Three Questions and Answers

Question 1

Dear thirumeni,

Hope thirumeni is doing fine with heavenly grace. I am writing this to clarify a practice observed by orthodox community. It is a common practice to observe 41st day remembrances of the departed ones. Recently a member of one orthodox church here passed away from cancer. Her parents and husband are alive. someone in the church is of the view that 41st day of remembrance cannot be observed in this case as she is young and parents and husband is alive. I have seen on numerous occasions this is observed when elder family members are still alive and thirumenis conduct the holy qurbana. I would like to know is there an authoritative explanation for observing the 41st day? Recently i read that 30th day is observed  for Ivanios thirmeni

It is a well known fact that for some of the practices observed by the community no authentic explanations are available. Recently some one asked me why our perunnal rasa is conducted. In these days of noise pollution and traffic jams is it not a public nuisance? I was passing through Mavelikara in January and traffic was blocked for one hour due to some rasa procession..

Recently some bishop of a sister church has issued a kalpana against observing fire works, and traffic blocking rasa. In my opinion this is a welcome progressive step.

It will be very much of a help if thirumeni can throw some light on the 41 st day observance as different people interpret different ways.

Pl. Pray for all of us.

with respectful regards

Answer 1.

Thank you for the mail.

Remembrance of the departed is part of the faith of many of the ancient cultures and religions. For traditional Christianity though remembrance of the departed is common, the practices related to it are variant. There are people who observe three day lent and then conclude it with H. Qurbana in the Church. There are people who practice it with 16 days and 30 days and 40 days and also 41 days. There are people who keep a white decorated bed in the house for 40 days in remembrance of the departed and on the 40th day remove it after a dhoopam. In Kunnamkulam region there is no white decorated bed practice. They have 3rd day or 16th day or 30th or some 40th day. Yes the 30th day of demise of Ivanios Thirumeni was observed at various churches in Kottayam diocese.

In any case there is no rule or practice that says that when a younger person dies and when the older ones are still alive these are not observed. In many places the detailed feast will be avoided as the mourning will be much intense than in the case of older people. Otherwise there is nothing wrong in having a 30th or 40th or 41st day observance of the young departed person when the older ones or parents are still alive.

Perunnal go around (rasa is not the right word to use. This word is used for go around by the Catholic Church that goes around with Holy bread in a decorated casket. What we do is not rasa, rather it is go around or pradekshinam.

This practice is very old and meant to sanctify the village/ city. This is also related to an Indian practice of the procession with the deity on some one’s shoulder or on a cattle or an elephant to sanctify the village/ city. Of course it will be wise on our part to do it without causing any trouble to the traffic and public life.

Regards and prayers


Question 2.

A lot of unwanted trouble was made in Malankara due to misinterpretation of John 20:19-24, which lead to questioning the Priesthood of St. Thomas. Could you please give a clarification on this? Why do our Church fathers use these verses connecting Priesthood? Why does the Author give importance to note that St. Thomas was not present there during this time of great importance? If you could clear up this confusion, it will of great benefit to the laity. Thank you.

Answer 2.

Yes you are right, there has been so much talk about the passage in John 20:19-24. Much of it was either due to lack of proper understanding about the principles of Biblical interpretation or to prove a point they raised, which is against the principles of Biblical interpretation.

Now the principle is that any passage in the Bible can be interpreted on two basics only. One, the ceentral message of the Bible as one unit has to be considered in exploring the meaning and message of a particular passage. Two, the particular context of the author and his theological position has to be considered. You can not use any passage in aloofness or independently or as a proof text for any single argument you may have.

Now coming to the text in question, there are three things happening there. One, ‘breathed on the disciples for them to receive the Holy Spirit. Two, sending them out or commissioning of the disciples. Three, giving them authority to forgive or not to forgive sins. One primary point we need to understand is that the Gospel writers have not strictly followed the same chronology of event of the period. Each of these three matters are accounted by the Gospel writers at different point of time.

