When the light comes

Festival of the Coming of the Light
Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
4 July 2021

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Around the country today, Anglicans are joining the celebrations to mark 150 years since the first contact between Christianity and the people of the Torres Strait Islands.

Those celebrations enrich our observance of NAIDOC Week 2021.

Rather than detract from the NAIDOC observances, these celebrations of 150 years since the Coming of the Light focus our attention on one specific example of the encounter between the Indigenous peoples of this ancient land and those who came from other places.

Today we zoom up close to hear and reflect upon one of many stories from the past 200+ years. That story is unique but it also part of the rich tapestry of our now shared journey as one nation, and it offers us some clues for future action.

July 1871

People have been living on the islands of the strait between the lands we now call Australia and Papua since before the time of Abraham. I mention that simply to help us put this unique culture alongside the spiritual timelines of our own sacred stories.

That 2,500 years of continuous presence is one small part of the 60,000+ year-long human story in this ancient land, but it is important to appreciate the deep history of the Islanders at the top end.

The events we commemorate today—and which are reenacted every year in the Islands—occurred late afternoon on Saturday, 1 July 1871. I shall read from an account distributed by ABM:

In 1871, Revd Samuel McFarlane and Revd Archibald Murray of the London Missionary Society, together with eight New Caledonian mission teachers, arrived off the coast of Erub, or Darnley Island, in the far eastern Torres Strait. Their ship, the ‘Surprise’, anchored off Kemus Beach and lowered its boat for MacFarlane and others to go ashore. From a small hill, a warrior called Dabad was watching. He called his men to follow him and made his way down to the water’s edge. McFarlane waded ashore over the volcanic rock pools. He dropped to his knees on the beach before the fearsome looking islanders—the Erubians. McFarlane grasped his Bible in both hands and thrust it towards Dabad. (McFarlane wrote later: “Never did men feel more than we did then their absolute dependence on Divine Help,”). Then something remarkable happened: Dabad stayed his spear and accepted the book which he could not read but which would bring new Light, to all these warring islands This was the new era for the islands of the Torres Strait—which would be known as the Coming of the Light. 

In the words of Aunty Rose Elu (2021 Queensland Senior Australian of the Year):

The chiefs used a word which meant ‘no more bloodshed’ we will not kill these people; they are bringing something—something we need to learn. What is it? We will get them to tell us … one of the things that happened then was that the warfare stopped.

Another Islander, Fr Elemo Tapim, whose words are recorded in the paper “Coming of the Light: Spirituality in Diaspora,” puts it this way:

For us the celebration of the Coming of the Light is just like celebrating Christmas day. On Christmas day God came to us in the form of a baby and on July 1 God came to the Torres Strait in the form of a book

When the Light comes

As we reflect on 150 years since that pivotal encounter, various insights come to mind:

As the current Torres Strait Islanders say, “God was on both sides of the beach” on that day back in 1871. God was already present with the people in the Torres Strait, and yet in another sense God was also present in a special way in the book which told the story of Jesus, and the story of God among the Jewish people before that.

That may well be a mindset we need to embrace as we seek to engage with our neighbours and families. God is already present in their lives, in their culture and in their history. They may not know much about Jesus or the Bible, but God is not absent from their lives, Our task is to connect and expand, not to eradicate and replace.

Then and now the Christian community in the Torres Strait is an indigenous church. This is a precious gift to the national Anglican Church of Australia. We have within our family an authentic Christian Church whose cultural DNA is not the high culture of Victorian England. Most of those who landed on Erub Island that Saturday in 1871 were Melanesian Christians, who shared so much of the broader culture and colonial experience of the people with whom they were sharing their faith. In the past year another group of Melanesian Brothers has arrived on Thursday Island to continue and to rejuvenate the legacy of those first missionaries.

