Vol 52 No 4 Summer 2022
|Editor: An Australian Context for Christmas
|Architecture and Environment
|Preparing for Baptism
|Getting Off on the Rite Foot
|Preaching: A Ministry of Listening
|Placid Murray OSB
|Taking the Lead
|Eucharist / Mass
|Towards the Synod
|Liturgy and Governance
|Lay Presiders at Baptism
|Britain's Prime Minister
|Liturgy - Other Churches/Religions
|Eucharist / Mass
|Blessing Same-Sex Couples
|Our Cover: Images of the Church - Spouse of Christ
|Texts – Liturgical
|Rite of Admission to Candidacy for Holy Orders
|O'Rourke, Ursula and John Fitz-Herbert
|Books: Timothy O'Malley - Becoming Eucharistic People
|Eucharist / Mass
An Australian Context for Christmas
Locating the ‘sacred’ can be a tricky task. I love the old Romanesque churches of Europe. The thick
stone walls, small windows and the shaft of sunlight penetrating the dark interior are certainly for me an experience of the sacred that easily leads to reflection and contemplation. But what about Australian churches?
It is true that some of them (I am thinking of economical post-war constructions) are banal in design and materials: a low industrial roof and sliding aluminium windows rarely create an inspiring space. Others however are built with careful design and good quality materials. But one of the identifying characteristics of contemporary Australian architecture is the connection established between the interior and the surrounding landscape. Whether it is the sea or the forest, a green courtyard or garden, nature becomes part of our interior spaces.
Again, some churches are badly done! I have seen the glass walls surrounding the assembly look out on the parking lot, and people only see the sun glaring off the bonnets of cars. Where it is well done, I find our vernacular architecture can be inspiring. It affirms our unity with creation and therefore with the Creator. All you have created rightly gives you praise… you give life to all things and make them holy. Personally, I find it easy to locate the sacred in good Australian church architecture, though often in a rather more extroverted way than the inward looking churches of ancient Europe. This is something I have discussed with a friend of mine who disagrees with me quite firmly. Our example was a retreat centre where the chapel has full glass walls looking out over paddock and sea. My holy friend maintains this is a distraction. He speaks of the duck that might walk across the landscape and argues that this unhelpfully draws attention away from the word and sacrament happening inside. For me it simply adds a joyous exuberance which refocusses the sacred into another dimension. The sacred, I believe, can be known in the depths of the here and now.
What then of our celebration of Christmas?
Popular decorations use tinsel and sprayed frosting, and the bright colours of red and green. But these do not have much to do with the Australian landscape or experience. If we take instead the more muted shades of grey-green and add in colours from native flora, a different resonance is established. Grevillia, banksia or bottlebrush, the famous ‘christmas bush’, branches of flowering gums or the creamy Buckinghamia, all present possibilities for decorating our churches and bringing the ‘outside in’.
There is quite a corpus of Australian Christmas carols which place the Bethlehem story into a local context. They are worth exploring because they too make different connections for us. The Three Drovers, for example, has the bushmen out riding on a starry Christmas night; they witness a flight of black swans and hear the dingos on the plain; the air is dry with summer heat… and they sing Noel, Noel, Noel. Or perhaps you have tried to sing words like this:
When the sun’s a golden rose,
and the magpie carols clear,
you can say and I can say,
on the summer morning,
here at last is Christmas Day,
the day that Christ was born on…
Now, combine lyrics such as these with a Christmas crib constructed from old sheets of corrugated iron and the bark and branches of a gum tree. Put a billy boiling on a campfire beside it and there are new links being forged.
I suggest that strategies like this will help us to recognise the sacred as a dimension of our own lives. We hear something of it in the liturgical texts from the Missal. One of the Christmas Prefaces says that the holy exchange that restores our life has shone forth today in splendour. Today! That is, in the here and now, not in some distant there and then. Today you have revealed the mystery of our salvation in Christ as a light for the nations. We pray this text in the full blaze of the summer sun, on the longest days of the year. It is in the context of our Australian Christmas experience that we celebrate our liturgy. Our architecture, our imagery, our music can all draw attention to this context so that we can begin to appreciate that Christ is born for us, and we learn to locate a profound sense of the sacred in our own world and the reality of our own lives.
Finally, I believe that this same insight may also be uncovered in the casual style of our Christmas liturgy. This style is not antithetical to the sacred. The first of our sacramental signs is the worshipping assembly. This is the first place where we recognise the presence of Christ. Christmas for us falls in the middle of the summer holidays. People come to Christmas Mass from the beach. They are dressed in shorts, T-shirt and sandals. Talk of the ‘light of Christ’ evokes memories of the sun, perhaps the glow of a bit of sunburn and the smell of salt from the ocean. People celebrating Christmas Mass are looking forward to a Christmas day spent with family around the backyard pool with a few kilos of prawns and glass of wine or a frosty beer.
Liturgy does not happen between the pages of a heavy liturgical book. To discover the sacred, we would do well to focus on the context as much as the text, the event as much as the script. Liturgy is the action in the here and now of a real people, who come from and return to an Australian way of life. The incarnation means that Christ is with us in real time.