Joel Hodge, Australian Catholic University
Christmas is a special time of year in Australia—it’s an end of year celebration, summer feast, family reunion, religious festival, and a season of giving and consuming.
Christmas is even more peculiar for its overtly religious and transcendent themes. Despite the decline in Christian affiliation, Christmas is a time when explicitly Christian beliefs are publically celebrated. Carolling is one of the most popular signs of this phenomenon.
At Christmas, one not only hears hymns about Christ sung in church but one can go into a shopping centre and hear songs about the birth of the Christ child. There are gatherings of carol singing in suburban parks across the country celebrating the coming of the Messiah. And of course, there are the carols sung in the major cities, especially Sydney and Melbourne, that are televised nationally, which plead, ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’, and proclaim:
O Holy Night …
O night divine,
O night when Christ was born.
Notwithstanding that traditional Christian carols are sung alongside more secular carols about Santa and northern hemisphere winters, it is a somewhat strange experience to witness all this public religiosity in modern Australia. Moreover, alongside carols, there are the large numbers of people who attend pageants that enact the birth of Jesus and church services that commemorate the Incarnation.
What are we to make of all this in a ‘secular’ and pluralistic country?
On one level, carolling is an effective public ritual. Singing is a popular way of bringing people together. It involves an experience of positive collective transcendence that unites (most) people in exercising their shared capacity for lyrical and musical expression. In other words, music and singing speak to the hearts of individuals and societies.
Carolling takes this experience of singing to an intense level as it involves an explicitly participative element. People don’t just listen to expert singers but also sing together familiar and appealing songs that retain some kind of cultural and religious significance.
Carolling is not just about form but content, too. The form, ‘carolling’, is a celebration of shared values and beliefs centred around Christ. Carolling seems to be an indication that the Christ story retains some currency in the modern Australian psyche, especially for families.
The birth of a child is an inherently attractive story. Yet, in the carols, this child is identified as Messiah, Saviour and God. Transcendent and divine claims are made about Christ and they are celebrated. Christmas represents a radical message that still resonates: God becomes one of us—making himself vulnerable and small like a child to save us from evil and to enter into loving relationship with us.
Christmas story is a truly transcendent story that tells us about ultimate
things—about God, about ourselves, and about our value and destiny."
The message has meaning on different levels for different people. The religious aspect of the message remains, albeit having lost some ground to consumerism, which might otherwise seem out of place in a secular country. Despite this, there is not as much squeamishness as one might expect about the explicitly religious aspect of Christmas time, especially in the singing of traditional carols. There is an element of tradition that is being held onto, but with the decline of so many traditions in Australia, why is this one being celebrated with so much gusto?
It could be because Christmas is the one time in the year when we let our dour and serious ‘secular’ selves go and put our anti-religious guard down by indulging in some traditionally transcendent beliefs and practices. And not just by going to the cinema or theatre or sports-field to observe heroic or fantastical stories that inspire us but which we know are not really real or are the result of ordinary human action.
The Christmas story is a truly transcendent story that tells us about ultimate things—about God, about ourselves, and about our value and destiny. And at Christmas, for the most part, we allow ourselves to believe and enjoy it.
Of course, there are many who do not accept the Christian frameworks that go with Christmas. There are many who go along with the season to emphasise its positive family and cultural value.
Yet, for many, Christmas means more than this and represents a return to one’s roots, despite the different journeys we have taken. There is something deeply affirming and attractive about Christmas faith that appeals to both children and adults.
It speaks to us about important values, such as love, family, relationship, vulnerability, duty and loyalty. More than this, however, it speaks to us about our dignity before the One who exists beyond our personal and cultural frameworks. It is a universal and eternal dignity that no individual, family or culture can give.
In Christmas, we can know our place and value as a species—the most fundamental dilemma that humans have. Christmas provides a way to situate ourselves in the deepest meaning of all: in the love of the Being from whom we have come.
At Christmas, our value as a species and as individuals is a exalted to the level of the divine who deigns to share our life with us, despite our pain, limits, flaws and evils. And God doesn’t do this by appearing to become one of us or showing off his power over us (like in the ancient myths), but by entrusting himself to us as a child.
Christmas shows a deep trust and love for humanity from One who wants to be with us, something for which we all yearn. And God wants to be with us so much, he is willing to share everything about our life, so that we can share his never-ending life of absolute love.
Dr Joel Hodge is Senior Lecturer in the School of Theology at the Australian Catholic University (Melbourne) and National Course Coordinator for Undergraduate Theology Degrees and Short Courses.
This article appeared previously in the December 2016 issue of Melbourne Catholic.