Three deviations that have taken place among the followers of Jesus are the Eucharist, the Bible (Word of God) and the Cross. All the three have become mainly objects of worship and lost much of their significance to the daily life of Christians except in the form of rituals. Of course, they are the most powerful symbols/aspects of the spiritual life of a follower of Jesus. The life of a follower of Jesus is to be guided by the Word of God as reflected in the Gospels -- words and deeds of Jesus. The Eucharist is to be lived by a follower of Jesus by breaking and sharing herself and her resources for the sake of others, especially the poor and the needy. Cross is to be carried by standing for truth and justice and facing the consequences. Incarceration and death of Fr. Stan Swamy is an illustrious example for carrying the cross.
All the three have not only become objects of worship but also causes of conflicts and divisions. There is no agreement on the number of books in the Bible and their translations among the followers of different Churches and sects. Protestant Bibles comprise 39 books of the Old Testament and the 27 books of the New Testament for a total of 66 books. The Catholic Bible consists of 73 books: an Old Testament of 46 books and a New Testament of 27 books.
With regard to the Eucharist, the differences among the various Christian Churches and sects are huge. Some Christian groups like Salvation Army and Quakers don’t celebrate the Eucharist. Even among those who celebrate the Eucharist the way of celebration varies from one Church to another. According to the Latin Rite within the Catholic Church, the Eucharist is celebrated facing people. On the contrary, in some Eastern rites, including the Syro Malabar Church, the main part of the Eucharist is offered facing the altar. The decision of the Syro Malabar Bishops’ Synod to have a uniform way of celebrating the Eucharist has caused conflicts and divisions within the Church.
On the issue of offering Mass facing people or the altar, the Ernakulum Cathedral Basilica has been closed for worship for a year. In fact, there was a literal fight between two groups in the Basilica when Mass was offered in the Church on the eve of Christmas in 2022. The Eucharist which is supposed to be a celebration of fellowship, unity and solidarity has become a bone of contention and cause of division. The followers of Jesus who are supposed to become the salt and light of the world have become the cause of scandal.
There are umpteen number of shapes and forms of cross used in various Churches and sects. Artists have designed crosses according to their imagination. Unfortunately, the cross also sometimes becomes a bone of contention when some people impose a particular form of cross in the church buildings. For example, in many East Syrian Churches, cross without the image of Christ’s body is used whereas in the Latin Rite churches, crucifix is used. There is also another controversy in the Syro Malabar Church on the shape of the cross used in the Church. One group insisted on installing St. Thomas cross, a cross without the image of the body of Jesus while another group favours crucifix (cross with the image of the body of Jesus). Conflict arises when one group tries to impose its choice on the whole Church.
If the followers of Jesus understand the significance of the three powerful symbols/aspects, they can bring about a remarkable change in their lives.
Word of God
There is an insightful statement of Nicodemus about Jesus in the movie, Jesus of Nazareth, directed by Franco Zeffirelli. “I saw in Him the word of God becoming alive”. This is what has to happen in any follower of Jesus after reading the Word of God, especially the New Testament. Word of God becoming alive in a person means that she puts into practice the message she gets after reading or listening to it. In other words, her thinking process, words, actions and relationships are influenced by the message she gets from the Word of God.
Simply reading the Word of God without reflection, drawing insights and applying them to one’s life is a useless exercise and a sheer waste of time. The Gospels were written about 2000 years ago in a socio-political and cultural context very much different from the context of today. Reflection on a Gospel passage in relation to the context in which one lives today, helps her to draw relevant insights from it and apply them to her life. Some followers of Jesus have blindly copied a practice among the Hindus and started akhanda bible parayan (non-stop reading the Bible). Another practice newly introduced in some Christian communities is a competition among the faithful to write down by hand the Bible from the beginning to the end. What spiritual growth is taking place in a person by doing this exercise? Does it affect the heart and mind of the person who does this exercise and transform her life in tune with the core values of Jesus?
