AN AUSTRALIAN CHRISTMAS by Rev Robert (Bob) Smith and Marilyn Smith

24 Dec 2020 by William Tibben in: Sermons

Bible Reading   Isaiah 9:2-7

2The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.

3You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as warriors rejoice when dividing the plunder.

4For as in the day of Midian's defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor.

5Every warrior's boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire.

6For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

7Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.

The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.

 

Bibke reading   Luke 2:1-7

1In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.

2(This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.)

3And everyone went to their own town to register.

4So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.

5He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.

6While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.

She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. 

A Distant Loneliness

Australia today is one of the world’s most cosmopolitan nations. But it wasn’t always like that. A century ago, it was more Anglo/Celtic than even the British Isles.

But even so, a distinct national consciousness had developed, which really began to show itself in the 1890s, and was best expressed in the original Bulletin newspaper.

Yet there was one tradition that found difficulty in adapting itself to this sunburnt country - Christmas.

For exiles accustomed to winter skies, and for whom the celebration of Christmas was like a bright light in the gloom, Christmas in the heat of summer just didn’t feel right.

But with the passage of time, even Christmas began to take on a distinctively Australian flavour.

So, with the aid of some poems published in the original Bulletin newspaper, Marilyn and I will try to capture a little of the spirit of the Australian Christmas.

Much of what was written about Christmas in Australia contained a sort of nostalgic melancholy.  Like in this poem by Douglas Sladen called Christmas Letter from Australia.

'Tis Christmas, and the North wind blows; 'twas two years yesterday                                           Since from the Lusitania's bows I looked o'er Table Bay,

A tripper round the narrow world, a pilgrim of the main, 

Expecting when her sails unfurled to start for home again.

'Tis Christmas, and the North wind blows; to-day our hearts are one, Though you are 'mid the English snows and I in Austral sun;

You, when you hear the Northern blast, pile high a mightier fire, Our ladies cower until it's past in lawn and lace attire.

I fancy I can picture you upon this Christmas night,
Just sitting as you used to do, the laughter at its height.

And then a sudden, silent pause intruding on your glee,   And kind eyes glistening because/ you chanced to think of me.

This morning when I woke and knew 'twas Christmas come again,  I almost fancied I could view white rime upon the pane,

And hear the ringing of the wheels upon the frosty ground,  And see the drip that downward steals in icy casket bound.

I daresay you'll be on the lake, or sliding on the snow,  And breathing on your hands to make/ the circulation flow,

Nestling your nose among the furs of which your boa's made,
The Fahrenheit here registers/ a hundred in the shade.

It is not quite a Christmas here with this unclouded sky, This pure transparent atmosphere, this sun mid-heaven-high;

To see the rose upon the bush, young leaves upon the trees, And hear the forest's summer hush or the humming of the bees.

But cold winds bring not Christmastide, nor budding roses June,    And when it's night upon your side we're basking in the noon.

Kind hearts make Christmas - June can bring blue sky or clouds above;                                                                                                 The only universal spring/ is that which comes of love.

And so it's Christmas in the South as on the North-Sea coasts,    Though we are starved with summer-drought and you with winter frosts.  

And we shall have our roast beef here, and think of you the while, Though all the watery hemisphere cuts off the mother isle.

Feel sure that we shall think of you, we who have wandered forth, And many a million thoughts will go to-day from south to north;

Old heads will muse on churches old, where bells will ring today   The very bells, perchance, which tolled their fathers to the clay.

And now, good night! and I shall dream that I am with you all, Watching the ruddy embers gleam athwart the panelled hall;

Nor care I if I dream or not, though severed by the foam,                  My heart is always in the spot which was my childhood's home.

 

The Most Godless Place on Earth

British settlement of Australia did not have the most illustrious beginning. It was largely driven by a need to do something about the mushrooming convict population of the British Isles.

And though chaplains were appointed to care for the moral and spiritual needs of the community, the reality was that they were often working with pretty unpromising material;

so much so that one Spanish official described the colony as ‘the most Godless place on earth.’

