Friday, September 19, 2014

Celebrating Onam: Why festivals and celebrations should not be shunted out of churches



The festival of Onam is an attribute of inter religious harmony and a fact that Christians exist in society with other people. This realisation brings us to the fact that traditions and celebrations have to be done together. Togetherness can be fostered only when we celebrate it together.

Onam in particular is not the festival of the other, the unknown, the infidel or the pagan. Onam is the festival of all because it talks of a king who fought injustice and encouraged equality. Mahabali’s sacrifice is a reminder that all have to stand up against injustice. It is not an option, as justice can never be an option. Justice can only be attained by fighting collectively. Justice is the precursor to peace. So for peace, we all have to strive for justice.

Further, the usage pagan is archaic, old and uncouth for our times. We cannot humiliate others by using such terms. Luke 10:27 says “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” The fight of the ISIS militants in Iraq and Syria is also against whom they term infidels, in essence, us. If we have now collectively come together against the inhuman ISIS, we also have to stop inhuman usages and terminologies in our own spaces.

The sanctity given for the church cannot be limited to the church. It only means that the sanctity is Sanctus sanctorum within prescribed limits but sanctity also extends to the outside of the church and further beyond the walls of the church. So every inch of the world is holy because it is God’s creation. We cannot behave in one way in church and in another way outside the church. If we do that, we are lying to ourselves and playing games with our conscience. So to not have festivities in church means we should not have it anywhere. The oft quoted concept of ‘liturgy after liturgy’ reminds us that goodness is not limited to the church and to a Sunday. John 10:10 says “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

Purity is a very dangerous concept and has been used to keep out women and people from lower castes, using the purview of holiness. This is profoundly dangerous. One cannot associate and approach festivities with purity. Purity should be broken down to include everything into our domain of spirituality. Galatians 3:28 perhaps mentions that no one is purer than the other while saying “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

Onam festivities also become a problem because we associate it with morality. Morality is one of the biggest sins of religion and Jesus rubbishes it when he says in John 8:7 “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” One should not talk of what is moral and what is not and should instead accept justice, equality and peace as the central pillars of Christianity. Whatever goes along with this can be associated with the church.

Christianity in Kerala has had its ups and downs as is the case with the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church. But the church has also managed inculturation and understanding which is reflected in the church architecture, traditional lamps and minnu or thali used by the bride. Will the church now ask all the married women to break their minnu or thali as it is un Christian? St. Paul in Acts 17 is aware and uses the language and themes of the local culture to speak to people there. It is another thing that he uses this to his advantage.

Christianity has from old adopted to and adapted local culture and has used it to their advantage and given it their own form. Indian religious beliefs have done the same with Jesus. Jesus is very wise when he tells his disciples in Mark 9:39-40 “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.” One has to suspect a resurgent belief to throw everything out of the church as an Americanised, homogenized form of Christianity. Homogenization, as the media teaches us is essential for wide distribution of a message. But this message may not be relevant for all people.

One cannot be a Christian in church, hybrid at work, a Keralite in the house, an ‘anything goes’ with friends and a conservative at rallies. Faith and life go together. It is important for us to stop the ISIS-ization and US-ization of the world, which brands everyone as wrong, sinful, pagan, infidel and impure. As Jesus shows in John 4 in his interaction with the Samaritan woman, one should in the process of maintaining one’s belief respect the belief of others. One should also come together in collectives and co-operatives to root out injustice and violence and encourage justice and peace.

Onam and other festivals are an opportunity to understand each other. This time in our small church in Bangalore we are celebrating Onam and we have invited our Christian, Muslim and Hindu neighbours to come and join us and share our food. They have eagerly agreed because they also want blessings from God and want acceptence from our community of faith. In this process we will undergo a self purification and self correction and allow the real Christ to speak for himself, instead of putting words into his mouth. 1 John 4:7-8 clarifies “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”

Churches outside Kerala are sometimes service centres which have services in class rooms, auditoriums and the like. What happens when the sacred steps into the so called profane? If it is a problem when the profane steps into the sacred, the same should apply in the reverse as well! If the understanding to keep the church off limits for certain things is to keep the profane away, what happens when after service one week the altar is again placed at the so called profane in the process of the following service?

