Homilies,  Occasional

Australia Day – 26 January 2023

There is always discussion about the date of Australia Day.  Is the 26th January the most appropriate day to celebrate our national identity?  One imagines that every year, the discussion will re-ignite, and only time will tell how the question is resolved. However, it strikes me that the very question itself highlights an essential element of our identity as Australians. Perhaps, our identity itself is marked by a question. It is a question that is inevitable given that we are people who live in the intersection between two perspectives. And we live, unsure of how to resolve these two perspectives.  In the Australian experience, the most ancient of peoples intersect with the most modern, and in European terms, the ‘old world’ meets with the ‘new world.’  

Geographically, the overwhelming majority of Australians live in a place of intersection.  This is a land of fire and water.  We are caught in the intersection of the extremes of both. Between our love and fear of the landscape’s power, we live along a thin band of coastline, with the vastness of the outback behind us and the desert of ocean stretching out before us.  We live in the war of mystery on two fronts, as the novelist Tim Winton once dared to suggest.[1]  It’s not surprising that, as John Robinson has observed, the phrase “between a rock and the deep blue sea” has poignancy for Australians.[2] As people of geographic intersection, Australians enjoy a special relationship with the beach, which is simply not known elsewhere. According to research, it is at the beach that most Australians receive a sense of peace and well being, and receive the intuition of the divine.[3]  It is the place of premier pilgrimage for us, the place to which we go to ponder the most important things in life.  Yes, it is in such a location of intersection that we feel most ourselves as Australians. Neither, also, should we be surprised at our fascination with the house-veranda on which we love to gather – that architectural ‘in between’ place, neither inside nor outside, the place in which we feel naturally comfortable and love to idle away the hours, even if only in our daydreaming about retirement.

We are a people of intersection.  The insight of the Australian Anglican theologian, Stephan Pickard remains important:

As Australians we live and work and have our being in the in-between places.  I prefer to call it life in the cracks of human existence . . . Thus, in place of the language of the edge, margin and centre which dominates so much of discourse about the sacred, I would propose a discourse informed by the language of intersections, intervals and corridors.  Our spiritual life has to be carved out of the cracks, the in-between places that expand or contract depending upon a whole range of factors that can be uncomfortable and barren, or places of abundance and fertility requiring of us great resourcefulness.  This is the matrix of our spiritual identity as Australians . . .[4]

In different ways, Australian writers and poets have given articulation to this specifically Australian instinct for the spiritual potential in intersection:  the divine in the ordinary, for the infinite in the finite, for victory in failure.  And we honour such experiences by refusing to clothe them with many words, preferring a spiritual sensibility that is quiet and unobtrusive.   

Multiculturalism is a very particular experience of intersection and a rich one for our own parish community. Here old cultures meet a new context. Time-honoured cultural customs, especially from Asia, meet European forms of Catholic life and practice. It is a great privilege for us to honor and celebrate all the cultures that make up our parish family, for culture is always the language or religious experience. But even from a secular vantage, I think it very poignant that we celebrate Lunar New Year at the time we celebrate Australia Day. It marks that our national identity is never at the expense of cultural diversity and that the strength of our national life is determined not by a single narrative but by a multiplicity of stories discovering themselves anew at the service of what best makes for the common good on this continent.

Our identity as Australians is forged between opposing perspectives – historical, geographical, even political – and the presence of paradox is I believe at the core of that identity.  Paradox is something quite different from a problem. A problem is something that must be solved: it demands resolution. Paradox is something we hold, living in the midst of its tension. Paradox demands not a solution but attention.  This is why the question about the appropriateness of the 26th January as our day of national identity is an important one, but not one that should be quickly addressed.  It is important for us to continue to live with the opposing premises for some time to come, for only time itself demonstrates the place of conjunction between two apparent opposites.   And as we continue to attend to the paradox that marks our identity as a people, we realise more fully that identity is never something determined and then lived but something that is continually in the process of becoming. 

So, on whatever day we celebrate our national identity may we always pray, along with Michael Leunig, “. . . Let us be creatures of paradox and variety:  creatures of contrast, of light and shade:  creatures of faith.  God be our constant.  Let us step out of character into the unknown, to struggle and love and do what we will.  Amen.”[5]

[1] Tim Winton, Land’s Edge, (Sydney:  Picador, 1993), 36.

[2] For the idea of ‘intersection’ which follows I am indebted to the work of John Robinson, “Life in the Spirit as Life In-Between.” Pacifica, 17 (October 2004), 283-296.

[3] See Peter Bentley and Philip J. Hughes, Australian Life and the Christian Faith:  Facts and figures, (Kew, Victoria:  Christian Research Association, 1998), 108.

[4] Stephen Pickard, “The View from the Veranda:  Gospel and spirituality in an Australian setting,” St. Marks Review, (Winter 1998), 8-9.

[5] Michael Leunig, The Prayer Tree, (North Blackburn, Victoria:  Collins Dove, 1991), 14.

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