It is most welcome that Sabarimala has happened. There is no public event comparable to the on-going Sabarimala stand off in its scope for educating everyone on the basics of religion; especially what it should not be.
Christmas, in comparison, is a quasi-public event that illustrates what religion ought to be. But what ‘ought’ to be cannot be separated from what ‘ought not’ to be. In that sense, there is a meeting point of irony between Christmas and Sabarimala. How can it be otherwise, if Christmas is ‘tidings of great joy for all humankind’? If the ‘tidings of Christmas’ is not linked to Sabarimala, it ceases to be joy for all humankind. But that ‘linking’ must exist in a state of terrible tension on account of ‘all humankind’ which, includes, alas for the custodians of religious orthodoxy, also women. And, going by the instance of Jesus healing the woman with an issue of blood (Mk. 5:25-34), women also include menstruating women. Jesus says, all are welcome. That could be bad news for some; but it is certainly good news to those who are excluded and stigmatized.
The hallmark of the Christmas event is that is wholly free from any rituals and stereotypical religious practices. In fact, religion in the popular sense of the term, is conspicuously absent from this Event. Instead, it is filled with experiences that belong to the category, ‘life in the raw.’ There are no mitigating circumstances. No social frills. No cultural tokens. No religious ‘bells, smells and yells’ as good old Anglicans used to put it.
The Christmas Event pulsates, instead, with the power of obedience -obedience, as St Paul would say, unto death. A slender, fragile village girl, barely out of her teens, putting herself unconditionally under the yoke of God and becoming, in the process, the human medium through which God intervenes receptively in the human predicament, fully aware that, in the end, a sword will pass through her heart. A young husband, shell-shocked, perhaps, by the swirl of events in his small little world, having to accept the identity of ‘father’ without the logic that leads up to it. A cattle-shed. A few animals. Pain. Utter absence of help. And, in the distant sky, a Star!
Sabarimala, in contrast, resounds with rituals. Sabarimala is not alone in this. It is the insignia of institutionalized religion, without exception. The bane of religion qua religion is that it thrives on a vertical split between rituals and revelation. By ‘revelation’ I mean all that God has revealed, and all that continues to be revealed via the spiritual seeking of individuals, that constitute the meat for our souls (Mt.7:7). It is an unchartered territory, where the plans and pranks of man will not hold water. It is a fiery business between the individual and his Maker; like, say, Abraham being asked to offer his only son in sacrifice. Like Jesus walking past the customs office and, out of the blue, calling Matthew without the courtesy even of a preface. Like, Jesus on the Jericho road, calling Zacchaeus to come down from the sycamore tree that he may abide with Him. Like, Jesus reaching out and touching the leper, breaking all extant proscriptions and regulations in that connection.
Jesus is distinguished more for interrogating and breaking rituals and practices than for falling in with them. I value him even more for imbuing rituals with new and radical significances. That includes the Rabbinical fellowship meal which He transformed into the foremost sacrament for the life of faith. Jesus fares very poorly in complying with the requirements of religious orthodoxy.
Sabarimala is the polar opposite. It is, like church itself, all customs and practices. Can aacharangal, or observances, be compromised, do you think? Even if fundamental and universal values are violated by them, aacharangal must be preserved intact. Now, there are two things we need to know about aacharangal.
Like in Sabarimala, there is politics in the Christmas Event too. It was politics that drove a woman, perilously near her hour of pain, out of her home and into anguished homeless for purposes of a census aimed at inflating the demographic vanity of Rome. Politics threatens, yet again, to break into the Event through Herod, who wants to worship the Babe in order to kill Him! Sounds familiar, no?
It is politics, again, that erupts in all its bloody fury into this Event in the form of the maniacal insecurity of a king – a disease common to incumbents of high offices all through history – that results in the massacre of two thousand infants. There you have it all – atrocities on women and children at the meeting point of religion and politics.
That’s not the whole of the Christmas vision. There is the star after all, rising above the madness that creeps on the face of the earth, slithering through the heart of men addicted to power and rendered insane by the anxieties it breeds. The star symbolizes an aspect of human destiny that is far beyond, thank God, the reach and authority of all man-made centres of power. But for this transcendental dimension of life – the life of every person, irrespective of who she/he is – but for the fiery wall that God erects around life, over which He alone reigns supreme, humankind would have, given the aberrations lurking beneath the surface of our sophistication, exterminated itself.
The ‘tidings of great joy for all humankind’ in the end is really that God does not dwell on this mountain or that. If He had, He would have been a tenant to man and completely under His control. That would have been perverse bad news for all humankind. It is because God is not chained to any mountain that we have a spark of hope left on this bruised and broken world. It is because mountaintops, cattle-sheds and market places are all alike to the living, sovereign God that we don’t have to undertake wasteful pilgrimages and rituals; but can commune with God in personal intimacy with the One who is with us, almost like a cosmic personal need, unto the end of the world (Mt. 28:20).