20th December 1998
By Louis Benedict
"If my people who bear my name humble themselves, and pray and look for me, and turn from their wicked ways then I myself will hear from heaven and forgive their sins and heal their land,"
-2 Chronicles 7:14.
This passage may have been quoted many times before, but fallen on the wayside on rocky ground or among thorns and thistles. In this one but the last Christmas before the next millennium and at a time when our motherland Sri Lanka is facing its darkest hour, the challenge of Christianity calls us to reflect on what our wicked ways are and what we need to turn from to become effective peacemakers in our country.
The answer comes in a parable, much in line with Jesus Christ's way of giving answers to life's fundamental questions through parables.
The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 25 - 37) may not be a popular story to reflect on especially at a time of cakes and crackers. But this parable more than any other, touches the heights and depths of the Christian calling to inner liberation. We see in it the root of the wicked way or fundamental sin we need to be liberated from.
The parable has four main characters - the man lying stripped, wounded and dying, two priests who passed by on the way for a temple service and the Samaritan going the other way to Jericho.
Civil rights leader Martin Luther King has shared a powerful insight on the inner turmoil and tussle that went on in the minds of the three passers-by before they took the decision - the positive or the negative, the convenient one or the challenging one.
The two priests in weighing the pros and cons would have considered the difficulties and dangers that might arise if they went to the rescue of the dying man.
The bandits who attacked him might come for them too. They would have to go to the police and courts or take lots of other risks. In terms of religion, they would not have been able to perform the ritual if they touched blood in helping the wounded man. Essentially, the question in their mind would have been - "if I go to help the dying man, what will happen to me?"
The centre, the basis and the yardstick for the decision was 'me'- the ''I'' factor. On that basis they decided to pass by and Jesus Christ stunned the religious establishment by saying the priests were not doing the will of God though they were going for a religious service.
The Samaritans at that time were despised and marginalised by the majority and were not tolerated in the religious or righteous society. They could not attend a prayer in a temple or were not invited for a festive meal in the houses of religious people.
In today's terms they would not be invited for a Christmas lunch in the houses of Christians who think they are very religious. This rejected Samaritan also would have reflected on the same problem and risks as the priests did. But eventually the Samaritan would have asked himself, "If I don't help that dying man, what will happen to him?"
The centre and the yardstick of the decision was not "me" but "him". Not self-centred but other-centred.
That is the fundamental difference between God and us. We are largely self-centred. God is totally different. God is other centred. That is holiness in its deepest sense.
We are largely self-centred in the decisions we take and the choices we make. Often, if not always we give priority to personal gain or convenience, personal pleasure, desire or glory. That is the root of the wicked way we need to be liberated from and Christmas is a good time to meditate on it without being carried away by bells, balloons and bon-bons.
The story of the Good Samaritan has another interesting or perhaps a disturbing feature. He was on his way to Jericho, the then trading centre. He probably had a programme or transaction to carry out in Jericho. But he was ready to put off or sacrifice his whole programme to go to the rescue of a stranger from whom he expected nothing in return.
This, Jesus Christ says, is the height of spirituality. All our religious services, rights and rituals would be meaningful only if they are bringing us gradually to an inner liberation where like the Samaritan we could put aside our day's programme and go to the rescue of a stranger. Sincere reflection at Christmas time would show us how far we are from fully responding to the challenge of Jesus Christ though we delude ourselves into thinking we are very religious.
Why are we essentially self-centred, trying to get something for ourselves even from our acts of charity? It is because we are in love with ourselves. Deeply in love, sometimes madly. That is a reality, whether we call it Original Sin or whitewash it in any way. But the good news of Christianity and of Christmas is that God loves us infinitely more than we can ever love ourselves.
Thus his will and plans for us must be infinitely better than any plans we have for ourselves. To carry out this plan God calls us to go above and beyond the self, to let go of the little personal world in which we confine or enslave ourselves and allow God to lift us to the highest dimensions of life like on eagles wings.
