Most Reverend Vincent Long Van Nguyen OFM Conv DD STL, Bishop of Parramatta
Homily for the Mass commemorating the Parramatta Pongal Tamil Harvest Festival at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Parramatta.
Readings: Leviticus 23:9-14; Matthew 6:25-34
21 January 2023
Dear sisters and brothers,
I greet you very warmly as we gather to celebrate Tamil Farmers’ Festival known locally as “Parramatta Pongal” since 2013. This cultural harvest event signifies the creative and cultural festivity to welcome the end of the traditional farming season. It symbolises the veneration of the first fruit harvested and gratifies the hard work of farmers and cattle ploughing the fields.
I myself come from a farming background and appreciate the importance of rhythm and harmony in agriculture. Between 2008 and 2011, I visited Southern India and Sri Lanka several times. I felt an affinity to the Tamils for the suffering they endured, particularly during the Civil War. May God who suffered with us in Christ, who brings good out of evil, life out of death and joy out of sorrow restore true peace, justice, healing and reconciliation to your people.
The Word of God today does not give us the detail as to how to deal with contemporary issues such as poverty, war, violence etc. It does, however, challenge us to give radical priority to the Kingdom. It does call us to adhere with unambiguous and indeed unconditional commitment to the ethical demands of being a disciple of Jesus. We cannot be the Church authentically if the care of the vulnerable, which is the core Christian value, is missing in action.
In the book of Leviticus, we hear how the people of Israel first settle into the land of Canna and become an agricultural society as opposed to being a nomadic tribe. They are instructed by Moses to offer the first fruits of the land as an integral part of the Sabbath observance. The harvest festival is a time set aside for prayer, rest from labour, and expression of gratitude for the gifts of creation.
Keeping the Sabbath was pivotal for formation of a community that God intended, a community where life for everyone, including animals and land, would be viable. The practice of Sabbatical rest and jubilee stood in sharp contrast with the exploitation and grab-what-you-can modus operandi of the empire. Yet, it was the practice that maintained human dignity, long-term sustainability and fruitfulness. Today, we must turn away from imperial values of domination, extraction and recover the sabbatical values of regeneration, reciprocity and conviviality.
Our spiritually alienated society, based on an economic model of constant growth and productivity, is ‘open all hours’. People have to find their own form of ‘Sabbath’, largely absent now from our mainstream culture. In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis acknowledges the Jewish origins and the importance also for Christians, of the concept of ‘Sabbath’. Rest opens our eyes to the larger picture and gives us renewed sensitivity to the rights of others. And so the day of rest, centred on the Eucharist, sheds it light on the whole week, and motivates us to greater concern for nature and the poor.
In the Gospel, Jesus teaches us not to be preoccupied only with things of secondary importance. He drives home the central theme: “Set your hearts on God’s Kingdom first and on his righteousness”. It is easy for us to be preoccupied with our immediate needs such as our wellbeing, our job, our mortgage, our children’s education etc… What Jesus teaches today is not that we shouldn’t be concerned about these things. Rather, we should not be concerned about them in the same way the people without faith are. If our faith makes a difference at all to the way we go about our daily preoccupations, it must permeate everything we do; it must give direction and meaning to every decision we make. In essence, Jesus challenges us to let the Gospel be our daily compass, to make his word and example our guide and to orientate all that we do to his purpose.
Dear sisters and brothers,
Many of you, I suspect, did not come to Australia as economic migrants. You probably did not bring a lot of material possessions with you. What you did bring was another kind of wealth, a wealth of faith, faith that had been tested in the crucible of suffering. This is the most important asset and one that you need to safeguard and pass it on to the next generation. As long as we possess this tested faith, we can deal with whatever life throws at us.
You are like God’s people who were taken into exile. Yet in God’s wonderful design, they were formed into missionaries for others. Perhaps God is doing the same with you turning you into his instruments for secular Australia and for your homeland too. Let us not lose sight of our spiritual legacy and our mission. Let us pray that our lives may be firmly grounded in faith, which will enable us to discern God’s purpose for us. May we ever remain vigilant and focussed on doing God’s will and building His Kingdom.