Friday, January 24, 2014

Australia Day - Epiphany 3

The second half of the 16th century saw the beginnings of the great era of European exploration and the mythical rumours of a 'terra australis', or 'great southern land'.  Over recent years the convenient fiction that James Cook was the official discoverer of Australia has been well and truly debunked, with well documented Dutch landings on the coast of Western Australia early in the 17th century.  Our continent was first named, however, by a navigator who took a wrong turn and never actually set foot here, one Pedro Fernandes de Queirós, a Portuguese-born navigator who led a Spanish expedition crossing the Pacific in search of the southern continent and its fabled riches in 1605. 

De Queirós never actually found the continent he was searching for, though he believed he had, when he landed on what is now part of Vanuatu.  Queirós landed on a large island which he took to be part of the southern continent, and named it Australia del Espiritu Santo.  Which means 'the great southern land of the Holy Spirit'.  In fact, the small island on which Queirós landed is still called Espiritu Santo.  Queirós envisaged one huge land mass extending south from Papua New Guinea and extending east across New Zealand and parts of the Pacific.  We Australians even today, of course, like to believe that these places should all properly be regarded as outposts of Oz.

The point of course is that Queirós, and others like him, believed they were on a quest that was as much spiritual as geographical.  Claiming the lands for Spain and for the Church, Queirós assumed not only that he had been guided to the southern continent by the leading of God's Holy Spirit, but that the Spirit of God was present to this land, so long shrouded in mystery and conjecture, in a unique and wonderful way.  It was an assumption that, had they known of it at the time, the Aboriginal population of Australia would have concurred with heartily.  For them, the Creator Spirit was interwoven with the landscape like a great rainbow serpent winding its way through every waterhole and river and cave.  The whole land was a sign of its Creator, and human beings had been placed within the landscape to care for it and to understand their own lives within its context. 

I make mention of all this, of course, because it is Australia Day – a day which falls on a Sunday once every seven years or so and so becomes an important part of our Epiphany reflection.  In our reading this morning from Isaiah – and St Matthew quotes these verses also in a different context in the Gospel reading for today – we read the verses: 'The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined'.[1]  The prophet is talking about good news – the sort of good news that not only lifts spirits but that has the power to transform who a people are and what they can believe about themselves.  Epiphany, as perhaps has become obvious over the last few weeks, is a festival of light.  Metaphorically, we speak of the birth of Jesus as the light to the nations, Matthew the storyteller gives us the image of the magi from the east following the light of a moving star.  It's perhaps an especially apt season of the church year for people who live in the Northern Hemisphere, for those enduring the cold and the long nights of the northern winter, who are reminded that as people of God we live by a different clock.  Epiphany is a season of light not during the day but a season of light amidst the darkness. It is a season of light that ushers in the daytime and in the Northern Hemisphere Epiphany is one step ahead of the world.  In Australia and the Southern Hemisphere Epiphany comes in the middle of the season of excess light, of the hard hot light of blue skies and brown lawns.  For the most part, we Aussies love the abundance of light that uniquely characterises our land, but we don't take it for granted and we understand that proximity to the Sun comes with its own risks.

The prophet is talking to a people who have got in the way of a superpower.  The deep darkness of siege and war has overtaken the lands directly west of the sea of Galilee and the Assyrian king, Tiglath-Pileser III, has conquered and laid waste and deported the political elites of the land.  The population that is left has fallen into despair, cursing their political masters and forsaking the instruction of Yahweh.  The population has been decimated by hunger and much of the land has been left uncultivated.  It is in this despondent and stagnant state that Isaiah announces that the lights have come on – Galilee of the nations will again flourish and become a great trading centre, the land will yield its produce, the worship of Yahweh will again be central with a new righteous king and the armies that have oppressed the land will be gone, their equipment good for nothing more than kindling.  It's a word of comfort and hope, a word of transformation to a people who no longer believed that the future was God's.