Congregations outside Kerala rarely meet each other and the church becomes a conglomeration of everything put together. Birth, life, death, joy, festivities, togetherness, protests, prayer and the world itself becomes the church. The church becomes ‘everything’ for the believer rather than ‘something.’

Flowers, lights, colour and graceful dancing are all part of Christian culture as much as anything else. We think it is un-Christian and pagan because we associate it with the stranger across the road, chanting prayers in a language not understood by us. But our prayers are equally confusing for others. Festivities in church are a coming together, an in between, a strange but comforting place, a thought which says, I am a Christian, you are a non-Christian, but here is something which can bring us together to share a meal on a warm, green leaf.




Picture courtesy www.imgion.com

15 comments:

Varghese Varghese said...

The new generation is all set to break the traditions of our church which is followed for centuries.If we change century old tradition what is the difference between the new generation churches and Jacobite syrian orthodox church?What is the meaning of Orthodox?This kind of new generation will drive Jesus out of the church.There is one great wish for Jesus christ to spread and reach the gospel in all parts of the world to all gentiles(remember we were once gentiles).Why have we become christians is it because our parents are christians?We should understand our responsibility as a christian
I quote from Jerry achan
1)"Purity is a very dangerous concept and has been used to keep out women and people from lower castes, using the purview of holiness. This is profoundly dangerous. One cannot associate and approach festivities with purity. Purity should be broken down to include everything into our domain of spirituality. Galatians 3:28 perhaps mentions that no one is purer than the other while saying “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
My Question
Then why Mr Sunilkumar(A Hindu Believer) and his family not allowed to consume the Holy Qurbana ?
2)"Christianity has from old adopted to and adapted local culture and has used it to their advantage and given it their own form. Indian religious beliefs have done the same with Jesus. Jesus is very wise when he tells his disciples in Mark 9:39-40 “But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.” One has to suspect a resurgent belief to throw everything out of the church as an Americanised, homogenized form of Christianity. Homogenization, as the media teaches us is essential for wide distribution of a message. But this message may not be relevant for all people. "
My Question
Then why is our Priest always telling bad things about our brothers in pentecost and other prayer groups in his speech after holy qurbana?
3)"Onam and other festivals are an opportunity to understand each other. This time in our small church in Bangalore we are celebrating Onam and we have invited our Christian, Muslim and Hindu neighbours to come and join us and share our food. They have eagerly agreed because they also want blessings from God and want acceptence from our community of faith. In this process we will undergo a self purification and self acceptance and allow the real Christ to speak for himself, instead of putting words into his mouth. 1 John 4:7-8 clarifies “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”
My question
To how many of Hindus and Muslims referred in the above occassion Jerry Achan had spoken the word of God and asked to accept jesus christ as saviour,or do you have the boldness to do that?

Fr. Jerry Kurian said...

Thanks Mr. Varghese for your comment. I will answer all your queries.
1. There is nothing called new generation. That is a coinage of Malayalam cinema. Whatever is uncomfortable is not new but is what has already been said by someone. The church has always been reinventing itself and surviving by doing just that. No one can drive Jesus away from church or keep Jesus inside the church. Jesus is God and therefore not under human control. God is everywhere and the goodness of God is more evident where the people of God follow the same goodness of God. All are people of God. One should not see others as outsiders as everyone is created by God.
2.Not allowing Holy Qurbana is a decision of the church. But Mr. Sunil Kumar or anyone else cannot be denied entry into church. The church is the place of God and belongs to God's people and that includes everyone. Churches like Manarcadu and Velankanni are visited by hundreds of thousands of people of other faiths. No one prevents them from worshipping God inside the church.

