Christmas 2019 (John 1:1-14)

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” (John 1:1-4)

I don’t know if any else here is a fan of Melbourne-based journalist, Caitlin Johnstone,. I’m a big fan. I’ve never met here in person though I have had the privilege of appearing alongside her in podcasts supporting Julian Assange.

She’s a cutting-edge journalist and activist, in my opinion, though you’ll be forgiven if you’ve never heard of her. As far as I know, her work appears in no mainline publications, and she’s one of those persons who constantly runs the risk of being de-indexed by Google and having her Facebook and Twitter accounts closed down because she says things that are unpopular, so unless you’ve favorited caitlinjohnstone.com, it’s possible you’ll never find her!

Ms Johnstone describes herself as ‘a rogue journalist, operating from the edge of the narrative matrix’, and indeed, discussion of ‘the narrative matrix’ is one of her most persistent themes.

If you’re not familiar with the term, the ‘narrative matrix’ is that interconnected web of stories through which we make sense of our lives and of our world. Of course, I’m sure that many of us have convinced ourselves that we understand life through the strength of our own observations and rationality. Not likely! We make sense of life through stories.

I had the privilege of watching the final installment in the Skywalker Star Wars series last week, and I don’t know if you watched the way that epic adventure was promoted in the trailers but it was telling – “the saga ends”, the trailer says, “but the story lives forever”!

Powerful words, and there is a powerful truth in that too. Some of you may not know that when George Lucas wrote the original Star Wars narrative, he very deliberately drew on the work of Professor Joseph Campbell and his study of ancient myth.

Campbell wrote “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”, which I found a difficult read, but at the heart of it was his concept of ‘the hero’s journey’, which he believed was the story at the heart of every great myth and religious epic.

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” (Campbell, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”. Princeton University Press, 1949. p. 23).

‘The hero’s journey’ is an archetypal narrative through which we interpret our own lives and history, and there’s no doubt that one of the key reasons why Star Wars has been so popular is because it follows exactly the storyline of this ancient archetypal myth, which is also why George Lucas invited Professor Campbell to Skywalker Ranch to see Star Wars previewed before it was ever released to the public.

Mind you, when Caitlin Johnstone talks about the ‘narrative matrix’, she’s not normally referring to these epic myths through which we interpret our history, but rather the narratives that are fed to us by the media and by politicians that are designed to help us interpret what is going on around us at the moment.

You can’t start a war without a good story.

I don’t feel that I’ve been alive all that long, but I’ve already lived through a whole series of wars, and each of them had their own narrative.

  • There were stories of Iraqi soldiers throwing babies out of incubators that fueled the first invasion of Iraq.
  • Tales of weapons of mass destruction, of course, fueled the second.
  • There were stories of wholesale rape and murder by the troops of Muammar Gaddafi that necessitated the destruction of Libya.
  • More recently it’s been the narratives surrounding the so-called dictator of Syria – Bashar Al Asaad – and his gas attacks on his own people.

I was talking to a friend in Syria the other evening who was telling me about the hardships they are experiencing there. The winter is settling in and there’s no diesel available for people to heat their homes, and you can’t go anywhere to get away from the cold because you can’t get fuel for your car.

This is all because of the sanctions placed upon Syria by countries like ours – sanctions that prevent people getting fuel, building materials and medicines.  Why are those sanctions in place? Well … it all makes sense if you buy into the narrative matrix presented by so many in the media. If you buy into that story, you’ll believe the sanctions are actually the way we help Syria!

Of course, for every narrative there is a counter-narrative, and when it comes to Syria or Palestine or Julian Assange, there are people like Caitlin Johnstone who are outstanding spokespersons for the counter-narrative.

Of course, the question we want answered is ‘which narrative is true?’, and the cynical answer to that is that it doesn’t matter much, as the future will be determined by which narrative we believe rather than by the one which is true.

This is true on a personal level too, I think. We have our own stories through which we make sense of our lives, and which stories we buy into very much determine the people we become.

Do you see yourself as being on your own hero’s journey? Are you venturing into the unknown, battling with mystical forces, and believing that you are eventually going to prove victorious, and do something that will bring real benefits to the rest of humanity?

I must confess that my hero’s journey feels more like a Shakespearean tragedy of late. I wonder if my story has become one of ‘the rise and fall of Father Dave’, with me currently on the downhill trajectory.

Forgive me if I sound like I’m being melodramatic, but we all have our own stories – our own way of weaving together where we have been and where we are going – and some events in our lives throw our story into confusion.

Is my story (and your story) a hero’s journey or a Shakespearean tragedy? Perhaps, again, the real issue is not which option is true but which is believed, for it’s the story that is believed that will shape who we become.

You’ll have to forgive me if all this reflection on the narrative matrix comes across as far too ponderous and philosophical for the holiday season, but this is Christmas, and Christmas – whatever else it is – is a time for telling stories.

The Christmas season is a story-telling season and there are actually lots of stories in the Christmas narrative matrix, and some of them are competing narratives.

The story of the plush red elf flying around the world distributing presents to those who already have more than they know what to do with is a story that doesn’t gel easily with the story of the Palestinian peasant woman, looking for somewhere to give birth, and yet these are only two of a myriad of stories that become part of the greater Christmas matrix – a mixture that includes so many colourful characters; from shepherds and their sheep, to kings in their palaces and angels in the sky, to wise men from the East, and Santa and his elves from the West, and with the little drummer-boy in there somewhere too.

There is narrative and counter-narrative mixed into this matrix too. Are all the stories true? Perhaps the more important question, again, is rather which story we choose to buy into.

I chose for our Christmas reading today the opening verses of John’s Gospel:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” (John 1:1-4)

It might seem like an odd choice as it’s a passage that contains no reference at all to any of the characters we normally associate with Christmas. Jesus is referred to, yes, though not by name, and there is no mention at all of Mary and Joseph, let alone the shepherds, the angels, the wise men, or any of the other figures in the Nativity scene. What happened to our Christmas story? Well … from the perspective of John, the Gospel writer, this is in fact the same story, though it’s part of a different narrative!

Like it or not, the Christmas story is one that has shaped our history as a nation, and one that is deeply embedded in our culture. Love it or hate it, we can’t escape the Christmas narrative. Even so, there are lots of different ways of telling this story, and perhaps the real issue is less which story is the most historically accurate, and more so which story we choose to embrace.

The Gospel-writer, John, sees the same things we all see. He sees Mary and Joseph looking for somewhere safe for Mary to give birth. He sees the gritty details of the inn and the manger, and no doubt he knows of the shepherds and the sheep too, but John sees something of cosmic significance going on in all this grit too. He sees God reaching out in love to a world in distress.

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

Could this be true? Could it be that in the baby Jesus we see God reaching out to us in love – offering us forgiveness, hope, and a new beginning? Of course, there’s no way of proving this to be true, and, at any rate, the greater issue is more whether we have the courage to believe it, for this is one of those stories that, if we believe it, will determine the persons we become.

First preached by Father Dave Smith, at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, on Christmas Day, 2019.

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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