Worship in Diaspora

Tuesday Third Hour Sixth Colour: Spirituality of A community in Diaspora

Yuhanon Mor Meletius


I believe in a God who works in history. When I read the Old Testament I continuously confront the phrase “I am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Dt. 5:6; Ps. 81:10; Jer. 7:22 etc.  ). This certainly talks about an event in history that made a community that is Israel, which centuries later became the religious community of my Lord Jesus Christ.  When I read the New Testament, I see that my Lord Jesus was born in “the fullness of time” (Gal. 4:4) in to this community. Hence I believe that God who was working in history worked in incarnation to tell me that he cares for me and the world around me. 


The Old Testament statement about the Exodus event of liberation in history was not to talk about a one time intervention of God that was never repeated.  But this statement was only a reminder at every definite time and occasion God had to work again in history again to say that this new event was a repetition in the same line.  This is how at least Second Isaiah understood it (Isa. 40:3ff.).  Through that the Old Testament wanted every current intervention to be understood as of the same importance and magnitude.  Just the same way when the author of Galatians talks about an event of God’s intervention in history through His Son, it was also to say that even at that time of mentioning of the past event the Christ event or incarnation was again occurring. Hence I believe that God continues to work in the history of creation so as to see the perfection of the same. 


When history passes through time and ages, it also confronts time- bound humans and the rest of the creation.  This is where culture becomes a crucial question in my life.  I know that I am a historical being, a history in which my God works. I also know that I am a social being where lot of other elements in creation co-exist and grow with me and with my participation.  On the other hand I exist and grow in their participation too. My experience of God and of his work in history can be perceived and comprehended by me only in the given context and historical process and in the context of my neighbors who participate in the God event.


Thus I see a dialogue going on in two levels.  One, a dialogue I engage in with my God and two, a dialogue I engage in with my fellow creaters. Dialogue in any case and circumstance involves language or medium of communication.  My God was so gracious to me that he was able to communicate with me in my language and through human symbols familiar to me.  I know that my God is not a male person, though some times I address Him as if God were a male person.  I also know that if He wanted to, when he decided to incarnate, taken the form of a woman instead of a man, he was able to do that.  I also know that the Jewish community of Jesus time was a highly or criminally male dominated one. Here I presume that He would not have been so successful in making a big wave in the society he lived in if He had bourn as a woman. So I assume that He was using a language or culture of the time to speak to me. Language as we all know is an expression either verbal or otherwise, an expression of the culturally guided ideas and feelings.


To support this I also see that when my God decided to deliver certain people from bondage in Egypt, He used the language conditioned by culture of that region. He brought Moses from Media who knew the language both of the Egyptians and of the Hebrews. He made Moses one like a magician usually found in courts of kings to amuse the lords and princes.  He also used the phenomena and things in nature that the people were afraid of, which they called plagues, to speak to them. He also used a fellowship meal that existed in the wilderness culture, to prepare the Hebrews before He really took them to the desert.  It also helped to communicate to them that they were setting out for a long journey. With much astonishment I see my Lord using the culturally defined language of both Egyptians and Hebrews to talk to them and to deliver a message to them.


Later when the liberated people came to certain safe and comfortable place, Sinai, God spoke to them regarding the way they should be responding to God and be communicating to their neighbors. I know that much of what I see in the Decalogue or the Ten Commandments which God gave them came from the great king Hammurabi of 17th Century Mesopotamia.  I other words, God used the best legal system available at that time to talk to them.  This attitude of adaptation and using of the cultural and political elements of neighboring people by Israel is seen all through the Old Testament.


I see my Lord Jesus doing the same thing when He tried to communicate to the people around him.  He talked to the fisher folks of Palestine in their own language.  When He called them to be his disciples, He promised them that He would make them ‘fishers of people’.  He used what they called miracles to make them convinced of His mission. He voiced the complaints the people had about their leaders and religion.  When He talked to the Pharisees and the leaders of His religion, He used the scripture quotations to prove them wrong. He knew that in their culture the ultimate proof was that of the Scriptures.  When he talked to the Samaritan woman, He used her language. I see my God all through history using the culturally and historically relevant language to talk to me. I see me at the other end of the dialogue event or history.  What language I should be using to talk to him.


