My favourite Christmas word features again in today’s Gospel reading. It’s really not so much a word as a name, and pondering it’s meaning over the years has led to a profound breakthrough in my own faith – enabling my zealous Christian practices to grow into a more mature life of faith.
The name is Emmanuel. And as the prophet Isaiah emphasises, this is the name which means God-is-with-us.
It’s all in that name.
I started to write this reflection, then remembered that I had made this point as well as I could in one of the opening chapters of FFF the book – so here it is, an excerpt from FFF – the Book.
STARTING FROM HERE
God said. “Take off your sandals,
for the place where you are standing
is holy ground.”
Ko Aoraki te Maunga
Ko Waitaki te Awa
Aoraki is the mountain.
Waitaki is the river.
The home of my childhood and teenage years was the South Island region of Aotearoa New Zealand known since the arrival of the first people of this land as Te Waipounamu: the place of water and greenstone.
I like the way that many people now follow the Māori tradition of beginning a formal greeting grounding themselves not only in family ancestry and human relationships but also in geographic surroundings: river, mountain and sky.
As a child I felt a strong connection with the Waitaki River. My mother’s family had farmed just south of the river for four generations and my father’s people for almost as long a few miles north of the river.
I grew up hearing family stories, tales of achievements, decisions, celebrations and tragedies, almost all from within a fifty- mile-radius home theatre. I was born within this circle and spent the first two years of my life in a small town where Dad was a mechanic supporting the hydro project building a dam on the Waitaki.
In my introduction I referred to the land of Jesus’ birth. It was difficult to refer to this place without using the widely accepted title of Holy Land. You might have noticed that I was avoiding the term since I prefer to reserve the title Holy Land for every place where God is active. Learning from Moses’ encounter with God I know that the land on which I stand and live and breathe today is holy ground, since it is the place where I encounter Jesus Christ, God-with-me, every day.
I learnt to walk and talk in my Waitaki holy land. All my childhood and teenage schooling was here. My first learnings about God and prayer and worship were in this place.
On the boundary of this region, a three-hour drive into the Southern Alps Kā Tiritiri o te Moana, was the magnificent cloud- piercer mountain, Aoraki. We could see it from Timaru on a clear day. This mountain was a mighty reminder that life existed outside of my small world. Looking from the coast across the horizontal miles toward this snow-capped peak, my childhood and childish vision was expanded: perhaps one day we might travel to Aoraki?
Then a few years later when we did visit I understood that the mountain was not only a distant earthly horizontal destination but also a powerful sign that pointed upwards, to the heavens where, as I would have expressed it then, God lived.
Unfortunately I picked up this God-is-beyond idea in my faith as well. I knew that two thousand years ago Jesus was born on the other side of the world and therefore had not walked in Aotearoa New Zealand. I learnt too that I was a ‘Catholic’, a name that meant universal. For those who wanted to be more specific I was a Roman Catholic, and Rome was a place which was also far away.
Perhaps my greatest learning during later visits to Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Rome is that I always looked forward to coming back home to Aotearoa. In those lands and holy places I discovered that Jesus is no more present in distant countries than in my own land and in my own home with the people who are part of my days.
My four grandparents, none of whom ever travelled outside this land of their birth, seemed to understand this well.
85 more reflections
in FFF – the book
Order by clicking on the image below.