Thursday, April 17, 2014

Maundy Thursday: A call to be equal

The breaking of bread, sharing of the cup and washing of the feet is perhaps the strongest message of love and sacrifice that comes from Christian belief. It is the message which comes from the top that as disciples and believers we are called to sacrifice ourselves just as Christ sacrificed himself for us. The sacrifice though is not to say that we are to continue serving and be servants but rather that we are called to humiliate and embarrass ourselves in a culture where respect and honour are important.

Jesus’ sharing of bread and drink was profound in itself but more powerful was his message that this sharing was a call to say that all are equal and there is no master but only servant in the kindom of God. The message of servitude has almost been mis- interpreted to suggest that women, the weak and the poor should serve in continuance with the message of Jesus. This message though is more about being equal than anything else.

We forget this in church and in our lives. Why don’t men cut mangoes for pickle for Good Friday rice gruel in church? Why do people make fun of a husband who is concerned and caring about his wife? Why are children in church treated during service like they know nothing and are there to make the numbers than contribute to worship? Why do preachers turn towards the side of women while preaching about the responsibility of serving and why are the rich excused from serving in any manner?

Jesus’ act of washing his disciples’ feet is such a strong act of equality and acceptance that Peter is against this and says that this can never be. Jesus then insists and says that without this there can be no true sharing. Peter then agrees with full enthusiasm. Galatians 3:28 clearly reflects this feeling in the verse “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.” Hierarchy is done away with and all kinds of classifications and differences based on gender, class, caste, sexuality and other baseless categories are negated. The act of communion and feet washing is thus liberating.

Instead, the most powerful acts of communion and feet washing continue to become acts of expressing and legitimising one’s position in the hierarchy and celebrating that position of power, rather than becoming vulnerable and humiliating and embarrassing oneself for the sake of the true expression of God’s will on earth. Jesus celebrates his decision to become an equal and a co-sufferer rather than an over seer. His act is humiliating and embarrassing as it questions the very notion of hierarchy. The baseless explanation that hierarchy is essential for stability in society is undone by Jesus who does away with hierarchy itself and sacrifices himself for the undoing of hierarchy.

It is humbling to note that Maundy Thursday becomes a reminder that once we have become a part of hierarchy we have to undo hierarchy itself instead of strengthening it for our own gains. Communion and washing of feet should then become the liberating acts that they are supposed to be. This poses a serious challenge to us to become the true followers of Christ who broke hierarchy to come down, break bread, share drink and wash feet. This is the real experience of Maundy Thursday when we don’t get away with just saying that we have to love one another and share but to say that we have to give up the superior places that we have gained, occupied, and unquestioningly accepted. By this we become the table/s of true communion and go through the really embarrassing experience of washing of feet.

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Feet washing: Reading the scriptures publicly and sensually

Sensuality is expressed in the most mundane and simple terms and yet it has its own complexity which attaches a certain sacredness to it. In the present era we even have festivals to celebrate our love and sensuality. Valentine’s Day is one such festival where flowers are exchanged and love is expressed openly. It is another matter that this has been commercialized and made artificial at the same time.

Luke 7:36-50 brings to us the encounter of the woman and Jesus. Jesus who is invited to a Pharisee’s house for dinner is attended to by the woman who was perceived as sinful. She weeps onto his feet, wipes it with her hair, kisses his feet and puts perfume on it. This brings about a negative reaction from those in the house.

Worship involves the activation and constant interpolation of the five senses of a human being. The senses include touch, smell, taste, sight and hearing. We obviously do not give much thought to the activation and the coherent expression of these five senses and many a time maybe even forget about their existence. Nevertheless these senses when used in various combinations bring forth very effective interaction. Two of the important senses are touch and smell.