In Matthew the commissioning has nothing to do with either breathing or gift of the H. Spirit (Mtt. 28:19). Again binding and losing authority according to Matthew was given at a different time (16:19) and was given only to Peter according to this passage. This was before Jesus’ death. This again in isolation has been used by vested interest lobbies. Similar commissioning is recorded in Mark 16:15-16 as given to all the disciples after Jesus’ resurrection. Matthew again gives a similar commissioning in 18:18. This was not only to Peter but to all disciples. According to the book of Acts, the gift of Holy Spirit was given on the day of Pentecost (ch.2).

I gave this detailed introduction to tell you that just one reference some where in the Bible can not be taken as a proof text passage.

Coming to St. John’s passage, the key in the event is given in 20: 29. The first part of the verse “Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me” is not a statement but a question. So it is not a negative comment on Thomas’ disbelief. Jesus was asking ‘having seen me have you now believed me’? It is to that question Thomas was replying “My Lord and my God”. The answer in other words, ‘yes Lord I do and you are my Lord and my God’. The second part of the verse is a general statement. This is applicable to every one since that time, including we people the ones of the present time who are asked to believe without seeing in Him person. It is also a call to every one not to insist that they should see Him in person to believe because after resurrection Jesus presence in the world was going to be of different nature. Hence any one who believes in Him without seeing Him would be blessed. This again is important in another sense. St. John was using the situation to widen the size of the faith community. If the preaching of the Gospel about resurrection had to be effective and convincing, they had to answer the question from the audience, ‘how can we believe as we do not see Him in person’? John takes this possibility seriously and answers well in advance. It does not mean that John invented this statement of Jesus. He remembered this and used the absence and presence of Thomas to present the answer to his future readers. This does not put St. Thomas in any account in a bad position.

It was not easy for any one to believe that a dead person can ever be resurrected. Of course they had seen the girl and Lazarus being raised from the dead by Jesus. But now the one who did those miracles himself is dead. So who else would do the miracle on Him? Those days only a few, the Pharisees, had any idea of a possibility of resurrection. Thomas and his fellow disciples who were from the grass root level of the society never had such profound thinking ability until they received the H. Spirit. More over there were the Sadducees who vehemently ruled out that possibility. It should also be remembered that those two disciples on the road to Emmaus, after Jesus’ resurrection also did not recognize Him even when they saw Him in person and talked to them for quite a long distance (Luke 24:13ff.). Matt. 28:17 says, “… but some of them doubted”, even after all those events after resurrection.  Mark 16:11 says that ‘the disciples did not believe what Mary Magdalene said about the resurrection’. Luke 24:11 says that ‘the report of Mary and others were like “idle talk” to the apostles and so “they did not believe them”. Some saw and believed and some even after seeing had difficulty in believing. But Thomas of course wanted to see Him in person to believe, and when he saw Jesus, believed and confessed Him with a classical and unique statement. Of course we can not find fault on any one for not believing until after the Pentecost event.

Now the question is about Jesus breathing on the disciples and asking them to receive H. Spirit. As said earlier the chronology of events in John’s Gospel is different from that of the other Gospels and Acts. The statement about Thomas being absent the first time Jesus appeared to the disciples is not part of the section on gift of the Spirit. Even if it is applied on Thomas, still we do see him receiving H. Spirit on the day of Pentecost. If we are talking about the authority to forgive or bind sins, it was given to all including Thomas according to Mark 16:15-16 and Matt. 28:19 (This happened after the resurrection and with all the eleven of them, including Thomas, present.  Also see Matt. 18:18).

To sum up as it was said earlier, taking one verse from some where in the Bible and making an argument is not a legitimate way of Biblical interpretation. Then the purpose of St. John in 20:19-24 was not to single out Thomas and say that he did not receive the Holy Spirit. Hence any of those things said in the context of Church feud in Malankara does not do justice to either the Biblical testimony of the events or to the way we should interpret Bible passage.

Question 3

Dear Thirumeni,
While reading the Old Testament, I saw that there was a lot of bloodshed that took place. There were a lot of fights and wars. Somehow I get the idea that the Old Testament is quite violent. Since it is known that all are God’s creations and He is powerful, then why not just put them straight? Why should God kill His creations? For instance, the great flood, the red sea crossing scenarios could have been avoided. What was gained?

Answer 3.

