Celebrating Australia Day
...We need to recognise these two views of our national day and hold them in tension while we work towards full equality, acceptance and true reconciliation....
Australians love public holidays, especially when they occur in summer. Outdoor activities beckon our sun-loving bodies and spirits and a sense of celebration pervades the day. Australia Day on 26 January is such an occasion. It commemorates the landing of the First Fleet at Sydney Cove on this day in 1788 and the raising of the British flag by Captain Arthur Phillip. It is now a day when families and communities in rural, suburban and city areas come together
and, consciously or unconsciously, revel thankfully in the great gifts this country offers. We celebrate its diversity of society and landscape, and most of all its freedom and peace. It is the day when new immigrants are welcomed and awards are made to exemplary citizens. Yet only in 1935 was the name ‘Australia Day’ adopted nationally and not until 1994 did the day become a public holiday in every part of the country.
There is another side to the story, one less celebratory. In a land enriched by the free mix of cultures, we see the dark side of our history, the struggle of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sisters and brothers to have their Dreaming and their occupancy of the land acknowledged. As the bi-centennial song said so aptly: For 40,000 years, I’ve been Australian. For the original inhabitants, 26 January marks a day, not of celebration, but of invasion. We need to recognise these two views of our national day and hold them in tension while we work towards full equality, acceptance and true reconciliation.
Michael and Honor Thwaites’ hymn Lord of Earth and All Creation poignantly expresses this idea:
People of the ancient Dreamtime,
They who found this country first,
Ask with those, the later comers,
Will our dream be blessed or cursed?
Grant us, Lord, new birth, new living,
Hope for which our children thirst.
The hymn, originally entitled ‘For Australia’ would be an excellent choice for Australia Day (Gather Australia 554.)
Day of Prayer, not a feast
Light is a theme in the prayer texts for the day. In any case, the observance cannot be ignored. The intertwining of liturgy and life is evidenced in the provision of a rich array of texts for celebrating Mass on this day. The prayer texts have the great benefit of being new compositions, written by Australians in recent years for Australia today. They recognise that we are a land of peoples old and new. While alluding to the tensions, the Prayer after Communion takes us beyond them in asking for the strength to walk together in the ways of justice and behold one day the new heavens and new earth... The texts on the whole are beautifully crafted and poetic. In the Collect the image of light - so powerfully felt at this time of year – takes our imagination from the light of the Southern Cross in our skies to a prayer for the inner light we need as a nation for our transformation in Christ:
Grant, we pray, O Lord our God, that as the Cross shines in our southern skies, so may Christ bring light to our nation, to its peoples old and new, and by saving grace, transform our lives.
In a special Preface for the day, we give thanks and praise for God’s care of this land from ancient times, making it a home for many peoples. God has been their rock of strength, and in biblical allusions to the Exodus, God’s strength is spelled out:
when they were hungry, you gave them food, and when thirsty, water even in the desert.
God’s providence is also recognised in the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ to all the peoples of this land. I would have preferred words with a different nuance, emphasising a ‘deep, listening to the other’ which leads all to discover Christ in the missionary endeavour. Perhaps something along the lines of one of the draft prayers from the
1990s which read: Inspire us with new vision and the wisdom of ancient dreams. The Preface concludes by linking us again with the larger family of God:
the people you have made your own, from every race and tongue, every place and time who join in the song of heaven, Holy, Holy.
Well chosen proper readings are supplied for our nourishment. Isaiah stirs us by God’s promise of future peace to God’s
people: My people will abide in a peaceful habitation, in secure dwellings and in quiet resting places (32:18); alternative Pauline readings allow us to make a choice, either 1Cor 12:4-11 about God’s gifts – To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good – or Rom 12:9-13, a plea for love amongst us to be genuine. The gospel choices are Matthew’s recounting of the Beatitudes (5:1-12) or Luke’s version of Jesus’ poetic images – the birds of the air and the lilies of the field – which speak of God’s providence (12:22-32).
Finally, the Solemn Blessing brings together some of the images through which we have prayed:
May God who formed our southern land be for you a rock of strength. R. Amen.
May God who rules the great seas keep you safe in every storm. R. Amen.
May God who made the skies above turn your darkness into light. R. Amen.
In short, Australia Day is a day both for celebration and for prayer that peoples old and new will continue to walk together the roads of justice and peace. Pondering our liturgical texts for that day will point us in this direction.
Adapted by an article by Elizabeth Murray SGS originally provided for Liturgy News.