Homily for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: Daniel 12:1-13; Psalm 15(16): 5, 8-11; Hebrews 10:11-14,18; Mark 13:24-32
14 November 2021
Next Sunday, we celebrate the feast of Christ the King, the last Sunday of the liturgical year. So, this is the last Sunday on which we trace Jesus’ path to Jerusalem – to his passion, death and resurrection. We focus on last things. We hear a collection of sayings Jesus had about the end of everything as we have known it, and the hope of new beginnings and new life. We hear words and conjure up images of things unknown and hardly imaginable. What lies beyond death? What hope is there that all will actually be put right even if time is no longer against us, even if there is all the time in the world for forgiveness to work its stuff and for hope to be made manifest?
Having foretold last things, Jesus asserts to his contemporaries 2,000 years ago “that before this generation has passed away all these things will have taken place.” We know that ain’t true. But then the permanence of Jesus’ claim is made manifest when he says: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” Even Jesus knows not the day or the hour: “But as for that day or hour, nobody knows it, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son; no one but the Father.” Scripture scholar Brendan Byrne tells us, there are many mixed messages in these last sayings of Jesus: “We modern readers of the gospel have to reckon with the fact that the ancient mindset was less concerned than we tend to be to eliminate inconsistency; it happily allowed a variety of voices to be gathered and heard – now one, now the other – as occasion required.”
No matter what our religion or none, none of us is any the wiser about these last things when the Son of Man will come in the clouds with great power and glory “after the time of distress” when “the sun will be darkened, the moon will lose its brightness, the stars will come falling from heaven and the powers in the heavens will be shaken”.
For us in the southern hemisphere, the end of the calendar year marks the end of so much. It’s the end of the academic year when we celebrate ‘Valete’ for students ending their studies and heading for a fresh, uncertain and unknown future. It’s the time when the long hot summer begins. For us Australians, many aspects of public life shut down before Christmas and don’t resume until Australia Day. There’s nothing like a funeral at this time of year to help us reflect on these end times, and the hopes of new beginnings when all will be put right, when all will be forgiven, when all will be bathed in the blinding light of hope beyond suffering and death.
During the week, I travelled to Canberra to celebrate the funeral service for Jilpia Nappaljari Jones. Jilpia was born in an Aboriginal camp in the Kimberley in Western Australia. When 5 years of age, she was removed to north Queensland where she was brought up. She thought her mother had died. She trained as a nurse. She was one of the first fully qualified Aboriginal nurses. She worked with Professor Fred Hollows on the national trachoma program. In May 1977, 27 years after she had left the Kimberley, she accompanied Hollows and his team to Fitzroy Crossing in the Kimberley. Having established her identity, some of the locals said to her: “Come little girl, you come meet your mother”. And she did. She spent time with her Mum in the camp re-establishing a lifeline to kin and country. Two days later, Jillpia had a premonition that her grandmother on the east coast was dying. “Late that afternoon we went back to Fitzroy Crossing and drove to Derby that evening. When I arrived in Derby the police informed me that my grandmother had died in Cairns that morning. As Western Australia is two hours behind Queensland time my premonition had been real. I rang a close friend, who later became my husband, who sensitively said, ‘It was the closing of the circle, your grandmother left when you found your mother.’”
In May 1998, I joined Jilpia at a torchlight vigil in Canberra outside the High Court of Australia on the first anniversary of the Bringing Them Home Report which drew the nation’s attention to the stolen generations. Jilpia told her story. It was reproduced on the front page of The Canberra Times: “I knew I had come home”, she said. “A few of us will never forgive you for the past, but I am not one of those. I appreciate the apology There is no place for those who see themselves as eternal victims. We must look to the future.”
Jilpia found forgiveness in her heart. She had come from a wretched past. But she looked to the future with hope. Aged 77 and dying, she wanted a funeral service in a Christian church in the national capital followed by a traditional burial back on her country in the Kimberley. In the Canberra Church, we gathered as people of diverse religions and none, as Indigenous Australians and as the descendants of migrants to this land.
Reflecting on Jilpia’s life and belief in last things, I recalled the words of Pope John Paul II when he met with our First Nations peoples in Alice Springs in 1986:
That Gospel now invites you to become, through and through, Aboriginal Christians. It meets your deepest desires. You do not have to be people divided into two parts, as though an Aboriginal had to borrow the faith and life of Christianity, like a hat or a pair of shoes, from someone else who owns them. Jesus calls you to accept his words and his values into your own culture. To develop in this way will make you more than ever truly Aboriginal.
Take this Gospel into your own language and way of speaking; let its spirit penetrate your communities and determine your behaviour towards each other, let it bring new strength to your stories and your ceremonies. Let the Gospel come into your hearts and renew your personal lives.
All over the world people worship God and read his word in their own language, and colour the great signs and symbols of religion with touches of their own traditions. Why should you be different from them in this regard, why should you not be allowed the happiness of being with God and each other in Aboriginal fashion?
Jilpia embraced hope, forgiveness, the mystery of life, and the supremacy and universality of love. In her life, she had closed the circle. We had gathered to return Tjilpia to country, and to the Dreaming, to the Alpha and the Omega, to life eternal. Every human being, whatever their culture or history, needs to embrace the transcendent, the mystery, and the prospect of that which is more than the known history, the experienced reality, and the demonstrable future. The prophet Daniel provides us with a vision: “Of those who lie sleeping in the dust of the earth many will awake…The learned will shine as brightly as the vault of heaven, and those who have instructed many in virtue, as bright as stars for all eternity.”
May Jilpia sleep soundly in the dust of the Kimberley and may her spirit of forgiveness and hope shine brightly in the vault of heaven whenever we behold the wonder of the Milky Way. May her closing of the circle provide us with a path traced by the psalmist:
And so my heart rejoices, my soul is glad;
even my body shall rest in safety.
For you will not leave my soul among the dead,
nor let your beloved know decay.
You will show me the path of life,
The fullness of joy in your presence,
at your right hand happiness for ever.
Fr Frank Brennan SJ is the Rector of Newman College, Melbourne, and the former CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia (CSSA). He has been appointed a peritus at the Fifth Plenary Council of the Australian Catholic Church.
 Brendan Byrne, A Costly Freedom, St Pauls, 2008, p. 208
 Beyond Sandy Blight, AIATSIS, 2008, p. 69
 Canberra Times, 26 May 1998, p. 1