Just like culture, religion is dynamic, allowing it to encounter and intermingle with another, and in turn it may even produce a certain hybridity.
In Sacred Scents in Early Christian and Islam, Mary Thurlkill shows, for people’s example, mind how-scent sets and influenced lifestyles. Furthermore, scent crept into the religious sphere and fashioned religious worship. Interestingly, according to Thurlkill, the use of incense in Christian worship became widespread only after the Edict of Milan in 313, when Christianity was made the religion of the Roman Empire. Before that period, incensing was deemed a “pagan” practice and thus had no place in Christian worship.
We may remember an incident during the Synod on the Amazon from Oct. 6 to 27, 2019. Two men entered the church of Santa Maria in Transpontina, snatched the carved wooden images used during the synod, and threw them into the Tiber River. Some suggested that such an act of vandalism was a loud and clear message from a sector in the church that is weary of enculturation, which Pope Francis is reinforcing.
In response to this incident, Stephen Bevans wrote in The Tablet, “The deliberate desecration of the Amazonian statues also rests on a historical mistake. Christians have from the very beginning made use of the concepts and icons in the cultures in which they find themselves to express their faith. Early depictions of Christ the Good Shepherd are, scholars say, based on Greek depictions of the god Hermes carrying a ram on his shoulders.”
Indeed, Christianity never exists in a vacuum: It has always been in a “rhythmic dance” with cultures, and other religious traditions, too. Right from the very beginning, the early Christians had to grapple with the question of whether or not the Gentiles should be welcomed into the church and opted for inclusivity by welcoming the Gentiles.
Christians, who lived during the Umayyad rule and among Muslims in Andalusia, were able to create “La Convivencia,” thanks partly to their resilience and willingness to be in a constructive dialogue, and engaged in this rhythmic dance with the Islamic and Arabic culture wherein they lived (Maria Rosa Menocal, 2002).
Understandably, some may find such mutually enriching encounter scandalous and unacceptable. Still, others fear the danger of syncretism. But in spite of its dark history of conquests and horrible acts committed during the Crusades, and abuses of Native American culture, Christianity has always been in constructive dialogue with other cultures from time immemorial.
More often than not, Christianity adopts other cultures and makes them its own, sometimes with a decision from the hierarchy. But Christians of Andalusia demonstrated how Christianity could be resilient and accommodative in such an organic way that they were able to learn from Islam and the prevailing Arab culture for their own benefit.
Now, at this trying time of the COVID-19 pandemic, where physical distancing is prescribed, and liturgical services have been halted, the Church is showing resilience and creative fidelity once more.
In their initial response to this virus, churches worldwide still conducted their regular weekly services, making only some minor changes in their liturgy like doing away with the handshake during the sign of peace, and requiring the congregation to receive the Host by hands.
But as the situation worsened, churches halted their regular services altogether. In place of regular weekly Sunday masses at church, priests preside private masses (without their congregations). Others have broadcast liturgical celebrations through social media platforms and livestreaming for the faithful to participate from their safe abodes.
Sadly, this year is going to be the first time in Christians’ lives that they will not be able to attend the most elaborate and beautiful liturgical celebrations in the Holy Week due to COVID-19.
One may blame the pandemic for the disruption it brings to their normal lives. But COVID-19 has also presented us with an opportunity to be a church in a wholly new and creative way. After all, God’s love is creative. That same creative love has been imbued in the hearts of those who believe and empowers believers not to surrender so easily to the horror of the cross. It’s this strong faith that has inspired Christians since the time of old to abide in God, in spite of the odds, and come out victorious.
Jesus of Nazareth has opened that possibility wide open through his life, passion, death and resurrection, which Christians worldwide solemnly commemorate during this Holy Week. Perhaps, Christians of this age must not succumb so easily to fear which COVID-19 has brought. Rather, they must learn to turn this pandemic into opportunity and blessing. We may have not been able to fully grasp the blessing this pandemic is unfolding before us now.
In his reflection, prior to the extraordinary plenary indulgence and “Urbi et Orbi” on March 27, Pope Francis mused, “Embracing his cross means finding the courage to embrace all the hardships of the present time, abandoning for a moment our eagerness for power and possessions in order to make room for the creativity that only the Spirit is capable of inspiring. It means finding the courage to create spaces where everyone can recognize that they are called, and to allow new forms of hospitality, fraternity and solidarity.”
Like the disciples who hurdled themselves in the locked upper room out of fear (John 20:19), we might find ourselves in the same circumstance of paralyzing fear due to this pandemic. But the risen Lord’s word to his disciples in his post-resurrection appearances was consistently a resounding “Peace.” Like the disciples, we must embrace the peace the risen Lord brings.
May His peace help us conquer our fear in this world torn by COVID-19, and embolden our resolve to work together with people of goodwill, for a much better and healthier church and the world, where “new forms of hospitality, fraternity and solidarity” thrive to the fullest.
Jakarta Catholic priest from Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (CICM) Order
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.