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Church plays part of Christmas villain


Evil looking SantaChristmas is a chameleon. It adapts itself to different cultures, different situations and seasons. But it wears sufficient ancient trappings to suggest that it has always been celebrated like this.

Many of the details of the traditional Australian celebration came into England only in the 19th century. Santa Claus in his present appearance came from the United States, Christmas trees were imported by Queen Victoria, the family Christmas popularised by Charles Dickens, carols by song collectors at the end of the 19th century, and the cash register invented in the United States.

The public celebration of Christmas has survived banning by the Puritans because it was not Christian enough; now it is subject to some restrictions because it is too Christian; in many Asian societies it has completely lost its associations with Christ's birth. It will surely continue to be popular, marked by continuous innovations that will promptly be declared traditional.

The Christian story of Christmas is also a chameleon. The Gospel stories of Jesus' infancy are a summary of the whole Gospel, and so adapted to all its tenses. Its details can refer to contemporary predicaments: the disruption of an inexplicable pregnancy, the joy of birth, the promise of good news, the impositions of taxation, the pain of homelessness, the rumours of angels, the brutalities of national security, the anxiety of those fleeing persecution, the growth of children and family stresses.

In some years the celebration of Christmas is free and unshadowed; in other years it echoes and judges what is happening in national life. In recent years, the story of Herod's pursuit of the nation's children in the name of the national interest has been echoed by the callous harrowing of people who seek protection in Australia. This year the conjunction of the feast with the hearings of the Royal Commission into child abuse these last weeks have created disconcerting echoes with what has been done in the Catholic Church.

Christmas tells the story of a God who entrusted Christ as a vulnerable baby safely to the care of Mary and Joseph in a markedly hostile secular environment. The stories told at the Royal Commission are of parents who entrusted their vulnerable children unsafely to the care of representatives of Christ's church. They met not Christ, but Herod. The face of Herod in our day is not that of a persecutor who threatens the freedom of the church in a secularist age. His face is that of a minister of the church who betrays and kills from within.

The strength of the chameleon lies in its capacity to adapt itself to its surroundings, to remain itself and to survive. The claim of the Christian Gospel, of course, extends beyond survival. It is that the reality of death and betrayal in their deepest forms have been accepted and faced down. Ultimately the mask of Herod, whether worn by functionaries of state or of church, is only a mask. The hope for irrepressible life expressed in the vulnerable and unmasked baby is the authentic face of the world.

The Christmas tree, Santa, carols, shop illuminations and cash registers serve us well in times when we prosper and are confident. The Gospel stories of Christmas offer hope in times of betrayal as well as of decency.

Andrew Hamilton headshotAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Evil Santa image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Christmas



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Existing comments

'Christmas tells the story of a God who entrusted Christ as a vulnerable baby safely to the care of Mary and Joseph in a markedly hostile secular environment'. Maybe so, but in the end it was not the 'secular environment' that brought Him down but the closed-minded hierarchy of an organised religion. Perhaps there's also a message there?

Ginger Meggs | 17 December 2013  

And I understood none higher stature in this life than Childhood. Julian of Norwich

Damaris | 17 December 2013  

Thanks Mr Hamilton for your wise words, which gave me a chuckle (cash register...) and brought a tear to these jaded old eyes.

John Vernau | 17 December 2013  

Whether we are Christian or not, Christmas is an especially challenging time. The secular and Christian worlds intersect most vividly at this time of the year. It probably helps to be chameleon-like. The gospels of Mark and Luke relate the Christmas story in different ways. I've always found conciseness and brevity to be of benefit in times of cicada stress.

Pam | 17 December 2013  

I agree with all you have said, Andrew - Christ was born and May laboured and it will be through the labours of women within the church who will re-birth the church.

Shirley McHugh | 18 December 2013  

I love this article!

George | 18 December 2013  

A very apt way of describing the sexual abuse of childen and adults by those whom we should be able to trust.

