Sunday, February 10, 2013

Manjinikara festival: Hope and hospitality as good news for society

Manjinikara festival is a festival commemorating the death of St. Ignatius Elias III who came to India to propagate and encourage peace in the Malankara church. His arrival and subsequent stay ended with his departure from this world. The place where he breathed his last and where he was eventually buried became a pilgrim centre called Manjinikara which is now visited by lakhs of pilgrims every year. The festival this year culminated yesterday with Holy Qurbana.

The actual arrival of the Holy Father was at an important time in the history of the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church in Kerala. He tried his best to broker peace between the warring factions in Kerala. His genuine wish to bring everyone together was seen as something which could only come from the mind of a genuine church father.

His death was seen as a special event foretold by himself and for which those around him were already ready. His departure also led to a host of sightings and miracles which made the local populace believe that he was special. This then became popular among the people of the church and they came from far and wide during the festival time. The universal Syriac Orthodox Church then declared the Holy father as a saint of the church. The flow of pilgrims has only increased every year despite the hardships that one has to endure during the pilgrimage.

For me the festival time clearly reflects two things. One is the hope of the people who walk and two is the hospitality of the people who live on both sides of the road to Manjinikara. People come from the Northern and Southern parts of Kerala and also from outside Kerala to join in this walk of faith. The walking distance could be anywhere between 30- 150 KM’s, in some cases upto 220 KM's and even more. The people on the way stop to rest, pray and eat food. This is done at churches and at houses which happen to be on the way of the pilgrimage.

The walk starts from the local church and will be done in groups so that people can take care of each other. Groups include children, women and men. This is not an exclusive walk of men or of any category of people. Rather one will see the young and old, women and men and poor and rich walking the distance. Everyone will have their own prayers, wishes and tasks to get done and they will intercede accordingly. The walk involves sacrifice, pain, risks and an effort to keep going. Many people get pain in their legs and body, get swollen feet, feel feverish, exhausted and wasted. Yet they continue walking to the destination with a single minded devotion that come what may, they should reach. Women and children are exposed to not just the sun but to the dangers of being outside and in full public view and yet all fears are set aside knowing that their beloved saint is ever interceding for them. The pilgrims definitely have their own set of problems.

The hospitality on the other hand is offered by those who are staying on both sides of the road en route to the pilgrim centre. These are people belonging to different religions, different churches and different castes. They prepare all sorts of refreshments for the pilgrims and offer everything free of cost. Food, shelter and basic amenities are all offered to absolute strangers. This time I also happened to be home in Thiruvalla while the pilgrims passed. I therefore opened our house to perfect strangers. I did not know even one of them and yet at the end of the day they also felt like family. I had my own reservations just like anyone else would have before opening their entire house to perfect strangers. But the reservations were soon submerged in the stronger emotion of hospitality which should be offered to guests. This is the hospitality I received while I went to different churches, houses, seminaries, places and met total strangers who offered their resources without even battling an eye lid. It is the hospitality I received from my teachers, colleagues, students, friends, family, bishops and a host of other people. This is also the hospitality I enjoyed while walking to Manjinikara myself. It was a cultural miracle where people simply helped each other and asked for prayers from one another. In an age where we suspect the goodness in one another, this is something which simply defies logic. Why would one open their house to a complete and total stranger/s and yet that is what hundreds and thousands of people do. Churches also become the true model of hospitality they are supposed to be, where anyone who comes is offered water, food, rest, medicine and anything they would need to continue their journey.

The entire pilgrimage is laced with miracles. It starts with a miracle and ends with a miracle. The miracles include old people walking for long distances, children tagging along, the weak refusing to stop even when they feel very tired, the love shown by people in several villages and towns, the hospitality of house holds, the reaching at the final destination and the individual changes experienced after reaching and well after the pilgrimage as well. People expect a visible change in their lives and they walk interceding to St. Elias III that these visible changes may be made possible through his intercession. Just as we make sense of Jesus of Nazareth we make sense of Elias of Mardin.

Those who walk are not just from one church but belong to various churches and even religions. The destination which is a hill near Pathanamthitta is serene, quiet, calm and spiritual. It is apt for meditation and healing. But the pilgrim season makes it a different period when so many people commune to the hilly spiritual centre at the same time. The amazement of the pilgrimage is so much that one does not know which one to concentrate on, the faith of the people or the hospitality of the onlookers. Both in their own way constitute the foundation of religion and humanity.