Fr. Jerry Kurian said...

3.A priest telling bad things about others depends on the individual priest and is not an overall phenomenon. In my opinion a priest and church members need not say anything bad against anyone in church. One can preach the truth and in that way negate un truth but one need not do personal attacks. This is a thin line. I qoute Acts 5:34-39, "But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all the people, stood up and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time. Then he said to them, “Fellow Israelites,[a] consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and disappeared. After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered. So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” The wise saying of the respected teacher Gamaliel can be a model for us. Further there are things that one needs to do in one's particular church. If one does that, there won't be any time to look at what is happening outside. Our flock will also not stray if we give them the spiritual food that they need.
4. The Jacobite Syrian Orthodox church in India does not do direct conversion. The St. Paul's Mission is doing mission work in rural and semi urban areas. But we do not do forced conversion. When we went to houses nearby we had interesting encounters. In one house the lady said "We expect certain things from a Christian priest. They should be well behaved and good towards all people. I appreciate that you and others have come to my house." She then went inside and came back with a picture of St. Mary and said that Mother Mary was part of her everyday spiritual life. In another house the person said that they always try to understand what is going on inside the church. He said that they have good opinion about Christians and was very happy that we invited them to church and to our spiritual life. In yet another house, the husband and wife said that "We may have differences between our churches but we always hoped that you would come to our house. We thank God for bringing you here." This is my spirituality. I behave and show what Jesus is for me and how he is my personal saviour. Others then get attracted to Jesus and St. Mary and not to me. I become the servant of the Lord and pass on the message of Christ Jesus to my neighbours. One should be able to find Christ in us through our behaviour and life. This is not just through words but through actions.
I hope I have answered some of your questions. I may not have all the answers but will pray and see how God leads me to answer you. I thank God for using you as a conduit for asking these questions so that others can also think and experience more.
My articulations come out of close to 25 years of church work as a deacon and priest in the form of a church worker, altar boy, theological student, teacher and priest and above all as a humble servant of God.

Varghese Varghese said...

Absolutely not!

Why?

Though Onam is now propagated as a Malayali festival by Kerala Tourism and is joined in by Malayalis of all faiths, it is a Hindu festival. It celebrates the return of the Asura King who was forced into exile to “pathaalam’ by the Hindu Gods who were scared of his growing support base and gathering power. It was not Justice done or a fight against injustice. Orthodox Hindus celebrate it with poojas and offerings to Maveli and Vishnu. So if Onam is to be celebrated in its true sense and meaning it would be against Gods Commandments of Exo 20:2-4, I do not suppose the learned Rev. is advocating that we start making offerings to “Onathapan” at church.

Now if your Hindu neighbor is celebrating the festival and invites you to join in the celebrations that is a different matter. Then all the neighborly love, understanding each other’s cultures and religious tolerance, living in a society etc factors comes into play. As a true Christian one should show the tolerance , neighborly love etc , It does not mean that you go and involve yourself and participate in their poojas and offerings. The Onasadya itself is a feast hosted in honor of Maveli on his visit to each household, No Hindu will serve the Sadya to anyone without first laying it out in front of the idols. So should we partake in the sadya? Would it not be partaking in the offering made to Maveli/Vishnu? Let us be guided by 1.Cor 10:14-33.

Therefore in my opinion we should not be celebrating Onam in our Churches. However let us by all means join our Hindu friends in their festivities when invited and take care not to partake in any idolatory. In the same token let us join our Muslim friends in their Eid festivities and let us also invite all of them to our feasts of Christmas, Easter and the rest which we celebrate.

Unfortunately present day commercialization of Onam, Christmas, Easter etc strips those festivals of their religious nature and turns them into cultural and social events for commercial purposes, let us not fall prey to those machinations.

Fr. Jerry Kurian said...

Dear Mr. Varghese (George John),
Thanks for your comment.The positive nature of your response is a step in the right direction. You do agree that we have to be mindful of our neighbours and also take part in their festivals (whichever they are) as long as we can keep with our own faith and do not commit idolatry. I suppose in all churches there is no idol worship or offerings in any manner.