This essentially was the experience of Jesus Christ and at Christmas time he calls us to follow him into that experience of God's infinite love which brings about a liberation from the self. We see this in the only prayer He taught, where to the extent possible he verbalised his experience. Not once in the Lord's prayer are the words "I" or "my" mentioned.
It underlines the need for us to be gradually liberated from our self- centred thinking patterns, attitudes and perceptions. We are so tied to self-centred thought patterns that anyone who is good to us is good though he or she may be the worst person. Anyone who is bad to us is bad though he or she may be the best person.
The centre is "ME" whereby we make ourselves the centre of everything. If "I" see good the world is good and if "I" feel bad the world is bad. It is only when we allow ourselves to be liberated from this "I" factor that we begin to touch life at a higher and meaningful level.
From a personal dimension we need to also reflect on the parable of the Good Samaritan in a social context. The battered and dying aspect of the story could involve an individual or an event and a situation. It could be poverty, economic exploitation, environmental pollution or, most importantly for Sri Lanka, the ethnic conflict. Sri Lanka today lies battered, stripped of its dignity and dying. Do we pass by like the religious leaders and go for a Christmas service or carols. Jesus Christ challenges us to do what the Samaritan did. He challenges us to take a risk and take a step of faith to get involved actively in ending the war and bringing about peace with justice through unity in diversity. The best Christmas wish this year might be Rabindranath Tagore's reflection on a story similar to that of the Good Samaritan. These verses from Gitanjali, paraphrased to fit into the situation in Sri Lanka, would challenge us to take the message of Christmas to millions of people who don't know that it is Christmas time.
"Whom does thou worship in the lowly dark corner of a temple (or a crib) with the doors all shut? "Open your eyes and see your God is not before you.
"He is there where the tiller is tilling the hard ground and where the pathmaker is breaking stones (and where millions of people are suffering in different degrees of deprivation or degradation in the war or because of it").
"He is with them in sun and in shower and his garment is covered with dust. Put off thy holy mantle and even like Him, come down on the dusty road".
A pre-Christmas experience in Batticaloa
By Rev. Fr. ßAnslem Silva, former head of the OMI order
The on-going civil war in Sri Lanka is having a devastating effect on the socio-cultural, economic, political and spiritual life of the country. People of goodwill are making efforts to help solve this crisis in our history. At this Cristmas time we wish to share a practical experience we had through a youth exchange programme in Batticaloa.
This programme had its beginnings from July 17-19,at Talawa in the North Central Province.
The Inter-Religious Unit of the Centre for Society and Religion together with the Sama Sevaya at Talawa organized the first Youth Exchange Programme.
It was by chance that we met the YMCA youth of Batticaloa, a group of thirty-five young men and women. We invited them to join our programme and they obliged.
At this programme we invited them to tell us about the situation in the East. They fired their verbal shots at us as it were from a T-56! They really poured out their stories, their pain and their hardships.
They regretted that we were hardly aware of what is going on in the country. We seem to be interested only in cricket. We listened to them attentively but it was evident to us at this stage that the atmosphere was quite tense.
However, they followed the main items of our programme which were two talks by Fr. Tissa Balasuriya, OMI and Professor Jayantha Seneviratne. Fr. Balasuriya emphasized the fact that the Tamils are not forgotten in this present crisis. He outlined in his talk the negative consequences of the political structures and socio-cultural attitudes since independence which systematically alienated the Tamil community from the mainstream of the nation's life and brought on this situation.
During the three days of sharing we had with them with "open stimulus discussions" as Professor Jayantha termed it, a shaking of the foundations of deep-seated mutual cultural antipathies and suspicions began to be felt. The Batticaloa youth were impressed. But their reaction was that this type of discussions and lectures could hardly reach many people. The lecturer very modestly replied that he had addressed over 600 groups like the present one!
In the final evaluation of the sessions they withdrew their comment that we in the South are doing nothing to change their situation. They also said that it was the first time that they were asked by the Southerners to speak about their problems.
