A Republic in Retreat

As the country celebrates its Republic Day, the media conversation on television and in the digital realm is dominated by two principal subjects – the upcoming Assembly elections in five States and, of course, the third wave fuelled by the Omicron COVID-19 variant. The latter, of course, is highly influenced by the first, with ruling governments both at the state and national level, as well as Opposition parties, paying mere lip service to the expected social distancing and safety protocols, especially in poll-bound states.

At the present moment, India seems to be beset more in shadow than in light. The bright spot has been the country's success in conducting one of the world's biggest vaccination drives in a short span of time – one year to be precise. India's frontline workers have shown sterling courage and capacity in the midst of strenuous and exacting circumstances. We have been able to learn from previous 'waves' and ramp up medical infrastructure to avoid a repeat of the deadly consequences that were experienced during the second wave. While some may yet be critical of the country's pandemic effort and approach, a global comparison shows developed Western countries struggling to cope with a wave of hospitalisations. India has done so much better.

However, this is a lone bright star on the horizon as we approach Republic Day this year. As we speak, the country is in danger of being imprisoned and asphyxiated by a naked majoritarianism that threatens to unravel the lofty vision of the Constitutional Fathers of our country, and the idea of a tolerant, inclusive and spiritual society that India has been known for in the annals of history. The idea of India seems to be receding in the global mindspace, borne out by India's falling ranking in a number of areas such as freedom of the press, human rights, health, economic opportunity and religious tolerance. The world's largest democracy doesn't rank well even on democratic indices at a global level. This is bad news for a country that seeks to become a world leader.

One of the major concerns is the dual-faced approach of the incumbent government. While the nation's Prime Minister consistently reminds us of his 'Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas' vision, he is conspicuously silent when hate speech abounds, and there are open calls for genocide of minority communities, as witnessed recently at the Dharam Sansad at Haridwar last month. Attacks against Christians and other minorities have increased in the recent months, committed by right-wing ideologues, emboldened by a friendly government that looks the other way. Most BJP-ruled states have enacted stringent anti-conversion laws that appear to go against the secular and inclusive moorings of the Constitution of India. Enlightened and thoughtful Hindus would realise that such intolerance and hate-filled violence doesn't augur well for Hinduism itself. History has taught us that an aggressive majoritarianism has a limited shelf life.

As the impending elections overshadow Republic Day celebrations, we are witnessing the familiar 'dance of democracy' with politicians of all shades and hues jumping ship to greener pastures, where they will be guaranteed a slice of power. Politics in modern India has shifted from an ideological conviction to blatant opportunism. To be a strong 'Republic', India needs a political class that sees governance as service, and is dedicated to the well-being of the least and most vulnerable in society. A country that cannot look after its poor and minority groups cannot lay claim to world leadership, leave alone its own. The country's crackdown on human rights activists and NGOs that work for dignity of life and justice for the most vulnerable in society will only prove to be self-defeating. 'Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas' needs to be a lived reality, not just empty rhetoric.

The synodal process that is currently underway in the Catholic Church, with its threefold aim of 'Communion, Participation, and Mission' is a shining example for civil society, and especially for those in governance. The synod is not just for the Church, but is the Church's gift to the world. The principles of 'listening' and 'journeying together' are essential for a strong democracy and a tolerant, all-inclusive society, where each and every citizen feels safe, and is offered an opportunity for fullness of life. Through this synodal process, Christians can be salt and leaven in society, and Indian Christians can help build a Synodal India that is truly a 'Republic'.

Fr Joshan Rodrigues is on The Examiner Editorial Board, with the additional duty of Managing Editor.

Star of the East beckons to Christian Unity

For this Year’s Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity, the theme chosen by the Christians of the Middle East has been inspired by the text - “We saw the star in the East, and we came to worship him” (Mt 2:2). It is the mission of the Church to be the star that lights the way to Christ who is the light of the world. The Church must become a sign of hope in a world of troubles and a sign of God’s presence with His people, accompanying them through the difficulties of life. It is the epiphany when God’s salvation is revealed to the nations. This focus on the theophany is, in a sense, a treasure which Christians of the Middle East offer to their brothers and sisters around the world.