The quote given in my comment below for another question by Mr. George in the subsequent comment box looks at the interpretation of Mahabali as a king of the lower Dravidian caste who was unjustly banished from his kingdom. What is then of importance for us is that we come together to say that all castes are equal and no one can dominate another. Eating sadhya or a common meal may be done in a certain way by certain upper caste Hindus. But this is not the case for everyone. Christians have it as a common, shared meal. We do not offer it to God/s.

One should also understand that festivals are made their own by various communities. The Christian community has done the same. We are in no way doing anything un- Christian as the church understands it. If so, what is the role of pachor (sweet offering) during various festivals in church, what is the Christian priest doing while blessing the food which is going to be distributed to the people, what is vechu ootu (an offering made as a promise to God) in which food is given to people in church? What it means is that Christians have taken things from popular culture and made it their own, within their belief and scripture and having the trinity and Jesus as saviour in their minds as they are doing this. God bless.

Anonymous said...

Comment from Mr. George via e mail.

Dear Achen,
This is a write up distributed in Mar Thoma Church after they celebrated Onam in the church.
(I have not attached the actual write up here.JK)
Hindu mythology teaches that Mahabali was a "Demon" (Asuran) king. Also there was fighting / rivalry always between Asuranmar and Devanmar (between Demons & gods).

After knowing this fact that Mahabali was a "Demon king" do you personally think it is right to celebrate onam in the church. We do not celebrate Ramzan or Bakrid in the church, so as no other religion celebrate Christmas or Easter in their place of worship.

Let the Hindu festivals be theirs and let the Muslim festivals be theirs. All we can do is not to offend them, but at the same time show them the One and Only God, which is Jesus alone. Bible says HE IS THE IMAGE OF THE INVISIBLE GOD.

Religious harmony is a trick of the devil. If we just take care of our business and go ahead no one will come to trouble us. At the same time we have to pray that God will open the spiritual understanding of others to know who is Jesus.

Let me conclude with a real testimony. Other day I had to go and get my wife's car from workshop. So I left my car home and took a taxi to bring her car back. The taxi driver was a hindu named Shankar. The moment I got in the car he started talking to me about the need to love God and love others. After a while I felt that he is a Christian and asked him are you a Christian. He asked my name in reply, when I said my name is George he addressed me as Brother George.

He said he is a hindu but he reads Bible everyday and loves Jesus dearly. He had the desire to know who is the real God. He kept on praying about it. One night after praying he went to sleep, suddenly a handsome young man wearing a PURE WHITE clothe, with long hairs appeared before him. He immediately realized it is Jesus and fell at his feet and worshiping him. He said thank you Lord for revealing yourself to me and cried. Then Jesus replied saying My son Shankar, there is only one God, worship him and he disappeared.
After half an hour again Jesus came to him and told him the same thing, There is only one God, Worship him alone and disappeared. From that day onwards Shankar had not stopped worshiping Jesus and every time he get a chance he share that with others.

If God uses a Shankar, a hindu, to reveal himself to others how much more we should be doing that. Bible teaches us not to worship or bow down before any one or any other gods and not to eat what is offered to other gods. So I leave it up to you to decide about celebrating Onam in the church is right or not.

Honouring others / participating when they celebrate somewhere else is different and celebrating in the church is different. Remember what Jesus did to all those who were buying and selling in the Jerusalem church.

Please do reply and let me know what do you think of this.

I am also a Jacobite, but now a BORN AGAIN BELIEVER.

God Bless You.

Fr. Jerry Kurian said...

