From the Archbishop

Competing narratives no substitute for the Real


We will soon celebrate Christmas, the birth of Jesus the Messiah. We recognise that Jesus’ birth is a turning point in the history of salvation. In our churches and carol services the proclamation will be clear enough whether in the Bible readings or the hymns. There will be little doubt that God’s purposes in the incarnation of the Son of God are plainly proclaimed to any who are present. We would be missing an evident reality if we also failed to recognise that Christmas has many competing alternative narratives in its wider observation. Christmas has become an event, a phenomena itself that is often readily detached from its Christian meaning.

I was in a supermarket recently and talked to a young Muslim woman who was working at the checkout. I asked her how her day had gone and she said that it was fine except that the store’s loudspeakers had just commenced the repetitive playing of Mariah Carey’s, All I want for Christmas is you. Her comment interested me and so I read the song’s lyrics, which features such lines as, “I won’t make a list and send it to the North Pole for Saint Nick, I won’t even stay awake to hear those magic reindeer click ’cause I just want you here tonight”.

I could see her point and understand what mind-numbness constant repetition of All I want for Christmas is you must induce. Shallow sentiment floods our public spaces at this time, and it happens not just here in Australia but in other countries with a long Christian heritage. The secondary phenomenon of Christmas has become the celebration internationally.

This took me back to another song, The Herd’s version of Comrade Jesus, which I think gives a good critique of this phenomena: “But they’ve commercialised his birthday now, the very people that he defied and they’ve sanctified their system claiming that he’s on their side!”

Philosopher Jean Baudrillard made a further telling analysis of such phenomena that he defines as ‘simulacra’: “the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyper real... It is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody. It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real itself”. Theologically this approximates closely to the biblical understanding of idolatry. Substituting the “signs of the real for the real itself” is cruel treatment for a world-weary and searching humanity.

In the competing narratives of the celebration I think that the Christmas Day Collect speaks words of encouragement and truth:

God Most High,

whose eternal Word
chose a dwelling among us,

that we might live in your presence:

Grant us a spirit of wisdom

to know how rich is the glory you have given us,

and how great is the hope to which we are called in the

Word made flesh;

Who lives and reigns with you on the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen

May you have a joyous celebration of our Saviour’s birth.

Read more from Dr Philip Freier, Anglican Primate of Australia and Archbishop of Melbourne, at