Sonntag, 6. September 2020

ധ്രുവദീപ്തി // Christianity // THE CORE CENTRE OF CHRISTIANITY // Fr. Sebastian Thottippatt-

"Fr. Sebastian Thottippatt 
is presently an Oblate of  Camaldolese Benedictines of Shantivanam ashram, Kulithalai, Tamil Nadu. He has been a priest for 40 years.  Having spent the major portion of it in the missions of Northeast India, he came  to Tamil Nadu to live as a hermit, affiliating himself with the Benedictines, intending thereby to devote himself primarily to prayer and contemplation. He shares his reflection about Christian life from his pastoral experience 
and personal conviction". (Dhruwadeepti)


 Fr. Sebastian Thottippatt
The recent cold-blooded murder in Florida, USA, of a young mother, Merin Joy, by her Catholic husband, sent shock waves all over the Catholic world.  She was only 27 years of age and had a 2-year old girl child who was temporarily staying with her grandparents in Kerala. It is appalling to think that a Christian could ever think of committing a crime of this magnitude! Well, it is not rare that we hear of heinous crimes being committed by people who call themselves Christians of all shades. There are numerous cases in courts against Christian priests and even bishops all over the world that have seriously affected the credibility of the Church in recent times. Coupled with this is the greed and corruption of Church personnel particularly noted in old Christian communities. Their primary concern is often to construct flamboyant churches and run educational institutions that bring in copious money into their coffers. What do the above-mentioned maladies indicate if not the great absence of Christ in the Christianity many people profess?

According to latest statistics, Christianity has 29% of the world’s population which is 2.4 billion followed closely behind by Islam which has 24% with 1.9 billion followers. The day seems not far when the ranks will draw closer and even alter figures radically. The British conquered and ruled India for more than three centuries. They conquered kingdoms and joined them together to form a unified nation called India but failed to win the hearts of Indians to their core beliefs. The British were all Christians but the Hindu majority India never took a liking for the faith of their conquerors because there was precious little in them that challenged their spirit. The simple reason lay in the fact that the Christian faith had lost its identity in the lives of the British who were looked upon only as colonizers and looters of wealth that belonged to Indians. The fault lay not only with the British but with the whole Western world that had adopted Christianity as its religion since centuries. Christianity had produced numerous Martyrs and Saints in its long history but the official religion never drew people of other faiths to itself in big numbers. The fact of the matter is that many Christians call themselves Christians and may also be faithful to traditional Christian practices but they hardly grasp the  Good News of the gospel as lived out and expounded by Christ.

The core essence of Christianity is the Person of Christ who is the living, invisible presence of the crucified and risen Lord. The external trappings of the religion, namely: its liturgy, its hierarchical governance system, its laws and the centuries-old traditions do not pertain to its essence. We in India may find a broad comparison between the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Both of them display different approaches: one follows the spirit of the law and the other letter of the law. The end result is dharma and a-dharma respectively. Christianity is a way of life rather than a religion. The way of life is following Christ as his disciples. In other words, the norm of action is to be rooted in Christ as pointed out in the gospel of John: “I am the vine and you are the branches. As long as I remain in you and you remain in me, you bear much fruit” (Jn.15:5). The Christian lives by the power that emanates from Christ who is the indweller through the Holy Spirit.  Hence all efforts made to practice Christianity without a strong foundation in Christ, leads to nothing. It can either turn a person into a religious fanatic or a self-righteous and arrogant Christian who has a perfect counterpart in the Jewish Pharisee who was compared by Jesus to whitened sepulchers. 

Christianity in its essence is about a deep relationship with Christ that makes a person Christ-like in personality and behavior. Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, the official preacher at the Vatican, speaking to bishops and priests of India, on a recent virtual retreat stated that Intimacy with Christ is the secret of Christian life. This entails a relationship with Christ that is “personal” as against “institutional”. In other words, Christians must relate themselves with Jesus as a person who is living and present to them in the here and now and not as a personality of the past. The reality of the presence of Jesus is as true as breath in our body. But the awareness of it should become more and more intense as intimacy with him grows. This active relationship is to be cultivated and nourished through personal prayer. During these months of the Corona pandemic when churches and sacraments are out of reach for most Christians, the intimacy of our relationship with Christ is invariably put to the test. We understand that being a Christian is by no means merely living by the rulebook or being faithful to customary practices. At the same time, it does not thereby imply a type of indifference to the commandments of God and religious exercises. On the other hand, the authentic Christian, while observing faithfully all laws, goes beyond the letter of the law to its spirit at all times.

