28th March 1999
By Fowzul Aleem Farook
Pilgrims undertake the pilgrimage to Mecca to perform Haj barely two months after purifying themselves from worldly desires and unhealthy habits by fulfilling the obligatory fasting as Almighty Allah commanded in the Holy Quran: "Pilgrimage to the House of Allah is a duty man owes to Allah - upon those who can afford the journey".
When Hajees set out in the path of Allah they are reminded that they prepare themselves for peaceful exit from this world. To perform Haj, Hajees leave behind their much loved property, intimate friends, blood relations, kith and kin and further their cherished motherland for a short period. Pilgrims realize there will come a time when they have to leave everything mentioned above suddenly, forever.
After reaching the Holy City, it is most heartening to see in the midst of the desert of Mecca, the Holy Ka'aba where pilgrims make Tawaf (circuits) seven times reciting, "O Allah! I beg of thee forgiveness and peace in this world and the next. O, Lord, give us good in this world and good in the hereafter and save us from the torment of the fire."
The noteworthy feature in Haj is that pilgrims all wear the same simple plain white unsewn cloth and live in the same way. The white cloth the Hajees wear is unique in the sense that it does not differentiate between kings and laymen, the powerful and the weak.
The distinctions of rank and colour, wealth and nationality disappear. Those who converge in their thousands, assume one aspect and one attitude before the Master. The true love of Allah becomes a reality and the Hajees are imbued with immense love of the supreme Being. Haj leaves a deep and everlasting impact upon one who performs it. Most of the religious rites pilgrims perform are that of Prophet Ibrahim, his wife Hajara and their son Ismail. This gives the faithful an insight into how a family at a time of tribulation was united by obeying the Lord of the Universe "Rabbil Alameen."
To honour the Prophet Ibrahim, (peace be upon him) and his family till doomsday, Almighty Allah has commanded the Hajees to exercise virtuous acts like running seven times between the hillocks known as Al Safa and Al Marwa.
Hajara Alaihissalam ran in search of water in the barren desert to quench the thirst of her baby Ismail. She was astonished to see a bubbling spring where baby Ismail lay and today every pilgrim drinks, bathes, and washes their Ihram clothes from this miraculous well of Zam Zam. It is also believed that Prophet Muhammed had said that Zam Zam was a cure for any disease. This famous well of Zam Zam which was rebuilt some years ago has been providing water to the millions of Hajees from the time of Prophet Ibrahim five thousand years ago, without receding. This proves the Almighty Allah's supreme power over his creations.
Soon after leaving Mecca, pilgrims go to Medina, the City of the Prophet Muhammed. According to Anas (May Allah be pleased with him) the Prophet said 'O Allah bestow on Medina twice the blessings you bestow on Mecca'. Once the Hajees reach the entrance of Medina the green dome of the Prophet's Mosque comes into sight. Hajees spend more than eight days in the Prophet's town and have the opportunity to visit various historic sites and pray for those souls whose sacrifices 1419 years ago made us mould our life according to the teaching of Islam.
While Muslims in Sri Lanka and the rest of the world celebrate Haj Festival as usual, in Mecca, Sri Lankan Hajees will be busy along with Hajees from all parts of the world fulfilling the haj rites in places like Mina, Arafat, and Muzdalifa. At Arafat, pilgrims make supplication (dua) recite Holy Quran, deliver sermons and Dawa and earnestly seek the blessings of Allah and his forgiveness. Like last year, this time too Sri Lankan pilgrims will devote more time for supplication to bestow peace and happiness to our motherland in the House of Allah Ka'aba.
By Louis Benedict
The number of your endless sacrifices-
This challenging and disturbing outburst from the Prophet Isaiah, regarded as one of the most powerful scripture passages relating to social sin and unseen structural injustices, provides substance for a meaningful reflection on our sacrificial assemblies and appointed feasts including Good Friday.
