Monday, December 21, 2015

Seasons Grievings

I am not worried about terrorism. This is not because I am somehow more Zen than the rest of the world and never worry about what I cannot change. Nor do I generally apply some objective evidence-based assessment of what I am most at risk of dying from. While terrorism wouldn’t make a short list of significant threats to my person, I fear many things which are statistically improbable; Aneurysms, for example. Why did anyone ever think I needed to learn about aneurysms, the cause of anxiety since before I was an adolescent?

Even more than a bubble of air in my brain, I am particularly concerned about another threat, one so overwhelmingly present in my recent experiences as to crowd out any raised alert over acts of terror. For the last six months I have worked in St. Arnaud. I have prepared classes between two teachers who are also farmers. I have driven an hour and twenty minutes each way, each day, past the pastures that produce some of my food. Most poignantly I have driven over dry river beds and besides diminishing dams. All the while I have taught Geography students about food security. I am scared by what I have seen and learnt about.

Climate change is real. We have finally come to admit this at a political level at the recent Paris summit. Some people are still in denial. But denying or not people are investing on the basis of the sorts of changes global warming will bring. The U.S. city of Miami is allocating millions to hold back the rising sea while refusing to name what is causing it. Farmers in Australia are not all willing to accept man-made climate change as real but they are changing their crops, or even moving their farms, in the expectation that recent trends in weather patterns will continue.

Alongside climate change we are seeing global population growth, desertification of farm lands, competition for cropland from the production of bio-fuels, over fishing and the sort of food waste that can’t be sustained but seems culturally unstoppable. There are answers to these problems in smarter farming, greater sharing and reduced consumption. But our current efforts in these areas will be negated by the best case scenario of a 1.5 degree global temperature rise.

My head is playing a powerfully linear narrative. This year is dangerously different to last year. Next year will be crucially not the same as the year before. My children’s lives will not be like mine. The natural world will treat them differently, which is not the same as saying they will have different social mores or use technology differently from my generation. It is a magnitude beyond that. Nature, the benchmark of permanence by which technological and social change can be compared will be different.

Christmas is embedded in a circular narrative. Each year a baby is born as much as they were born once in history as well. Songs are sung and a pantomime is enacted in our lives to transport us to that singular moment in time, restored to relevance each year. This is the Christian church calendar that despite declining church attendance still shapes our secular world. The pattern is also the pattern of seasons. Come Easter when the crops would have been harvested across Europe, this child is cut down, their life taken, so that new life can emerge from that death. We are sustained. Our communities are sustained. Our world is sustained by the pattern of acknowledging God’s plan in our world. Prosaically, cynically even, our economy is sustained by the Christmas consumer demand.

The constancy of this cycle is a significant part of the message around Christmas every year. We are supposed to return to the original Christmas, to look at the manger frozen in perfect stasis. Even odder nostalgias are celebrated so that Dickensian garbed figurines adorn cards and wrapping paper, . There will be a million sermons which seek not to add a drop to the recipe, but instead suggest that the nativity message of the angel to the shepherds is still the food fit for us on Christmas "morn". Both the tacky and the profound share the message that old is good on this day. Who says morn not morning except at Christmas?

Of course the Christian calendar is not something unchanging. Its marking dates are relatively recent in the grand scheme of human history. We stand in its 2015th year. Extending before it is a Jewish calendar now in it’s 5776th year. This calendar corresponds its months to lunar cycles so doesn’t match exactly the civil calendar. Still the event closest to Christmas in date is Chanukah, which commemorates an event only two years before what Christmas remembers. Purim, in March (and the Jewish month of Adar), is perhaps closer in tone to Christmas, with plays and feasting and the exchange of gifts. It recalls an event set in the Ancient Persian Empire. This is Ancient applied too easily though. There are calendars older than this and in my ignorance I wouldn’t even know how to apply linear time to those of Aboriginal peoples.

Christmas represents, whether adopted voluntarily or imposed by the state, a disruption in the sacramental life that preceded it. Traditionalism in regard to Christmas is therefore a defense of the relatively modern and thus counter-traditionalism. To acknowledge this is to remember that Christian history is ultimately not cyclical but linear. What is happening is not supposed to continue indefinitely. Christian history heads towards the sharp cliff of the end times. Every sale will be a closing sale one day.

Normally I resent the intrusion of end times preaching at Christmas. I think it reveals our human discomfort with an image of God that is helpless at birth. In the adoration of the returned and avenging soldier Christ, Jesus gets weaponised in a way infant Jesus can’t sensibly be. But this year while I won’t look for any heavenly intervention to save us I find I am also not satisfied with the practice of Christmas as attention to the past. The same is not sufficient. The manger is burning. We need a new song to sing. Not even the seasons are the same.

This Christmas is not going to be the last but it is the last one we should practice in ignorance of what is happening to this planet. I'm not sure what this means in practical terms. Buy less plastic crap obviously. On a spiritual level ritual is meant to speak to our fears and hopes and I find mine feeling ignored by the observance of Christmas this year. Faithfulness to tradition feels like blitheness towards what is changing. NOT EVEN THE SEASONS ARE THE SAME.

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