It’s that time

It’s December. In Australia we have no trouble reading the signs that summer, and therefore Christmas, is near. There is a tangible expectation of slowing down, of casual meals, the beach and swimming pools and maybe even some state borders re-opening. It’s time to celebrate, and with Covid immunisations acceptably climbing, it certainly feels more celebratory than last year.

Christian churches call this lead up to the birth of Christ, Advent. They invite us to dip into the centuries before Jesus’ birth, to become familiar with prophets like Isaiah and the little band of people who kept the dreams of a Messiah alive through wars, displacement and slavery. Then the Messiah was born. But when he came they missed the signs. A newborn baby born to working parents wasn’t what they had in mind at all.

Christmas can be seen as a festival of waiting, of hoping, of touching into the need to belong, a yearning for peace. It’s all there in the way we celebrate – the twinkling lights, Christmas trees, whiskered Santas and present giving, the “who’s turn is it for Christmas this year”, the carols by candlelight.

In a way, the real meaning of Christmas never goes away – the gift that is Jesus, the love Jesus embodied that is the expression of God. And it’s hard to stop hoping. We hope that Covid will go away, that politicians will be more empathetic  towards the disadvantaged, that Middle East countries will learn to live in peace with each other, that we embrace whatever changes are needed to achieve a more balanced climate, that God will give us what we want – or need, anyway.

Every year, as the shops begin reminding me that Christmas is coming, I experience a bout of religious tension as I struggle the find the nowness of God in the seasonal music and decorations. How much, and in what way, should I show my Christian beliefs and express my religious faith?  Like every other person on the planet I yearn for God, and like the Israelites I don’t always recognise God in myself, in others or in the ups –and downs, too – of everyday.

One thing I do is renew acquaintance with Isaiah. Even though he lived three thousand years ago, my imagination pictures him sitting on a wraparound Australian homestead veranda, wearing a battered Akubra, eyes fixed on the horizon, patiently waiting for the rain.  The book of Isaiah bubbles over with poetic words that could have originated in the Top End or the Mallee, such as, “I will turn the wilderness into a lake and the dry ground into springs of water.”  

Covid has left a lot of dry spots in all our lives – anxiety, despair, uncertainty, worry. We look for people, experiences, good news that will water those dry and stagnant spaces. Isaiah knew what this felt like. In imagery familiar to Australians he implores God, “Let the clouds rain down the Just One, and the earth bring forth a Saviour”.

What do I do with that Christmas induced religious tension? Well, I live with it, with help from Isaiah the poet. The birth of Jesus was, and still is, a reason for the whole of creation to celebrate – with family, friends and the stranger too, with food and laughter, and a hope that will give us the energy and vision to water each other’s dry spaces.


It’s in the Book

My Bible is looking very battered, its binding held together with wide pieces of clear sticky tape. It’s a Jerusalem Bible, an English translation of a French translation from the original Hebrew and Greek texts, printed in 1966. It’s big, it’s heavy, the pages are wafer thin, unmarked by pencil or highlighter, unlike just about every other book I own.

I can’t claim to have read every word of it – there are whole chapters that remain unread, especially in the Old Testament. My most frequently pondered chapters are from the New Testament, the Jesus story as it is told from the perspective of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Lately however, my Bible has sat, unopened for weeks at a time.

Maybe familiarity has dulled my reading of the Gospels. Maybe I’ve stopped seeing Jesus from the perspective of a first century Christian, when the choice to follow his teachings was an adult thing, a deliberate choice that took courage, determination and a strong will to join what was essentially a fringe movement – exciting but demanding. Maybe I’ve stopped seeing Jesus from my place in the twenty first century.

A couple of weeks ago Kevin Donnelly, writing  in the Australian, said this; “It’s a hard time to be a Christian, especially a Catholic”. I agree. It takes courage to go against the tide of unquestioned beliefs, family customs, public opinion and established religious tradition in order to speak about anything, but especially religious issues. Mentioning Jesus can be embarrassing. Maybe it’s time for me to return to the Gospels, to see life, as it’s happening right now, through the eyes of Jesus.  

The Jesus story is the thread that holds Christian communities together. It’s what makes Christianity a living and still evolving religion. Aside from a token nod to Jesus’ birth and death each Christmas and Easter however, you will hear almost nothing about Jesus unless you are a regular church goer. Christian churches introduce us to a Jesus we can imitate in twenty first century ways, someone who sets the bar for what it means to be fully human. External rituals and compliance with rules rarely do that.

 Christianity today does the ‘big stuff’’ really well. Regardless of race, culture or gender, Christianity gives people a practical way to integrate their inner spirituality with the day to day The sick, the needy, the homeless, families displaced by war, the disabled and the mentally ill are cared for by any number of organizations and volunteers. Are a whole lot of empty churches for sale because people no longer see any point in remaining faithful to what is essentially cultural Christianity?

 A slow, careful reading of a Gospel passage gives the details a chance to be noticed and Jesus’ voice to be heard, maybe stirring a recognition of something that is currently happening. A word or phrase that catches our interest or like a hook the Spirit uses to bring something to our attention. We just need the courage to believe it, to stay with it, to live it.

Judith (

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