Monday, April 02, 2012

12. WEEKS OF GREAT FAST (Sawma Ramba)

 “During the Weeks of Great Fast, the Mar Toma Nazranees celebrate the Passion and Death of Iso’-Msiha.”

            In this context, we cannot but meditate on the sin of the first Parents, the consequent inclination for sin that got strengthened in man, its bitter consequences, the need of repentance and conversion, God’s love and mercy, and so forth.
            The fact that Death is the result of Sin stands out very clear in the creation story.  In this biblical background, the celebration of all the Departed on the last Friday of Denha Season is a beautiful introduction to the Season of Great Fast.

            Mar Toma Nazranees used to keep up the special memory of the beloved departed all through the Season of Great Fast, by visiting their tombs and praying specially for them.  November devotion, which is fully alien to the Mar Toma Margam got established during the latinization period.  Hence, Mar Toma Nazranees are bound to restore this authentic practice of theirs as early as possible.

            There are seven weeks for the Great Fast.  The Fourty-day fast of Iso’-Msiha is considered the basis for this fasting in the church.
            Since Sunday is the Lord’s day, the day for the celebration of Resurrection, nobody can fast on that day.  Friday of Passion (Good Friday) and Great Saturday are days of special rigorous fasting for Mar Toma Nazranees.  When these two days and all the Sundays are removed from seven weeks, the rest is exactly forty days.

            Mar Toma Nazranees, however, used to abstain from qualitative food materials, such as meat, also on Sundays during this fasting.  Thus the Great Fast is known among them as 50-Day Fast.

            The Great Fast begins on Pethratha Sunday.  The Syriac term, peturta means “looking back” or “reconciliation”.  This liturgical Season is one of looking back to one’s own life and of real reconciliation.
            Special Prayers, extra fasting and generous almsgiving are indicated as the best means for remission of sins by the Mar Toma Margam.

“Hence, everyone ought to pray more during the Great Fast; must forgo some items and activities very dear to him/her and must positively help at least one person who is in real need.”

            There is great importance for the attitude of Reconciliation in Mar Toma Margam.  This attitude, as the Bible points out, is fundamental to our life of faith.
            It is only from a deep awareness of being sinners, of being separated from God the source of life and of being redeemed, that believers will be able to raise authentic and sincere praise and thanksgiving to God the Redeemer.  This Salvific Experience is the attitude of Reconciliation.
            We express it several times during the celebration of our Qurbana and other liturgical acts.  But the Season of Great Fast is a special occasion to proclaim this attitude.  The Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession) is a typical expression of this attitude.  Hence it is very difficult to call one a real Christian, if he/she fails to celebrate at least once this Sacrament of Reconciliation during the Weeks of Great Fast.

“If any one says, ‘I love God’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this Commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also” (I Jn 4, 20-21).

            The Mar Toma Nazranees should follow exactly the above said teaching of St. John the Apostle.
            The emotional stress, which is the result of sin, and the consequent mistakes are seen in all peoples.  Mar Toma Nazranees ought to face them always in the light of faith.  Evils such as quarrel, revenge, enmity, dissension, and so on, must be amended during the Great Fast.  It is, indeed, an occasion for spiritual and social resurgence.

“We repeat often in our prayer: “forgive us our debts and sins as we have forgiven those who offended us”.”

            Different individual Churches have different rites and ceremonies to begin fasting.
            The Latin Church has accepted the Old Testament symbols of sack cloth and ashes (Jon 3, 6) to proclaim her attitude of conversion and reconciliation.
            The Eastern Churches, however, give importance to the clear instructions of Iso’-Msiha in this matter:
“And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men.  Truly, I say to you, they have their reward.  But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Mt 6, 16-18).
            Each individual Church ought to begin her fasting according to her own special ecclesial heritage. The Latin Church thus, begins her fasting on Ash Wednesday with the rite of ashes.

“Mar Toma Margam has a different heritage in this case.  It begins fasting on Monday itself.  It prescribes special liturgical prayers, perfect abstinence and generous almsgiving for beginning the Great Fast.”

            Typical commemoration of the Passion and Death of Iso’-Msiha comes during the last week of this Season, the Passion Week or the Great Week or the Holy Week, as it is called.  During the weeks before, the stress is on an intense life of the Paschal Mystery.
            Unless we become more and more divine, by entering into the depths of faith through genuine assimilation of the Paschal Mysteries, we will not be able to comprehend the inner meaning of Iso’s Passion and Death.  True self-control and bodily sacrifices are very essential for this.  As for Mar Toma Nazrazees it is to be specially mentioned that this is a vision of life or life-style against the background of the religio-cultural situation of their own motherland India
            A hymn from their Liturgy of the Hours will prove this assertion:
            “Holy fast in the Church is like the tree of life; its fruits are good for food and its leaves for medicine.  By fast, the mind becomes enriched with spiritual thoughts; by words of praise, the purity of mind is preserved sacred; the body, however, obtains heavenly oil.  Fasting illumines the eyes of the body, energizing it by the oil of mercy; man becomes a sacred abode to the living Holy Spirit both in his soul and body”.

            Last week of Great Fast begins with Osana Sunday celebration.  What is celebrated on this day is the glorious entry of Iso’ into the city of Jerusalem.  The procession with palm leaves in connection with the Divine Liturgy remains the symbol and commemoration of that unique historical event of Iso’s life.