The first question in this regard is what is this Old Testament? The answer would be, it is the holy scripture of Jews. When you say Jews, it is a community of just two tribes of the children of Jacob, Israel. They call what we call Old Testament TANAK with three parts in it namely Torah (the Law), Nebiim (the Prophets) and ketubim (the Writings). That means it does not represent even the history and life of majority of tribes or all of Israel. On the contrary its approach most of the time is against the other ten tribes in the North of the region not to speak Canaanites and neighboring communities. Old Testament in general and the historical books in particular comes to us from those two tribes from a time of one of their greatest crises of its life which was their time in Babylon. That was a time of community formation and self realization. But on the one hand they collected all the sayings of the prophets who criticized them, and on the other they took pride in being a community specially chosen by God. We can see both these sentiments in the Old Testament material. In general the writings in OT represent what they thought about themselves, of their neighbors and of God. This does not mean that all you see in there is just subjective stuff. In the middle of predominantly subjective material you can also see the work of God in the life of a community presented in the most open manner. This is especially true with the writings of the prophets. Even in the Psalms you will see songs of hatred and rivalry.

Then you might ask why do you have Old Testament at all as part of the Bible. First we are not considering Bible as some conservative evangelicals or Pentecostal Protestants do. We look at it as it is and try to derive the message and do not read it literally to suit some agenda. Again we have those books because it was the sacred scripture of the community of our Lord. Jesus himself have used it often but had a realistic and critical approach to it. That is why we see Him making several corrections to the prescriptions as recorded in Matthew ch.5 in the Sermon on the Mount. He considered many of the laws said to be from Moses are there because of the hardness of the heart of the people (Matthew 19:8). He did not respect the laws regarding purity as He touched the man with leprosy and allowed the woman with bleeding to deal with Him. Again in the Old Testament irrespective of all that we see unacceptable with the present day standards, we see God at work though and in the history of a people to equip them to work for the liberation of the whole creation (Gen. 12: 3) that suffered the  consequence of the sin of Adam.

The rivalry, killing and bloodshed were all attributed on God by those who wrote or composed them. God can only be “love” as Jesus revealed and cannot kill any one rather waits patiently for return. But it should be remembered that some of us like the way it is presented in there as we also have this kind of attitude toward others. In fact what we see in the Old Testament in terms of rivalry, killing and bloodshed are either the interpretation of the writers as to what happened or about those who suffered death or suffering due to their own shortcoming. In the case of people suffering due to their own mistake, even God can not help to stop. But the OT writer who had the idea that every thing happens because of God would say that these things were also God created where as they were human created. This happens even today. Why those innocent people died in shoot out during the Boston marathon? Why so many people are being killed in Syria, Afganistan or in Iraq, or in Bihar or the infants’ death in Attappadi in Kerala? These are man made and God can not be blamed for. But a person who believes in fate these all would be labeled as God guided or known by God in advance who did not stop it.

Again the question why can’t God stop it is a question against the free will of humans which God gave and hoped will be used wisely. God on the other hand keeps on attempting to liberate human from using it in the wrong way. If human was not given this freedom, human would not have been human, but another animal on two legs. The Old Testament is there so that we will learn from history, see the salvific work of God, thank Him for that and will work with God to help us come out of our own misbehavior and wrong way of using the freedom, which is the greatest gift human has ever received from God, so that history will not be repeated.

With regard to ‘great flood’ it was not God created if you think of it in a realistic way, it was human made with their sin (read carefully and just eliminate God from the scene and think of the reason the statement in Gen. 6:5). The Old Testament writer did not know how to explain it otherwise. But if you read the words of prophets closely you will see them talking about it this way (see Isaiah 5:13. Also see Jer. 20: 4; 1 Chro. 9:1 etc). These calamities were not God created. There is also another point to explore. The created world is moving towards perfection. In that movement there will be imperfection and imperfection causes suffering and set back. This has to be explained at a later time. To sum up, God did not cause any bloodshed or bad things happening. It was the way the writers put it. But it certainly brings us lessons of God’s work in history. With God given freedom enjoyed by human, and suffering in the midst due to human error, God is not able to stop what happens in that line.


Why This Should Happen …?

