Incarnation the Basis of Divine Art Forms

Light of Truth

Bp Gevarghese Mar Aprem
(Auxiliary of Kottayam)

Episcopal Ordination on October 29
in Kottaym Cathedral
by Moran Mor Baselios Cleemis Thottunkal

Pope Francis appointed Father George Kurisummoottil as the auxiliary bishop of Kottayam Syro-Malabar archdiocese to take care of its Knanaya faithful from Syro-Malankara Church.
He was the vicar general for the Syro-Malankara faithful of the archdiocese. Father Kurisummottil has chosen the name Gheevarghese Mar Aprem.
The new bishop was born on August 9, 1961, in Tiruvalla, Kerala’s Pathanamthitta district. He entered St Stanislaw’s Minor Seminary in Kottayam after primary school. He did his philosophical and theological studies in St Joseph’s Inter-diocesan Seminary in Mangalore. After his priestly ordination on December 27, 1987, he served as vice-rector of the minor seminary for three years.
He served for ten years in various parishes before earning his Master’s degree in Sacred Art at Holy Spirit Maronite University in Kaslik (Lebanon), where he resided from 2001 to 2004. He was the director of the “Hadusa” Commission for the Performing Arts of Kottayam archdiocese from 2009 to 2013. He speaks to Light of Truth:

What is your motto as bishop? how would you paraphrase it?

My motto is Jesus’ prayer (St John’s Gospel 17:21) “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” The love between the Father and the Son should be expressed through the Church in the world so that the whole humanity shares that divine Trinitarian love. At the same time, it has some sort of an ecumenical orientation as well. Because, as I am a Malankara bishop, my fundamental mission is that ‘all should be one’ in the one flock of Christ.

What do you think is the real impediment to that oneness and unity?

We all have our egoism, but to the extent we lower ourselves, the mind and the will of God will express through us. Egoistic interest divides people and the Church.

How do you see the tussle in which the Orthodox Church and the Jacobite Church are now involved?

I don’t blame any particular person or community for it; it is more of a structural problem, but we all are part of it. Who are capable of finding a solution by changing the structure? Obviously, the heads and superiors have the upper hand in the structure. They should take a benevolent attitude. They have to be humble before God to do the will of Christ. This is more of a power struggle, because many secular trends have crept into our Church. It is egoism that makes the Church problematic.

As a bishop, are you member of, the Syro-Malabar Synod or the Malankara Synod?

Since I am appointed as the auxiliary of Kottayam archdiocese, I belong to Syro-Malabar Synod. When Rome announced my appointment, it was announced in Mount St Thomas, Kakanad simultaneously, which shows it is the part of Syro Malabar Synod. This arrangement was made in consultation with both the Syro-Malabar Synod and the Malankara Synod. I belong to the Syro-Malankara rite, which has a community of less than five thousand in 16 parishes in the diocese of Kottayam. I am given the charge of the pastoral care of the Syro-Malankara people within the Knanaya community.

As a community, you have your roots in the people who came with Knayi Thomman from Persia centuries ago. It was an exodus. They may have been driven out or they may have come away on their own. Whether persecuted or not, they were migrants who came away from their land of birth. How do you see your Christian life in the background of Exodus and migration?

We always believe that it was a missionary migration intended to make the Church here more vibrant. And we became part of the community of the St Thomas Christians who were here then. After our migration, this Syrian community became more hierarchical and also adopted East Syrina liturgy. The same liturgy as that of Chaldea enriched and aided the growth of faith through this community. It upholds the same spirit now. Even today, the same missionary spirit is alive in every Knanaya Catholic.

The question of expulsion from a land where one lives is also a very concerning problem today as well? Too many people from Persia and the Arabian Peninsula are being expelled from their motherland because of their religion. How do you see it?

Yes, it’s very true that religious extremism of one kind or the other is causing migration on a significant scale. When I was studying iconography in Maronite University, Lebanon, I met many seminarians from Iraq and Syrian rite from whom I got the impression that they were in the good books of the military government of Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s rule. The same was true of the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad. Presently, all through the Middle East, Christians are expelled from their own land.
We have on the one hand Christian ministry of charity and on the other hand the harsh reality of war to deal with. The political leaders find themselves in a dilemma. But we have the spirit of love; we have within us the sacrificing love of Jesus Christ and the missionary spirit to face these issues. And I think we should see it as our mission. After all, what is Christianity really? From the very beginning, it has been a persecuted Community, and persecuted Christianity is our real identity. So, we have to face and deal with animosity and war in that spirit.