On Tuesday last, I went to the chapel of St. Thomas Orthodox Seminary, where I was teaching Old Testament for a short period, to talk to my Lord (I hope!). It was 12.30 in the afternoon, but the prayer book said it was the third hour. I had no clue why I should say third hour instead of noon hour when time is no more measured by the old system of ‘watch’ or nazhika and vinazhika.  That was only the beginning of my confusion.  The noon prayer was in a hymnal form.  We started singing. I myself, as in the case of most of us in the chapel, either did not sing or pretend to be singing. One or two sung loudly, but no one knew whether they were singing the right tune or not. Any how later Dr. George Pulikkottil Achen, at the lunch table, told me that the song was to be sung in the Sixth Colour. I did not understand the world ‘Colour’ with reference to a song. Then I learned that Syriac tunes are said to be Colours.  In Malayalam it is Ragam.  But being a Syriac Christian I should not use the word Ragam which comes from Indian culture. What a fate?


Here is where my concern begins. Do I really communicate with God in my worship?  Songs are verbal expressions of idea and mood united.  Idea is the literature in songs and mood is the Ragam in them. Mood will also decide the content of the literature.  Different cultures express moods differently. How can I express my mood and inner feeling in a Raga set by some other culture?


The matter is not related to songs alone.  It is related to rather every thing I do in my life before my God. I am a product of my culture. In what I say, in what I do, in the way I think I will be exhibiting in some way or other my culture. When I fold both my hands and lift it to the chest looking at another person, I mean ‘Hi I greet you’.  Of course when I greet a person of another culture I might use the expression of that culture because it will help him understand what I mean. But what is the culture of my God that I can use to greet Him?  Since He created me and put me in my culture and intervene in my history, I do not have to worry about the language and symbols He can understand.  My language is His language; the symbols I use are His symbols too.  The question is, can I talk to, or enter in to a dialogue effectively and meaningfully with God if I use language and symbols that are not mine or of my God in the given situation?  This is my spiritual crisis part one.


Again in my history with my God, I am in dialogue with my neighbor.  There are two levels for that.  When I am engaged in dialogue with God I am doing so with the company of my fellow beings.  The Liturgy of Eucharist says “Whom all the heavenly orders, divisions and hosts adore … we also the meek and sinful on earth too praise shouting Holy Holy …”.  Second, in worship I am communicating with each other or I am in dialogue with my fellow beings.  The deacon in worship says; “Let us give peace one another with a holy and divine kiss”.  Taking both in to consideration, I ask myself, am I in perfect communion between? 


Let me go back to that prayer song of Tuesday third hour, sixth colour. Seminarians were singing the song. I did understand the literature because I had the prayer book with me and the language was of my culture. But I did not understand what mood the song was expressing.  They did not communicate it to me.  Because that song was not sung with a tune or Raga familiar to my culture or of those who prayed with me. I am a Malayalee living among Malayalees most of the time.  I speak to them in our language mostly. If used another language to talk to them, I will be using a common language. English is one among them.  I use symbols to express my ideas made by my Malayalee culture.  But the moment I am in the Church or in prayer occasion or liturgy situation or delivering a sermon, I switch to a different language and symbolism that is not quite familiar to me and to those with me.  The question is am I understanding my own thoughts, jesters and words or am I just being mechanical like that person in the famous Charlie Chaplin’s move “The Modern Times”?  Again am I making any sense to my fellow being when I pray or talk with a language and symbols defined by a culture strange to us all? Am I in dialogue with my fellow beings?  This is my spiritual crisis part two.


When I struggle with these questions, I happen to come across two passages in the Bible. They are Jeremiah 29:4-10 and John 4:35-38.  In the first, the prophet who works as the mouth piece of God, is asking the people of Israel in Babylon taken as captives and were worried about their spiritual well being in a foreign cultural context, that they should actively participate in the socio-political life of the community and should become an integral part of the society there.


There are two major areas where they are asked to be part of: 1. agriculture/ business and 2. marital relationship. The second one particularly aims at a prolonged life in Babylon.  Both involve participation in worship of the local people.  Of course, they worshipped the Lord.  But the liturgy of worship was decided by the context. They formulated new forms of worship. One of the major contributions of the Exilic time was literary work. During that we can see two major concepts of faith in Babylonian culture influencing Israel. One about the concept of creation and the other is about the temples of Babylon known as Ziggurats.  While the second was rejected to a great extent (because it did not match with their experience with God who traveled with them as part of the community), the first was whole heartedly accepted. The Babylonian cultural elements influenced very much in Synagogue worship and the hymns used in there.  If you read the book of Esther with an open mind we would get more stories of cultural influence. This adaptive attitude made people of Israel in Babylon very successful politically, religiously and in terms of social status.  Therefore the response to the offer of King Cyrus made to the Israelites to go back to Jerusalem was very poor.  Probably this is what Jeremiah meant too. 