1. Touch is one of the most active steps of sense activation that we can undertake. In many of Jesus’ miracle acts what he does, goes beyond the miracle because it involves touching those who were not touched. This is not just a spiritual and inward touch but a clear physical touch which involved challenging the prevalent system of untouchability which was practised in various forms. When Jesus arrives at the Pharisee’s house there seems to be no indication that anyone received him with a welcome touch. Rather what we see is a woman referred to as a sinner who comes with an alabaster jar of perfume. She wets Jesus’ feet with her tears, wipes them with her hair, kisses them and pours perfume on them. As we usually concentrate on the woman who lived a sinful life in the town, what we ignore is the woman who touched Jesus with her physical and sensual touch. Our feet are one of our most sensitive yet most ignored body parts. The sensation we feel when we are touched by someone at the feet is indeed very arousing. Yet we usually refer to the touching of the feet as a mark of respect (as is done in Indian culture) and forget that it also has a very distinct and clear meaning which goes beyond just mere respect. In the church, the main part of touching is the kiss of peace, which again should have been a kiss but is now a shake of both hands and even that is done half heartedly. At times members of the opposite sex try to avoid touching each other in this otherwise very meaningful ritual practised in church. The washing of the feet during Passion Week in the Jacobite-Orthodox churches also becomes an act of service, humility and discipleship and is never seen as anything beyond that. The kissing of the feet by the woman takes us towards a sensual awakening. How can then a woman who had led a sinful life bring about a sensual awakening? Her love as mentioned by Jesus covers any sin that she may have been accused of. So what for many may seem as a passage of servitude, discipleship, and confession may very well also be seen as a passage of love, passion and sensuality. When everybody goes for Jesus’ upper body, the woman goes for his feet. The church is always seen as shying away from touch. We refuse to touch the untouchable, we refuse to acknowledge that touch is sensual and we in the mean time run the business of touching souls, while the bodies wither away. Maybe we need to look at scriptures more publicly and sensually for us to come to a different understanding of touch. Valentine’s day (looking at the positive side of it) is a perfect punching bag for different religious groups and I wonder whether it is only because of the commercialisation of Valentine’s day or is it because of the refusal to acknowledge that expressing one’s sensuality is not religiously acceptable?

2. Smell is another of the senses which can arouse our feelings. Aromatherapy is now marketed in India as a spiritual and mental well being that we can feel when we use certain products which arouse and bring out our sense of smell. In India we live amidst the dichotomy of smell. We have what we can call the rich, ‘produced’ smell and what is the poor, ‘natural’ smell. The woman in the passage has a strange mix of both! She wets Jesus’ feet with her tears, wipes them with her hair and then pours perfume on them. Her tears are her own and they are as therapeutic for her as for Jesus. The drops which fall on Jesus’ feet may have caused the first arousal, the touch and smell the second arousal, the kissing the third arousal and the perfume the fourth arousal. She wipes off the tears with her own hair and then puts perfume. The base smell which she provides is her own. This is followed by the constructed smell of the perfume. The perfume adds to the olfactory delight that Jesus was being put through. Truly a great experience! The church more or less relies on incense to provide for the awakening of the sense of smell. This is complimented by the hundreds of smells emanating from the bodies of the congregation. If we care to take a dig into the variety of smells we will be aroused into action in church. What actually happens is that we turn off our smell sense and in our aim to attain holiness we keep away from everything which may awaken our minds. But think of using the smell as a welcome arousal of our senses to function better and to espouse this great feeling of love just like the woman who toyed with the feet of Jesus? In essence what happens in church is that we take away the senses of people or we try to numb them. This keeps our bodies in a state of non-orgasmic existence while our spirits are taken into ecstasy. The woman in the passage arouses us to our senses just like she may have aroused Jesus. Are we ashamed by our arousal or are we tickled to action? As others ignore Jesus, the woman welcomes him by arousing him and Jesus likes it! Are we willing to allow others to be aroused? The incense is only one particular way of doing this but there are other smells as well. This rounds up as the smell of love and warmth felt towards one another as well as the smell of passion which couples will sense and feel towards one another. Who are we to prevent this? The Pharisee tries to unlike the touch of the woman but Jesus reminds him of the woman’s love which refuses to subside. I am aroused, are you?

