This morning another eight Christian leaders face court in Perth on charges of trespass, a result of advocacy for asylum seeker children in the face of political intransigence and obfuscation. A particularly disturbing feature of the incidents of these arrests was the decision by the police, for the first time, to introduce strip-search procedures, evidently designed to intimidate and deter further protests. A year of like protest actions has turned a dark corner. However, those charged would still direct our thoughts to those languishing in detention in the tropical hell-holes of Manus and Nauru, where minors fear for their lives and remain devoid of hope. Christmas has something to do with the climax of the apocalyptic terror in John’s Revelation where a new heaven and a new earth are revealed. Revelation 21:1-6 is replete with prophetic imagery of hope realised. For two millennia, it has sustained the hopes and aspirations for followers of Jesus, the Alpha and Omega, contained for a while in a vulnerable infant. It is the vision and hope of a redeemed society that drives the thrust for mercy and justice behind the #lovemakesaway advocates who stand before our land’s magistrates. Such a hope, such a vision, is a gift of the seventh day of Christmas.
Imagine being freed of all spatial and temporal limitation! The high fence surrounding our time frame of an allotted threescore and ten (or thereabout) is torn down. Star Trek type transportation effortlessly disassembles and reunites our cells so that, at a word, we can be present to any place in the universe. We are perennially at the peak of our health and vitality. We are more fulfilled than we can ever have imagined, engaged in the purpose of a loving, sustaining, expanding stance to one another, indeed to all that is.
One can only revert to familiar science fiction memes to express an appreciation of the sacred awareness that is the gift described by the text for the sixth day of Christmas – Ephesians 1:3-14. Through the coming of Christ, all limiting barriers that separate us from ourselves, others, the Creator and the creation are dissolved. God’s awareness becomes our awareness; God’s purpose becomes our purpose; God’s love becomes our love.
Love … the kind that puts others’ interests as first priority … is often constrained, especially under stress. Disrupted routines, whether well-off families on holidays, refugees seeking asylum, or those managing unforeseen crises, render it difficult to focus on our own needs, let alone the needs of others.
Jeremiah 31:7-14 is the fifth day of Christmas gift. It’s primary context speaks of a boundless love from God for his exiled people. It is appropriated for the Christmas season as vindication. See – God has always been with his people and now dwells amongst them, incarnated in the child born to Mary and Joseph on Nazareth! This gift is so boundless; it embraces the universe.
I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you. (Jeremiah 31:3b)
When visiting one of the rural districts surrounding Zvishavane in the south of Zimbabwe 3 months ago, we were struck by the resilience of those who lived on the parched plots with little easy access to water, healthcare and education for their children. We were exploring a program run by the Zimbabwe churches with whom we partner that assists grandparents caring for grandchildren orphaned mostly by AIDS. Material help with seeds, chickens, goats, consumables and education fees are provided, along with pastoral support.
When one gogo (grandmother) was asked what else she needed, she replied, “The ability to keep praising God!” Her family had been particularly harshly ravaged by illness, failed crops and sheer misfortune. In her wisdom, she perceived a capacity to be positively oriented to the world through her faith to be a true gift.
On the fourth day of Christmas may our gift be that given by this woman – the understanding of a need for a capacity to praise God for his persistent involvement in our lives, not in ways that are always discernable to us, but emphatically underlined by God’s “riding with us” in Jesus of Nazareth and all who follow his path. Use Psalm 148 for practice!
No, not those bargains from the Boxing Day sales. The prophet rhapsodies over gifts of garments representing security, belonging, freedom and hope for the realisation of a vision where all is right with the world. To wear this apparel is to celebrate, as if at a wedding. Something new is beginning and we dress accordingly. Festive garlands, soothing oils and a garden setting complete the picture. The birth of Jesus is the event that triggers recollections of Isaiah’s song: indeed this song is a response that almost immediately follows the prophet’s manifesto read by Jesus in the Nazareth synagogue as he commenced his ministry.
These words of completion spontaneously uttered by old Simeon and reinforced by even older Anna, when they encountered the infant Jesus during the customary Jewish purification rites, have given us the gift of the Nunc Dimittis. Here is one rendition of it:
That familiar Christmas song! We are all aware of its parodies. Here are eight that claim being best. Like many medieval carols, its origins are obscure. We might like to think of the verses as subversive protests camouflaged as exuberant romantic sentiments about extravagant gifts, but there is no evidence to suggest that this is so.
Extravagant gifts abound, however. We can contemplate first the Pax in Terra, that popular three worded political slogan that the Roman Empire used to convince its subjects and vassal states that, under the rule of Caesar, peace and prosperity would be maintained.
Somewhat wary of such soundbites, we might ask “Where is the gift?” We have to sit with shepherds on a dark hillside and hear “Pax in Terra” from a different source and different voices. No three word slogan here; it has context.
We have to sit with shepherds on a dark hillside and hear “Pax in Terra” from a different source and different voices. No three word slogan here; it has context:
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’
Pax in Terra has now been taken from Empire and relocated in a birth to a humble peasant family in a remote corner of that same Empire. It becomes the first extravagant gift of Christmas – the arrival of a peace more fully described in the Hebrew word “shalom”, describing, not absence of conflict, but fullness of relationship within ourselves, with each other, with our world and our Creator.
On the first day of Christmas, our Saviour gave the world: pax in terra – shalom!
Festivity and celebration occur for very good reasons. In our pampered state, it marks a break in routine, a legitimate season to hang loose and indulge the hedonistic sides of our nature. In our reflective state, we realise that a momentous event in the history of our world caused a seismic shift in our perception of who we are. One that first defined the universe with the words “Let there be light” made a visitation and dwelled amongst us for a season. When the Apostle Paul wrote to the assembly in Galatia, he writes of our “adoption.” No longer are we slaves to our limited perceptions, but sons and daughters of the divine, heirs to a brand new perspective, freed to live life for each other abundantly.
Two days before Christmas, a minor voice from the New Testament speaks out. Squeezed obscurely between Timothy and Philemon, not large players themselves, Titus has a voice worth listening to:
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation [health, integrity, wholeness] to all…
Two days out from Christmas, Titus reminds us that, ultimately, a gift has been revealed, the implications of which are still not fully grasped by the human race, even those who are the bearers of the good news, the custodians of its narratives and the living witnesses to its effects. Titus goes on to spell out some practical implications of receiving this grace, thus sharpening our focus. It seems that the Advent task of preparation and the Christmas task of celebrating and spreading the news come together when we hear the voice of Titus.
Incarnation looms near. An expectant mother is amongst others as they make their way along the crowded track to their ancestral town, by order of the census officials. The words of an old oracle from an expectant prophet ring in her ears as the throng plods its weary way. Expectant mother; expectant prophet – their musings transcend the cold and insistent demands of bureaucracy:
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined…
…For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onwards and for evermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
Isaiah 9:2, 6-7 (NRSV)