It has been a practice among many Christians, especially among the Catholics, to participate in the Eucharistic celebration on Sundays. Many Catholics attend Holy Mass every day. How many of these Catholics and the priests who preside over the Eucharistic celebration ask themselves the following question. “Because of participating in the Mass what change has taken place in me or what way the daily/weekly participation in the Mass is contributing to my spiritual growth?”
Eucharist is a mystery that is to be lived 24x7. Six parts of the Holy Mass according to the Latin Rite signify six aspects of the spiritual life of a follower of Jesus. The first part of the Mass is penitential service during which the participants along with the celebrant ask for God’s forgiveness. This part of the Mass calls for an introspection for the participants whether they have enmity or discord with anyone. Without forgiving others no follower of Jesus has the right to participate in the Eucharist. If she does so, she is inviting God’s judgement on her. “So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord (1 Corinthians 11:27) Eucharist not only invites but obliges a follower of Jesus to forgive others and get reconciled with them.
The second part of the Mass is reading and listening to the word of God. The message of the scriptural passage read during the Mass should be a guide for the participants during the whole day or week as the case may be. If there is no reflection and sharing insights on the word of God, how can it become a guide to the participants of the Mass?
The third part is offering. Along with the bread and wine the participants offer their being and having to God. As a result, they have a great obligation to share their resources like time, wealth, money, and personal talents with others, especially the needy. Their life has to become like that of the Samaritan of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, filled with sensitivity and compassion.
The fourth part is consecration that signifies the transformation that has to take place in the life of a follower Jesus. As wheat and grapes lose their old identity and assume new identities like bread and wine, the participants of the Eucharist also should be able to shed their narrow identities and grow to the highest identities and the divine presence in each person. They must be able to see God in every human being. As the bread that has become the body of Jesus is broken to be shared among all, the followers of Jesus must be ready to break their schedule and be available to the service of the needy irrespective of caste, creed, race, language etc.
The fifth part, communion, demands building communion with all, starting from one’s family to neighbourhood and the society. After consuming the body of Jesus, a follower of Jesus cannot be selfish and self-centred. Any kind of exclusion is the enemy of communion. The religious communities must be ready to include the kitchen staff, cleaning staff, drivers etc. as part of the table fellowship by inviting them to join the meals. The staff and workers of institutions and projects should be made participants in the planning, monitoring and evaluation process. Genuine communion leads to participation and transparency.
The sixth and the last part of the Mass is thanksgiving that invites the participants of the Eucharist to make life an act of constant thanksgiving to God and others. Being grateful makes a person happy and content. Gratefulness, happiness and contentment have to be the characteristics of a follower of Jesus, who participates in the Eucharist.
Thus, the Eucharist in which the followers of Jesus take part every day or once a week is a commitment to live a Eucharistic life by forgiving others, to be guided by the teachings of Jesus, to offer oneself with all kinds of resources to God and His people, to be ready to shed narrow identities, to build communion and inclusiveness and to be grateful always to God and others.
Jesus plainly told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me”. Cross means accepting the challenges involved in following the way of Jesus and living his core values. Cross also symbolizes the prophetic role of a follower of Jesus to stand for truth and justice and bear the consequences. Jesus was killed mainly because of his prophetic stand of questioning and condemning unjust, inhuman and exploitative practices within his society. Today also when anyone genuinely follows the way of Jesus, she may have to face exclusion, opposition, harassment and even death. Wearing or honouring a cross reminds a follower of Jesus of his prophetic role. It is not a decoration, but an identity of a true follower of Jesus.
The followers of Jesus in India are living in a context in which religion is being highly politicized, manipulated and used for polarization. In this process religion loses its spiritual dimension of living the core values, and the ritualistic dimension gets grossly exaggerated. Public display of religiosity in the form of huge processions and mammoth religious gatherings gets paramount importance and spirituality takes a backseat. The followers of Jesus also may be tempted to fall in line with the trend that is happening in other religions and lose the spiritual dimension of the three powerful aspects of their spiritual life. Hence constant reflection on the spiritual significance of the Word of God, the Eucharist and the Cross is needed.