The Magi are seen as a symbol of the diversity of peoples known at that time, and a sign of the universality of the divine call which appears in the light of the star shining from the East. We also see in the Magi’s eager search for the new-born king, all humanity’s hunger for truth, goodness and beauty. Drawn from different cultures, races and languages, Christians share in a common search for Christ and a common desire to worship Him. The mission of the Christian people, therefore, is to be a sign like the star, to guide humanity in its hunger for God, to lead all to Christ, and light the way by which God is bringing about the unity of all peoples.

Part of the Magi’s act of homage is to open their treasures, to offer their gifts of gold, incense and myrrh which, from Christian antiquity, have been understood as signs of different aspects of Christ’s identity. The diverse gifts, therefore, provide us with an image of the particular insights that different Christian traditions have into the person and work of Jesus. When Christians gather and open their treasures and their hearts in homage to Christ, all are enriched as the gifts of these insights are shared.

The story of the Magi also contains many dark elements, most particularly Herod’s despotic orders to massacre all the children around Bethlehem who were less than two years old (Mt 2:16-18). Similarly, the history of the Middle East was, and is still characterised by conflict and strife, tainted with blood and darkened by injustice and oppression. Most recently, the region has seen a series of bloody wars and revolutions, and the rise of religious extremism.

However, it was in the Middle East that the Word of God took root and bore fruit! And from here, the apostles set out to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). The Middle East gave thousands of Christian witnesses and thousands of Christian martyrs. And yet now, the very existence of the small Christian community is threatened, as many are driven to seek a more secure and serene life elsewhere. The star of Bethlehem is a sign that God walks with His people, feels their pain, hears their cries, and shows them compassion. It reassures us that though circumstances change and terrible disasters may happen, God’s fidelity never fails.

Christians are called by word and through action to light the way, so that Christ might be revealed, once again, to the nations. But the divisions between us dim the light of Christian witness and obscure the way, preventing others from finding their way to Christ. Conversely, Christians in solidarity of their worship to Christ, and offering together in prayer their unique gifts to God, become a sign of the unity that God desires for all His creation. After encountering the Saviour and worshipping Him together, the Magi, having been warned in a dream, return to their countries by a different way.

Similarly, the communion we share in our prayer together must inspire us to return to our lives, our churches and our world by new ways. Travelling by new ways is an invitation to repentance and renewal in our personal lives, in our churches and in our societies. In practice, this may mean defending human dignity, especially in the poorest, the weakest and those marginalised. It may also mean that the Churches need to cooperate to provide relief to the afflicted, to welcome the displaced, to relieve the burdened, and to build a just society.

Unity Octave this year, then, is a call for Churches to work together to build a future that harmonises with God’s vision, a future in which all human beings can experience life, peace, justice and love. May the radiance of the Christ child lead Christians all over the world to unitedly dream the impossible dream and reach the unreachable star!

Fr Gilbert De Lima is Professor of Systematic Theology at St Pius X College, Goregaon.

Baptised for an Extraordinary Mission

The Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord is the final 'Epiphany' of the Christmas season, after the first two epiphanies of the Nativity and the visit of the Magi. In spite of the fact that most of us received baptism when we were infants, Baptism is a very adult sacrament. Jesus was affirmed and strengthened by God's love, and then sent out in mission to the 'anawim' - the vulnerable, the marginalised, and socio-economically oppressed, those of lowly status without earthly power. Receiving baptism as a baby is a reminder that God embraces us into His family as a pure gift; we have done nothing to merit our place in God's people. Saint John, in his first letter, says, 'God loved us first.' Before we had learnt to love God, God demonstrated His love for us.

However, as adults, we share in that same mission of Jesus, having been strengthened by the power of the Holy Spirit. While Baptism is a gift, a privilege that God accords to us, embracing us as His sons and daughters through His earthly Body - the Church, Baptism also places on each one of us a tremendous responsibility to be torchbearers of His justice, mercy, charity and love to the world, especially the anawim.

The Gospel reading of the Sunday tells us that "heaven was opened" at Our Lord's baptism. 2021 was a time of shadows and darkness for many who experienced death at close quarters, anxiety, emotional distress, joblessness, strain in family relations, and the debilitating effects of a prolonged lockdown. The feast of Christmas once again brings the light of heaven into our lives through the promise of Emmanuel – God with us. And on the day of the Baptism of Christ, we continue to gaze in wonder at the heavens opened above us. Jesus comes as a gift from God, breaking down barriers created by sin and human weaknesses. By pronouncing His Son to be 'Beloved', God also tells us that He loves us infinitely, hence the gift of His Son to us. Let us be invaded by God's Love!