The essence of Christianity
is the person:
Jesus Christ himself.
Jesus told his disciples at the last supper: “I give you a new commandment, love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples”(Jn. 13:34-35). It is obvious that all other laws are contained in this one law of love. It made St. Augustine to exclaim, “Love and do what you like.” It is by the practice of love according to individual circumstances that a Christian identifies himself or herself as a disciple of Christ. “No one has ever seen God, but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love comes to perfection within us.” (1 Jn. 4:12) “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (Jn.13: 35). We cannot overlook the fact that in the history of the Church one can observe blatant violations of the law of love in various forms by the Church as an institution as well as by individual Christians. The Spanish inquisition and the Crusades are glaring examples in which the Church leaders went far away from the way of Christ for the sake of orthodoxy.

The leaders of the Church are seen more often being concerned about doctrinal exactitude and ethical correctness rather than promoting mutual love in families, communities and between nations. Many bishops and priests give higher priority to construction of churches and institutions instead of being actively concerned about the welfare of individuals and families under their jurisdiction. And they manifest great eagerness in promoting among the faithful numerous pious observances and practices that mainly cater to obtaining temporal needs for people. Little is done to foster the attitude of sharing and concern for the poor among the faithful. We have, however, noted some exceptions among Priests, Sisters and lay persons who come forward and initiate action to mitigate the sufferings of the poor in these days of the pandemic. However, under normal conditions pastoral life of priests consists mostly of celebrating Mass and providing sacraments to people but not in following up the practice of love in families and communities. This trend began from the time Emperor Constantine gave liberty to the Church and made Christianity the State religion. The worldly values of wealth, status, name and fame crept into the Church and the primary gospel values took the back seat. The works that Christians did became more important than their being. More time was spent in planning and executing projects all over the world that catered to the temporal sphere in people’s lives. Proportionately less time was devoted to God and his Kingdom within society. It is obviously a failure of the pastors to live by the program of life adopted by the apostles who decided to delegate administrative works to deacons and gave themselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word. (Acts 6:4)

The Sermon on the Mount is the core of the teachings of Jesus. Every part of it is a departure from the letter of the law to adhering to its spirit. Christ throws his focus on the spirit of the law which only can enable one to go the extra mile, turn the other cheek, pray without being verbose and showy, fast without ostentation, love even one’s enemies and allow us to be concerned with the other, sacrificing our own desires and comforts.  On being asked by a Pharisee which is the greatest commandment in the Law, Jesus replied: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and most important of the commandments. But there is another one like it: you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mathew 22:36-39). Perfection does not consist in the perfect observance of all the laws but rather it manifests itself in one’s outgoing compassionate love towards the other, in the spirit of self-effacing humility. Unfortunately, more often than not, we aim at moral perfection in being externally correct in the eyes of others but care little about being animated by the spirit of Jesus in our attitudes and actions. Any imperfection or transgression of the law by someone is looked upon by us with contempt and the wrong doer is judged forthwith by the manner in which he or she is thought of, talked about and treated. Glaring examples are expulsions from societies, explicit condemnation and vilification through the media, and excommunications too in extreme cases. But we do not come by any instance of it in Jesus’ life. Not even Judas, who was known to him as his betrayer, was thrown out of the group of the apostles; Peter, who denied Jesus, was confirmed as Head of the Church after the resurrection when Jesus commissioned him to feed his lambs and sheep on his affirming unstinted love for the Master. 

On the other hand, there is an itching for perfection based on law in many quarters and we revert back to Old Testament demands for exact observance of laws. Why does authority often tend to come down with a heavy hand whenever it is thwarted or feel slighted? Is authority in the Church understood as being in control of people and situations? But the manner in which Jesus described authority and positions in the Church was quite the contrary. He told his disciples: “As you know, the so-called rulers of the nations lord it over them and their great ones oppress them. But it shall not be so among you. Whoever would be great among you must be your servant and whoever would be first among you shall make himself slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10.42-45). It ought to be borne in mind that the authority figure in the Church and its institutions is not the boss of any group but the humble servant serving as the coordinator among equals.

Places of worship are considered by many even in Christianity as of supreme importance. But it was not so in the mind of Christ. On being asked by the Samaritan woman about the location of true worship, Jesus tells her that it does not matter at all. What matters is the attitude or spirit and the authenticity of the worshipper (Jn.4:20-24). The plain reason is that God wants to dwell not in buildings of bricks or stones cemented together by mortar but rather in human beings cemented together by mutual love, honor and respect. This is a significant change from the tenets of most religions in the world. It comes about through the inner transformation that takes place when Jesus becomes the center of Christian life. “Because I live, you will also live,” said Jesus. “On that day you will know that I am in my Father and you in me and I in you” (Jn.14:19-20). We do not seek to have a life of our own apart from that of Christ because we grasp the reality of what he said: “Apart from me you can do nothing.” (Jn.15:5). It is an intimacy that is intrinsic to our own existence as Disciples of Christ. In his Priestly Prayer to the Father at the Last Supper Jesus prayed: “I pray not only for these but also for those who through their word will believe in me so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. May they be one in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (Jn.17: 20-21) //-
Fr. Sebastian Thottippatt

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