Because of the pandemic, we have perhaps allowed the memory of the 2020 summer bushfires to fade. The townships and communities to the east of our State, however, continue to live with the aftermath of those devastating few weeks. May we not forget, and stand in solidarity with them, as they take the long and difficult path of rebuilding and renewing. Not long following the bushfires, and as questions arose about how to mitigate such devastation in the future, some voices were heard about what could be learnt from the land-care practices handed down through generations of the Indigenous people in the area.
Without scientific studies, and free of the politicisation of land-care, Aboriginal communities had developed, over many generations, sophisticated systems of bushfire management which would allow for the safety of families, the care of native animal habitats, and the renewal of the land and waterways. Knowledge of these traditions and practices had been passed on by word of mouth and hands-on teaching, but not written down in any Western form. So, what was known as good practice was forgotten in a contemporary-world context. Even today, the voice of our Indigenous people remains effectively muted; while some now study these life-saving practices, few in authority have taken them to heart and applied this practical knowledge for the good of people and places.
There is a striking similarity to be found in this example of forgetfulness and dismissiveness, and that which Jesus faced when he returned to his hometown of Nazareth. As we heard, he was ‘despised in his own country, among his own relations and in his own house’ and he was rendered powerless as a result of the lack of faith and trust evident in his fellow townsfolk. For the Indigenous peoples of Australia, the history of our common homeland is marked throughout with a similar trajectory of amnesia and mistrust. Our Aboriginal neighbours know better than anyone what it feels like to be forgotten, misunderstood and dismissed from their own homeland.
There is a deep river of sacramental imagination running through the lives, traditions and customs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The visible land around is full of the invisible presences of life and spirit. Songlines of meaning and purpose are woven through every nook and cranny of this vast continent of ours. Recognition and reconciliation are more than just abstract concepts to be put into laws. If by “sacrament” we mean, a visible sign that points to an invisible reality, then the sacramental signs that nourish us in faith ought to be recognised in the lives of our First Peoples (and all people, for that matter). Water that washes; food and drink that nourishes; the oil that heals and seals; the laying on of hands that forgives and ordains; the sexual union that consummates love.
In faith, the ordinary and tangible things of our lives may become for us pathways to God. For it is when we are honest about our human weaknesses that, in Christ, we are made strong. On this Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Sunday, may we – First Peoples; colonising settlers; migrants and refugees; Australian people all – recognise the “sacramental” signs that might bring to us all a renewal of life together, a recognition of our varied identities and a reconciliation between one another.
Fiona Basile14 October 2021
Melbourne Catholic14 October 2021