Faith matters–signs

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1 Aug 2018

Photo by Thomas B on Pixabay

Human beings have a great need for evidence. Signs and symbols are quantifiable and offer us a tangible value or measure that signifies the ‘real’ existence of what it represents. In our Church we have thousands of signs and symbols that remind us of our faith and connection to God. The most significant and ongoing points of difference in Christianity since the Reformation has been the continued use of symbolism within the Roman Catholic Church. For Catholics signs and symbols are evidence of the transcendent and evidence of the eternal connection that exists between the eternal Church.

Over the winter holidays we received word of some preliminary results of the archaeological excavation on the Andersons Road Hill, as part of the Drysdale Bypass project [Bellarine Peninsula, Victoria]. The most significant find at present is a 5000-year-old stone axe. Credit must be given to VicRoads and its sincere effort to protect and preserve potential sites of historical Indigenous significance as this project is completed. In approaching the task with respect, we as a community and more broadly as a nation are able to learn more about our past through the sign/symbol of a simple stone axe.

To put this find in perspective, we might consider the history of our Church. When the axe that has been found was deposited on Andersons Hill there was no Church, Christianity was 3000 years in the future. In fact, Judaism had not begun. The axe was left some 1500 years before Abraham (Abram) was called by God. Although there was ‘religion’ at the time the axe was left on the hill none of those ‘religions’ remain today; except for the religion(s) of our Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander people.

Although we do not know the exact religious understandings of Australian Indigenous people 5000 years-ago, we do know that there was religious behaviour. The Mungo woman is one of the earliest known cremations, occurring some 42,000 years-ago. In the years between the Mungo woman’s cremation and the time the axe was deposited it’s highly likely that Indigenous spirituality and religion had developed to, or very close to, what we know of Indigenous religious belief and practice today. This find is therefore exceptionally important in both historical and religious terms.

That simple stone axe found on Andersons Hill is a sign of existence. An intelligent human once walked this land and used simple tools to enhance their ability to survive. That person is an ancestor of us as a nation. That person did believe in a creator—Bunjil. That person was created by our God and loved by him. We also know through faith that that person is connected to us today as a Church through our belief in the Communion of Saints—in death the spirit of that person came back to God and is with him in heaven today!.

To Indigenous people this find shows their connection to this ‘country’. This is further evidence of the Wadda Wurrung (Wathaurong) people’s ancient presence in this place. More so, it’s evidence of something more than an ancestor or place. This symbol is quantifiable evidence of something that is transcendent. It is a start. It raises questions that we need to explore and discern a response to.

Does this axe offer us an insight into the ancient burial practices of the Wadda Wurrung people and their religious beliefs and practices? Does the axe indicate a significant meeting place or sacred site? Is this object an example of ‘sacrifice’ similar to the Celtic offerings of important items in accordance with spiritual belief? Was this axe simply lost in swampy ‘bunyip’ land?

Although conclusions will be reached in time once detailed academic research is completed what can be known now is that the axe is a sign and symbol that is of great importance to us at St Ignatius College, Geelong. Today, we as a community are a voice for respect and justice. In this context we are called to advocate for our community, especially the Indigenous community who, since European settlement, has so often been ignored and excluded. Just as the symbols we have as a College remind us of our Traditions, history and belief the axe that has been found has the potential to do the same for the Indigenous community. Further, it also might be a symbol that we as a whole community can value, discuss and respect.

As we consider this find and what it does and might offer us we might observe a subtler transcendent sign. The axe was found during NAIDOC Week. Was the timing of this find the work of the Holy Spirit? Indigenous people might see the work of their creator Bunjil at work here as he watches over them. After 5000 years this axe was discovered during the week we as a nation celebrate the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. At the least this axe has prompted us to question and has opened up a conversation that helps us in our obligation to seek reconciliation as a society.

The big question in the local community at present is “Will it slow the progression of the Drysdale Bypass?”. The answer I offer is, in light of the likely cultural, historical and religious nature of this find – I hope so! With respect to every Australian I truly hope that every precaution is taken to continue excavations at a pace that ensures the integrity of further potential objects that symbolise our shared and largely unknown history.

Brendan Nicholls is the liturgy coordinator at St Ignatius, Geelong.
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