Matariki & Psalm 119: Remembrance, Celebration, Anticipation

by Josh Olds

These images are all from the Mt John Observatory, which sits above Lake Tekapo. There’s something quite mesmerising about the stars isn’t there? It’s hard to be outside on a clear starry night and not be captured by a sense of wonder. There’s something about the stars that inspires awe… the beauty, the reminder of how small we really are compared to what’s out there, and what they say about the one who created them. I think David had a sense of this awe when he wrote Psalm 8 – “when I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is humankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that care for them?” Humans have long had a keen interest in the stars, beyond the wonder they inspire, we know they were also historically relied on for navigation and orientation, to mark a change in the seasons and weather patterns, and to coordinate calendars.

Matariki is the Māori name for the cluster of stars otherwise known as the Pleiades. You might also be familiar with the Japanese name for it – Subaru. You may have also heard it called the Seven Sisters, although there are actually many more stars in the cluster. There tend to be 9 stars recognised as part of Matariki – Matariki being both the name of the cluster and of its central star. There are many legends that surround Matariki, often the Matariki star is regarded as a mother who is surrounded by her 8 children, with each star being associated with a unique gift to sustain life on the earth. This is the second year that Matariki has been celebrated as a public holiday here in Aotearoa. We celebrate our unique part of the world, we celebrate Māori culture, and acknowledge the rich heritage of tangata whenua, the indigenous people of our land. Around this time each year, the Matariki cluster reappears just above the horizon, after having disappeared for a few weeks. Matariki is visible for most of the year in New Zealand, but it sets and dips below the horizon for about a month towards the end of May. As it reappears just before sunrise in late June or early July, for Māori it traditionally signalled the beginning of the first month of the new year.

Matariki holds an important place in the Māori calendar and is a time rich with meaning. It is a time of deep cultural significance that traditionally acknowledged the sacredness of the land and the importance of honouring whakapapa – ancestors and heritage. Specific customs related to Matariki vary among iwi, although it was always generally considered to be a time in which friends and whānau would come together to celebrate the past, the present, and the future. For Māori the stars of Matariki quite literally served as a guiding light, a celestial compass helping them to navigate their way through the year. Our reading this morning from Psalm 119 also speaks of a guiding light, that of the word of God – “your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.” Psalm 119 as a whole is quite unique. It’s the longest chapter in the entire bible at 176 verses. The reason that it is this length is that in its original Hebrew language, it was actually written as an acrostic poem. There are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet and 22 stanzas of Psalm 119, each stanza is 8 verses long and begins with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet, which of course we don’t see in our English translations. Despite its length and structure, the Psalm has a very clear and unifying theme – the word of God as the guiding light of the Psalmist’s life. Just as Matariki illuminates the night sky, so God’s word illuminates the path of our lives.

Traditionally, Matariki was a time of pausing to remember what had been. It marked a time to contemplate and share new learnings from the past year. It was also a time to honour and memorialise loved ones who had passed away since the previous year’s rising of Matariki. A few weeks ago the Matariki cluster set and did not rise again the following night. Of course, there are people we know and love, whose lives have been set, friends and family, loved members of our Village community who have died, and we miss them deeply. As we pause for a moment, I invite you to bring those people to your mind now. Remember their name and their face, remember their presence and how they blessed you. It’s good to pause and remember with gratitude those who have left imprints on our lives. Just as Matariki now rises, be reminded that so too do our loved ones rise to new life.[1]

The word of God too, draws us to remembrance. The scriptures tell the big story of God, the cosmic story in which we find ourselves apart. A story of how an inherently good creation, made by a loving creator, was broken. Yet, despite its brokenness the story revolves around a God who wants nothing more than to bring restoration and to dwell with his people – seen most clearly in his incarnate coming in Jesus. The word of God invites us to place our own stories, in the context of God’s story. To see how the story of God is interwoven into the stories of our lives. This is what we see the Psalmist doing in our reading. In verse 111 the Psalmist writes – “Your decrees are my heritage forever; they are the joy of my heart.” In other words, God the story you tell in your word is my story. If you were to pause and spend some time remembering your story over the last year, what things would come to mind for you? Where would you notice God’s presence in it? How would God’s story inform how you see your story? It’s good to pause once in a while and remember, not to dwell in the past, but to remember the seasons we have come through and to notice how God might have been present with us.

