According to the Christian tradition Lent is a period specially meant for repentance and conversion. Special penance in the form of fasting and abstinence from using non-vegetarian food and special devotions in the form of way of the cross are observed during this period. Special prayers and rituals to commemorate the events related to the suffering and death of Jesus are observed during the Holy Week. Because of social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID 19 all gatherings, including programmes in all worship centres, are banned in India during the nationwide lockdown from March 25 to April 14. Perhaps in the history of Christianity, first time the Holy Week programmes in the churches are suspended all over the world. The Christian faithful of all denominations are advised to sit at home and pray.
Lockdown to the homes for three weeks in itself is a great penance for many people. Those who suffer much due to COVID 19 are the poor, especially daily wage workers. Many of them walked hundreds of kms from the cities to reach their home town or village without food and drink. Against this backdrop I reflected on the significance of Repentance and Conversion. What kind of conversion is needed at the level of individuals and communities? When I started my reflection two passages from the Bible came to my mind: 1) Amos 5: 21-24 and 2) Lk. 3:10-14.
Conversion According to Prophet Amos
“I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”. ( Amos 5: 21-24 )
Lent is an occasion for the followers of Jesus to undergo a genuine conversion, and according to Prophet Amos, it is nothing but restoring Justice and Righteousness in abundance. That is why the prophet says, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like ever-flowing stream”. In the absence of Justice and righteousness the rituals and prayers have no meaning. Prophet Amos very clearly and emphatically says that God is not at all interested in the noisy songs and complicated rituals. In fact, God hates them. When people are not ready for a radical transformation in their attitude, mindset, relationships and behaviour, rituals and prayers become mere hypocrisy. They become a facade to hide their sins.
I tried to understand the difference between JUSTICE and RIGHTEOUSNES. The meaning of justice is “to make right”. It is a relational term signifying people living in right relationship with God, one another and the natural creation, whereas righteousness refers to the correctness of individual’s actions. Righteousness signify going beyond justice. For example, St. Joseph accepting Mary as his wife, although he was not bound to accept her as per the existing Jewish laws, is a sublime act of righteousness. In the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Mt. 20:1-16) the master gives the same wages to the workers who came for work at different hours of the day. The one who came at the last hour also got the same wage received by the one who came in the first hour. This is another excellent example for righteousness.
Justice and righteousness mean first and foremost liberating myself from religiosity of ritualism, legalism and dogmatism and brining about change in my attitudes and actions. If I have usurped someone’s property I have to give it back. If I have not paid due wages or salary to the workers or if I have exploited someone I have to compensate them. If I have spoiled the good name of someone I have not only to ask apology but also to make efforts to restore his/her good name. If my actions are contributing to the overexploitation of nature’s resources or pollution of nature I have to stop it and try my best to repair it.
Putting pressure on others to part with their property or wealth in the form of gift under the garb of spirituality is also injustice and I should desist from it. True conversion requires liberating myself from greed. Genuine conversion also requires a firm resolution by me not to repeat the unjust actions and behaviour of mine.
The best example of genuine conversion is the transformation of Zaccheus in Lk. 19:1-10. The presence and interaction of Jesus with Zaccheus brought about a radical change in him. “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold.” The transformation in Zaccheus is a big question mark before me as a priest and Religious. Am I ready to undergo a radical change as Zacceheus underwent? Am I able to bring about transformation in the persons whom I meet? Am I able to transform persons and communities through my various activities and involvements?
I realize that in spite of the various rituals I perform, including the administration of the sacraments, my capacity to bring about change in the participants of the rituals and in other persons with whom I interact, is very limited. I also realize that my inability to bring about change in others is due to my failure to bring about change in me. Therefore I am convinced that before preaching about repentance and conversion I have to produce the fruits of repentance in me and those fruits are to be reflected in my life and actions. Otherwise my preaching will be empty words without any impact on the people. What God demands from me through prophet Amos is to become spiritual by practising justice and righteousness.
Conversion According to John the Baptist
“ And the multitudes asked him, “What then shall we do?” And he answered them, “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.” Tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than is appointed you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages. ” (Lk. 3: 10-14)
John the Baptist spoke fiercely about the need for repentance and conversion. As he led an austere life with integrity, he could touch the hearts and minds of the people. He had the credibility to challenge the people, which the present day leaders both in the Church and in politics do not have. Many preachers who thunder about the punishment of God on the people and their capacity to stop God’s punishment are ridiculed in the social media in the context of coronavirus.
Because of the integrity of John the Baptist and the power of his words people flocked to him with a question, “What shall we do?” As per the Gospel description three kinds of people approached John and these groups represent three classes of people in our society. The answer given to the three groups by John the Baptist indicate the type of transformation needed from each section. In fact these are the three dimensions of conversion that has to take place in a person.
