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Easter: Reflections and New Beginnings

Easter in India   While the media may give you the impression that Easter is all about Easter eggs, Easter bunnies and Marshmallow peeps, many Christians around the world assign a much greater meaning and somberness to the holy season of Lent and Easter. When we were growing up in India (and it is true even today in large parts of the country) we had little knowledge of eggs, bunnies and peeps. To us, especially young kids, it was a time marked by much hardship. We knew we had to give up certain things that we really liked. Folks would prepare for Easter much like how honest devotees would prepare themselves as Ayappa Swamis for their journey to Shabarimalai. Something that we commonly used to see in Mangalore.

   For those who are not very familiar with the details, Easter is the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ three days after He was crucified by the Romans. This makes Good Friday, the day Jesus was crucified, a holy day of reflection. And given what happened on Good Friday, one doesn't greet anyone by saying "Happy Good Friday". You would reserve such greetings for Easter Sunday which is in fact considered as the most joyous event in the Christian calender. Yes, even greater than Christmas. But first things first.

  Forty days before Easter, much like Ramadan, Christians all over the world observe a period of sacrifice and reflection called Lent (or the Lenten Season). During this time one is expected to give up something that he or she really likes or enjoys. Most commonly people give up eating meat, chocolates, smoking cigarettes, alcohol etc. Naturally, when we were kids, Lent was not the most favorite time of the year for us. We would get very anxious as Lent grew closer since we knew we had to give up non-vegetarian food, chocolates, watching TV and movies. As is evident, folks in Mangalore (a southern coastal town in Karnataka that has a large concentration of Christians) tend to take their Lent seriously. While some made concessions for eating fish, the purists frowned upon everything that is considered non-vegetarian. Fridays are considered especially holy and one is expected to observe a fast. If one followed such stringent restrictions faithfully, the onset of Easter was truly considered as a Joyous occasion regardless of its religious significance. They could at last get their hands on what they gave up!

  But what does all this mean? and why do we do it? Besides the religious connotations that apply mostly to Christians, there are aspects to these practices that each of us can relate to. For many of us, things like sacrifice, introspection and strict discipline does not come naturally. We need some urging and coaxing. Understanding that there is a kind of love where a person would give their life for us makes us desire to be better individuals. Reflecting on our actions in the past shows us where we went wrong and where we can improve ourselves. Giving up something instills in us a certain kind of discipline and diminishes our tendency to become greedy, reduces our wants and desires and might even make us generous towards others. But the hope is that all this will induce an overall "niceness" in you which will show in your interactions with others. And heaven knows we need more of such behavior in these times of hatred and intolerance. And for those of us who believe in God and a higher power, this period helps in establishing better lines of communication.

  Wishing all our readers a very Happy Easter. May you always be inspired to be kind, loving and tolerant towards everyone around you!

Kerala - Asia's cradle for Christianity

Oldest Church in IndiaChristianity took root on the Malabar coast (now Kerala) in the first century AD around the seven churches that St. Thomas established there. Christian faith has since flourished across the land, coexisting with other religions. Now 11 of the 23 dioceses in India are in Kerala.

Kerala is a narrow stretch of lush green territory that lies on the southwest coast of the Indian subcontinent. Hindu legends claim that Kerala rose from the sea as a gift of God. The name Kerala means "the land of coconuts". The scenic beauty of Kerala is one of the most outstanding in India. The entire land is interlaced with rivers, placid lagoons, paddy fields and coconut palms. Plantations of rubber, tea, coffee, pepper, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon and other spices cover the highlands in the east, earning Kerala the nickname of "the spice coast of India".

The lure of spices attracted traders from the Middle East and Europe to the many trading ports - Calicut, Cranganore, Cochin, Alleppey and Quilon - long before the time of Christ. And it was on a trading vessel plying between Alexandria and the Malabar coast that St. Thomas the Apostle arrived in Cranganore in 52 AD.