The Feast is also an invitation for us to walk with Jesus and learn from Him during the "ordinary" events of His public ministry, which will unfold before us as we move into the 'Ordinary' time of the Liturgical calendar. The spiritual sense of the word 'ordinary' is quite different from our regular secular understanding of the term. Jesus' ministry was anything but ordinary, but what we are urged to do is to adopt Jesus' extraordinary love for the anawim as an 'ordinary' practice of our day to day lives. The lowliest children of God should not experience our love only on special occasions, but on a daily basis.

Speaking of Baptism, there is also a baptism of fire being experienced by many Christians around our country as we speak. Christmas Day saw a spate of attacks against Christian gatherings in various parts of the country. Churches and statues have been desecrated and vandalised, and false cases lodged against priests and religious institutions. The United Christian Forum recorded 486 registered cases of violence and hate against Christians, making 2021 the most violent year for Christians in India. The prospect doesn't seem much better at the start of 2022.

As Christians, we must counter this ideology of hate and communal divisiveness with an even stronger outpouring of love, mercy and charity, through a courageous witness of our lives. We must live out our "prophetic" calling as sons and daughters of God, and condemn these acts of violence against our brothers and sisters, and reach out to men and women of other faiths to protect the communal and social harmony of our country. We must use our social, communitarian, religious and political good will to counter this narrative of hate and majoritarianism. The idea and vision of India must be preserved at all costs.

The late Archbishop Desmond Tutu is quoted to have famously said: "If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality." May the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord shake off our tepidness and neutrality.

Fr Joshan Rodrigues is on The Examiner Editorial Board, with the additional duty of Managing Editor.

Mary Mother of God Our Model for the New Year

Fr. Anthony Charanghat

The beginning of a new year brings all sorts of speculation and predictions about what lies ahead. This year seems to augur a period of time mixed with shadows and light. Some people are optimistic and look forward to the promise of prosperity and a challenge to surmount the impossible; but for others, it has marked a time of despondency, fear, and paralysis which the pandemic has wrought by its debilitating dent on health and fatal blows on human life. It is fitting that the first day of the New Year is dedicated by the Church to Mary, the Mother of God our model, who, by pondering on the unfolding mystery of the life of her Son Jesus, was able to face the future with faith, hope and serenity and open herself up entirely to God's will for her.

The mother of Jesus was solemnly proclaimed as Mother of God or "Theotokos"–acknowledging the Godhead of her Son, Jesus Christ who was both divine and human. Under this title she is still reverenced by most Christians around the world, and her feast invites us to place our hopes and plans for the new-starting year under her motherly care. The usual reaction of those who witnessed the miracles of Jesus was amazement. Such reverence was also normal to Mary, our Mother in the faith, the first believer in Christ. But she was also a flesh-and-blood woman of her times, hard-working and willing to serve.

It would be illusory to imagine that her being highly favoured by God to be preserved from sin, made her exempt from the limitations of her human condition- a Christmas card Madonna, serene and sated untouched by the fragility and frailty of human beings. No one has ever lived, suffered, and died in greater simplicity, sharing in the dignity of the poor.

Mary was the handmaid, the lowly servant of the Lord, depending entirely on Providence and sustained by the goodness of God. The bishops at Vatican II told us that Mary stands out among the poor and the humble of the Lord, who confidently await salvation from God (Lumen Gentium 55). In the gospel of St John, she is present at the beginning and the end of Christ's public life. John is the only one to record the presence of Mary at Calvary, "Near the cross of Jesus stood his Mother" (Jn 19:25).

When all the signs and wonders performed by Jesus ultimately led to His passion and suffering and crucifixion, the hope for many faded and abandoned Him, but His mother stood there faithful to Him to his last breath, still believing in God's power to save.

Her faith in Jesus did not need astounding miracles but rested on childlike trust in the mysterious ways of God our Father. Nor did her role as mother cease then, for in His dying hour Jesus said to John, "Behold your Mother." The mother of Jesus will henceforth be the mother of all His disciples, including you and me.