Again, I am quoting from material on the ABM website:

The Brothers aim to live the Gospel in a direct and simple way, following Christ’s example of prayer, mission and service. They live alongside the people they are serving, respecting their traditions and customs. The Brothers follow a daily cycle of prayer and daily Eucharist and they take vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience with many serving between 7 and 20 years. Some take life vows. They not only offer spiritual teaching but also practical assistance. They plant, harvest, fish, build, eat and share with everyone in their care. 

A mission to us by those we once imagined ourselves to be teaching, is now on the cards. How does the light come to us from the Torres Strait? Let me offer one example.

Most of us will recognize the name, Eddie Mabo. Eddie was born on Mer Island in the Torres Strait and was a traditional custodian of his ancestral lands. In his campaign for recognition of his traditional land rights, Mabo shone the light of Christ on the legal lie of terra nullius on which we had built a nation and created our “common-wealth.” With the coming of the light, we have new opportunities for reconciliation and justice for all the people who call Australia home.

What is required of us?

Around the same time that the islands in the Torres Strait were being settled, the Prophet Micah spoke to the people of Jerusalem:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? [Micah 6:8]

Notice the order of the three things which God requires of us, according to Micah:

First, do justice …
Then, love mercy …
Finally, walk humbly with our God …

We cannot get to stage three without first engaging with steps one and two.

Jesus reaffirms this in the Beatitudes:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice,† for they will be filled. 
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 
Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of justice,† for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
[Matthew 5:3–10] 

† I am translating dikaiosunē as “justice” rather than “righteousness” to convey the primary meaning of the Greek term.

In the Uluru Statement from the Heart (which has been printed in today’s service book), we can discern three kinds of things which the wider community was being asked to do. These were primarily directed to the Government, which has conspicuously failed to act. Perhaps as a church we can lead where the government fails, and they can catch up when they see the light.

The first thing was listen. This was expressed in terms of a voice to the parliament, but we also need a voice to the church. We can choose to remember, and cease choosing to forget. This starts here. It is very local. I refer you to the information printed in the service book immediately after the Uluru Statement from Heart, about local actions we are taking as a Cathedral to listen and remember. We might describe this as “letting the light come …”

Then we need to tell the truth. We need to speak plainly about the violence by which the land was taken from the Indigenous peoples, their women raped and their children stolen. This will be painful and hard. But we can do no less. With the coming of the light, the shameless acts done in the darkness of the past will be exposed. Other steps will be less painful, such as using the names given to this country by the First Nations, rather than imposing names from the British Isles, or—in the case of our town—the name of an English duke and sometime Prime Minister. Jadalmany instead of Grafton, perhaps?

Beyond listening and truth-telling, there will be a need for reconciliation as we act together to create a better shared future. Then we shall indeed find ourselves in a “bran neu dae” as our Reverend Yaegl Elder, Lenore Parker, expressed so beautifully at the end of her prayer which you can find on page 218 in A Prayer Book for Australia:

God of holy dreaming, Great Creator Spirit,
from the dawn of creation you have given your children
the good things of Mother Earth.

You spoke and the gum tree grew.

In the vast desert and dense forest,
and in cities at the water’s edge,
creation sings your praise.

Your presence endures 
as the rock at the heart of our Land.

When Jesus hung on the tree
you heard the cries of all your people
and became one with your wounded ones:
the convicts, the hunted, and the dispossessed.

The sunrise of your Son coloured the earth anew,
and bathed it in glorious hope.

In Jesus we have been reconciled to you,
to each other and to your whole creation.

Lead us on, Great Spirit,
as we gather from the four corners of the earth;
enable us to walk together in trust
from the hurt and shame of the past
into the full day which has dawned in Jesus Christ. Amen.

About gregoryjenks

Anglican priest and religion scholar. Senior Lecturer in the School of Theology at Charles Sturt University. Dean, Cathedral Church of Christ the King, Grafton and Rector of the Anglican Parish of Grafton. Formerly Dean at St George's College, Jerusalem. The opinions expressed in my publications, including my blog posts, are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Diocese of Grafton nor Christ Church​ Cathedral in Grafton.
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