Matariki was also a time that brought people together to celebrate the present. A time to gather and share food and company, to sing songs and tell stories. A time to reconnect with home, with friends and whānau, and to have gratitude for the blessings of life. When Matariki was formalised as a public holiday here in New Zealand it was done so as to always be on the closest Friday to when the Matariki cluster was projected to arise, the reason given for this was to encourage people to travel and spend the long weekend with their families. The word of God too, draws us to celebration. We see right throughout the biblical narrative the people of God holding festivals and feasts. Leviticus 23 is essentially a list of a number of different feasts and festivals that God calls his people to celebrate. It’s sort of this idea of booking in times of celebration or celebrating by appointment. Which isn’t really that unusual – that’s what we tend to do with birthdays, Christmas etc. But I suppose what is interesting about having established times of celebration, is that they happen irrespective of personal circumstances.

I’m sure many of us have had birthdays or Christmas that we haven’t felt like celebrating because of situations we were facing – just like I’m sure there were Israelites that really just weren’t feeling up to celebrating the Passover from time to time. There’s a sense in which having regular festivals and times of celebration is a reminder that despite the circumstances we’re in, most of the time there is still much to be grateful for and that not losing sight of those things is important. In verses 107-108 we read that the Psalmist experiences suffering and affliction, yet even still is being drawn into praise by the word of God. The point here isn’t to minimise the difficulties we face; we won’t find a magic formula for dealing with suffering in God’s word. But what we will find is the perspective, that despite the difficulties we can and do face, if we take the time to pause and look, there are nevertheless things worth celebrating around us. Why don’t you share one thing you’re grateful for this morning with someone close to you?

Matariki was also a time of anticipation. As the Matariki cluster reappeared it signalled to Māori that the time for harvesting crops and storing food had ended and it was now time to start preparing the soil for the coming season of planting. It was a time to consider the year ahead and prepare for what it might bring. The word of God too, draws us to anticipation. The big story of God told in the scriptures culminates in a future where God’s restoration of all things is brought to completion and he once again dwells in perfect harmony with his people in his creation. We know where things are heading, we just don’t know exactly how things will look as we head there. Our reading finishes in verse 112 with the Psalmist declaring their intention to live under the guidance of God’s word “forever, to the end.” While the Bible is not a detailed handbook for how to navigate every situation we’re confronted by, it does describe God’s way in the world – a way of love and compassion, a way of justice and righteousness, a way of mercy and forgiveness. A way that is ultimately working to restore all that is broken. The scriptures also describe how we’re all invited to participate in God’s way in the world, to do our bit in enacting the way of God in our time and place. So while we don’t know exactly how the future will unfold, our hopeful anticipation of where things are heading informs us of how we are to live in the present.

Remembrance, celebration, anticipation. In the busyness of life, where at times it might feel like we’re bouncing from one thing to the next, I think there is some rich learning for us here in taking a pause to remember what has been, celebrating what is, and hopefully anticipating what is to come. Just as Matariki has been a guiding light for Māori throughout generations to do this, John 1 reminds us that Jesus, the Word of God who became flesh is the light that shines for everyone and brings life. As we remember his story, celebrate his presence, and anticipate his return, may we all embrace his light, allowing it to guide our lives. I hope there has been space for you to do that this Matariki weekend, we’re going to pause for a moment now and listen to a song – Whakaaria Mai, take this time to remember, to be grateful, and to hopefully anticipate what is to come. Amen.

[1] This is an adaptation from the liturgy of a Catholic Matariki prayer service, produced by the Catholic Diocese of Auckland.