Thursday, July 26, 2007

Autumn light


It has often struck me that an important aspect of the relation between Gospel and Culture, relates to the way that we perceive the landscape and the changing seasons of the year. When we celebrate Christmas, it is not only the Gospel narrative that we remember, but also the fundamental principle that God is born into the world that we know, and are familiar with. Jesus is born not only in the human heart, but also in the natural environment that is the basis for our home.
Similarly, the Passion and the suffering of Jesus is a journey that Jesus takes through the landscape, leading to the Mountain of Calvary. The time of Passion Week is determined by the moon, and has a very important connection with the rhythms of nature itself. In an Indian geographical context, the season of the year when we celebrate the passion of Christ, should influence the images that we associate with his earthly life. The fact that in India the season of Lent, and Holy Week take place at the time of year which is driest and hottest, should influence our understanding of the Liturgical seasons. In fact Ash Wednesday often takes place very close to the Indian festival of Maha Shivrathri, or the great night of Shiva, when the myth of the Descent of the River Ganges from Heaven is remembered. Ashes are very important in this myth, as the river is supposed to have come down to earth to bring life to the ashes of the ancestors. Ashes, or Vibuthi, are understood not only as a sign of repentance, but also purification. At this time in Indian folk cultures, bonfires are a common feature of festivals, and even walking on burning embers. In the forest tribal communities set fire to the undergrowth, to cleanse so to say, the scrublands, and prepare for the coming of the Rainy season. The ashes created by these fires are believe to fertilize the soil, and we note that in Indian thought ashes are often related to this concept of fertility.

In India the rainy season is a very vital time of the year, and many festivals associated with the transformation of nature can be found in this period of the year. The Christian liturgical seasons have been developed in parts of the planet, where the Monsoon does not play such an important role. And so the period between June and September does not have the same climatic importance that it does in Asian countries, where the Monsoon has a very important function. However, one can link Pentecost with the beginning of those strong winds that seem to be harbingers of the coming rains. The feast of the Transfiguration could certainly be related to the transformation of nature which we observe in the month of August. September-October are a time of the year when the part that Mary played in Salvation History, and also the feast of the Holy Angels is celebrated. This is a time of harvest festivals in India, as also in the West. The fruition of the earth, and the gathering in of the fruits of nature, reminds us of the end of time. In India we have the great festival of the Nine Nights, or Nav Rathri, and also the festival of light which is called Divali. The theme of light, and its part in the cycle of the seasons, as the nights grow longer, is a universal symbol. In the festival of the Nine Nights, we have the struggle between the forces of good over the powers of evil, which finally triumph on the tenth day, or Dushera.

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