God in distress thunders through the Prophet that He cannot bear to look at some of our feasts or assemblies and turns His face away when we raise our bloody hands in prayer.
Most people would agree that the highly commercialised aspects of Christmas are among the feasts that God cannot bear to look at because they have become an abomination.
The booze parties and carnivals connected to many of our church feasts also fall into the category from which God turns His face away.
What about Good Friday? We may not have turned it into a big business sale like Christmas but we need to ponder deeply whether hundreds of Catholics this year came forward to fight for the rights of Good Friday, or the rites of Good Friday. Whatever it is, now that Catholics have fought for the rites or rights, we all need to become more aware of the responsibilities that flow from the amazing and incredible experience of Good Friday.
In millions of people tormented by the deep ongoing war or violence, Christ is abandoned and suffering. While Catholics were demonstrating for the right to carry out their largely wooden rights as usual, a mother from the north spoke of how she commemorated the last 10 Good Fridays amidst the bombs and gunfire of a bunker in Jaffna.
In the millions of people who are being pushed deeper into enforced poverty through privatisation, globalisation and all the fancy jargon of a structural evil that makes the rich richer and the poor poorer, Christ is abandoned and suffering.
The responsibilities of Good Friday call first for reflection and then for an inner response, carrying us above and beyond the traditional rituals and the fasting or other little inconveniences we are ready to face but within a circle where we feel secure and don't have to take any risks.
Though we think we are religious, most of the time we are imprisoned or enslaved within the circle of seeking our own needs or wants, our own comforts, security and satisfaction. We go round and round this glorified mudhole and end up feeling empty, restless, frustrated or powerless.
Christianity is not a religious circle but a journey, meaning we must allow ourselves to be carried above and beyond ourselves or our own needs and conveniences.
Let us hope this Good Friday would be a time of deep repentance enabling us to see the whitewashed sepulchre or religious mudhole in which we are caught up and go round and round without much meaning or purpose. As we repent and surrender before the amazing Grace of the Cross we could go beyond the prison walls of the self and touch life at a higher level.
For this there needs to be a death to the self. As Jesus Christ said, "Unless a seed falls to the ground and dies it remains one useless seed being kicked round and round. But if the seed falls and dies it will grow into a beautiful tree providing the fruit of love freely to all."
A paraphrase of a modern day parable by Michael O' Brien would provide a practical action-plan to make Good Friday more meaningful.(See box story)
We know about the three Wise Men who came to Bethlehem and brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh for the newly- born king. What we may not know about is the fourth Wise Man who saw the fulfilment of his mission not at Christmas but on Calvary.
The fourth Wise Man, shall we call him Navaratna or Navaratnam, lived in the East. He studied the stars and read ancient, learned books. From his studies and readings, he learnt about the new bright star that was to appear in the sky as a sign that the long- awaited King had been born. And then one night he saw the star: 'The King was born.' And then came an urgent message from his three friends: "Join our caravan as we cross the desert so as to honour the King in Jerusalem."
Joyfully he set out on horseback to join them. He had almost reached his destination when his horse shied and halted. There was a man dying and if he stopped to help him he would be late and his friends might go without him... He stopped, helped the man on the road and saw to his needs. But then his worst fears were realised: his friends had gone. So he had to return to the East and sell the Sapphire,(one of the three jewels he was going to give the king) and buy some camels for the journey.
And now for Navaratna there followed 33 years of searching in Jerusalem, in Bethlehem, in Egypt, in Alexandria.
Nowhere could he find the King. But everywhere he went he did good. Worn and weary he came once more to Jerusalem: something told him that this time his search was to be rewarded. And then there was tumult on the streets of Jerusalem. Navaratna was told : "The man who called himself King of the Jews is being led to be crucified at Calvary, just outside the city." Navaratna trembled: was this to be his meeting with the King? Would his pearl be the ransom that would free the king from his enemies? God's ways would indeed have been strange!