Bev Smith | 18 December 2013  

The word ‘entrusted’ means to invest with a trust or responsibility to those charged with a specified office or duty involving trust. Children are not objects to be shaped, manipulated or micro-managed at the whim of teachers, authorities or parents but in some countries they are objects used for bargaining power, such as the procurement of cheap labour. Children are wired for struggle and in such circumstances are able to manage at the cost of childhood innocence. Why didn’t the Church authorities understand the immense power of manipulating the innocent souls of childhood? The gospels tell us that Jesus understood the sacredness of childhood, why not his disciples and the Church Fathers down through the centuries? Abuse at the hands of a cleric or ordained custodian of souls is the worst abuse of all because it inhibits emotional growth and self- identity in the child and that child learns never to trust an adult again. In fact the ability to trust is gone forever and that includes the hierarchy of organised religion (thanks Ginger Meggs). The Vatican continues to insist upon the disempowerment of women; imagine if they had listened to 13th century theologian Julian of Norwich, then they would have: ‘ understood none higher stature in this life than Childhood’ (thanks Damaris). I pray for a church that can wholeheartedly embraces the teachings of our dear Saviour whose birth we celebrate next week.

Trish Martin | 18 December 2013  

Andrew Hamilton, you refer to"... parents who entrusted their vulnerable children unsafely to the care of representatives of Christ's church."
How can these "representatives" be entrusted to "safely" entrust this "care" to a national insurance and compensation scheme as proposed by the Truth, Justice and Healing Council of the Catholic Church in Australia? This proposal is continuing complicity by church and state in insurance fraud into which they have been drawn for 2000 years by parents and some of their family members in general with special interests in Catholic education and pastoral care. The assertion of Vatican 11 in its "Declaration on Christian Education", 1965, 3 that "... the parents entrust some share of their duty to educate..." to "others" is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to at n.2389 as: "Connected to incest..." Both the giving and receiving of this fraudulent entrustment are connected to incest. Only the inseparability of Union and Procreation found in the priest as Christ from outside the incest affected human condition being in perfect reciprocity with a perfectly married human parent can insure against this harm. It is in the keeping of the inseparability of this insuring Procreation, including education, and ensuring Union that prevents this child abuse. Oliver Clark, Job's Trust

Oliver Clark | 18 December 2013  

A beautiful story but, Oh, the sadness. At least those hunted down by Herod didn't have to live with the shame and the ache of lost innocence.

john frawley | 18 December 2013  

Andrew it is so very true about Christmas villains being found from within the Church.

My everyday prayer, and not only at Christmas time, is for each individual Christian to back him or herself, in Christ, in being courageous in standing against institutional blindness everywhere we interact, including within the Church. Bearing such witness will help reverse the decline of the Church's mission of evangelisation, especially in the western nations.

Michael Webb | 18 December 2013  

Thanks for your reflective piece Andrew, In 1995 Nelson Mandela opened a Children's Foundation named in his honour. His first words in his address Mandela said, "There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than in the way it treats its children." Paradoxically it is now taking the legal arm of the vilified and demonised secular world with all its 'moral relativism' to have to drive a bulldozer through the doors of the episcopal and extended clerical leadership of that edifice and bulwark of the preserved and much guarded moral high ground, the Catholic Church. It was not only 'baby tears' Jesus was shedding at birth; it didn't stop then and it never will until profound, systemic, structural change happens at the very top and does the trickle down and when real institutional conversion replaces the tissue box, the hollow apologies and the insincere purse of silver which will never amount to the price of a soul, Let's hope that our Metropolitan Archbishops have the comfort of a very strong eschatology as they pull out the scripts from the files, mouth unctuous nostrums about the poor, homeless and disadvantaged. They might just realise that they have largely lost moral authority and that practically nobody takes much notice of them anymore.

David Timbs | 18 December 2013  

It's time our Church accepted that "the claim of the Christian Gospel, of course, extends beyond survival (and) . . . that the reality of death and betrayal in their deepest forms (must be) accepted and faced down." This acceptance and facing down of the betrayal of children by the Church has not occurred. Apologies for behaviour of abusing clerics are a distraction from the Church's failure to recognise that its institutional protection of child predators was a terrible sin and crime resulting from the Church's dysfunctional, unaccountable, autocratic and non-inclusive governance. Our Church fails the values of Jesus. At this Xmas time, I hope we will all pray that Pope Francis is granted the strength to introduce fundamental renewal of the governance structures and culture of the Church.

Peter Johnstone | 18 December 2013  

For a wonderfully revealing look at the history of clericalism, and the rise of Rome's supreme, ill based and often abused power go to Hans Kung's 2013 book, Can We Save the Catholic Church.

Joe Castley | 13 February 2014  

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