There he began preaching the Gospel. His teachings were accepted not only by those who chose to become Christians but also by those who chose to remain Hindus. The teachings eventually got integrated into the beliefs and traditions of the local communities, into their family history, into their songs and dances. St. Thomas established seven Christian communities or churches in Kerala. They are in Cranganore, Paravur(Kottakavu), Palayoor, Kokkamangalam, Malayattoor, Niranam, Chayal (Nilackal) and Kollam (Quilon). Throughout Kerala, one can find Christian families that are proud to claim descent from ancestors who were baptized by Apostle Thomas. Sankarapuri, Pakalomattom and Maliekal are the prominent ones. Some details of this combined tradition may be found in songs - the "Rabban Pattu", the "Veeradyan Pattu", the "Margam Kali Pattu" and others that now exist in written records.

The Church in Kerala had a high missionary spirit. Christians from Malabar spread their faith as far as Maldives and Indonesia. St. Thomas Christians were considered high caste, along the Hindu tradition, with special privileges granted by the kings. The archdeacon was the head of the Church, and Palliyogams (Parish Councils) were in charge of temporal affairs. There were women deacons. They had a liturgy-centered life with days of fasting and abstinence. Their devotion to the St. Thomas Cross was absolute. Their churches were modelled after Hindu temples. In short, the St. Thomas Christians of Kerala had blended well the ecclesiastical world of the East Syrian Church with the socio-cultural environment of their homeland. Thus, the East Syrian Church was Hindu in culture, Christian in religion and Syro-Oriental in worship.

In 1498, when the Portugese navigator Vasco da Gama landed on the Malabar coast, there were an estimated two million Christian souls across the land, and they had 1,500 churches under the jurisdiction of a single Metropolitan who lived in Angamale. Besides, the Church had, by then, expanded to the neighbouring Mylapore and Nilgiris as well as northward along the Arabian Sea coast to Goa, Saimur (Chual), Thana, Sopara, Gujarat and as far as Sind, now a part of Pakistan. This, indeed, was the Golden Age of the East Syrian Church.

The arrival of Vasco da Gama, however, marked the start of a turning point and heralded a new struggle for the East Syrian Church. Because the Portugese, who later established trading posts in Goa, Daman and Diu north of Kerala, moved against the East Syrian Church leading to tragic, ecclesiastical incidents. According to Joas de Castro, the Portugese Viceroy in Goa in 1548, the sword of the Portugese was wielded "mainly against the centuries-old Christians of Kerala". This was because only in Kerala did the laity stand steadfast against Western colonization, and maybe the Portugese, who were under the Roman Church, considered everything outside Roman as heretic.

The move against the Syrian Church was followed by Western Church establishing a European diocese in Goa in 1534. In 1557, Pope Paul IV declared Goa an archdiocese with its supremacy extending from the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa to China, and all Christians, including the East Syrian Church, brought under its jurisdiction. The East Syrian Archdiocese of Angamali then became a dependent of Goa.

This Europeanization process led to divisions in the Church, as there was considerable resistance against Western domination. The Christian communities then split into many groups - East Syrian Catholics, West Syrian Catholics, Syrian Orthodox, Jacobite Syrian Orthodox, Marthoma (those who accepted the Anglican Church but with the Eastern Liturgy), Church of the East (those who accepted the Nestorian Patriarch), and the Latin Church.

In 1887 Pope Leo XIII issued the bull of "Quod Jam Pridem", which liberated the Syrians from the jurisdiction of the Latin prelate of Verapoly and placed them under two Eparchies - one in Trichur and the other in Kottayam (both in Kerala). More recently, on January 23, 1993, a papal declaration again upgraded Ernakulam to major Arch Episcopal Church with the title of Ernakulam Angamaly.

Today, there are 23 dioceses in India. Eleven of them are in Kerala with a number of priests from Kerala working in many parts of the world. Kerala has one vocation (priest brother, sister) for every 70 Catholics. No other community in the world has so many vocations. Most of the Syrian families have a priest, a religious guide and mentor.