I can’t get enough of advent. Back in the Northern Hemisphere, as the darker nights get darker, my longing for light becomes stronger, and the promise of an inextinguishable, life-giving Sun is so rich and hopeful and true that my whole soul becomes a big ‘YES PLEASE LORD’*.
Here in New Zealand, of course, that’s a whole different thing. Today is the longest day of the year and at the end of the nine lessons and carols service I just went to, the congregation spilled out into the bright church garden with mince pies and chilled prosecco, rather than the mulled wine I’m more used to.
I am, on reflection, very thankful for my Northern Hemisphere forebears in faith that they chose the turning of the year, the very beginning of the stretch in the days, the first sign of spring, as the time they chose to celebrate the joyous, decisive glimpse of hope in the manger. But it’s been helpful to uncouple my advent hopes from my circadian rhythms, and from cold-weather, busy-city traditions, and hear the prophecies and songs of Christmas with the sun shining. It makes me see them differently.
One simple thought followed by a rather more complicated one…
There’s a grandeur and scale, along with a gentleness and intimacy that is soul-filling and restorative (the birdsong! the flowers! The pohutukawa trees burst into red blossom just in time for Christmas and all creation sings).
And the creator of all of this, beauty and truth incarnate, became a baby, vulnerable, helpless, to bring to His creation salvation and hope in a way that even the most glorious view can’t. Grandeur and gentleness. The maker of the stars and sea, become a child on earth… for me.
And more complicatedly, it’s been a huge privilege to learn something of the story of this land and its people from a number of different perspectives. I hear within the stories a deep yearning for justice and reconciliation, and an open-eyed recognition of the costs this involves. Perhaps because of the incredible people I’ve met, and their committed sense of vocation in this, I’m left feeling excited and hopeful about what God is doing and stirring here. It’s a taster of the excitement and hope I see in Mary’s and Zechariah’s songs at the beginning of Luke’s gospel…
50 His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
You will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
77 to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
78 because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
79 to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.
The first Christian sermon preached in New Zealand was on Christmas Day, 1814, by a CMS Missionary, Samuel Marsden, and translated by Ruatara, the Maori leader who was hosting the visit. First they read Psalm 100:
1 Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth.
2 Worship the Lord with gladness;
come before him with joyful songs.
3 Know that the Lord is God.
It is he who made us, and we are his;
we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.
4 Enter his gates with thanksgiving
and his courts with praise;
give thanks to him and praise his name.
5 For the Lord is good and his love endures forever;
his faithfulness continues through all generations.
Then they shared the song of the angels from Luke 2: “Behold, I bring you good news of great joy!”
I can’t do justice to the thought-provoking conversations I’ve been having and the reading I’ve been doing about the interactions between missionaries and Maori in the decades that followed. Suffice it to say that the good news didn’t arrived in an unmixed way. Here are some links, which I’ve tried to balance a bit for some different viewpoints, for any interested in reading further. This good news did bear some of the fruit of which the angels sang – peace on earth and goodwill to people (see this, for example – one iconic story of the impact of the message of Christianity and a printed gospel: http://tarorestory.org.nz/blog/the-story-of-tarore-of-waharoa/ ) – but despite some genuinely noble, sacrificial, self-giving action on the part of many, the good news of a Servant King also became caught up in earthly power (one perspective on the impact of Samuel Marsden and Ruatara: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/culture/missionaries/marsden-and-cms). Trust was betrayed too often – once is too often – and untruth often followed. This is a somewhat nuanced and helpful telling of the story I’ve summarised above: https://www.salvationarmy.org.nz/ruataras-mission And this is a heavy read, the summary of a PhD thesis looking ahead – how can reconciliation be made possible, given the history of one particular area of significant land? https://www.anglicantaonga.org.nz/features/extra/naboth
This is before I even open up the story of the Waitangi treaty – that’s one for a longer chat.
Recently, the church engaged in an act of repentance: https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=12169112 Astonishingly, one of the ways this apology was greeted was with an unprompted singing of ‘O Holy Night’. Let that give you shivers as you sing it next time.
One thing acknowledged here is that the work of repentance and reconciliation is not accomplished in a single day. And it is a work. I thank God that what we know of Jesus’ ministry doesn’t end with a baby in a manger.
The gospel of Luke has accompanied me throughout my time in New Zealand and, after the announcement of good news at the beginning, preached at that service in 1814, there is a long working-out. “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” (7.22). And… followers (try to) learn to serve rather than be served (22.26-27), to forgive, 7 times a day and more, (17.24), to engage in their King’s work of healing and reconciling. Christians might use the word ‘discipleship’, a word that has hovered, like the birdsong, over my sabbatical time. Ultimately, we see the fullness of reconciliation between a holy God and a messed-up humanity accomplished by the laying down of this King’s life.
It is God’s generosity and grace that not only embodies that working-out of good news through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, but invites us into it, giving us the dignity and privilege of accompanying Him in His post-Christmas, post-Easter life.
This blog hasn’t quite ended up the way I thought it would, but I wanted to mark the end of my time in New Zealand so I’ll leave it here. A poem springs to mind which seems to fit where my thoughts have arrived. It’s by Howard Thurman, an African-American theologian and civil rights leader.
When the song of the angels is stilled, when the star in the sky is gone, when the kings and princes are home, when the shepherds are back with their flocks, the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.
*, or in more biblical terms, ‘Amen. Come, Lord Jesus’.