The Meaning of Christmas in Five Paintings 1 - Christmas, Context, and Colonisation (Mawalan Marika, Nativity)
Readings Proverbs 8:1-4, 17-31 and John 1:1-5, 14-16
Mawalan Marika was an artist, advocate, and head of the Rirratjingu clan from North East Arhnem land. While he is known most for his paintings of Djang’kawu sacred stories and ceremonies, he painted this Nativity scene in 1960, with natural earth pigments on eucalyptus bark. Marika acted as an important negotiator between his people and the missionary, anthropologists, and other colonial bodies that began to press into Arhnem land in the C20th. He played instrumental role in the production of the ‘Bark Petition’ to the Commonwealth Parliament, used effectively as testament to their claim over the land and consequent right to negotiate the terms of mining on it.
Marika provides our starting point for our series exploring the meaning of Christmas in five paintings. For it is through his Nativity painting that we consider the particular meaning of Christmas in these lands – and through that, the impact of Jesus’ incarnation (becoming human) on our talk about God and manner of being the church.
It is hardly a modern convention to paint the nativity within one’s own culture. European artists have been painting European Holy Families for centuries. Indeed, they did it for so long that the church kind of slipped into accepting a white Jesus and Mary as an accurate, normative, and universally true portrayal of First Century Palestinian Jews.
So in some ways this painting continues a tradition of incarnating the incarnation – painting the story of Jesus within one’s own people/culture/country. Of course, because we have been so long accustomed to the European tradition as authoritative these other contextual products can feel ‘political’ even sometimes a little transgressive. And yet, to paint Jesus in the familiar scenes of one’s home and culture is a perfectly apt Christian practice, for it reflects one of the true meanings of Christmas: the word became flesh and dwelt among us.
Jesus – the eternal light and life of the world, was born of Mary under Pontius Pilate. Jesus, like all of us, was born into a people, a history, a place. He was not an abstracted ‘humanity’ nor an idealised ‘person’ – he bears particularity and specificity like all of us. And it is through these particularities and specificities that Christians are able to push outwards (as the faith crosses borders) and come to see and celebrate Jesus (the eternal word) within different particularities and specificities.
That is, artists and Christians, might render and speak of Jesus in Irish hillsides, Thai villages, African homesteads, Pacific Islands, or Ahrnem Land; not as a way of erasing Jesus’ Jewishness, but in confessing that Jesus was born and lived among us we are able to understand that us to include us as well. We are included, not as replacement but as an extension and expansion of Jesus’ presence via the power of the Spirit. After all, this is a blessing of our adoption by God, our grafting onto the covenant of love.
This painting serves to encourage us to take seriously our conversation and reflections about the sense and feeling and experience of Christmas here down under. It encourages us to claim and develop our own symbols, language, and imagery for celebrating Advent and Christmas. So many of our carols, hymns, and liturgy reflect the landscape and mood of the northern hemisphere at this time of year – long, cold, dark nights, and the promise of new light and warmth emerging within in. Which feels a far cry from our own experience of Christmas and our long hot days, where the darkness of shade and night is a cool relief. How might we speak of Christmas in a manner that draws on our own native fauna and flora, that draws on our own landscapes and culture, that might place less emphasis say, on the small light of the candle within an already bright space, and more seeing and feeling Jesus in the long-awaited cool change and the end of the heatwave?
And while this painting has already drawn us toward the meaning of Christmas in all we have observed, there is more still to be learnt and gained…
Sadly, the Christmas story comes to this country within the colonial project… there could have been other ways for it to come, but alas, this is how it arrives. However, despite these beginnings, this is not all Christmas comes to mean in this country. Paintings such as these, along with the practice and witness of Indigenous churches, testify to the good news that what is at first enforced can become claimed as one’s own. The Christmas story can be revisioned, embraced, translated, becoming a site of resistance and dignity.
The Christmas story in the gospels of Matthew and Luke remind us that Jesus was born into an oppressed people suffering indignity and dispossession under imperial rule. It is therefore of little surprise that despite the ways in which the Bible, the Church, and the name of Jesus have been used by imperial powers to dispossess and subjugate – those on the underside of history have continued to find Jesus compelling, have continued to see the truth of Jesus bursting forth from cultural trappings, have continued to seek the abundant life that Jesus promises in their very resistance to those who first taught them his name.
This painting draws us near the meaning of Christmas. It reminds us of the translatability of the good news – that though the Word took on flesh in the particular time and place of First Century Palestine, the Word and Wisdom of God comes near to all peoples and can be rightly articulated and presented in local tongues, cultures, idioms, and landscapes. And it also reminds us that the story of Jesus, born into an oppressed people on the underside of history has – time and again – through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit – proved a site of resistance even against the corruption of his own name for colonial ends.
This painting reminds us that the meaning of Christmas does not lie dormant on the other side of the world centuries ago, but is encountered again and again wherever people experience the transforming and expanding good news that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
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