Perhaps this is what society is missing these days. It also makes a strong case for the conduct of such festivals and the pilgrimages accompanying it. It tells people that hardships are a part of life and one should not shy away from it. It reminds us that there is goodness in us and we will express it if given the opportunity. It is just that we are given the wrong opportunities and are in the wrong places. I am thankful to St. Elias for having made the first journey, the church that encouraged others to then make it, the people who came out in large numbers to make it, the larger society which embraced it and the vast number of people who popularized it. I have again faith in people that come what may we still are not the beasts we are made out to be and there is something positive about us despite all the negative reports. The Holy father who chose to travel to Malankara, intercede for us.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Remembering the departed: A unique contribution of the church to India

The Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church remembered all departed priests last week and is remembering all the departed members of the church today. In a society that does not even remember those who are around us, what does it benefit one to remember those gone by? In an era where we are known by the progress that we have made is it important to look back?

The gospel passages used for the two week’s are Matthew 24:42-51 and Luke 12:32-48. Both passages talk of the need to be ready as the master can come at any time and those who are not ready will face punishment. Those who are entrusted with keeping and care taking cannot afford to be complacent.

1. A perfect religion and imperfect people
The passages reflect an attitude of perfection whereby the one in charge cannot afford to loosen up. Any such act is not entertained. There is a constant pressure to perform. In a way it is difficult because we commune in church so that we can take the pressure off our shoulders. We usually would like to work in a team as long as we are not the team leader, so that we can avoid the pressure which comes along with being a leader. Such continued pressure will be difficult to handle for anyone. Who then handles this pressure for the community? The act of remembering priests of the church who have departed from our presence is an act of remembering those who have tirelessly borne this pressure on their shoulders without relaxing and letting down their guard. These have been priests who have worked in bad conditions, with little and sometimes no perks and being pressurised to perform time and again.

One could question this and say that not all priests have been so sincere and that this is not a culture that is seen today. The remembering of priests gone by is a time to know that we could relax because some one was watching our back and always taking the pressure off us. Every kneeling and every prayer was an effort spent for us in the hope that God will take care of us. Being perfect is not easy and not something we can attain. It is also not something which one may enjoy being. If someone could take the pressure off us of not having to be perfect, we would indeed be grateful. Priests of the church have given us this luxury.

It does not matter whether they were actually perfect or whether they actually always had us in their minds as they prayed. But whenever I saw an old priest in my childhood, I felt assured and calm that this person was there for me and was praying for me. It did not matter whether they talked sweetly or nicely. What mattered was that they were there whenever we went to church. This constant presence was as soothing as having the presence of God. This is why it is important to remember our priests and bishops who have strived and tirelessly worked for us. Being perfect for someone is difficult. I myself don’t feel I am perfect. This nice feeling that old priests and bishops gave us makes it imperative that we remember them for having sacrificed their humanness for us.

2. We are smart, but smarter things are expected from us
We are a smart phone culture. So much that some of us cannot function without technology. We are quite proud of the fact that we are better off than our ancestors because of the large strides that we have made in life. But being smart is not enough. It is because we are making smart decisions based on smart memories. Our smartness is reflected in a skewed understanding of not remembering our own past and our own parents and grand parents.

Whenever we choose to remember them, we choose to make them up both literally and figuratively so that they may be presentable to others. In our smart world we choose to reconstruct our memory and make it presentable rather than sincere. The church believes that the strength of the church lies in the living and the departed assembling together for worship. This link becomes our strength. It is a link that forms our foundation. It is irrelevant who our ancestors were and whether they did what we are doing now. What matters is that they chose to have us and bring us up.

Even today one of the strengths during leading church services comes from the presence of my father who I believe communes along with me in church. I see him as a person who more than anything had integrity, worked hard and loved others. These are things that I have lost in my smart existence. My memory of my father and grand parents, the memory of family members, church members and friends who have departed from my presence becomes my strength and assurance that I am capable of better things. This memory is one which assures me that I somewhere have it in me to do good and it is just round the corner. In this age this is a blessed assurance that indeed the people of the church will do good.

The young daughter of a man asked him why he stopped at a tea stall and asked for directions to go to a place despite having GPS in their car. He told her that this was the way people used to ask for directions as GPS was not available in earlier days. The daughter refused to accept a world without GPS and thought her father was lying. Today we have a generation which has no idea about the sacrifices that have been made for them. For them their life is a result of a smart world. It is time to make them understand that the dusty photo in some corner of our house is the reason of why we/they are smart.

Perhaps this is one unique contribution of the church to India and to the world. We are but a link and without one link the chain or network breaks. Today people understand this concept in terms of technology and the internet. The church can make use of an existing model to enhance the thoughts about networking, remembering and keeping in touch.

(Excerpts of a sermon preached in St. Mary's JSOC, Bangalore on 3-2-2013)