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Moving on from a soiled 2012

  • 21 December 2012

Come December the ageing year looks pretty shop soiled.

We might associate the world events of 2012 with the threat of global warming becoming more dire and with the continuing misery of Syria, afflicted by internal violence and international paralysis. We might identify Australian politics with the misery inflicted on asylum seekers for political reasons. We will almost certainly see the Australian Catholic Church through the lens of sex abuse and the flailing responses to it.

That is why in New Year celebrations under a variety of calendars the old year is ritually banished and the new welcomed. In some Buddhist cultures, for example, people ritually wash their faces, wiping away the stain of the old and presenting a new face to the new year.

In Australian popular culture, Christmas and New Year complement one another. Christmas presents an idealised face of the perfect family and of generous individuals. The alcoholic celebration of New Year wipes out the old person and permits a total makeover as the midnight fireworks flare.

In Christian cultures Christmas generally dominates the New Year. Its stories combine a realistic understanding of the old with the promise of something radically new and better. The New Year is seen as living out the hope intimated at Christmas.

Luke's story of Christ's birth begins by listing the emperor and governors in place at the time. This is the public world which controls personal destinies. Mary must walk into the hill country late in pregnancy and is forced to give birth in a paddock because the foreign masters demand new taxation rolls. As a result people from all around Palestine must return to their ancestral homes.

In this world control is never far from violence. In Matthew's story, Herod sees in the story of a new born king a threat to his power. He is used to dealing with threats. All the babies around Bethlehem will die so that he can feel secure.

A great gap divides the powerful, who are active, and the poor who respond as best they can to what is done to them. The first thing Jesus sees is a cattle shelter, and shepherds who spend their lives in the fields. These