Good Friday. Awkwardly retaining its place on the calendar of secular Australia, like a mysterious cameo character in a Tim Winton novel. A fast intruding into a land of endless feasting. Pre-meditated sadness in a culture of spontaneous happy. A protest sign at a party. Something different, alien, from a far country, sacred.
A movable feast, it surprises us each year as it shifts its way across the year planner. Receiving its stage directions from moon rather than sun, it shows up, apparently unaware of the chaos it creates for those who plan school terms, annual-leave rosters and mid-semester assessments. It seems to listen to a different melody, follow a different song line, obey a different timetable. Liturgical, inefficient, strange.
Jesus' wider place in our culture is curious. His loving arms do not stretch over Sydney or Melbourne as they do Rio. Ostentatious displays of religious devotion are uncommon, and almost always unwelcome, especially if there is even the faintest whiff of insincerity about them. No national leader in living memory would think to invoke his name for election purposes. In Australia, our bullshit detector in matters religious is set, like the amplifiers in This is Spinal Tap, to 11. The two declared atheists who have occupied the Prime Ministership in my memory (Hawke and Gillard) did so without electoral penalty. A religious test for office is applied neither by constitution nor voters.
The Christmas concert at the local primary school studiously avoids reference to him -- though not, I think (as some believers fear) out of hostility, but as a well-intended attempt to be inclusive of non-Christian students.
And yet, Malcolm Turnbull could speak unselfconsciously of the 'love of Jesus' after Mass in the wake of the Sydney Lindt Café siege. Manning Clarke could rail against political leaders for not having hearts sufficiently touched by the words of the Galilean fisherman. A group of pastors, nuns and other Christian leaders start quietly occupying the offices of politicians in support of asylum-seeker children kept in detention. These Christian protestors speak politely to their arresting officers. They clean up after themselves. Suspicions of posturing are muted as the movement's leaders have often gone from their arrests to homes they actually share with refugees. As a movement, it is unashamedly religious, even overtly Jesus-ish. And as a culture we know enough about Jesus to know that standing for the least and the last and bearing the cost yourself is a Jesus-shaped thing.
Who knows? Perhaps, like Patrick White's Amy Fibbens in 'The Tree of Man' more of us that we realise say occasional prayers to the 'sad, pale Christ' behind closed doors, hoping, as Fibbens does, 'to find grace in her hands, suddenly, like a plaster dove'?
And once a year there is Good Friday. And we stop. And, I think, in all our strident secularity, we are not entirely unmoved by the sufferings of the fierce and gentle Galilean prophet, in our faintly but truly Christ-haunted culture.