Here we considered this specially from the point of view of the teachnigs of the major religions. Representatives of the different religions took part in this. What they all emphasized was that power is not something inherited by one particular group or class of people. It is something all persons in so far as they are human beings possess.
Power is not the property of the State to distribute to others. It is inherent to all persons. What is involved in the ethnic crisis is to ensure that the basic human rights of all people are guaranteed and protected by the State.
Another point of our discussion worth mentioning was a remark made by a person from Jaffna. He said that the Tamils had been reduced to sub-human conditions on account of the war. The burning of the Public Library had a telling effect of their people. They placed great importance in education which was for them a means of survival. Their survival and progress as human beings depended on it.
The war and the torching of the library had reduced them to sub-human conditions. This continues today in the treatment the Tamils themselves meted out to their own people by killing their own.
He referred to the killing of the Mayor of Jaffna that very day. He made an impassioned appeal to us and organisations such as ours to help them out of their hapless plight. They could not trust others.
On the third day the whole group took part in a shramadana cleaning up and colour-washing a nearby hospital. This work constituted a powerful symbol of the bonding that had been forged between the Tamils and Sinhalese, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians.
The Batticaloa youth who earlier at Talawa challenged us that we do not feel their pain and suffering now invited us as their brothers and sisters born in the same country to come to Batticaloa and share their life for a few days.
Accepting such an invitation to the war zone involved a certain risk. Hence we did not expect over 30 youths to volunteer. However, the response was beyond all our expectations. The number of volunteers more than doubled and we restricted it to 57.
This was also true of the Batticaloa youth who also had to think twice before participating in such an unprecedented encounter with the youth of the South.
There too the number of participants was almost three times that of the Southern youths. This clearly indicated the desire of the youth from both sides of the frontier to meet one another, to form relationships with one another and to dispel prejudices.
On this trip to Batticaloa we realized the physical and especially the mental condition of the people due to pressure of the war. The first sign of it was when at a check point a security officer asked us if we could give a lift to a group of students who were stranded as the bus had not arrived and it was getting dark. Other signs followed: buildings and houses destroyed by the war.
The cost of food was high. The town looked quite deserted. The problem of travelling was acute. Many shops were closed. All these were signs of the on-going war. We also realized what real check points were. The tragedy of all this is that people who are born and bred in the same country look with suspicion at one another because they speak different languages and are brought up in different cultures. We as Sinhalese were hardly checked anywhere. But this was not the case with the Tamils, who are subject to checking in Batticaloa, on the way and even in Colombo. The Tamils who long for peace are hurt by this situation.
We also realised the situation of the security forces in their camps. They live under very difficult conditions, yet always on the alert. Talking to them helped us to realise how happy they were to exchange few words with us Sinhalese to break the monotony of their lives and feel a sense of home.
All these drove home to us the fact that these inconveniences and sufferings, the check points and the mutual suspicions are caused by a fratricidal war which must somehow be stopped.
A bright spot in the midst of the war situation was the cordiality that seemed to filter through between the security forces and the Tamil people despite the check points where suspicion is a result of the duty the forces had to perform.
We had the opportunity to see at first hand the horrors of the war. We visited three institutions. One was run by Sisters for orphaned victims. Another was for mentally disturbed children who were also victims of the war. Here we met a Jesuit priest who makes a heroic effort using his great talents and knowledge of psychology to rehabilitate them. The Institution he founded is called "The Butterfly Garden' and the whole setup is in a natural atmosphere to give the children a healing and therapeutic atmosphere.
We also visited St. Michael's College and a few other places where we presented three street dramas which dealt with the ethnic question and ways of working towards a solution. They were well received and appreciated. They were pleasantly surprised that our youth from the South were so much concerned about their situation.
They had already requested us to teach them to present a street drama. In fact some of the Tamil youth took part in our presentations.