Dear Mr. George,
Thank you for writing. I believe that it is through debate and questioning that our faith becomes more steady and strong. I read the attachment that you have sent. My comments on that first.
1. The Marthoma church as they have mentioned in the beginning went through a process of reformation whereby everything was questioned. This led to taking out whatever was traditional and local.
2. This also then went against local culture in all its forms.
3. Interestingly the Marthoma church is changing all this now. By its own admission it is going back to its roots. Which means there will be more praying for the departed, remembering the departed and thinking of the old and commemorating what is old.
Coming to our own church, there are many elements which are already taken from local culture. As I have mentioned in my original write up. The church architecture, lamps used in the church and minnu or thali are a part of the local culture which the church has adopted. But interestingly the church then made it its own and now it is part of the church culture.
One should not use usual language in just saying that Mahabali was an Asura or demon king. The Jacobites are usually blind to the problem of caste in India. It is just that we don't have any reference to this in church. But if we look at Mahabali from the lens of caste, he was a ruler who was done away by upper castes. Another view is "Historians give a different twist to the legend. According to them, Mahabali, a Buddhist, was defeated by kings from Narmada (currently Maharashtra) in the North. Subsequently, they conquered the land and sent him into exile in Ezahm which is currently known as Sri Lanka. It was believed that permission was granted to Mahabali to come and visit his subjects during the period when they traditionally celebrated Sravanolsavam. Therefore, for Keralites, it may be a symbolic description of the Aryan invasion and the imposition of its culture on the native Dravidian populace of Kerala." (This quote is taken from http://english.manoramaonline.com/content/mm/en/my-news/onam-is-like-a-dream.html ) Looking at this from the perspective of caste, it is definitely a justice issue and something that the church should be part of. It is a call for justice and equality and the church always stands for this.
Christianity can commemorate any fight against injustice as fighting against injustice is what Jesus did. In Kerala the upper castes celebrate Onam as the time when Mahabali the lower caste king was put into place. But the lower castes in Kerala look at Onam as a time when lower castes triumph in the face of persecution from upper castes.
The present scenario of religious intolerance is very dangerous. The ISIS sponsored violence is a result of intolerance. But who encouraged the ISIS before? They were encouraged by a very religious country like the U.S.A! Jesus always stood for peace and his style of engaging people of other faith meant that he talked to and related with other people and did things for them.

Fr. Jerry Kurian said...

Continued...
Onam programmes are cultural programmes as well. Very rarely are they conducted inside the church per se. Usually it will be in a church hall. The programmes are flower arrangement, dance and songs. None of these are non-Christian as such. To add to this flowers remind us of our relationship with the cosmos (the circle and the colours signifying life, earth, water and air), dances include margam kali (which is showing the 'true way' and is a very Christian traditional dance) and many songs used these days are also Christian. It shows that Christians have made Onam their own and included Christian symbols in it. This is perfect assimilation.
We have to ask ourselves some questions. Can we use cars? Can we build big houses? Can we work in shifts and have high paid jobs? Jesus did not have any of these. How can we then justify this?
Christians are not casteist, fundamentalist and conservative. One of the cultural problems that American based spirituality (in the form of Pentecostalism and new small churches) is that it has rejected everything local and Indian. Everything that is strange and unknown to them has been termed as evil, pagan, demonic and satanic. Many people are reading books by authors in the U.S. These books have obviously made their arguments based on their religious and consumer culture.
The example of Shankar is a good example of how Hindus are open to Christian beliefs. Christianity has floursihed in India because of the religious tolerance of Hindus and other religious groups. Without this we would not have existed in a country like India. So to call religious tolerance as evil means going against our own existence. Christianity has always been open to all people and Shankar is also an example that Jesus is a personal saviour to many without us being in the picture.
I think we also need to look at things from a personal perspective. If the Jacobite church would be ultra conservative and strict there would never be any born again believers in the church. Born again is the term used specifically among people who have a different experience from the usual church experience. The church believes that one is born again during baptism. This is followed by spiritual renewal. The wider outlook of the church has ensured that such people are also kept inside the church.
Finally, I think we should never mistake the celebration of Onam as bowing down to another God. This is never the case. Christians see Onam as a reminder of a time of equality and justice, a time when people were one, a time which brings the sacrifice of Jesus to the forefront again and says that Jesus is our saviour. We are only coming together with others to commemorate the coming of justice in a shared land. But in no way does any church worship anyone else, use other symbols or do anything anti church. What the church does is to celebrate a common festival on its own terms. The church sets the standards and the limits of what can be done. This should never be mis construed.
Hope I have put things into perspective. You are welcome to write again. Thanks. God bless you and your family. Jerry achen.


