In the second half of the 16th century Europe was abuzz with rumours brought back by travellers of a ‘terra australis’, or ‘great southern land’. Forget Captain Cook, Dutch landings on the coast of Western Australia early in the 17th century are well documented and trading contact from Sulawesi in Indonesia may have begun up to a century and a half before that. Incidentally the name of Jesus was undoubtedly first uttered in our country by an Islamic trader as early perhaps as the 1500s. Our continent was named, however, by a Portuguese navigator named Pedro Fernandes de Queirós, 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, which he pictured as one huge land mass extending south from Papua New Guinea and extending east across New Zealand and parts of the Pacific. He landed on a large island near Vanuatu which he assumed was part of the southern continent, and promptly named it Australia del Espiritu Santo. Which means ‘the great southern land of the Holy Spirit’.
The point is that de 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 agreed 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 – which St Matthew quotes in the Gospel reading for today – we hear: ‘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’. The prophet is talking about good news – the sort of good news that has the power to transform who a people are and what they can believe about themselves.
Epiphany - both the feast of the Epiphany on January 6th and the Sundays following - is an extended festival of light. We speak of the birth of Jesus as the light to the nations, Matthew gives us the image of the magi from the east following the light of a moving star. Epiphany is experienced in one way by Christians in the northern hemisphere, as the promise of light in the middle of the great darkness. But in the great southern land of the Holy Spirit Epiphany comes in the middle of the season of excess light, the hard hot light of blue skies and brown lawns. For the most part, we Aussies love the superabundance of light that uniquely characterises our land, but we are uncomfortably aware that it comes with its own risks.
The prophet Isaiah 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, who in 740 BC conquered Israel and laid waste and deported the political elites of the land. The population that was left fell into despair, cursing their political masters and forsaking the instruction of Yahweh. The population was decimated by hunger and much of the land was abandoned. It is in this despondent and stagnant state that Isaiah announces that the lights have come back on – that 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 for a people who had lost hope in the future.
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 … weren’t. But as Isaiah had predicted – and Jesus reminds them - this backwater is where the light is going to be seen first: the people who walk in darkness are precisely the ones who most know their need of the light.
The darkness of Northern Galilee was a darkness of isolation and poverty. Jerusalem to the south-west was where the money and the action was, where the priests held sway, where theology was the hot topic of the day and the Temple did a roaring trade. In Northern Galilee the focus was on empty nets and trying to fill them with fish. They lived in the darkness of poverty and military occupation.
Well, so what’s the word from today’s Gospel for us? 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. And our country certainly has been blessed with material prosperity, though there is also inequality and poverty, there is injustice especially towards the original inhabitants of the land – the Aborigines living in harmony with the land at the time Queirós named it from a distance – who 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 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 whether the undeniable racist and xenophobic streak in our national character – a contradictory and less attractive side of our national character than that other undeniable Aussie 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 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 to have robbed us of the ability to reflect honestly about who we are and what we stand for – and so 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 fight against climate chaos 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. Of course the demonic light of the bushfires that have devastated parts of our country this summer bring home that it is our problem, and that it isn’t an accident because it’s precisely what we have been warned about for decades now.
Our secular, clever, talented, wealthy, multicultural, beautiful and selfish country is in darkness. 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 its 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 not advocated for the care of God’s creation 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, perhaps as Australian Christians we will also be able to recognise the light. As Chrstians we proclaim at this time of year that in Jesus, God offers a light to the nations for us to see by – to see where we are going, to see who we truly are and what we might become. And what we proclaim is true, but not if we just repeat it as a sort of formula. I was struck, the other evening at Fr Stuart’s commissioning, by his forceful insistence that as Christians we need to be passionately engaged with the issues of our day. Passionate advocates for the poor, passionate advocates for the earth that is our home. Our faith is not just pie in the sky when you die! The light to the nations that our readings today direct our attention to is the light that we ourselves might become - once we acknowledge the truth of who we are, and allow God’s Holy Spirit to lead us and to reform us in service.