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Moving on from a soiled 2012


NativityCome 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 are unimportant people, part of an old order that is unchanging and unchangeable.

In the Christmas story, the new comes in the form of possibility in unlikely places. A spark is lit and flares along an unnoticed powder train, empowering people who appear to have no power.

The agents of possibility are angels, promising an impossible pregnancy to Mary and to Elizabeth, telling Joseph to marry Mary and to protect Jesus from Herod, warning the wise men and letting the shepherds in on the good news. An unexpected hope in God's help spreads quietly, connects people with one another, and gathers a force sufficient to put down tyrants from their thrones and to raise the lowly.

The Christmas stories touch deeply because they give full weight to the power of the old to control and to deny possibility, but affirm a greater hope. The palace of control is brittle and its walls can be broken by simple and vulnerable people. The emblem of God's possibility is a baby, vulnerable and unconsidered.

In our world the cost of maintaining the old world of control and marginalisation can be seen in the killing and maiming in Syria, the failure to address global warming, the desperation of asylum seekers dumped on Nauru, and the pain and anger of those abused and let down in the Catholic Church. Renewal seems impossible.

But there are small flashes of the new. The bravery of those who relay to the world the voice and experience of ordinary Syrians on whom the guns fall; the persistence of those who will not let us forget the climactic threat to our planet, or the faces of asylum seekers whose lives are blighted by the passion for control; the voices of good people, like Sr Annette Cunliffe, which show that truth does not need to be controlled.

These may be dismissed as candles in the all-encompassing darkness. But great and subversive enterprises have often begun by candlelight. 

Andrew Hamilton headshotAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street. Flickr image by Duckmarx


Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Christmas, New Year, asylum seekers, climate change, syria



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Existing comments

And here in dust and dirt, O here/The lilies of His love appear. George Herbert

Pam | 21 December 2012  

God created time because we couldn't face the whole of reality at once. The circularity of our chronology gives most of us an opportunity to reflect on how we have survived the seasons of the year - the highs, the lows, the successes, the failures, the progress, the backsliding. The mass media and social media give us all too much information about how others are doing, behaving or misbehaving. Conflict (between the powerful and the weak, the corrupt and the pure, the rich and the poor) and weirdness tend to get the most coverage. The alcoholic celebration of the New Year wipes out the old person. If only! That old person wakes up with a hangover and despite the remorse, guilt and shame at what might have happened during the early morning hours of the New Year, he/she gets back on the merry-go-round and will repeat the same things that blighted or blessed the Old Year. Of course there are exceptions but "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation" to quote Henry Thoreau, and the mass media, bolstered now by social media. does its utmost to make sure the mass of men and women don't forget it.

Uncle Pat | 21 December 2012  

Can I put up (again) my favourite blight of this year which has soured 2012 for me? ....the first full year of the new liturgy. It has nothing going for it: a style which is remote, awkward, religiose, pharasaic, and using bad English ( or as Cardinal Pell describes it ... "more sacral" , which bizarrely he seems to think is positive). And all pushed through with a coersive bullying style that characterises the Catholic extremists it represents, even if unfortunately this faction has gained control of the central power levers. And there is more: hugely expensive financially at a time when our priorities should very much be elsewhere... indeed addressing so many urgent issues which at some time we will need to face. And that may be the core part of what really frustrates...this whole initiative is remarkably silly.

Eugene | 21 December 2012  

Good article, Andrew. Drink has always been a favourite way of avoiding reality: a far from glorious Australian tradition. To me Christmas always contains the germ of Easter. They are interconnected. That is why I am particularly fond of Dickens "A Christmas Carol". Like your article it looks to past, present and future and is a story of one man's redemption by the remorseless power of love. The remorseless power of love is always there. That is the secret. Things can change. Empires crumble. But love lives on. These days I am finding that those not formally churched are often as much evidence of this than those within. If the discrete Churches realised that it could change everything. As my favourite religious author, the late Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, said, Christ did not come to found an institution but to change the world. He did.

Edward F | 21 December 2012  

Thank you Andrew.. for our gift of Truth*, the meaning and message for each of us... the possibility..the spirit of the good news,so humble,so radical, enabling human love to transform; all suffering,hatred and greed,power and lust. Love so generous, so liberating, life-giving. It is no wonder kings and rulers wanted this power for their own.But this spirit cannot be monopolised, contained, or abused.It belongs to all; it is found easily in those with pure hearts,empowering to all who are meek and keep humble lives,strengthened in those who cultivate open minds and courageous hearts, found in those filled with gratitude for a multitude of daily miracles ...We, the 'ordained'laity are given the gift of life in TRUE abundance. Christmas Gifts of mercy and compassion, breaking open the hearts and palaces of stone, lifting and renewing all.We just need reminding..thank you*

Catherine | 21 December 2012  

Thanks Andrew! There are indeed flashes of the new. We had a renewing 2nd Rite of Reconciliation at our Parish Church last night and were blessed with the participation of three priests. Parishioners queued up to confess an area of their lives that needed renewing, and were blessed with the gift of God's forgiveness at the hands of the priest. The celebrant gave a penance of complementing three people on someting we liked about them. I did feel renewed when people came up to me and gave me a complement. I now complement you Andrew for your inspiring article. I also complement Eureka Street and all those who have contributed articles and comments. You provide 'food for thought' for which I am very grateful. As a Christmas gift to you all, I pass on our priest's suggestion to complement three people, and please do it as soon as you can. May you all experience the Love, Joy and Peace of Christ this Christmas!

George Allen | 21 December 2012  

A wonderful insight, Andrew. May we all be little lights of the new in the coming year...

Catherine | 21 December 2012  

I at least, am happy to read in the Age December 21st, that the Jesuits even though not part of the Melbourne Response are on record as having paid for Ms Woods counselling fees, discounting Carelink psychologist's claims to the contrary. It's hard enough for those dealing with the church to have their credibility remain intact, with all the avenues at their disposal.

L Newington | 22 December 2012  

Edward F rcc magisterium is the Authority on Christ's Mission not a deceased Metropolitan. Our Blessed Lord established the Catholic Church!and Petrine Commision http://www.scborromeo.org/images/fig1.jpg

father john george | 22 December 2012  

Well said Eugene. This new "translation" (translation? translation?) may well turn out to be the most damaging of all the dirty deeds of 2012.

Jim Jones | 24 December 2012  

My New Year's Resolution is to observe the seasons of the Liturgical Year more closely. Perhaps deliberately and mindfully accessing the wisdom accrued over two thousand years will help to keep the flickering flame alight in my own life - for a change....

Joan Seymour | 30 December 2012  

Oh, yes - let's blame the evil drink - always a good scapegoat. How about the blissful promise of eternal life to the do-gooders as another powerful opiate that sustains unrealistic patterns of behaviour?

AURELIUS | 02 January 2013  

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