Just before I left Melbourne twenty years ago, I enjoyed lunch with some friends including the Australian artist, Michael Leunig. We fell to talking about the culture of Sydney to which I was headed, and, given the time of the year, the conversation turned to Sydney’s forthcoming new year’s celebrations and the obsession that Sydney has for the “bigger and better” fireworks display every year. “What must Sydney be hiding from?” was the comment of Leunig’s that I recall so clearly. The memory of his observation haunted me last night as the insistence on the Harbour party triumphed whilst so many were suffering so close by. Personally, I could not celebrate given my anxiety for some dear friends cut off just south of Batemans Bay. Even now it is not possible to know how they have fared given that all telecommunications have been severed. Many of us will be in the same situation. The Daily Telegraph might claim, in its own words, that Sydney can show “it can party with a conscience as it combined harbourside fireworks hedonism with a huge display of heart” but I find the juxtaposition unsettling and a rationalization of denial for the immense heartache unfolding only a few kilometres away. Leunig’s question to me of 2000 might have been a better commentary to the fireworks last night.
Though some may use political spin to justify the party last evening in terms of hope and inspiration in the midst of chaos, the most refreshing comment from a civic leader I heard yesterday was from Kristie McBain, the Mayor of Bega Valley Shire. When she was asked by a reporter yesterday afternoon, “Can you cope with this, with the scale?” she simply stood there and replied, “I don’t know.” It was an admission of reality. Its simplicity and truthfulness were, for me, the most hopeful and inspiring comments that any leader made yesterday.
We do not know. This is our truth. This new decade starts with this profound recognition, honest and simple as it is: we do not know. It starts with our sense of fragility before the power of nature, our powerlessness before drought and fire, our thirst for rain. We have a profound concern about our climate which now presents as an unavoidable question. There is no room for false optimism, only a sober sense of reality.
The new decade starts with questions which cannot be answered. We begin it mindful of Mary the Mother of Jesus, the one who has brought forth a new possibility for our world. But the figure of Mary that is given us on this day is, in fact, of the one who lives with a question. She is given a Son about whom there is a profound question. She holds all this in her heart, pondering and wondering. She is not given an easy answer. The question unsettles her, disturbs her, it prises open her heart. It is the image of Mary that has stayed with me since my own visit to Nazareth where I discovered the church of Mary’s Well. Tradition has it that it was at the village well where Mary was first visited by the angel. So disturbed was she by the encounter, that she ran back to her house to be encountered for a second time by the angel as it is recorded in the actual text of the Gospel.
Mary begins her life as mother with a question, as does every mother really. However, as the Mother of the One who brings such a new possibility into the world, Mary is the Mother of all our questions. She holds and nurtures them. She is our companion in the midst of all that unsettles us, gently calling us forth to live into the answer to what troubles our hearts – the answer we cannot reach easily or without a journey of spirit and heart. We need her maternal care in such a particular way as we start this year, this decade.
We start the year with a question. We start the year without the confidence of knowing how everything will unfold. Mary teaches us by her heart that our foundation is our trust in the God of a Promise. She is one of the anawim, the people in Israel who have learnt through their suffering to put their trust in God even in the face of their situation presenting as it might with such little reason for celebration. It purifies and refines her heart, as our hearts become too when we are led into hers.
We recognize her dependency on God. But a dependency on God always forces us back to realise our dependence on one another. And today we are especially mindful of what most genuinely gives us hope and inspiration – not a dazzling display of fireworks, but the sheer generosity and courage of so many who are giving their lives to keep communities safe. We think of the firefighters who have died, most recently Sam McPaul in Albury, but also of those who continue to give of themselves to defend life and property, and the thousands of emergency services men and women who are working today with communities devastated not just by the destruction of property but also by the anxiety suffered in the face of the disaster in which they have discovered themselves. If anything gives us hope as we begin a new decade it is the witness of these anonymous men and women. This day let us truly ponder and treasure their generosity and sense of service that displays what is most good, most human, most real.
We do not know how this decade will unravel. We do not know how this year will unfold. We do not know how this summer will resolve. We do not know what this current disaster will reveal. We do know that someone hold us in our questions. We do know that we have a capacity to reach out and be with those in trouble. What we do know is what will give us our stepping-stones into the future – honestly and simply.
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