Earlier this week, a crowd of probably not very religious Aucklanders wrapped up warm and headed to Maungakiekie, (One Tree Hill) arriving just before dawn.
Out of the darkness, karakia rang through the mist. Eerie, haunting prayers to welcome Matariki , the Pleiades of the South Pacific, as she birthed a new year from the winter solstice, the darkest night of the year.
Christmas , the Christian birth story with similar connotations, is celebrated at the exact same point on the lunar calendar in the Northern Hemisphere. But in New Zealand the symbolism of light out of darkness is lost on us because we celebrate this festival of new life at the height of summer.
A few days before Matariki rites and rituals were unfolding around Te Mahu-Tonga , a Maori cloak to be worn by the leader of the New Zealand Olympic Team. Dave Curry, the team's chef de mission, said 'it's the essence and soul of who we are as a team, as a people, and all the things that we know.'
Mr Curry was struggling for words but I suspect he's trying to talk about what matters under the radar of our intellect. Valuing a symbol that points to a deeper way of being that helps us make meaning of our lives and relationships here in Aotearoa.
Once we might have used Christianity to help us make that meaning but statistics, and experience, tell us that Kiwis are rejecting their Christian religious heritage. Whilst there are sociological reasons for this, it might also be because some of the festivals and symbols don't make much sense after being transplanted from the Northern Hemisphere.
However it happens, the rejection of a religious tradition creates a vacuum. We seem to have filled this space by adopting Maori ways as an alternative expression of spirituality. But as we're not all Maori why would we be doing this?
Religion has to act on a couple of levels to work for people. First of all it has to have a visceral grip, in other words, get us in the guts at the place where we can say yes, aha, I get that even if I don't have words for it. At the same time it has to have an intellectual credibility that makes sense to us in our time and place.
When both those things are in place, the possibility exists for religion to let go of creeds and beliefs and to help bind us back into the source of life. Or as Paul Tillich the great 20th century theologian called it, the ground of being.
Pre-Christian Maori and other ancient cultures had a deep reverence for the Earth and her movements. The mythology and rituals that emerged from that lived experience are not to be read or believed literally, but held as a complex wisdom that speaks in a language not easily understood or analysed.
In this case, Matariki rises out of an Earth-centred spirituality that is valued by New Zealanders, and offers rites through which we can reverence that. Somehow it makes visceral and intellectual sense.
Spirituality expressed like this can threaten established ideas about God. But as Clay Nelson, one of my priest colleagues said in a Facebook discussion this week, 'I had to let go of God to find God again.'
The challenge is to stop imprisoning God in boxes of our own making and allow God to appear beyond our imaginings.
Image: from Burnside High School
Video: Matariki Animation