What Happens in Syria Today

What Happens in Syria Today

Syria is a great country with a very ancient culture. Archaeological evidence shows that it existed even before 400,000 BCE in the Paleolithic era. It is said that the Syrian culture is one of most ancient on the earth. It was one of the centers of the Neolithic culture where agriculture and cattle breeding first appeared on earth. City of Ebla in the north was an East Semitic Akkadian speaking city as old as 3000 BCE and was the center of an empire that extended from Mesopotamia to Red Sea. Syria was ruled by Amorites, Indo-European Hittites, Sumerian, Egyptians, Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians and Mitannis. It was the battle ground for several monarchs just because of its strategic position and fertile land. Alexander the Great conquered the land in 333-332 BCE and established the Seleucid Empire with its capital in Antioch. In 64 BCE Pompey captured the city and made Syria a Roman province. Antioch was one of the major centers of trade and industry in the ancient world. The language was Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ.

Syria is significant in Biblical History. It is known as Aram who was the son of Shem. Isaac’s wife Rebecca was the daughter of Bethuel an Aremean from Paddan-Aram. Jacob’s wives also came from Laban the Aramean. The “little historical creed” of the Old Testament in Deuteronomy 26: 5 explains Abraham as a wandering Aramean. So the ancestors of Israel were from Aram, or Syria and it would prove that the country extended as far as Mesopotamia where Abraham came from in upper Mesopotamia on the bank of Euphrates-Tigris. Syria’s capital was Damascus according to 2 Samuel 8:5 and Isa. 7:8. It is said that David killed several thousand of Arameans when they tried to ally with Hadadezer king of Zobah (1 Chr. 18:5). Aram was under David for a while (2 Sam. 8:6). Elijah was asked by God to anoint a king for Aram (1 Kings 19:15). Naaman, captain of the army of the king of Aram was cured of leprosy by Elisha with the help of a captive girl serving queen of Aram (2 Kings 5). Damascus is mentioned, not Aram, in the New Testament only in Acts, 2 Corinthians and in Galatians and that itself in relation to Paul. Paul was converted in Damascus (Acts 9). He had a successful mission in Antioch.

Several Roman emperors came from Syrian (half-Aramean Elagabalus [218-222] whose family held hereditary rights to the high priesthood of the sun god El-Gabal at Emesa, which is modern Homs; Alexander Severus [222 to 235] and Philip the Arab [Marcus Julius Philippus, 244 to 249]).

In 634-640, Syria was conquered by the Muslim Arabs in the form of the Rashidun army led by Khalid ibn al-Walid, resulting in the region becoming part of the Islamic empire. The Islamic empire expanded rapidly and at its height stretched from Spain to India and parts of Central Asia. With this Syria being the center of the empire prospered economically.

There was complete toleration of Christians (mostly ethnic Arameans and in the north east, Assyrians) in this era and several held governmental posts. In the mid-8th century, the Caliphate collapsed amid dynastic struggles, regional revolts and religious disputes. The Umayyad dynasty was overthrown by the Abbasid dynasty in 750, who moved the capital of empire to Baghdad. Arabic — made official under Umayyad rule — became the dominant language, replacing Greek and Aramaic in the Abbasid era. For periods, Syria was ruled from Egypt, under the Tulunids (887-905), and then, after a period of anarchy, the Ikhshidids (941-969). Northern Syria came under the Hamdanids of Aleppo.

During the 12th-13th centuries, parts of Syria were held by Crusader states: the County of Edessa (1098-1149) and the Principality of Antioch (1098-1268). The area was also threatened by Shi’a extremists known as Assassins (Hassassin) and in 1260 the Mongols briefly swept through Syria. The withdrawal of the main Mongol army prompted the Mamluks of Egypt to invade and conquer Syria.

In 1400, Timur Lenk, or Tamerlane, invaded Syria, defeated the Mamluk army at Aleppo and captured Damascus. Many of the city’s inhabitants were massacred, except for the artisans, who were deported to Samarkand. At this time the Christian population of Syria suffered persecution.

In 1516, the Ottoman Empire conquered Syria and was part of it from 1516 to 1918. During World War I, and British secretly agreed on the post war division of the Ottoman Empire into respective zones of influence in the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. In October 1918, Arab and British troops advanced into Syria and captured Damascus and Aleppo. In line with the Sykes-Picot agreement, Syria became a League of Nations mandate under French control in 1920.

