Of Snakes and Shepherds

Of Snakes and Shepherds

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In Australia, on paintings on the walls of caves there is a story that goes back at least 6000 years. It tells how a multi-coloured snake – a giant carpet snake created the world. This snake is commonly known by the Europeanised name, The Rainbow Serpent. However, WagylWuagyl are two of the most common indigenous names used by the Aboriginal people. They believe that the Rainbow Serpent is the source of creation and of life. Belief in the Rainbow Serpent is one of the oldest continuing religious beliefs in the world. It still has influence today. In Aboriginal stories the snake is ever present – in the past, in the present and in the future.
Just a cute story? It is much more than that if you are a planner or engineer tasked with planning a new motorway or creating a bridge or a building project.  Before you start planning, it is necessary to first contact the indigenous people to be sure your plans do not damage some location which is important to the Rainbow Serpent’s activities. Damage or desecrate such a location is a threat to the well-being of the aboriginal people and the viability and health of the land itself.
It is not just the aboriginal people who are shaped by their stories. We all are.  Whether we recognise it or not, everyone of us has a story within us which influences all we do and what we can become. From birth to death it is as though each individual is writing the story, a novel if you like, in which we are both the hero and villain. It is this inner personal story that influences who we are and what we do. We may be able to explain ourselves in terms of reason and logic but this is just window dressing. Whether we know it or not, it is the inner story that shapes and drives us.
As a teenager, whose only home was a huge hostel, I spent my holidays going to Christian camps and Summer Schools. Summer Schools had a central focus on Bible Study. Frequently professors from theological colleges would lead our sessions. One I attended when I was seventeen provoked me greatly. A scholar from the Theological College talked about ‘the real’ Christmas story. One point he made that I remember, was that Mary could not have been a virgin. He said that most likely she had been impregnated by a Roman Soldier or a village youth. The story about her and Joseph was made up to give the whole affair a semblance of respectability.  ‘No educated person can believe it’ he said. I was shocked.
In the churches I have served there have always been those who have found the Christmas story in part or whole ‘unbelievable’. In recent years I a few of them have told me we are doing the children and our community a disservice by continuing to proclaim what in their view is clearly a fiction. “Our Christmas pageants may seem sweet but what happens when the children come to realise this whole thing cannot possibly be true. Wham! They will come to earth with a shuddering thud. They will realise it is not just Santa who is a fiction.
Despite these protests, I don’t see it like that. I love the Christmas story in its totality. I want toddlers, children and teens to act out the story as it is told in the Bible ‘forever’. I can’t explain the virgin birth, angels in the sky or stars that move.  I don’t feel I have to. I respect people who have a different view but this is my view. I want to get this story into children’s minds and ‘hearts’. I want it to become part of each child’s inner personal story. The story that will shape their lives and influence their values.
Think of it! What do we mean by God? What does the Christmas story tell us about contact with God?
In those days there were people whose whole lives were devoted to prayer, fasting and Bible memorisation. They had no clue. There were learned scholars who knew almost by heart all the prophecies in the Old Testament. They never had the slightest idea. The divine breaks into the cosmos through the vehicle of an unmarried teenage girl. And no one knew about it except for sheep herders sleeping with their animals.  God breaks into human history and the only persons who knew it about were farm labourers.
What does that say to me about what the Bible refers to as the second coming? Whatever it means it will be the action of the same divine force. It will be just as suprising, hidden and unexpected. I am convinced that the people who claim to know all about it have no idea.  Whatever else God is like, he/she exceeds our comprehension – surprising – beyond.
Think about this – the creator homeless in his own creation.  Forget pomp and circumstance, special buildings, special clothing, carefully crafted religious ceremonies, prayers that read like poems.  Whatever God is like God is not like that. The homeless person huddled in the doorway of an office is closer to the Bethlehem mark.
And the wise men –how I love those wise men: a different race, a different religion, a different country, different culture but they got it! Somehow, they tuned in to the divine vibe. I started out as a Baptist. I was sure we were God’s chosen. Then I became a Presbyterian and I realized we were God’s ‘educated’ chosen.  The wise men tell us to forget about a chosen people – a master race – a superior religion, the supremacy of scholars. Here is the basis of multi culturalism.  Here the oneness of the human race is writ large.

I wonder about my friends who think this is a useless story. What story (stories) do they feel will nuture their children and grandchildren. Harry Potter, Winnie the Pooh. Or do they feel computer games, science and technology will inform their inner life. Will these stories be the stuff which will enable their young friends to write their personal inner stories?

From across 6000 years and the huge continent of Australia there are different versions of the Rainbow Serpent story. But, the central message remains the same. The Serpent created, the Serpent maintains, the Serpent will be in the future. And no one anywhere is trying to debunk it. The story continues to influence aborigine culture today. Governments, industry and mining ventures know they have to take this story seriously. I don’t know if the story lives in the heart of today’s aboriginal people. I suspect in some form or other it does.

The Christmas story is not a scientific treatise. It is about the meaning of life and the presence of the divine in our universe. Our world faces enormous challenges. We seem poised to be overtaken by mega powers, or destroyed by clashes between differing ideologies. In the prosperous west (NZ) it seems the only hope for individuals is to get rich enough to live in our personal 5-star cocoon. The Christmas story reveals a vastly different reality. It says in the worst times there is hope and what is more, if incorporated in the story we are writing in our hearts about ourselves, we can be part of that hope.

Happy Christmas  
Stan Stewart

PS  I am not completely at ease with what I have written. When ‘Johnson & Johnson’ (baby powder company) or a department store does a nativity display they domesticate it, so it fits right in with their line of business. The church in all its branches (including mine) does the same. In this way we tame it and quietly (smugly) give the impression ‘our is the right version’. It never is. The event we seek to portray is always much more and profoundly different.  Nonetheless, we should continue to try to retell these events to the best of our ability.

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SUNDAY SERVICE, 24th March 2019