Australia Day and John the Baptist

Many national days commemorate a revolution, when an old order was overthrown, often after a violent struggle and a new bright future was established under different leadership and different rules. Examples of this are the USA, China and France. Others attained independence when colonisation came to an end, and the day that happened became their national day. Most former colonies of Britain in Asia and Africa can trace their national day in that way.

Australia’s national Day is quite different in origin, simply marking the day in 1788, when the First Fleet, comprising 11 ships laden with convicts, landed in Port Jackson, after a failed attempt to land in Botany Bay, some days before. As such, the landing marked the establishment of the penal colony of New South Wales.

In 1818, on the 30th anniversary of the founding of the colony, Lachlan Macquarie, the Governor of New South Wales, gave all government employees a holiday. He also celebrated the day with a 30-gun salute and a ball!  It was known as Foundation Day. In 1838, 50 years after the First Fleet arrived, Foundation Day was declared Australia’s first public holiday in New South Wales.

By 1935, January 26 was known as Australia Day, in all states except New South Wales, where it was then known as Anniversary Day. From 1946, January 26 was called Australia Day in all states and territories.,

From the time of the Bi centenary, in 1988, the scale of celebrations has increased enormously, and since 1994, the Australia Day celebrations have been on January 26 regardless of the day of the week.   The rise in  the celebration of January the 26th has been accompanied  by nationwide protests , as the date represents  the beginning of colonisation  for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people , who  refer to it as Invasion Day, and despite the raising of the Aboriginal Flag in Sydney  along with the Australian flag, and the addition of First nation dances ,and use of the didgeridoo , many  indigenous people find it an alienating event.

Imagine for a moment that the Japanese had invaded Australia in WW2, that we now all spoke Japanese, and it was assumed we would celebrate the day the Emperor’s men arrived!  I am guessing aboriginal people see our present Australia Day, somewhat in this way.

It is sometimes difficult for descendants of settlers and later arrivals, as most of us are, to cope with negative responses to things that we may cherish, but it does raise important questions.

The reality is, that the arrival of the First Fleet marked a collision of two worlds, one, whose last day was January the 25th, and another which began the next day, and rapidly prevailed by of force of arms and other superior technology.

For a much of the past 232 years, this clash of worlds has resulted in many indigenous people feeling exiled, despised, worthless and undervalued in their own land.

The Gospels consistently present us with another clash of worlds, between the religious establishment that grew out of the Old Testament, and the person of Jesus, and his teaching about the Kingdom of God.

One man stands between these two worlds and he is John the Baptist.

John belongs very much to the old world of Judaism, but not that of the religious institution. Rather, he belongs to the prophetic tradition of greats like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and Hosea. They were people who made the establishment, represented by kings and priests, feel very uncomfortable and confronted.

John finds himself in a conundrum. He expresses uncertainty when with reference to Jesus, he twice retrospectively says, “I myself did not know him”. He was uncertain as to whether or not Jesus was the promised one, but nevertheless, he did what he felt called to do, in baptising at the Jordan, so that the Messiah might be revealed.

Standing at the edge of the old-world, John is open to what the new world might me, and he stands there in wonder, ready to diminish for the sake of what is to come.

” Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”

Jenny Thompson, an Aboriginal Deacon, once said, of the collision between the Indigenous world and the First Fleet, that her grandfather had once told her, that it had to happen, and that the old Aboriginal world could not continue as it was.

John was filled with wonder, and in allowing himself to stand back, as the friend of the Bridegroom, his felt ‘unworthiness ‘made him grow in stature, because of who the Lord of the new world was.

In spite of the best efforts of Governor Arthur Phillip, any wonder those watchers on the shore may have felt ,as those ships entered the harbour, and their leaders decided to offer hospitality rather than resistance,   any wonder soon  turned to dust, and Bennelong and his  Eora people ,and   all the tribes of this land ,came to feel worthless . To this day so many of their descendant’s struggle with the purposeless and racism brought about by dispossession and lack of respect.

Symbols that are based on justice, are enormously important. We have only to think of the positive impact of the National Apology to the Stolen Generation.

We are now living into the meaning of the epic collision between two worlds: The world begun by the industrial revolution from the 19th century, and the now clear sound of the groans of creation in the Climate Emergency, that has broken upon us in the enormous bushfires. It is time for us to swallow our pride and seek the help of the indigenous people of our land as to how we can preserve and reverence creation once more.

A potent symbol of our willingness to listen would be to support changing a change to our present National Day.

While allowing celebration of the arrival of the First Fleet, to be a Sydney event on January the 26th, we need another day for the nation as a whole.:

A day when we could together celebrate what existed, before January the 26th 1788, and still continues.

A day when we could celebrate the good brought by settlers of all generations.

A day that celebrates the values of a multi-cultural, tolerant, democratic and just society for all who call Australia home.

A day when we could truly sing with one voice: “I am, you are, we are Australian.”

Godfrey Fryar, Provincial Minister