Lent V, 29 Mar 2020 ~ GSC
Today’s readings from Holy Scripture provide us with a strong foretaste, a tantalising anticipation, of that ultimate Resurrection story that we celebrate with joy in two weeks’ time. As well as telling of this central tenet of our Faith, this keystone of our theology, they also speak a great deal of the importance of context - the earth on which we live - on which we walk and build, in which we cultivate crops and lay our dead to rest. ‘The soil of Israel’ of which the prophet Ezekiel writes in our first reading becomes in a sense - for every Christian community - the redeemed earth in which it stands wherever it stands — the particular parish or diocese, tribe or nation to which, second in importance to belonging to Christ, each individual and each community belong. We’re reminded too of Jesus weeping, Jesus being in one place and not another, Jesus having particular friendships, Jesus through this particular event pointing to the universal truth that he is - ‘the Resurrection and the Life’. Christianity so often involves that moving back and forth between specific events and wider truths - Our Lord Jesus Christ - God and Man - embodies that tension - that wonderful paradox.
Today in our journey through world Christianity we arrive in Australasia, or the Antipodes as it’s sometimes known, or - I’ve always thought more romantically - Oceania. And that tension, that paradox of which I speak is somehow brought out to me when I think of ‘Christianity in Australia’. As a child I was always shocked (and in my youthful prissiness appalled) when I heard that for some people in the world Christmas dinner could involve a barbecue on the beach - and later in my years surprised and delighted to see the pinnacles and spires of English Neo-Gothicism rising wonderfully eccentrically from the lush rainforest vegetation of Queensland. Oceania by wonder of the interplay of history and geography contains both the Anglican Dioceses of Newcastle - (sounds familiar) and of Vanuatu and New Caledonia (somewhat less so) but also the Roman Catholic Diocese of Samoa-Pago Pago or the Ecclesiastical Province of Taiohae o Tefenuaenata. (Had I been preaching this sermon physically I might have left that one out.)
Some years ago an earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, destroyed its cathedral - designed by George Gilbert Scott - the father of the man who designed our iconic red telephone boxes. The combination of a modern city of the Southern Hemisphere, and an Anglican Cathedral, and a scene of almost war-time destruction - the copper cross formerly atop the slender steeple crashed dramatically into the piazza below - was thoroughly strange somehow.
And yet why should it be? One of the things we have been constantly reminded of this sermon series is how Christianity does not belong to one culture. What a marvellous thing that the same words that were used for Mass today at St Mary’s Lansdowne Road - the same readings from scripture - were used some hours ago in St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney. The response to the ChristChurch earthquake too spoke of something more universally Christian, whilst taking on something of the New Zealand spirit. For in a matter of weeks a new cathedral - built entirely of cardboard - and showcasing some exciting environmentally friendly architecture - emerged beside that toppled steeple - to be shared by Anglicans and Roman Catholics, whose own mother church had also been damaged. Particular events, uncanny scenes - different cultures and different approaches - but at the heart of these the same shared family gospel of Jesus Christ, the God of Love.
Oceania is overall quite strongly Christian, but with differences across its constituent parts. 58% of Kiwis called themselves Christian at the last census (compare this to the estimated 54% of Britons)- while over 99% of the people of Tonga profess the faith. We see Christianity in action in very different sorts of places - in the tiny islands communities of Polynesia, some of whom have hardly changed for hundreds of years - and in cities like Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane, great international metropoleis of glass and steel. Jokes about Bruce and Sheila, cans of Fosters lager beer and generous helpings of shrimps on the barbie, or about Australia starting of as a penal colony - might be jolly enough - but we should be wary about imagining that our faith belongs to our own culture, or even that it better fits our style and sensibilities. Australia in all her sunshine has her saints too - Mary MacKillop, or St Mary of the Cross, was canonised in 1995 - a familiar story of devotion, love and good works with a thoroughly antipodean flavour. And though it’s meant to speak of the constellation many have seen another meaning in these charming, luminous words from the Australian national anthem -
Beneath our radiant Southern Cross
We'll toil with hearts and hands;
To make this Commonwealth of ours
Renowned of all the lands!
That of New Zealand is more explicitly Christian - reminding us how these modern nations were built as Christian countries -
Guard Pacific's triple star
From the shafts of strife and war,
Make her praises heard afar,
God defend New Zealand!
The grafting in this hymn of geography - a geography about as far from us as we can get - and a faith carried far from the events of the gospel is an inspiring thought, and a reminder to us of how Christianity has - and in a different way still perhaps can - inform our ideals and our action in the world, in ways little and large. Of course, we’re confronted too by a legacy of colonialism, the complex web of history which has shaped the world as we know it. And we ought to be mindful of injustice, and repent of the ways in which we all have - and continue imposed ourselves on others and treated others with less dignity than is their God-given right. But it is from the Christianity of the varied peoples of Oceania that healing will come, Christianity that gives to Australasia as to Europe the language of repentance, reparation, forgiveness and living together. Anglicanism in New Zealand, for example, has been at the forefront of improving the condition of the indigenous Maori people.
The wonder of the Christian gospel by the grace of God has taken root and transformed all the continents of the earth - and nowhere is it out of place to see towers and spires, domes and arched windows - or indeed Christian architecture of any kind - expressing through it - and through the character, national, tribal and individual, of the people of God who gather therein - the power of the Cross. Pope Francis is committed to a transformation of the Church that will, in time, make the College of Cardinals and the Vatican Administration, represent more fully the Church throughout the world - and make us all more aware of the family - with all its joys and tensions - to which we first in life belong. A family that requires of us generosity, openness to thinking again, solidarity and probably at times a certain degree of discomfort and of putting our own sensibility, defensiveness, fear and preconception aside. I hope that considering Christianity in Oceania can help us ponder that. May we give thanks for the world’s diversity, and allow differences we’ve explored here jolt us into the unity that Jesus asked of us - unity that goes beyond our differences - and let us pray in the words of a nineteenth-century Australian nun a timeless and universal Christian song -
whatever troubles may be before you, accept them bravely, remembering Whom you are trying to follow. Do not be afraid. Love one another, bear with one another, and let charity guide you all your life. God will reward you as only He can.