St Matthew takes these same words and he places them in Jesus' mouth at the beginning of his ministry in – of all places – the exact same spot, Galilee of the nations – the not-quite-Jewish, not-quite-kosher mixed-race impoverished backwater where the cultural elites and the Biblical scholars and the moneyed class and all the people you'd think Jesus should be trying to win over with his ministry – where all of them … aren't.  Northern Galilee is definitely not where "the beautiful people" are… nothing but fishermen and subsistence farmers, and poor ones at that. But as Isaiah had predicted – and Jesus is clearly schooled in the prophet Isaiah - this backwater is where the light is going to be seen first: the people who walk in darkness are the ones who know their need of the light.

The darkness in Northern Galilee was a darkness of isolation and poverty. They were way out of the mainstream, eking out a subsistence living. Jerusalem was where the action was, where the priests held sway, where theology was the hot topic of the day. In Northern Galilee their focus was on empty nets and trying to fill them with fish. They lived in the darkness of bare, solitary subsistence.  Not to mention the darkness of military occupation.

You might think that we, by contrast, are the children of light.  In our southern land of the Holy Spirit, blessed with an abundance not only of light but of material wealth and more than our fair share, some might think, of plain luck.  As far back as 1894 you could hear the expression: riding on the sheep's back.  Australia was on the road to prosperity and it was merino wool that was carrying us.  More recently you might think we are riding on the iron ore train – or nickel, or the natural gas pipeline.  Our darkness is not a darkness of material shortage, though there is inequality, there are people doing it tough in the Lucky Country - and there are areas of our national life and character that we sweep firmly under the carpet.

The original inhabitants of the land – the Aborigines living in harmony with the land at the time Queirós named it from a distance – call today Invasion Day, commemorating as it does the day boatpeople landed with disastrous results for their timeless culture.  Perhaps Australia Day is a good day to name the reality that although some positive steps have been taken in reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians, the effects of dispossession and the sad history of the stolen generations still linger as a poison that affects not just individual lives but our life together as a nation.  I wonder sometimes whether the racist and xenophobic streak in our national character – a streak that at times has been well contained and that clashes at times with that other undeniable streak of generosity and refusal to take ourselves too seriously – I wonder whether the dark streak of racism and xenophobia that we see all too clearly on display in our current ugly behaviour toward refugees and asylum seekers might not have at its root an uneasiness about the historical dispossession on which our nation is founded.  The light in which our land is bathed seems sometimes to have robbed us of the ability to introspect, or to reflect honestly about who we are and what we stand for – and I fear we have become a nation of consumers, defensive about keeping what we've got.  Our current refusal – at least at the political level – to acknowledge or to play our part in the mitigation of climate change comes from this short-sighted selfishness.  She'll be right, as long as we can pretend it doesn't exist, or if it does that it's somebody else's problem.

Our secular, clever, talented, wealthy, multicultural, beautiful and selfish country is a people in darkness.  We are selling ourselves short.  We have come a long way from the truth of Aboriginal people who saw themselves, not as owning but as being owned by the land.  We have come a long way from the easy-going larrikinism and self-reliance of convicts and stockmen.  We have come a long way from Terra Australia del Spiritu Santo, or from the understanding of the land as suffused with the Spirit of the Creator.  We have become tone-deaf, and we need to remember how to listen.  We have bathed so long in the sunlight that we have become blind to its nuances.  Increasingly, Australians have turned away from the Church, and with reason, because the Church has not provided good moral leadership, has not always shown solidarity with the poor, has been complacent, and has squandered its goodwill through the shame of child sexual abuse.  We as the Church in Australia need to understand our own need for repentance, and we need to work humbly to rebuild trust with the community we serve.

But as people who walk together in darkness, together as Australians we need to recognise our need for the light.  What afflicts our country is a spiritual malaise, and it is also what afflicts our Church.  We proclaim at this time of year that in Jesus, God offers a light to the nations for us to see by – for us to see who we truly are and what we might become, and for us to see where we are going.  This is of course true, but not if we just repeat it as a sort of formula.  The light to the nations is the light that we ourselves might become, a light in our local community, for example, only once we acknowledge the truth of who we are, and allow God's Holy Spirit to lead us and to reform us in service.


[1] Isa 9.2