This was especially true in the remote areas of the bush, as described in this amusing piece by poet/priest Fr John O’Brien:

The bishop sat in lordly state and purple cap sublime,

And galvanized the old bush church at Confirmation time.

And all the kids were mustered up from fifty miles around,

With Sunday clothes, and staring eyes, and ignorance profound.

Now was it fate, or was it grace, whereby they yarded too

An overgrown two-storey lad from Tangmalangaloo?

 

A hefty son of virgin soil, where nature has her fling,

And grows the trefoil three feet high and mats it in the spring;

 

Where mighty hills uplift their heads to pierce the welkin's rim,

And trees sprout up a hundred feet before they shoot a limb;

 

There everything is big and grand, and men are giants too -

But Christian knowledge wilts, alas, at Tangmalangaloo.

 

The bishop summed the youngsters up, as bishops only can;

He cast a searching glance around, then fixed upon his man.

 

But glum and dumb and undismayed through every bout he sat;

He seemed to think that he was there, but wasn't sure of that.

 

The bishop gave a scornful look, as bishops sometimes do,

And glared right through the pagan in from Tangmalangaloo.

 

"Come, tell me, boy," his lordship said in crushing tones severe,

"Come, tell me why is Christmas Day the greatest of the year?

 

"How is it that around the world we celebrate that day

"And send a name upon a card to those who're far away?

 

"Why is it wandering ones return with smiles and greetings, too?"

A squall of knowledge hit the lad from Tangmalangaloo.

He gave a lurch which set a-shake the vases on the shelf,

He knocked the benches all askew, up-ending of himself.

 

And oh, how pleased his lordship was, and how he smiled to say,

"That's good, my boy.  Come, tell me now; and what is Christmas Day?"

 

The ready answer bared a fact no bishop ever knew -

"It's the day before the races out at Tangmalangaloo.

 

Mateship

But despite the seeming irreligiousness of many Australians, there was a strong belief in practical Christianity, which expressed itself in the concepts of mateship and a fair-go.

 

Henry Lawson wasn’t a religious man, but he did appear to have a strong affinity with Jesus, and all who lived like him. Here is one of his poems called Fire on Ross’s Farm.

The squatter saw his pastures wide decrease, as one by one
The farmers moving to the west selected on his run;
Selectors took the water up and all the black soil round;
The best grassland the squatter had was spoilt by Ross’s Ground.

Now many schemes to shift old Ross had racked the squatter’s brains,
But Sandy had the stubborn blood Of Scotland in his veins;

He held the land and fenced it in, he cleared and ploughed the soil,
And year by year a richer crop repaid him for his toil.

Between the homes for many years the devil left his tracks:
The squatter pounded Ross’s stock, and Sandy pounded Black’s.

A well upon the lower run was filled with earth and logs,
And Black laid baits about the farm to poison Ross’s dogs.

It was, indeed, a deadly feud of class and creed and race;
But, yet, there was a Romeo and a Juliet in the case;

And more than once across the flats, beneath the Southern Cross,
Young Robert Black was seen to ride with pretty Jenny Ross.

One Christmas time, when months of drought had parched the western creeks,
The bushfires started in the north and travelled south for weeks.

At night along the river-side the scene was grand and strange —
The hill-fires looked like lighted streets of cities in the range.

The cattle-tracks between the trees were like long dusky aisles,
And on a sudden breeze the fire would sweep along for miles;

 Like sounds of distant musketry it crackled through the brakes,
And o’er the flat of silver grass It hissed like angry snakes.

It leapt across the flowing streams and raced o’er pastures broad;
It climbed the trees and lit the boughs and through the scrub it roared.

The bees fell stifled in the smoke or perished in their hives,
And with the stock the kangaroos went flying for their lives.

The sun had set on Christmas Eve, when, through the scrub-lands wide,
Young Robert Black came riding home as only natives ride.

 He galloped to the homestead door and gave the first alarm:
`The fire is past the granite spur, `and close to Ross’s farm.’

`Now, father, send the men at once, they won’t be wanted here;
Poor Ross’s wheat is all he has to pull him through the year.’

'Then let it burn,’ the squatter said; `I’d like to see it done —
I’d bless the fire if it would clear selectors from the run.