I think this poses a challenge to the people in this part of the country (that is out side Kerala) who came from Kerala with a Judeo-Syrian-Malayalee (?) Christian spirituality.  It is doubtful whether we were successful in developing a truly Malayalee Christian spirituality in Kerala. Now those who failed in creating a genuine indigenous religiosity in Kerala are in North India in a much more confused situation.  In Kerala, since we were a failure to make a genuine spirituality, we could not make a long standing and concrete spiritual influence there.  Gandhiji, the father of the nation said, “but for Christians I would have become a Christian”.  Dr. Radhakrishnan, former President of India said, “Christians are ordinary people who make extra-ordinary claims”. 


Most of our influence was for our petty needs and not for the welfare of the society (I am not forgetting the contributions in the areas of education and health care in the 19th  amd early 20th centuries. But that was not primarily by the Syrian Christians.  By the time they came in to picture, it already had become areas of business motives). I am afraid this is going to happen here too. Our kind of worships can keep us away from the society around us.  The language and symbols we use can either make us a community in aloofness or gradually may make us loose our own people to other communities.  It is our task on the one hand, to reinterpret our faith in the new context and become part of the community around us by participating in their life and adapting their language and symbols in our religious life. Through this we can truly stand before God in dialogue.  On the other hand, we certainly will hold up the basic tenets of our faith in Lord Jesus Christ.  I underline ‘basic’ not to be confused with Syro-Christian culturally defined elements in our religion.  This takes us to the second text.


John 4:35-38.  “Lift up your eyes and see how the fields are already white for harvest”.  Samaritans were supposed to be untouchables for Jews.  They would never dare to greet, journey with, dine with or stay over night with them.  All these acts would involve them in participating in the cultural expressions of the Samaritans including worship.  That means there was a dialogue going on between Jesus and the Samaritans.  Jesus had no problem is making himself attuned to the cultural milieu of his hosts. He was ready to give up the traditionally handed down attitude of his own people for the sake of his participation in the life of the Samaritans.  He did not have to leave his relation with Jerusalem to enter in to a dialogical relation with Samaria. But he left the petty hatred and dehumanizing segregation attitude of Jerusalem behind to enter in to a participatory life with Samaritans. 


The question is, will we be able to hold on to the fundamentals of the traditionally handed down Syriac-Malayalee elements in our faith and practices, but leave behind those out dated and irrelevant elements in it for the sake of keeping the community alive and vibrant. Only this will let Christ and we, the Diaspora Christians in this part of the country, enter in to a participatory life with the people in northern India. This includes the second generation Orthodox Syrian Christians living here.  Will we be able at any time in future to worship God with our own fellow being in this part of the country using language and symbols familiar to them and thus have a meaningful and effective dialogical relationship with our Lord and with the people of this land at the same time? 


Of course this poses a threat of loosing our identity and foundation. Any change has this threat. But if we do not take this challenge up, we will never be at home with these people. Hence it is imperative to engage in experiments. The Seminary is the right place to do it. This is where analytical studies are conducted, this is where new information is shared, and this is where fresh insights are evolved. The Seminary should walk in the fore front leading the Church to the unknown frontiers. When you walk ahead, we those in the Church have the confidence that we are walking behind a committed and dedicated people of wisdom, understanding and rationale.  If you fail to do that the Church behind you will be limping in the irrelevant out dated filthy environment where people will either suffocate to death or escape for life.


Let me also say that I am not talking about liturgy and worship alone.  I am making this a model for all events, phenomenon and every thing that occurs in this universe.  You should study them, experiment with them, critically and passionately analyze them and come up with concrete suggestions. You may some times go wrong.  But you will accept it and correct it. In any case it will be better than doing nothing and living in this world a life of irrelevance and of meaningless repetitions of some one else’s culturally defined concepts and themes.  Will you walk ahead of me – a humble member of the Church?  That is my question and that is the challenge before this community of intellectuals and students of history, philosophy, theology, culture and what not! God help us. Amen

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