.
Ginger Meggs | 13 January 2017


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