At this programme there was a very frank exchange between both groups. Each group listened to the other with a genuine desire to understand.
Finally, our reaction to this unique experience is that the Tamils are not bad people. There are good and not so good people in all communities and races. The war situation has been brought on by several years of exclusion of Tamils from the mainstream of Sri Lanka life.
All the efforts towards a new Constitution will be useless unless the two communities enjoy mutual understanding and profound respect for the common humanity which binds us all. Our programme was a small effort to build up this fraternity and unity. As we bade them farewell our Tamil sisters and brothers told us "The Sinhala people love us."
By Francis Vethanayagam
It's the month of December, the nights are cold and misty, the Christmas fever is spreading fast everywhere. Remembrance of past Christmases tends to bring back happy memories to all. The birth of Christ took place in a stable in Bethlehem nearly two thousand years ago, heralding a new era. History has recorded the Nativity to be, the greatest event ever to be witnessed. He will always remain the Christ of history. For He is the way, the truth and the life. It also reminds us that He will come again in all His glory to judge the living and the dead.
Almost from the first Christmas, Christians have generally regarded this day as holy and a solemn occasion which brought a new spirit of joy to the world. Christmas is not merely a past event in a far off land. It is Christ with us now and the Kingdom of God still to be realised. The birth of Christ signalled a clear, simple and definite message to all mankind.
It was a message of peace, love, goodwill, tolerance, hope, justice, joy and above all forgiveness. We Christians speak and accept this unique message of Jesus Christ as the Gospel which means 'good news'.
The world in which Jesus was born was a dark, rugged and sordid one, in which mankind was suffering a hunger of the soul, seeking a new inspiration and a new light that can lead to peace. He came in to this world not as a king, a ruler or conqueror, but as a lowborn babe in a stable, to bridge the gap between Creator and creature and more than all to save us from sin, slavery and separation from God. Let us then reflect on the significance of the message of Christmas in this our present age of bloodshed, murder, exploitation, racial hatred and senseless killing.
"Be not afraid, I bring you tidings of great joy". This same message is brought to us at every Christmas, but has it meant anything to us or has it had any impact in our attitudes, thinking and way of life? Only when we permit Jesus to be born in our lives, can what happened in Bethlehem happen today in the world in keeping with this message. Christmas is then a time of hope. It is a rare and wonderful gift where God the Father gives us himself in Christ.
The joys and significance of Christmas are two fold, spiritual and material. However down the ages man has fashioned endless variations by which the material joys have surpassed the spiritual ones.
Christmas celebrations have always been associated with gaiety and good cheer, which are outward expressions of this great joy. When we talk or think of Christmas most people think of gifts, cribs, decorations, cakes, greeting cards and visiting friends and relations.
For many it is a time of annual rejoicing for eating and drinking and for making a big noise.
Therefore as we celebrate Christmas this year, particularly when our dear motherland is going through the darkest period of its history, let us all endeavour to curtail the glitter, glamour and feasting and realise the values of life. The spiritual joys and significance should embrace all aspects of prayer, penance, sacrifice and other forms of spiritual revival in preparation for the Saviour's coming.
Even our radical turning away from sin towards God is an event of great joy and significance. The birth of Jesus assured us of a new meaning to our lives and an offer of new life. In what way then have we contributed to this joy in the true spirit of Christmas? Then this Christmas more than ever before, let us identify our- selves and serve the less fortunate ones the way Christ wanted us to do, by loving, caring and sharing as He did.
Let us all make up our minds to the effort of caring and sharing by making some sacrifice. This we should do by parting with something we like best or cherish to be distributed to the least of our brethren.
Such an act would establish a deep sense of equality and oneness on this great day.
The best recipe that should be taken from the Christmas stable to the Christmas table is the recipe of joy, which will come when the inns of our lives are opened to welcome the divine infant in swaddling clothes, lying in many mangers all over the world.
May the birth of the Prince of Peace bring joy and happiness to one and all this Christmas.
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