But before he could start making his way towards Calvary, his attention was caught by the sight of three soldiers who were dragging a young woman along the street. Navaratna looked towards the young woman with compassion. Seeing him she broke away from the grasp of the soldiers and threw herself at his feet. "Help me, sir," she cried. "My father has died and I am being sold as a slave to pay the debts he left behind. Save me from a fate worse than death."
Navaratna trembled. What was he to do? The King was so close and in great need of his help. But this young woman at his feet was even closer to him than the King and her need was great, very great. His decision was made: he placed the pearl in her hands: "Here is your ransom : it was the last of the jewels I had kept for the King."
And then suddenly the sky grew dark, almost as if it were night and shuddering tremors ran through the earth, stones were loosened and crashed into the street: the soldiers fled in terror, as he and the girl looked on helplessly. Navaratna thought to himself: "The quest is over and it has failed." But he felt a great sense of peace. And then a heavy tile, shaken from the roof, fell and struck the old man on the temple . As the girl stood over fearing that he was dead, a voice through the darkness came sweet and encouraging. She could not hear the words but then the old man's lips moved as if in answer, and she heard him saying:
"Not so, my Lord: when did I see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you drink? When did I see you a stranger and make you welcome? Naked and clothe you? Sick or in prison and go to see you? For thirty- three years I have looked for you: but I have never seen your face or turned to you my King." And then the sweet voice came again and now the girl could just hear the words very faintly, very far away, and yet very close": "I tell you solemnly in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to Me." A calm radiance of wonder, joy and peace shone from the face of Navaratna. He gave one last long breath of relief,his journey was ended. His treasures had been accepted. The fourth Wise Man had at long last found the King.
Although the gospels narrate the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, there are more details many of us are privy to, which improve our understanding of the Paschal mystery. These stories appear in gospel commentaries, which are not available to the average reader. William Barclay, the Scottish interpreter of the New Testament gives many stories that provide an insight into the Passion narrative.
We know from John's Passion story that Jesus had to cross Brook Kedron to get to the Garden of Gethsemane. There is symbolism there because around 250,000 Passover lambs which were slain for the occasion were in the precincts of the temple courts and their blood had to pass through a channel to Kedron. 'This blood drain' was a chilling reminder to Jesus that soon his blood would flow, ending the sacrifice of the lamb forever, which up to then had been only a prototype of His sacrifice.
Jesus was arrested by soldiers who may have been from the temple police, that included Roman soldiers. A Roman cohort had 600 men and instead of fearing them, Jesus went forward and declared that He was Jesus of Nazareth.
John tells us that from there, Jesus was taken to high priest Annas who was the power behind the throne of Jerusalem. Four of his sons had also held the high priesthood and Caiphas was his son-in-law. When Rome invaded Jerusalem this post which was earlier held for life, became temporary thus resulting in bribery and corruption. Sometimes it went to the highest bidder, who was willing to toe the line with the Roman governor. Annas had ill-gotten wealth from the temple rituals, such as selling temple lambs at very high rates, which had aroused Jesus's wrath, resulting in His chasing the traders away from the temple premises.
In the Gospel of John, there is a reference to 'the other disciple' besides Peter who had been in the high priest's house during the trial. There is much speculation about his identity even 2000 years after. Some identify him as Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea who were members of the Senhedrin, while others say it was Judas who may have had access to the high priest's palace due to his betrayal of Jesus. But it is mostly conjecture that it was John himself, who so graphically details the trial.
Barclay says that it was none but John because his father had a flourishing fish business, as hinted by Mark( I/20) and John's father supplied salted fish to the high priest, allowing John access to the palace.
Peter may have thought that he was safe there, due to John's familiarity in the palace and risked himself only to meet trouble by denying Jesus.
Peter is said to have denied Jesus thrice, inspite of being forewarned by Jesus about the 'cock-crow.' This is not the cry of a cockerel for they were not allowed in the Holy City. According to Barclay it was the changing of the guard at night. The three-house watchers were at 6, 9, midnight and 3am. At the change of guard there was a call which was Gallicinium in Latin and alektorophonia in Greek, both meaning 'cockcrow'.