Today on the feast of the Holy Mother of God, which is the octave day of Christmas, we see Mary, in the gospel, marvelling at what has happened, treasuring the events of Christmas in her memory, and pondering them in her heart. The image is that of the contemplative woman who ponders the marvels at the mysterious ways the Almighty has done for her and for all people. Like Mary, we are invited to treasure it, to ponder on it and to respond to it, as Mary did, open to the creative ways of overcoming the challenges of our time. What better New year resolution could we make than that of adopting Mary's stance before the grace of God?

Today's feast invites us to share in Mary's sense of awe and wonder before God's merciful love, made known to us in Christ, Her son. As we look towards the new year, which begins, we ask Mary to help us to treasure the gospel as she did, so that Christ might come to others through us as He came to us through Mary. God walks the journey with us. God will give us what we need to make a difference - in our own lives, in the lives of our loved ones, in our community and in the world and above all to strive against insurmountable obstacles for peace and harmony which lies deep within the human heart and the global family.

Rejoice and Celebrate

Care for our Common Home (Laudato Si' (LS) encyclical) invites us to celebrate Earth, the Sacred Manger, birthing the many incarnations of Emmanuel - God with us. Meister Eckhart often said, "Why talk about Jesus' birth a thousand years ago, if he is not born again among us today?"

COP26 in Scotland ended on November 12, 2021, while the world awaits us, the future unfinished. As we plunge into this unknown, unfolding a new tomorrow, allowing our future to happen now, let us listen deeply to its call. Patient, and with open, empty hands, let us play our part in the Great Cosmic Drama. Let us REJOICE and celebrate Gaudete Sunday ('Rejoice/Joy' in Latin); lighting the only pink candle in the Advent wreath with meaning and freedom, giving birth to what has never happened.

True joy comes with preparation and repentance, growing ourselves and our living testimony to Joy. John the Baptist emphasised preparation and the need for repentance. We need to feel the joy of preparing the way for the Lord. It is a call to be deeply felt and relished. To increase our joy, we need to be generous and share our resources (Lk 3:11), not out of pity, but out of love and kindness, especially with the poor (See LS #49). Such sharing doubles our joy, is contagious, and triggers an entire movement of giving, especially to those in need.

Oxytocin is a chemical in our body that makes us feel warm, good, connected/bonded and loved. Acts of kindness and generosity release oxytocin in our bodies; even witnessing such good deeds releases a surge of this chemical. The more oxytocin we have in our body, the more generous we become. It is Mother Nature's way of trying desperately to get us to look after each other i.e. all God's creatures (See FT #88). We live in a world filled with hunger and deprivation (See LS #49). Sharing is a sure sign of repentance of a world that has kept the have-nots as have-nots.

There can be no repentance without returning to justice. Justice demands integrity and honesty. Greed and hoarding corrode from within. One experiences contentment, but not joy. For sanity and sanctity, we need to act justly. Justice causes joy for the giver and the recipient. Even a small act results in a big transformation.

To manifest repentance, we need to challenge discouragement by feeling and trusting God's presence in our midst (Zep 3:5-6). We experience tremendous joy when we feel God's accompaniment, and know that He is the doer. We are merely the instruments. Christians need to be living testimonies of the Gospel by fearlessly testifying to the joy that comes from having a deep encounter with God, deflecting attention from ourselves, and inviting others to trust in what we testify.

In our stress-filled and fast-paced world, relaxed and necessary time for healthy relationships, fun, laughter and happiness etc. are becoming a rarity (See LS #237). The fundamental Christian disposition to life is joy. Pleasure belongs to the realm of the bodily senses, happiness belongs to the idea of possession e.g. externals, while joy belongs to a deeper reality, a realisation of a connectedness with God, Nature and others.