(Already published by NCCI)
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Monday, April 14, 2014

Palm Sunday: Give peace a chance

Palm Sunday is perhaps one of the most popular pictures that we may remember from austerity and popular memory. The picture of women and men standing and holding palm leaves fills up the entire frame due to the leaves of various sizes. The picture also reminds one of an entire army standing in anticipation for the orders to carry out the mission. In a world consumed by the thought that power and force will bring about victory and conquer insignificant others into submission, the main stream picture of Palm Sunday may strongly bend us over to a similar line of thought.

But far from that, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem should be seen as the courageous and single minded journey of one man in the hope that he could turn around popular notion into correct notion and unruly crowds into peaceful ones. Two symbols suggest very clear meanings about what Palm Sunday should be for each one of us and why Hosanna is not a war cry but a yearning for peace.

Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on a donkey has been interpreted to already suggest that this was a symbol of humility and humbleness even though it could also suggest that his journey on a donkey (colt) could also be a sign that he was being welcomed just like a king. Two bible passages which throw light on this are Matthew 21:1-9 and Zechariah 9:9-10. In the gospel of St. Matthew unlike other gospels, Jesus tells his disciples to go to the village where they will find a donkey and her colt (or a colt). This suggests a she donkey and in all likelihood her off spring in the form of a colt (male). The symbolism is strongly suggestive of a nursing mother who stands for life, peace and sustenance. Zechariah 9:9 after announcing the arrival of the king says in verse 10 “ He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war-horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.”

John Dominic Crossan puts this beautifully by suggesting ‘Matthew wants two animals, a donkey with her little colt beside her, and that Jesus rides “them” in the sense of having them both as part of his demonstration’s highly visible symbolism. In other words, Jesus does not ride a stallion or a mare, a mule or a male donkey, and not even a female donkey. He rides the most unmilitary mount imaginable: a female nursing donkey with her little colt trotting along beside her.'

Both passages suggest a clear message of a messiah who comes for peace and stands for peace in the midst of violence and death. The symbolism of palm leaves adds to the message from the two passages. It signified heaven, victory and peace. It continues to be a symbol of hope and resurrection. The picture of the multitude in church holding palm leaves is a picture that arms, power and violence can all be left at the way side and instead the palm leaf of hope can become a significant symbol against all forms of violence and force.

The palm leaf is both straight and willing to bend, willing to make adjustments so that a common good can be attained. It is not wavering faith but unwavering commitment being expressed through a grounded expression of theology, that come what may, we will stand our ground and continue this struggle for justice and peace. The Palm Sunday procession with palm leaves becomes the anti thesis of the republic day procession with arms. Even as the arms bring about awe and fear, the palm leaves bring about awe and faith. It is a faith that Jesus will accompany us in every struggle and there can be no end to the struggle with the leader Jesus arising like a Phoenix bird, dying only to rise again in full strength. The struggle does not die out by his death but rather gains more strength and momentum to carry on with multiplied strength and commitment.

The Palm Sunday liturgy of the Jacobite Syrian Orthodox church has a prayer which says that God becomes small and low so that we may become holy. Jesus brings himself down so that humans may be exalted.
The first Kolo-Quqoyo further says
“Get stones and receive the One Who comes to Jerusalem
Children of Israel were asked by the oldest there
For receiving they picked stones and went to Him
On seeing Him; olive branches, instead, they carried,
And shouted, “Welcome the King of Israel;
Halleluiah, blessed is Your coming”
The young and children who were instigated by the elders to carry stones as Jesus enters, by themselves, drop the stones and carry olive branches instead, suggesting that the way of the world is not a way at all. The children and the young realise that when Jesus comes in seated on a she donkey and colt, he is suggesting to them that the only way forward is to give peace a chance.

Palm Sunday and the palm leaves become so significant in our world today. Holding the palm leaves and keeping them home remind us that we can’t resort to violence against the poor and helpless but rather should keep looking at the leaves as a symbol to follow and emulate Jesus. One has to die in order to resurrect with full force. Dying is indeed victory. The palm leaves and the spirit of Hosanna should remind our household that there can be no domestic violence, disrespect of spouses, mistreating parents, abusing and beating children, humiliating those who work for us, cheating others for short term gains and driving away people from God by using force and violent means. “Hosanna to the son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

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