It is a pity that we only think of Peter's denial but not about him wanting to be with Jesus, while others had run away.
Jesus was a Jew, and the Jewish death penalty was 'stoning to death' and not crucifixion. Did Jesus know beforehand that He would not be stoned to death? He did and that is why he said, "If I be lifted up from earth, I will draw all men unto myself" ( Jn. 12/32).
Under normal circumstances no Jew would go into the court of Pilate, whom they considered an enemy. That was Gentile territory, and they would not defile themselves, as they had to be ritually clean to eat the Passover. But to go to Pilate's home was worse. The law said: 'The dwellings of Gentiles are unclean' and the Passover was the feast of the unleavened bread. Leaven meant evil, hence to go to Pilate's palace was to look for leaven. How strange it was that Jews who meticulousy abided by the ceremonial law, hounded the Son of God even into the home of Pilate.
Incited by their high priests, the Jews screamed for His death. To pacify them, Pilate asked them whether he was to crucify their king, to which they replied, "We have no king, but Caesar". At other times they had persistently refused to recognise Caesar as their ruler, let alone king. After Jesus was condemned to death, He was led away to Golgotha carrying His own cross. It is said that Jesus did not carry a full cross, but the beam, as the upright pole was already fixed atop Calvary, a Latinized word for Golgotha, which meant skull in Hebrew. Legend has it that the place retained the skull of Adam, while it is also conjectured the hill was in the shape of a skull. An inscription, "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews" was carried in front of the procession going to Calvary.
On arrival at Calvary the quarternion ( four soldiers) gambled for Jesus's clothes.
Every Jew is said to have worn five articles and after they diced for four, what remained was Jesus's inner tunic. Without cutting it into four, which would have rendered it useless they diced again, thus fulfilling a prophecy in the Old Testament. 'They have parted my garments and upon my vesture they cast lots'.
The tunic, legend has it, was woven by Jesus's mother, Mary as a gift to Him when He began His public ministry.
But John, the evangelist, who alone records it, has left a hidden meaning in the details. The tunic sans seams was what Jewish priests wore to indicate they were the link between God and people. John wants to show that Jesus was the real mediator between God and men, the perfect priest.
Besides the cross there were, Mary, wife of Cleopas, Mary, mother of Jesus and her sister Salome, mother of James and John. The other Mary was from Magdala the woman from whom Jesus cast out seven devils (Lk.8/2). Some non-canonical gospels identify Mary of Cleopas as the woman who dared to rush across the mob and wipe Jesus's face with a cloth giving her the name Veronica.
John alone mentions Jesus's thirst. Critics say that John wrote his gospel in AD 100, when Gnosticism was at its height and it was rumoured that Jesus only had a spirit and no body. But that seems a fallacy because John tries to show Jesus's humanity even on the cross. He alone records that Jesus said, 'It is finished', whereas the synoptics only wrote that 'Jesus died with a loud voice. (Mk 15/ 37, Lk 23/46, Mth 27/50) According to critics it was John's motive to show that by that utterance Jesus expressed joy that His work was finished and victory achieved. As John is said to have compiled his gospel after his Revelation experience, it is more spiritual.
Why did Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus take Jesus's body down and bury him, when even his beloved Apostles did not? Joseph gave his tomb and Nicodemus bought the clothes. These two men were members of the Senhedrin, but had failed to take Jesus's side when He was brought to trial before the Senhedrin. Were they afraid of the high priests?. We know that Nicodemus had come one night in secret to discuss religious matters with Jesus. The Jewish law stipulated that if two witnesses spoke on behalf of the accused he would be freed, which if done here by these two, would have saved Jesus's life. Was it to appease a guilty conscience they did what they did after Jesus died? We will never know.
And how many of us, like Joseph and Nicodemus ignore situations where we can help another? These are lessons we can learn from the past.
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