We'll get to Constantine and to Christmas before the end of the post. Bear with.
Last Wednesday (22 June) in our weekly Diocesan e-letter, I wrote:
We are on something of adventure as a nation as we make significant steps forward in the 2020s (compared to any other decade I recall) to becoming a bicultural and bilingual society. So, this Friday is our first ever public holiday which acknowledges something of importance in Te Ao Maori: Matariki.
In this holiday we are invited to share together in celebrating the appearance of the astronomical sign which heralds the turn of the year and to remember with thanksgiving those who have gone before us. Matariki refers to both the cluster of stars called Pleiades in ancient Greece (and continued as a term in modern English) and to one of those stars. Potentially we can see seven stars, though one may be hidden. The Bible refers explicitly to “Pleiades” (e.g. NRSV) or Matariki (Te Paipera Tapu) on three occasions: Job 9:9; Job 38:31; Amos 5:8.
There is an intriguing possibility of an implicit reference to Matariki in the Book of Revelation where reference is made to the exalted Jesus holding in his right hand “the seven stars” (1:16; also 2:1; 3:1). For further intrigue on this reference and its possible connection to the geographical location of the seven churches of Revelation, see this blogpost https://kingdom777.wordpress.com/2018/06/21/the-mystery-of-the-seven-stars/ .
This cluster of stars (about which you can read more on Wikipedia and for our local Kiwi flavour, here) consists of many more stars than seven (it has been named "The Seven Sisters") or nine or even fourteen potentially viewable to the naked eye (depending on your location and atmospheric conditions).
This picture gives us both a picture of Matariki (the cluster, but one of the stars is also called Matariki):
Matariki (as an event or festival) signals with the reappearance of the Matariki, which disappears from sight before the winter solstice and reappears soon after (this year, 24 June (also "John the Baptist"), but next year 14 July, etc), the beginning of the Maori new year, and thus a time for remembering what has gone before and for looking forward to what lies ahead.
As a celebrated festival, Matariki fell away by the 1940s but since the 2000s has been revived, and now to the point where we will have an annual holiday each year to mark this important calendrical event.
I was intrigued to hear in a report on TV One news last night (though it is not actually mentioned here in a written version of the item) that an offering of food was part of the pre dawn ceremony. A Stuff report confirms this,
"Lee Johnson (Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Kuia) was charged with preparing the food that will be offered at the pre-dawn hautapu. “If the food is cooked then that’s a good sign, so I’ll be putting my best foot forward to make sure it’s cooked, if not overcooked.”"
Now I do not mention this to get into a debate about whether such ceremony takes us away from the God of Jesus Christ and closer to the traditional gods of Te Ao Maori - that is a complex and nuanced matter which involves understanding of Te Ao Maori (the worldview of Maori, including the use of personifications and metaphors in the connections made between the natural world and human life and its cycles of planting and harvesting, of life and death), that I am not sufficiently knowledgeable about to engage in discussion.
But the reference to the offering of food got me thinking that here in real time, Christians in Aotearoa New Zealand are experiencing a moment of cultural and religious change which is challenging (how will we respond?) and opportunistic (can we respond well?).
There is no doubt that Matariki is a revival of an ancient and pre Christianity (as conveyed through the first missionaries) set of incantations and rituals, as well as a contemporary bicultural, local recognition that matters of calendar, celebration of seasonal/annual change need not be exclusive to the Christian world of our ancestors in the northern hemisphere (perhaps, notably, Christimas as a festival close to the northern hemisphere Winter solstice and New Year close after that; as well as Easter as a festival near the beginning of Spring).
Further, as my comments cited above recognise, Matariki as a star cluster is a familar part of the night sky around the whole world, and features in many cultures, including the culture of the Bible world itself.
A moment of cultural and religious change?
Yes, and one which Christianity in our blessed islands has a choice to:
- ignore and do nothing about, save to enjoy a new public holiday weekend;
- embrace, and fuse ancient and present ideas and beliefs into a new (or renewed) Christian celebration of the cycles of God's creation, so that no part of life in this locality is beyond the prayers and thanksgivings of God's people.
Thus Constantine and Christmas!
There is a critique of Christianity in relation to Constantine which says that lot of things about Christianity have been perfectly dreadful since Christianity became the faith of the Roman Empire and Christendom arose out of that fusion. The radical vision of Jesus for a new, egalitarian kingdom died with the bishops harnessed to the needs of "the establishment", etc.
Yet, reflecting from our local cultural and religious moment which - to be clear - I think we should embrace and not ignore, did Christianity have any reasonable, viable choice than to take the road of Constantinian fusion?
There is a critique of Christmas (from within and without Christianity!) that it is pretty much a Christianization of a pagan festival, conveniently attached to celebrating the birth of Jesus. (I am aware that there are various arguments about how accurate this is, etc, etc.) But, here's the thing: assuming that Christianity saw a need to transform and not ignore pagan celebrations of the Winter solstice, was there much choice, in reality. To ignore and hope such pagan festivities would go away, not be attractive to Christians, and so forth: would that have worked?
I think not. Better to embrace and transform, surely.
In our case, bearing in mind the biblical texts cited above, we have much to embrace (aspects of the starry heavens and the earth beneath) and much to transform (an ancient celebration of life, death and new life in which we are inspired to offer thanks and praise to the God of all life, in sea, earth and sky).
Perhaps you think otherwise. Discuss!
Postscript: here Down Under we are not unaware that this weekend is also a cultural, religious, political and (for millions of women) personal moment in the USA as Roe v Wade is swept away and the legal status of abortion now varies from state to state. So far, my reading of Twitter and other responses is less than inspiring, other than to inspire me to make no further comment from afar.