Gaudete Sunday is the right week to reflect and deepen our joy, by preparing for it, for it can be elusive. Joy can only be experienced in wonder and stillness. Our multi-tasked, press-button generation is in a hurry. We need to slow down. Nature teaches us to be patient, enjoy the present moment, and wait for the fruits of the ground to ripen. We need to find goodness around us. God is in our midst, saving us by working through bold and selfless COVID-19 and other warriors of Hope (See FT #54 and LS #244), Science, Research, Vaccines etc. Finally, we need to believe in transformation. Another world is possible (See FT #183), for nothing is impossible for God. What is my level of joy? How consistent is it? How do I manifest my repentance? Am I willing to commit to JPIC/Laudato Si'/Fratelli Tutti, or do something nice for someone with no expectations of anything in return?

Goodness, together with Love, Justice and Solidarity, are not achieved once and for all; they have to be realised each day (See FT #11). Repentance must be manifested in visible actions, or else it will remain a mere dream (See FT #10), a unicorn, a rainbow, an idea or a concept. Genuine repentance is bound to lead to genuine actions, resulting in genuine joy.

Dr (Sr) Mudita Menona Sodder RSCJ is a Religious of the Sacred Heart of Jesus who resides at Sophia College, Mumbai.

Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord

Fr Anthony Charanghat

The Gospel of Luke (3:1-6) on the second Sunday of Advent, against a backdrop of geography and history - political and spiritual - of his time presents the adult John the Baptist on the bank of the River Jordan. Son of the priest Zechariah though he was, John dissociates himself from priestly temple service. He is the voice in the desert to herald the arrival of God's salvation and consolation to the people. He proclaims the hope for the dawn of the messianic time to the people of Israel and the whole world, calling them to "Prepare the Way of the Lord."

The Baptist chooses the place where Israel crossed over from its wandering in the wilderness into the Promised Land to communicate the essence of his mission – to pave the path of His coming into our hearts. John is calling the people to be awake to the need of making another crossing from the exile of unfaithfulness to God into the landscapes of His merciful love through the forgiveness of our sins. He proclaims a baptism of repentance, a conversion of heart (metanoia) that looks with hope to a committed life of amendment and recompense, and not merely regret of the past.

The metaphor used to convey the path of a journey to open ourselves to God's saving presence is made explicit to us in the image of 'road works with John the Baptist as our overseer'. Today, we are familiar with the infrastructure of a network of highways, EMVs and bullet trains to speed travellers on their way. We too should heed the significance of John's call to hasten our individual and ecclesial endeavour of our synodal journey to welcome the Lord's coming into our hearts.

Some of the practical and simple instructions in the Baptist's manual for the preparatory season of Advent are not to ignore the potholes in our discipleship, those sins of omission that slow us down, both personally and communally, in the growth of our spiritual life. We need to level and straighten out whatever is an obstacle or delay in our spiritual journey of a prompt and total conversion so vital for salvation.

It is crucial to be alert to our self-centredness, if we are to make the way smooth for others who find it difficult to travel to God, because of our intolerant and erratic behaviour. Do we indulge in outbursts of destructive 'road rage' towards our sisters and brothers? Have we a Kingdom vision that enables us to see and accept the twists and turns of personal tragedy and ecclesial failure?

There is a crying need to take decisive action to repent and make restitution for the harm perpetrated on the victims of abuse in the Church. This would be the ideal way for our times to prepare the way to the advent of Christ – to transform the painful realities that the Church has been reeling under in recent times. This is the reason why Pope Francis repeatedly begs pardon for the wrongdoings of the Church and has implemented stringent procedures in the interest of reconciliation.

Jerusalem, the city of the chosen people, is imaged by the O.T. prophet Baruch as children who have been carried off and scattered by the enemy, leaving her without a future and a hope. Nevertheless, his prophetic and consoling assurance is that God will strip them of their mourning garment, and will cloak them in the newness of God's beauty and mercy, as the dawn of the messianic time is near, if they respond to His mercy and return to the path of righteous living, turning to God in repentance.

Baruch offers no reason for the transformation except for the mercy of God, and one's response to His gratuitous and empowering mercy. The Church, the new Jerusalem, too must humbly acknowledge its many failings, and pray to God who alone can save and transform our own tears, our own inner deserts, and give thanks individually and collectively for the great things the Lord has done so often for us.

St Paul endorses this kind of hopeful trust in the Lord to the Church at Philippi and to us, as he commends fidelity to the Gospel way of life of collaborating in unity and mutual love, so that Jesus may bring His work of salvation in us to completion by the time He comes again.