HOMILY FOR MASS FOR ABORIGINAL CATHOLIC MINISTRY + FIRST HOLY COMMUNION
The Reconciliation Church, Phillip Bay
31ST Sunday Ordinary Time C
When was the last time you climbed a tree? For most of the children here it’s the most natural thing in the world, something you may regularly do just because the tree is there, or for the challenge of it, or in order to see further. I’ve always thought Morton Bay fig trees just beg to be climbed! Yet for most of us less agile oldies, tree climbing is a risky business we left behind long ago. It’s probably a while since my friend Auntie Elsie climbed a tree!
So when Zacchaeus climbs a sycamore tree in our Gospel today (Lk 19:1-10), it’s rather remarkable: first, because he’s an adult, and this seems a rather childish activity; secondly, because he’s a rich middle-easterner, dressed in fine robes unsuited to made tree-climbing; and thirdly, because he’s a senior tax-collector – and no self-respecting government official behaves like that! Yet Little Zack is short, he can’t see over the crowd, and he’s determined to catch a glimpse of this Jesus who has come to town.
Well, it was very near this site that the Bediagal People and thus the first Australians encountered the English first fleet of Captain Arthur Phillip and his crew who landed here on 18 January 1788 before moving on to Sydney Cove; and then, only a few days later on 26 January, two French ships led by the Comte de la Pérouse also anchored and set up camp very near here. Fr Claude-François Receveur OFMConv, friar, naturalist, astronomer and chaplain to one of the French ships, died soon after and so the chaplain of the other ship conducted his funeral rites here. Thus La Pérouse and his men very possibly participared in the first Mass ever celebrated on this continent – celebrated nearby. With Phillip and Perouse Christianity had arrived in the Great South Land of the Holy Spirit along with European law and cultures. I suspect many of the local kids climbed trees to have a look at these extraordinary arrivals, with their strange skin-colouring and clothes and languages and rituals and behaviour. And while the children may have been amused and the adults mystified, there was probably anxiety about what it all meant.
If they were anxious, it was with good cause. Phillip and Perouse might have been relatively enlightened, conciliatory, even friendly at first. Along with their cultures, laws and muskets, they brought with them Protestant and Catholic Christianity with its Scriptures, traditions, above all the God of love we celebrate in our Eucharist and our First Holy Communions today. But whatever respect Christian faith might have demanded the Aborigines be shown, we know that in due course the Eora Aborigines were forced from their homelands. So while the children – and some of the adults – climbed trees or were otherwise interested when Jesus and His men came to town, others were wary.
The curiosity-become-faith of Little Zack and the cynicism of the onlookers who thought Jesus was nuts for mixing it with outcasts, capture something of the emotions evoked by the encounter with Jesus. Coming to faith for Zacchaeus meant being willing to let go of half his dignity and wealth, to reach beyond his usual comfort zone, to stretch to see the further horizon, in order that “salvation” – Jesus – might come to his house. He had to brave the ridicule of the crowd. He had to speak when the social pressure was to remain silent. He had to go against the flow of those who’d never dream of giving their wealth to the poor. Sometimes faith means standing our ground though all the world is against us – though always lovingly, with hands wide open, ready to give and befriend.
How easy it would have been for Little Zack, out of self-pity or avoidance, to say: “I’m too short; I’ll never catch a glimpse of that Jesus guy; the forces against me are too great.” No surprise there. No-one expected him to climb a tree or welcome Jesus to his country. But faith – the change that Jesus brings – meant Zacchaeus would do surprising, even imprudent things, as this world sees it. Faith, like climbing the tree, let him see further, stretched his values and expectations, and demanded a lot of letting go…
How often are we tempted to say the Jesus thing is just too hard? I’m not tall enough, or rich enough, or holy enough, to have high ideals, or to help, or to aspire to spiritual greatness. There are all sorts of good reasons not to act, not to go against the flow, not to speak up and witness to our faith in the world. But that results in our missing Jesus passing by, missing out on Him coming to our house, not letting Him so move us we’d give the poor all we have and give Him all we are…
Zacchaeus’ is really the story of every Christian soul. If we go out to meet Christ, we find Christ has come to meet us. If we let go of the paralysing, self-protective mind-set and dare to be different for God, we find God visiting our land, we hear Jesus saying, ‘Hey Zack, come down quick, I must stay at your place, with your mob!’ We might not think we are worthy, we might feel ashamed: no matter, after all Jesus chose to visit the home of the most despised man in Jericho. As the fourth century bishop St. Ambrose put it, “Jesus chooses the chief tax collector – who can despair if even such a man as that obtains Grace?”
