A friend of mine works in the community in Utopia 250 k’s out of Alice Springs. They often have to talk to Centrelink on behalf of a local client. A question that is often asked is: “Where were you born” to which the answer usually is “Under a tree”.
Not a satisfactory answer for Centrelink but it is a living fact for the Aboriginal person in question. Interestingly that person had a brother born under the same tree on the same day – a brother from a different mother and father, because they were born at that ancient birthplace they are brother and sister
Being born under the tree gives one your identity. It is how you are known by your country and by others. It separates you from others like you because country is timeless and has known you from the very beginning. From it you were given birth and nourished into life and abundance. You are born here, on this country and you will die here on this country, probably under the same tree.
Great grief is being caused to people such as these under the Closing the Gap scheme that now demands all babies are to born in a hospital off country many kilometres away. This messes fundamentally with the child’s identity and the mothers’ sense of culture and tradition. Safety in giving birth has never been their way. It has always been natural, difficulty and painful; perhaps a metaphor for how they understand their lives in kinship with country and nature.
‘Nathanael asked Jesus, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”’ A perfectly ordinary question not unlike the Centrelink question, and like the answer given to that question Jesus replies – under the tree. The response from Nathaniel is one of Wow, that’s amazing, you must be the Son of God – no-ne else could possible know that.
What Nathaniel fails to understand, perhaps, is that this is not a physical seeing by Jesus of him sitting under the tree, but the awareness of his existence right from the beginning of creation. Jesus, the Christ, at the beginning of creation saw all creation, all humanity before it came to be. This is the knowing before the knowing, the being before the being.
This is Jesus the Christ as the eternal essence of all things, knowing and understanding human kind, before humankind knows itself. God knows us before we have the capacity to be known by our self. Understanding this is important if we are going to survive and thrive in the world we find ourselves. Any sense of estrangement from purpose and belonging throws us into anxiety and fear, wondering when it all will end and what was the purpose any way. The fact that the Godhead has known us from the very beginning, under the tree, allows us the confidence to face the challenges of being human in what is often a hostile environment.
Being born under the tree signifies more than a physical here and now place but a connection to eternity, and to the dreaming for the Aboriginal person, that which gives meaning to all things. We do not find and meaning by ourselves or of ourselves. It is not something we discover in roles, activities and outcomes. Modern humanity is beset by self-help manuals, blogs and tweets (or should that be twits?). Much that passes for modern variations on ancient traditions, from Christianity to Buddhism, is all about finding your self and the meaning of being as a consumer of a product.
Yet the truth is as simple as being seen under the tree. It is what is and we are already what we are. It is what is there before we were born. The importance for the Aboriginal person of being born under the tree is it makes them country and the country holds and is all they need to be who they are. Nathaniel asks, “Where did you get to know me?” and Jesus points to the tree and suggests I knew you from the very beginning, not personally or in a particular way, but in the sense of knowing the potentiality and possibility in the person.
Being born under the tree places us at the centre of the incarnation – a way of seeing our life as not being an accident, but as the self-expression of the Godhead in this place and time. If this is the case, and it is, then we are indeed to love and value ourselves and others born in the same way. We are to ensure we speak well and honestly about ourselves and to avoid the excuses of negativity and self-deprecation we so often fall into because we do not see our true selves. We are not born into a vacuum where we are to work out our being. We are born intact, fully formed with all we need to be ourselves, under the tree which gives life to all.
Now the journey into fullness will mean we will develop and discard self as we walk the land under the tree. We will take on roles and give up roles, we will one day be child, then adult, parent and elder and in each of these journeys around the tree we will take on and let go of that which is useful and a hindrance, depending upon where we are. Yet we will always remain the person born under the tree.
Jesus does not intimate Nathaniel has it all together. The natural processes will occur and Nathaniel will share in the roller coaster of being human alongside Jesus and the disciples, and all of us for that matter, but he will always remain the person Jesus first saw before he was born. He does suggest Nathaniel is only at the beginning of the journey and will encounter life events and happenings that are a mystery and a wonder way beyond what he now thinks is amazing.
Being born under a tree places us at the centre of God’s self-revelation. We are not alone. We belong to the one who imagined into being all that was , is and ever will be. That is how the Aboriginal person born on country imagines it and it is how Jesus saw it for Nathaniel and us.
Nathaniel is amazed that Jesus whom he never met knows him and knows him deeply and fully as a human being. You and I are known in just the same way and we have been known that way from the very beginning. The challenge is to live out of that truth as one fully known and welcomed by Jesus. How does that change how we see ourselves and the world, also fully known by the Godhead? What does that do with our relationship with our self in the first instance and then how we relate to all other created beings?
Can we, when asked where we were born reply, “Under the tree?”