`Go if you will,’ the squatter said, `You shall not take the men —
Go out and join your precious friends, but don’t come here again.’

I won’t come back,’ young Robert cried, And, reckless in his ire,
He sharply turned his horse’s head and galloped towards the fire.

And there, for three long weary hours, half-blind with smoke and heat,
Old Ross and Robert fought the flames that neared the ripened wheat.

The farmer’s hand was nerved by fears of danger and of loss;
And Robert fought the stubborn foe for the love of Jenny Ross.

But serpent-like the curves and lines slipped past them, and between,
Until they reached the bound’ry where the old coach-road had been.
`The track is now our only hope, there we must stand,’ cried Ross,
`For nought on earth can stop the fire if once it gets across.’

Then came a cruel gust of wind, and, with a fiendish rush,
The flames leapt o’er the narrow path and lit the fence of brush.

The crop must burn!’ the farmer cried, `We cannot save it now,’
And down upon the blackened ground he dashed the ragged bough.

But wildly, in a rush of hope, his heart began to beat,
For o’er the crackling fire he heard the sound of horses’ feet.

Here’s help at last,’ young Robert cried and even as he spoke
The squatter with a dozen men came racing through the smoke.

Down on the ground the stockmen jumped and bared each brawny arm,
They tore green branches from the trees and fought for Ross’s farm;

And when before the gallant band the beaten flames gave way,
Two grimy hands in friendship joined — and it was Christmas Day.

 

The Great Southland of the Holy Spirit

In the year 1606 the Spanish navigator Luis Vaez de Torres discovered the narrow strait that separates Cape York from Papua. We now call it the Torres Strait.

 

Though he never explored the land mass to the south, he rightly identified it as the great southern continent that Europeans believed existed, even though they knew nothing about it.

 

They called it Terra Australis Incognita – the unknown land of the south. He gave it the name Terra Australis Espiritu Santo – The South Land of the Holy Spirit.

 

It’s a name that has been taken up by many Christians in recent years to express the hope that this land will become a place where Jesus is welcomed and his Spirit lives.

 

Nowhere is this better expressed than in this lovely poem by Mother Francis, called ‘An Australian Christmas Carol.’

 

 O little Babe of Bethlehem! The Southern Cross shines down

As once a star shone glorious above an eastern town.

 

The hearts of Bethlehem are cold, the streets are hushed with snow.

The doors are locked, there is no room, dear Lord, where will you go?

 

Oh, come sweet Jesus, come to us! Australia’s sun is warm,

And here are loving hearts enough to shield thee from the storm.

 

Come! We will give thee all we have, each bird and flower and tree,

The breeze that stirs the silver gums, the music of the sea.

 

And sweet clematis starry-eyed with delicate ferns we’ll bring,

Our wattle trees shall shower their gold in tribute to our King.

 

We’ll watch when evening sounds begin, and dreaming flowers nod,

Thy mother fold thee in her arms, thou little Lamb of God.

 

Bellbirds shall ring their silver peal from gullies green and deep,

And mingle with the magpies’ note to call Thee from thy sleep.

 

O little Babe of Bethlehem, Australia loves thee well,

Come to our hearts this Christmas tide and there forever dwell.

Conclusion

Well, Christmas is with us again, and once more thoughts of peace on earth and goodwill to men are in our minds. And yet it seems that the whole world is in chaos.

We ourselves have come through an unprecedented year of drought, bushfire, flood and a pandemic, yet, like those early settlers, we still feel that we live in the best place on Earth.

And so, if you are feeling a little glum as you approach Christmas this year, consider this:

If you have food in the refrigerator, clothes in the wardrobe, a roof over your head and a place to sleep, you are richer than 75% of this world.

If you have a bank account and cash in your wallet, you are among the top 8% of the world’s wealthy.

If you woke up this morning with more health than sickness, you are more blessed than a couple of million who won’t survive this week.

If you’ve never experienced war, imprisonment, torture or the pangs of starvation, you are ahead of five hundred million people in the world.

And if you are free to worship or not worship as you wish, then you are more blessed than three billion of your fellow human beings.

So, count your blessings and have a happy Christmas.