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Christmas story trumps the games that power plays

  • 16 December 2016


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.

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