Saturday, February 20, 2010

Being beautiful during lent

The picture of what is beautiful is a constructed one. Culture passes us through the rites of purification and injects the botox of beauty into the skins of our recognition. So we tick off one as beautiful and the other as ordinary and even ugly. Our obsession with outward beauty totally erases the importance of inward beauty.

As more and more people in the church find it difficult to observe lent (due to many reasons), new strategies are used by many to lure people into it. One such strategy is that observing lent is healthy and good for the body. This is true but whether this is why lent should be observed is a question which remains to be answered. Isn’t lent supposed to be a voluntary initiation into piety, humility and goodness to the other? Or is it a way to fight obesity and fat?

When we look around, we get the feeling of a slimmer and fitter world. Everything is getting slimmer and to get into the new cars we need to be slimmer as well. To avoid wasting fuel, there seems to be a call to be fighting fit and slim! So much that even airlines are thinking of charging double the amount to passengers who can’t fit into their small seats. The problem here is not just that a particular passenger is fat but also that the airline will have the trimmest seats so that they slim fit people into their scheme of things.

But obesity is a problem in India and in other parts of the world. So much that it causes diseases and makes the lives of people difficult. But what if we could get our children to play in parks (which is also hard to find these days!), instead of shoving popcorn into their hands and making them watch T.V.?, what if they could get a much normal diet in moderation rather than feeding them to the brim and then worrying about how they look?, what if we could make children comfortable with how they are rather than pressurising them to attain a size zero?

This social pressure gets the young and the old to the operation table, injecting stuff onto the skin to look young and staying away from food to attain that elusive perfect size. This being the case it would be wrong to associate lent with attaining a perfect body. Rather it is an effort to cleanse one’s inside, one’s soul (if I may say that).

One should get the priorities right before observing lent. Lent is not a time when we just cut our weight, lent is not a time to slim fit into a business plan, lent is not just a time to look good and healthy outside. Rather lent is a time to accept everyone as they are, lent is a time when we stop judging, lent is an opportunity to feel beautiful inside and make others feel the same way, lent is a time to be natural, normal and moderate.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Will you be my Valentine this lent?

Yesterday in church I preached about preparing for the great lent. But I also preached on Valentine’s day. Obviously one would immediately resent any relation between the two. I would agree that Valentine’s as it is celebrated now does not have much in common with lent. But before we come to an obvious conclusion, let us look at both separately.

The great lent in the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox church starts after the Sunday worship, with the wedding at Cana as the gospel reading. The lent actual starts after the evening prayer on the same day. We are initiated into the great lent with thoughts from the wedding at Cana, where Jesus turns water into wine to save the wedding attended by his mother Mary and his disciples. The act of Jesus suggests love, trust, mystery and satisfaction. The love for his mother and the love for the people makes Jesus intervene, although he himself says it is not yet his time. His mother Mary despite his disinterest maintains a deep and profound trust in him when she tells the helpers at the wedding to do as he says. What happens then is a total mystery, just as worship or qurbana is a mystery. The ordinary water turns into wine. How this happens is beyond us. Finally the chief steward tastes it and declares that it is so good. He goes on to say that usually the best is given at the beginning but in this case the best is saved for the last. The satisfaction is for those who have waited till the end!

Valentine’s day is a celebration in itself and is especially popular with young people. But the myth or even history about Valentine is quite different from what we see now. Sifting among the various stories, one which is believable is one in which the priest Valentine went against the emperor’s edict that young men should not marry because he wanted them to be in his army. The priest goes against this and encourages couples to get married. Truly by this account, it is a call to a life long commitment!

Valentine’s day now has become some kind of a pressure for girls and boys, men and women. The pressure of going out with someone and being a part of a cultural performance. But I wonder whether this is how it is meant to be. The church is helping to make people understand that love is a more permanent feature and not just some one off thing once a year. This is also why we can connect Valentine’s day and the great lent.

Of course this is not an attempt to impose something on to the younger generation. What they want to do is obviously their own decision. The church or priests like me cannot judge them based on this. But what we can do is to offer our interpretation of Valentine’s day. And at the end of it all, it won’t just be a one sided version of love and love between young couples only, but a more comprehensive definition of love and how this concept can help us. We can use the concept of Valentine’s day to understand, profess and spread love to not just young couples, but to all kinds of people, groups and dispensations. The love which is compassionate, involves trust, is a mystery and gives satisfaction for those who wait patiently.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Is my church a public monument?

Where does one learn the unforgettable lesson of sharing one’s resources with others? In one’s house…no. My first lessons of sharing what I have with others were learnt from my church. The countless sermons from esteemed and learned priests, the worship, the bits and pieces of advice I got from elderly people. Having been exposed to what good the church can offer, I realised that this is only one part of the church. As I grew up I realised that the church is as exclusive as it is inclusive. Small wonder that every church has its own people from a preferred setting coming together every week. Anyone outside this setting is not usually welcome wholeheartedly, although we say that everyone is welcome.

Different denominations follow different norms of profiling society and setting into a pattern wherein rich, poor, dalit, syrian, nadar, women and men comprise of the body check that people are forced to undergo before entering the holy sphere of the church. More than the number of people inside the church, I would say the church should actually be concerned about the number of people outside the church!

In Kerala the trend is to showcase our money and power by building huge churches which cost crores of rupees and are built over centuries of unclaimed history and life of the poor of the land. On the one hand, I cannot possibly out rightly condemn this because the church is the collective expression of a group of people. But on the other hand, many of these huge churches are not used to their optimum level and therefore only become the collective expression of a few rather than all. My own denomination has also gone through the experience of having churches closed down because of the rift between two groups within the Orthodox line of thought in India. Both groups lay claim to the churches and therefore the court finally has no other option but to close down the churches completely.

The concept of sharing that I have developed in my mind takes a beating time and again because I see and experience the reverse of that happening in front of my eyes. Is it totally irrelevant to discuss the idea of sharing church spaces among all denominations? This gives significant importance to the church as a place of all and brings people together instead of separating them. Kerala faces a similar pattern with regard to houses. Everyone wants to build a separate house surrounded by a boundary wall to protect it. We build our own private spaces and this has an adverse impact on the environment as well, as waterways and low lying areas are filled with the mud from mountainous regions and sand is smuggled from rivers to contribute to the ever increasing scale of construction in the state.

In effect the church also contributes to the destruction of our state and after constructing beaming towers we will all get together to discuss the degradation of the environment and our state. I don’t know if I can inspire my congregation to understand what real sharing and openness is? It is a practice to take young groups of students to public monuments where all kind of people get together. There we don’t ask people about their religion, caste or other preferences. We have a sense of pride that the monument belongs to all and that all of us have to take care of it. Can’t churches become public monuments? A place for all to congregate, relax and reflect?