Advent and Christmas Down Under
August 06, 2007
The liturgical cycle and the natural cycle are harmonious in the Northern Hemisphere, so that the advent of the light is a powerful image of hope. In Brisbane, Australia, where I live, Christmas is in the middle of summer and the warmth and light of the sun are present realities, not future prospects. So when we read in the Christmas liturgy that "the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light" (Is 9:1), it does not mean the same to us as it does to Church folk who live in the Northern Hemisphere.
The Down Under disjunction is by no means an insurmountable problem, but it does mean that we have to reinterpret the light imagery of the Advent/Christmas season to suit our natural cycle. I was conscious of this issue when I planted sunflowers in my garden in the Spring of 2002. As I watched them grow I realised that these plants were a perfect image for Advent. That year the readings were from Year A.
So I began my preparation for Advent by planting over a hundred sunflower seeds in tubes and a couple of weeks later I transplanted them into seedling pots. Then I persuaded the parish liturgy committee to adopt the image for the coming season. I was given some funding from the parish and bought one hundred eleven litre pots and a square metre of potting mix. Two weeks before the start of Advent, some volunteers from the parish helped me to pot up the seedlings. The plants were set out in my courtyard and they prospered in two weeks of warm weather. On the first Sunday of Advent the potted sunflower plants were given out to parishioners as an Advent family activity.
In order to prepare the parish for the sunflowers, I wrote two articles in the parish newsletter on the Sundays before Advent. Then, on the first Sunday of the season, I wrote the following:
"If you drive down Kanumbra Street you will see a garden that is full of sunflowers ― hopefully on the way to flowering by now. I planted them in October in the hope that the flowers would be ready for the Christmas liturgies. In the meantime I am watching and waiting.
Advent is a waiting time and a time of change in our world. In the Northern Hemisphere the leaves are showing autumn colour, the nights are getting colder and winter is edging in. In Brisbane, trees are budding and fruiting, the air is hot and the sky is blue. Things are changing, but the changes can take us by surprise if we are not alert and looking for them. The natural cycle echoes the Advent mystery: we wait in hope for the coming of the Kingdom, for the end time, for the completion of creation.
That is the grand plan and the long view, but there is something a little more pedestrian here. After all, the Kingdom is among us now and it can be observed at work in our world. It shows in the ebb and flow of our lives and we need to pay attention to these changes, just as we watch and respond to the changes in nature.
In the gospel today, Jesus urges us to 'stay awake' so that when the changes come, we will be prepared. In fact we are watching and waiting for the advent of the Light, which is the main image of Christ in the Advent/Christmas cycle. This image makes sense as a powerful image of hope in the Northern Hemisphere, but in Brisbane we have to reshape the light imagery to suit our seasons: because Christmas is in the middle of summer, the light and heat of the sun are present realities rather than future prospects. That’s why I have planted sunflowers in my garden and, if all goes well, they will give powerful witness to the efficacy of the light.
This Sunday, the parish is offering parishioners an opportunity to share in the sunflower imagery. Pots of sunflowers will be offered to anyone who is prepared to nurture them and to watch and wait while they grow and flower. Please join me in this rewarding Advent reflection!"
The sunflower motif featured in the celebrating space alongside the Advent wreath. The wreath also was reinterpreted to suit our experience, for example the greenery used was Marraya, an Australian native shrub. The candles and greenery were separated out into four parts and placed at various stations around the celebrating space. By the fourth Sunday of Advent the assembly was ‘encircled’ by light.
My garden flowered and faded by late December, so I asked parishioners who still had flowering plants to share them with the community at Christmas.
The response to the project was very positive and there were not enough plants to go round. Many people spoke to me about the progress of their plants and it was apparent that the experience was meaningful and pleasurable. What made it all the more satisfying were the connections made between local experience and Christian tradition; between the private world of home and the public space of church.
The Australian experience of the liturgical cycle is different from a Northern Hemisphere experience. You can see the difference that sunflower imagery makes to the experience of Advent and Christmas Down Under.
Dr. Jennifer Close is a liturgist in Brisbane, Australia. She works part-time as a liturgical artist and lecturer in theology at the Australian Catholic University. She earned her Ph.D. in theology in 2005; her dissertation was titled "A Feminist Understanding of Liturgical Art."
Photo Credit: Jennifer Close
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