Varghese Varghese said...

Jerry Achaa Hope we will meet together during the second comming of Jesus.
Please do a little more study about the Term Born Again.
Will pray for you.
God bless

Solicitous Stroller said...

Just few thoughts

There is a thorough mistake, if you tag Onam as a hindu festival. Mahabali happened to be together with Vamana, or "dwarf incarnation", which occurred in Treta Yuga. This is counted before Parasurama, the warrior incarnation, in the period of Treta Yuga, who created Kerala !!!

ie, according to the so-called 'hindu' myth, the 6th avatar of vishnu created our state Kerala which was already ruled by Mahabali who was thrown out by the 5th avatar of Vishnu....this is the belief.

Logically, how can this make sense? Before creating a state how can a ruler and his story be there ?

So, let us keep the 'HINDU' part aside ---- going by pure academic studies, ONAM is a festival of MALAYALIs. And, the reasonings and historical anecdotes are many !! I am not getting to that here.


@ Jerry Acha, personally, nice writeup. I wonder how a CHRISTIAN angle could be given to everything in life ;-)

Now, personally, I would prefer to keep these things untangled, where festivities are for everyone --- without any religion coming its way, whether its Hinduism ,Christianity etc

Fr. Jerry Kurian said...

Dear Mr. Varghese,
I suppose we can meet anytime if the body and mind are willing and if God permits.I will indeed look at the term 'born again' from the perspective of the church and let you know what I come up with. You are in my prayers. God bless you and your family.

Fr. Jerry Kurian said...

Solicitious stroller,
I like that name.:) Priests always bring in a Christian angle.:) The fascinating point that you have made is how festivals should become areligious or beyond religion and be celebrated by everyone. I suppose that is a very open minded thought.

Rinku Paul said...

dear father,
Onam celebrations was conducted inside the Orthodox church at Perinthalmanna in 2015. Two christian people were dressed up as Mahabali and Vamanan and brought inside the church - at the Kesthrumo. Do you agree to that ? Till now , i had seen only a person dressed as santa claus inside church.
Dr Rinku Paul

Fr. Jerry Kurian said...

Dear Dr. Rinku,
Thanks for your comment. My first point would be that for me church is not just the church building but also the compound, a hall or any other building other than the place for worship. So my thoughts usually go in this direction that we can have a celebration within the walls of the compound. That does not mean it has to be inside the church.

Secondly, in outside India (and outside Kerala) congregations, services are held in schools, colleges, halls and any place available. Why isn't the congregation concerned with what is happening in this space on six days of the week?

Thirdly, why don't people and clergy object to encyclicals, sermons and announcements which are anti-human, bring about rivalry in people, insult and humiliate other communities and are completely non-biblical? In a public space we could be arrested for instigating communal violence and disturbing peace! Why are we then using our private/sacred spaces for non-Godly affairs and talking about religion and spirituality on the side?

So we have already desecrated and denigrated the worship place with our behavior and attitude. Should I say more? Thanks for commenting.

athira nair said...

Hi father! I totally agree with you. The first time i heard about the festival Onam i was surprised that it is celebrated by all the malayalees regardless of their religion. This actualy made me feel wow!! as a state in India has a festival like this which shows unity, peace, togetherness. Our faith teaches us about peace, harmony, love, unity, equality. If the festives gives it all then why spoil it by having question about religion when we know that we cannot change our faith even if we are forced to be converted unless and untill if our mind, heart and soul agrees to it.