            Mar Toma Nazranees celebrate the Passion Week most becomingly.  The liturgical celebrations are most solemn and elaborate in this week.  As the liturgical day begins with evening prayer (Ramsa) in Mar Toma Margam, all the most important celebrations of this week, i.e., from Monday till Saturday, are arranged in connection with that Prayer-Hour, namely, Ramsa.  As far as possible, the other Prayer-Hours of this week also are celebrated solemnly in churches.

            According to Mar Toma Margam, Thursday of Pesha is the feast day of the Holy Mysteries or of the Sacred Body and Blood of Iso’, or of the Holy Qurbana.  It was during the last Pesha celebration of Iso’ that the Apostles were authorized to celebrate the memorial of his Body and Blood until his second coming at the end of time.
            In order to commemorate the feet washing at the Last Supper, the celebrant washes the feet of 12 persons during the Qurbana in almost all churches of Mar  Thomma Nazranees.

            Pesha Meal is one of the special practices existing among the Mar Toma Nazranees.  In their families, on Thursday of Pesha, a special type of bread (Kurissappam, i.e., bread with a cross mark on it) and sweet drink (usually known as “milk”) are prepared.  At night, after supper, the family members get together and conduct special prayers; thereafter, the father of the family breaks the bread and gives a piece each to everyone; the sweet drink is also distributed likewise.  All consume them devoutly.
            Everybody knows that this meal is not to satisfy the hunger: it takes place after the usual supper!  In some places the neighbours also are invited to this Pesha Meal; but never the non-Christians, even if they were the closet friends.  On the first Thursday of Pesha that comes after the death of the father of the family this special meal is neither prepared nor eaten solemnly; on the other hand, the members of the family take the bread, brought to them by neighbours or relatives, without any solemnity.
            There is very much similarity between the Paschal meal of the Jews and the Pesha Meal of the Mar Toma Nazranees; only certain differences resulting out of the circumstances are visible.  This fact leads us to the conclusion that many among the first Mar Toma Nazranees were Jews themselves.  This unique celebration points also to the historical fact that Iso’-Msiha instituted the celebration of his Body and Blood, the Qurbana, on the occasion of Jewish Paschal meal.

            All the celebrations of Passion Friday are centred around the Mar Toma Sliba, which for Mar Toma Nazranees is the icon of the historical person of Iso’-Msiha.
            Before beginning the liturgical functions, the Mar Toma Sliba on the Bema is dressed with Kottina and Urara.  During the celebration, after the reading of the Gospel, the principal celebrant removes the vestments of the Sliba and covers it with a pure white
linen.  Then he himself carries it in solemn procession to the sanctuary and lays it on the altar.

“Bema is Gagulta and altar, the Sepulchre of our Lord.  So what is done, is the Sacramental commemoration of the Death of Iso’ on mount Calvary and his burial in the tomb.”

            In between the liturgical functions, there is a washing of the Sliba with water and giving it to the faithful to be kissed.  After kissing the Sliba, they also taste from the water used for washing the Sliba, mixing it with bitter herbal juice.

“Since the Sliba stands for Iso’, its washing is a preparation for the burial of Iso’s Body; kissing it is the last greeting accorded to him and the tasting of the bitter water is a personal sharing in his suffering.”

            A solemn procession around the town or village or the church itself, as it is customary in the funeral rites of bishops and a farewell procession as is customary in the funeral of Priests, are common features of Passion Friday.  The same Mar Toma Sliba, which was washed and kissed is carried solemnly in these processions.

            At the end of the solemn liturgical function, the particular Sliba, having been covered again with pure white linen, is buried under the altar itself; if inconvenient, it is laid on the altar and covered with sosepa.  “Altar” for Mar Toma Nazranees is the tomb of our Lord, and the Sosepa, the tomb-cover. 
As tradition shows, the faithful used to keep vigil and pray at the tomb of the Lord (in the church) throughout the night of the Passion Friday.  On such occasions, learned priests used to deliver long sermons too.

            According to the genius of Mar Toma Margam, Passion Friday is one that glitters in the light of Resurrection.  Unless the Lord was risen, his suffering and death would not have had any value.  May be because of that our fathers were prompted to picture the crucified one as the all powerful King who rules over the whole universe from a Chariot that is Sliba.

“Iso’-Msiha suffered willingly and died.  That was to enter into glory, conquering death.  It was precisely to give us the NEW LIFE that will never perish.
            It is such FAITH-VISION that urges the Mar Toma Nazranees to commemorate Passion Friday, focussing it on the Mar Toma Sliba which is the lofty symbol of Iso’s Death and Resurrection, and that of the New Life which flows there from.”

A piece of hymn from the Liturgy of the Hours can make it all clear:
            “You who are subject to death, be comforted and rejoice!  because the power of death is destroyed; Iso’-Msiha by his own power has conquered death and by his Resurrection has offered new life.”

            The liturgical celebrations of Great Saturday are centred on Baptism.  Baptism for a faithful is the sharing in the death and Resurrection of Iso’-Msiha.
            Evening Prayer (Ramsa), actual Baptismal rites and Holy Qurbana are the important celebrations of the day.  If convenient actual Baptism itself is included in the celebration; if not, rituals that may evoke a baptismal liturgical experience are included.

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