In our first reading we hear an ancient wisdom (Wis 11:22–12:2): that God loves all creation, everything that exists. His love is what brings it all into being and holds it in being. He is, as we say in the Creed, “the Lord, the Giver of Life”. Were He to withdraw His love, even for a moment, from some part of creation, it would cease to live, cease to exist. That Lord, “the Giver of Life”, the Book of Wisdom tells us today, is also “the Lover of Life… the Imperishable Spirit”, the Holy Spirit “who is in all”. The recently concluded Synod of Amazonia offered many reflections, from indigenous peoples far from Australia, but who like our First Peoples share a sense of that Imperishable Spirit. It spoke of the beauty and goodness of the natural world created by that Spirit, as well as its fragility and our responsibilities towards it.
Arthur Philip and La Perouse no doubt thought they were bringing faith to pagans who knew nothing of God. But the Book of Wisdom says God reveals Himself in existence itself, in created nature, in life – and native peoples have often had a rich sense of this already, and a hunger like Zack for “salvation to come to this house”. And so, my young friends who will today receive Holy Communion for the first time, please know this: the God of all existence, of nature and beauty, who loved you and your people into existence, wants to come to your house, to you today. He wants to come by Holy Communion to live in you always.
INTRODUCTION TO MASS FOR ABORIGINAL CATHOLIC MINISTRY + FIRST HOLY COMMUNION
The Reconciliation Church, Phillip Bay
31ST Sunday Ordinary Time C
Welcome to this morning’s Mass for Aboriginal Catholic Ministry here in the Archdiocese of Sydney. I join you in acknowledging the Bediagal People of the Eora Nation, traditional custodians who walked upon and cared for the land on which we meet for thousands of years. I acknowledge the continued deep spiritual relationship of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to this continent and commit myself and the Archdiocese of Sydney to the ongoing journey of Reconciliation. I also acknowledge past, present and emerging elders of the Aboriginal Community, including Aunty Elsie Heiss, Aunty Gloria Martin and Uncle John Allen (our acolyte) present here today.
The aim of Aboriginal Catholic Ministry is to promote reconciliation and mutual understanding, taking responsibility for the pastoral care of Catholic Aborigines and supporting them in the living of their Faith. This Ministry also offers an interface between all Indigenous people and the Church, seeks to represent the concerns of ATSI peoples and advocate on their behalf, and provides counselling, educational and other practical services. In addition to our elders we have Lisa Buxton, Executive Officer of ACM; Kelly Wyld, Ministry Coordinator; Janice Ban, Admin Assistant; Fr Darryl Mackie, Chaplain; and some of our volunteers. I acknowledge Jane Bridges and Emma Peel from the Advisory Committee; and the Chancellor of the Archdiocese, Mr Chris Meney.
An especially warm welcome today to our candidates for First Communion: Baylee Wilson, Coby Bateman, Jessica Knezevic Donley, Mollie Bradstreet, Oscar Lennon, Rex Howes, Zoe Smith, Naya Rani, Sophia Howes, Zac Howes, Caitlin Green and Noah Flynn – with their families and friends who are here with them. Jye Orel is unwell, so we pray for him.Today is a very special day on which Jesus will come to be with you and in you, in his substance and life, to inspire and empower you.
To everyone present, including visitors and more regulars, a very warm welcome!FIRST HOLY COMMUNION
 St. Ambrose, Expositio Evangelii secundum Lucam, in loc.