Large majority of people in any society belong to the class called, “Common People”. They are the people who do not enjoy any privileged position in the society. To them John said, “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.” An explicit sign of conversion is sharing with the needy one’s resources like wealth, assets, money, personal talents and capacities and even time. One of the core teachings of Jesus is sharing and it is a genuine expression of love. Parable of the Prodigal Son, parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man and parable of the Last Judgement state unambiguously that sharing one resources and time with other human beings is sharing them with God and it is true worship.
According to 2019 Global Hunger Index report, there are 822 million hungry people in the world. About 200 million people are hungry in India. The world produces enough food to feed 10 billion people and the current world population is 7.6 billion. Human beings’ greed, consumerism and reluctance to share with those who are needy are the real reasons for millions of people suffering from hunger and hunger induced death all over the world.
To the second category of people, the tax collectors, Jesus said, “Collect no more than is appointed you.” In other words it means stop exploiting others. Human beings exploit each other in different ways. Sexual exploitation of women and children are very common in our societies. Persons who are in power sometimes exploit their subordinates and when they are questioned, the victims are harassed and even persecuted. The authorities who are expected to support and empathise with the victims, often side with those who are in power. Disciplinary actions are taken against those who protest and advocate for justice to the victims, instead of bringing the culprits to the books. The system that supports this mindset is sinful and it has to change, if real conversion is to take place. Genuine conversion requires supporting the victims and all those who are on the side of the victims.
Trafficking of women and children for sexual abuse is a huge illegal business. Forced labour and forced marriages also come under trafficking and exploitation. Not giving just wages and other social security benefits to the workers is another form of exploitation. Participating in prayers and rituals and practising a number of devotions cannot be a substitute for not paying just wages to the workers. Desisting from all forms of exploitation is genuine conversion.
John told the third group, “Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” The message is very clear, “Do not misuse or abuse your authority”. Abuse of power is common in various realms of the society. Political field is the one in which Abuse of power takes place most commonly. What we see today is that many who are in power, whether it is in the government or in religion, make use of their office to amass wealth, to take vendetta against the opponents and to harass and persecute those who criticize them. They often indulge in human rights violations. Jesus has not given authority to anyone to negate the freedom of expression guaranteed by the Indian constitution. No religious authority can take away or deny the human rights to their faithful, as they are inalienable.
“Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, said John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton. The panacea for abuse of power is putting in place systems and processes of participation, transparency and accountability. Refusal to make governance system participatory, transparent and accountable is a sign of non-conversion. All those who are in authority have to ask themselves, “Am I using the authority as a means to serve others or for my self- aggrandizement?” According to the teachings of Jesus authority or power is given to a person for fulfilling his/her responsibility. All those who occupy positions of power in the Church have to remember the words of Jesus, “ For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45).
Often laws are made use by those who are in authority to silence and oppress those who question injustice. Transfer is used as weapon sometimes by those who are in authority both in the political field and in the Church to settle scores with those who question the authorities. Pontius Pilot and the Jewish Sanhedrin misinterpreted the law and used it to condemn Jesus, because they found Jesus as a threat to their power. Crucifixion of Jesus is not something that happened 2000 years ago. It is also happening today. Genuine conversion requires desisting from misusing the laws.
Righteousness demands going beyond the law. The most important law given by Jesus is LOVE. The criterion for the authorities in the Church is not Cannon Law alone. There is a law that transcends Canon Law. We the followers of Jesus are called not to witness to Canon Law, but to witness to the law of LOVE and it requires a radical change.
The message of prophet Amos, John the Baptist and Jesus are reflected in a poem of Rabindranath Tagore, “Go not to the Temple”.
“Go not to the temple to
put flowers upon the feet of God,
First fill your own house with the Fragrance of love...
Go not to the temple to
light candles before the altar of God,
First remove the darkness of sin from your heart...
Go not to the temple to bow
down your head in prayer,
First learn to bow in humility before your fellowmen...
Go not to the temple to
pray on bended knees,
First bend down to lift someone who is down-trodden.
Go not to the temple to ask
for forgiveness for your sins,
First forgive from your heart those who have sinned against you!”
Spirituality is love, purity of heart, humility, compassion and forgiveness according to Rabindranath Tagore. Jesus has unambiguously taught his followers that one can become spiritual through knowledge and contemplation. The lockdown has forced the followers of Jesus to be confined to their homes even without going to the Church during the Holy Week. Let the lockdown help the followers of Jesus to contemplate and become spiritual.
(email@example.com)(Published on 13th April 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 16)