In 1920, a short-lived independent Kingdom of Syria was established under who later became the King of Iraq. In March 1920 Syrian National Congress proclaimed Emir Faisal I of the Hashemite family, as king of Syria “in its natural boundaries” from the Taurus Mountains in Turkey to the Sinai desert in Egypt but was short lived. French troops took control of Syria and forced Faisal to flee placing Syria-Lebanon under a French mandate, and Palestine under British control. Syria proclaimed its independence again in 1941, but it was not until 1 January 1944 that it was recognized as an independent republic.

Syria became independent on April 17, 1946. Syrian politics from independence through the late 1960s were marked by upheaval. Between 1946 and 1956, Syria had 20 different cabinets and drafted four separate constitutions.

In 1948, Syria was involved in the Arab-Israeli War, aligning with the other local Arab states who were opposed to the establishment of the state of Israel. The Syrian army entered northern Palestine but, after bitter fighting, was gradually driven back to the Golan Heights by the Israelis.

The outcome of the war was one of factors behind the March 1949 Syrian coup d’état by Col. Husni al-Za’im, in what has been described as the first military overthrow of the Arab World since the Second World War. On 13 November 1970, Minister of Defense Hafez al-Assad seized power in a bloodless military overthrow (“The Corrective Movement”).

He introduced extensive administrative reforms which on the one hand affirmed his rule and on the other set the country on a structured administrative system.

In March 1973, a new Syrian constitution went into effect followed shortly thereafter by parliamentary elections for the People’s Council, the first such elections since 1962. The 1973 Constitution defined Syria as a secular socialist state with Islam recognised as the majority religion.

The government was not without its critics, though open dissent was repressed. A serious challenge arose in the late 1970s, from fundamentalist Sunni Muslims, who rejected the secular values of the Ba’ath program and objected to rule by the Shia Alawis. After the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Muslim groups instigated uprisings and riots in Aleppo, Homs and Hama and attempted to assassinate Assad in 1980. Syria involved itself in conflicts with Israel and Lebanon on a regular basis.

Though Syria was a declared Islamic nation other minorities like Christians enjoyed considerable amount of freedom and was respected in the any where in the country.  When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, Syria joined the US-led coalition against Iraq. This led to improved relations with the US and other Arab states. Syria participated in the multilateral Southwest Asia Peace. Conference in Madrid in October 1991, and during the 1990s engaged in direct negotiations with Israel but without much progress.

When Hafez al-Assad died on 10 June 2000, after 30 years in power his second son, Bashar al-Assad was chosen as his successor. Though he initiated reforms in the country and wanted establish better democratic system, the fundamentalist Muslim brotherhood was not satisfied. The events in Egypt and Bahrain gave new hopes to them and started violent opposition in Syria. America and the western countries provided support as Syria allies with Iran and Russia claiming that democracy has to be brought in Syria. Of course Syria is not a purely democratic state. But it is better in style than many of the other states in the region. While US the West are not concerned about that, on the contrary supports the rulers of those countries, helps the toppling of the government in Syria causing killing and exiling of hundreds of thousands of people. Christians are all the more persecuted.

I lived in Syria for about a year and traveled different parts of the country. I found the people peace loving hospitable and kind. Christians enjoyed a great deal of freedom during. Aleppo, Homs, Kameshli, Damascus and Hasake are great Christian centers. They lived in quite harmoniously with fellow Muslims. They run schools and other charitable institutions for the better of the whole population without religious discrimination. They were generally pro government as it was easier for them to live peacefully under the Asad rule compared to other states in the region. They are afraid that if a political change occurs like that happened in Egypt, Christians will be the first casualties. This probably made the fighters angry and that is one reason why they abducted two Christian bishops. The tragedy is that there is no united opposition. Using the situation local anti social elements also have taken things in to their hand and therefore it is hard to bring any settlement to the issue including that of the abduction. The leader of the united opposition, George Sabra, is a Christian, but things are not completely under his control.

It is sad that such a great country and of an ancient culture with so much freedom to minorities is being mercilessly put to destruction and disintegration. Seeing what happened in Iraq and Egypt I am even more sad and disturbed (Courtesy of Historical data in part Wikipedia).