A Christmas Meditation

I wept through the lessons and carols of Christmas Eve service, so moved that I was barely able to sing some of the same words whose tasteless rendition had me snarling at the sound system of our local shopping centre the day before. What changes words and religion from mere pap? What makes an experience spiritual; that is, what engages the heart of us and says, "In this there is depth and meaning for life?" And far more important, using Stan Grant's[1] words, what makes—perhaps the question is what allows—something to become

a religious experience. I mean religious. Not spiritual. Something more, something demanding. A thing of ritual and discipline. A thing of darkness and light.

A few days before, I had read a sermon from Nathan Nettleton[2]. He reminded me of the binary flavour of so much of our scripture: light vs darkness, order vs chaos, male and female, the racial/religious purity of marriage which is so important in Ezra and Nehemiah.

In the Creation, God separates the light from the darkness, and separates the waters so that the dry land can appear.[3] And Nathan says,

But what happens then is that the idea of separating spills over into the ways that God’s people in ancient times thought about morality. The idea of being God’s holy people comes to be understood as being a people who are "separate unto the Lord," and so quickly you get the emergence of this strong Jew-Gentile binary that leads to the dispute about marriage that I referred to before.[4]

I'd go further and say that our human evolution has generated binary thinking (and the violence of in and out, and right and wrong) as a way of partly controlling and surviving our violence. [5] Our captivity to that binary thinking and violence has bled into—been projected into— even the very scriptures of the Creation accounts which nonetheless so dramatically began to free us from the domination systems of Babylon and Empire.

Nathan's amazing sermon shows how our binary beginnings, which we have projected even upon God, still influence us. The issue of the moment that he was preaching was during the demonization of non-binary and transgender people of the 2022 federal election. Some base such hostility upon biblical texts, an such a sensibility exists in parts of scripture, but Nathan called our attention to the trajectory of biblical thinking and inspiration. How does the bible finally treat the binaries with which it begins?

While there is no mention in this vision of sexual or gender binaries, this big picture pattern of biblical morality asks us not to look for a simple pronouncement, but to follow the trajectory. Where has it gone and which direction is it heading? Well, part of where it has gone is that it has gone through the Acts of the Apostles where one of the definitive stories was the conversion and baptism of the non-binary gendered Ethiopian official. And where it is heading is into [the] vision of the New Jerusalem where we can see all the old binary separations being deliberately and joyously collapsed by God.[6]

As I see it, that trajectory becomes explicitly non-binary:

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.[7]

In these words, Paul takes the or of slave or free and Jew or Greek, and makes a deliberate literary and theological connection to Genesis 1:27 by saying male and  female.

So God created humankind in his image,
   in the image of God he created them;
   male and female he created them.[8]

That reference tells us that "in Christ Jesus," which is not only to say "in the church," but is also to say "in the kingdom of God," there is no binary.

What changes this from a dense sermon that fails to touch us into something that electrifies us, and something we recognise is inspired? If we should happen to be a non-binary or transgender person, even one who had little to do with church apart from feeling condemned by it, Nathan's sermon would surely grab our attention! But this sermon is not merely topical for a few. It touches the heart of the gospel for it really does speak of a vision of god’s non-binary future. It speaks to all of us and points us to the fulfilled Creation.

If we do not attend worship, sit through the more pedestrian sermons, follow the discipline of the lectionaries, struggle with bible study, and commit ourselves to the not always easy life of a congregation, we leave ourselves—well, I was going to say: illiterate. But it is worse than that. I think we risk becoming unable to speak and hear the language of the Faith or, at least, greatly impoverished.  God will speak to us, faithfully and always, in a world which is itself sacramental of the Divine, but we risk being unable to hear. We will Facebook our way through a sermon that restores the person in the pew behind us, and be bored with the hymn that heals the person beside us.

This is not merely a thing of intellect. I can have a degree in theology and yet somehow remain almost untouched, even whilst longing for God to speak to me.  Intellectual knowledge of the Faith rewards us richly, but there is something more needed. And that returns us to Stan Grant as he writes of his experience of a Nick Cave concert.

In times of grief, catastrophe or tragedy, do the secular shibboleths of reason or science or law or rights fill the God-shaped hole? Cave says the modern faiths of politics or identity don't answer those questions for him. …

I remember one Christmas in my grandmother's tiny home seeing my uncles kneeling around the bed and praying with an intensity I had never seen before. It scared me then. These were the prayers of the afflicted. They were praying to keep us alive. I was reminded of that intensity when I saw Nick Cave. His songs took me a step closer to God and a step closer to my family, those people gone from the earth but still with me. I share his faith. I understand how unfashionable that may be today. But like Cave, the secular world does not have the words to speak to the suffering my people have endured. As Nick Cave sings, "history has dragged us down to our knees into a cold time". But he also tells us there is a way back. At Christmas I am reminded of what my people told me, that love is the only answer to catastrophe.[9]

It strikes me that for Grant's people, the only hope was God.  His words remind me of those times when God is all that I have had. It is in that hopelessness that hope can begin.  Until those times, I had too much, too much security, too many idols, to be open to God. Perhaps the reason there are so many old people in church is not only a lack of connection with the young. Perhaps when we are old we finally realise there is nothing else, no other hope, and begin to hear God all over again.

And weep through the lessons and carols.

Andrew Prior (2022)

 



[1] https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-12-25/nick-cave-faith-suffering-aboriginal-australia/101805158
[2] The final text is here: Nathan Nettleton http://southyarrabaptist.church/sermons/a-vision-of-gods-non-binary-future/ although this is not the text I am referencing.
[3] Genesis 1
[4] Nettleton
[5] This is a Girardian understanding, which I know Nathan understands very well. I admire his ability to so elegantly reference it in his sermon!
[6] Nettleton
[7] Galatians 3:28
[8] Genesis 1:27
[9] Stan Grant https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-12-25/nick-cave-faith-suffering-aboriginal-australia/101805158

Contact

This functionality requires the FormBuilder module