At the same time, you feel the problem of the sons of the soil. Even in India we are feeling the same spike of fundamentalism. People were driven out of Mumbai for the same reason. The same situation now exists in the gulf; how do you face it?

It is really a pathetic situation. I understand their feelings, because I lived among them. They are treated as second class citizens in their own land. And I think the Church also should fight for them and protect their own right to live in their own motherland. It’s an obvious part of justice.

You studied also in Lebanon, a country practically divided between Christians and Muslims. How is the relation between the two faiths in that country?

When I was there, that is, in the early part of the millennium, they had a vibrant democracy based on communities. Even among the Muslims, they have denominations, just as do Christians. So, they have proportional representation for the various communities. But they also have migrants, especially Palestinians. Now the number of Christians has got reduced. They had a civil war in the 70s and 80s. After Muslims migrated to the country in big numbers, the peace got disturbed. Then the Christians had to take up weapons. Consequently, majority of Christians migrated other lands. But now they have a very vibrant democracy.

The same situation has also arisen in the European Countries whom Pope Francis had asked to open their borders for the migrants from Gulf Countries, especially the Muslims. But not all Christians in European Countries welcomed them. How do you look at migration into Europe and the co-existence of Muslim migrants with people of other religious?

When the Pope speaks, he has to stick on to the Christian doctrine; he cannot dilute that at any cost. That is our real spirit of Christianity. But, at the same time, many European Countries from their own experience realised that these migrants cause social disturbance in their country. So, theirs is a political decision. We have to accept that.

Even in Kerala, we are having similar problems. What should be the attitude of bishops and bishop’s councils to them?

Some decisions or comments have come in recent days from certain bishops. They are mindful of the responsibility they have to safeguard the Christian community. We cannot neglect that aspect. But the Pope was addressing a very severe problem of migration, because people were coming away abandoning everything. That is not the case with us.

You have worked as the director of ‘Hadusa,’ the commission of performing arts of Kottayam archdiocese. How important is art, literature and music for Christians?

Art is a part of human endeavour. In liturgy also we use it as much as the possible. It is a part of our adoration, it is a part of our Christian life as well as social life. Art is the measuring yard of a society’s culture. In history it was the Church and church leaders who promoted art. Likewise, we also should promote literature and art.

What is your experience with ‘Hadusa’?

‘Hadusa’ is an endeavour of the Kottayam archdiocese. My predecessor Fr Vellian organized and modernized Margamkali. They succeeded in developing it into a competition item in youth festivals. After I was took charge of it, I trained the teachers of Margamkali, and later they propagated it. So, it was a ministry that did a lot of good for our community, and the larger society as well.

Margamkali is a form of dance that is specific to the knanaya community. How important is it either to liturgy or to life?

In India our basic art form is dance. So, all other arts are born out of it; we see that in Bharatha’s Nataya Sasthram. The Church fathers have taught us that the relation between the three persons of the Holy Trinity is ‘Perichoresis,’ which is dance, the dance of love. So, in dance we experience bliss or ananda. I think we, Indians, incorporate this idea to our Christian theology. So, if God is dance, then God is a rhythm of love, and we have to get into that rhythm. It’s a great mode of spirituality.

Natya Shasthra written by Bharatha speaks about Natya Veda. This perhaps is nothing other than liturgy. Liturgy is Natya Veda, we could say. How important is art, whether it be dance, music, or any other form of art, in liturgy?

My field of study is iconography and specifically I studied Syriac iconography. It has its origin in the very beginning of history. It is a part of the human endeavour. Through painting and drawing, we express our faith in art forms. Initially it was developed by the Syrian Community in the Middle East. After that, it was adopted and developed by the Byzantine Greek Church. They developed and used icons in their liturgy. Icons express very well a deep theology and faith with biblical basis. I think we have not developed it very much, but we got some art forms from the missionaries after the sixteenth century. But Icons are more authentic, because they display the depth of our faith, doctrines and teachings. So, it is my wish that iconography should be incorporated in Kerala’s Christian community as well.

When you speak of Byzantine or Syriac icons, which images or pictures of it are divine?

After the controversy about Iconoclasm was settled in the second Nicean Council in 787, great importance was given to the veneration of icons, and the concept of incarnation was expressed very much by the Church father John of Damascus. The basis of every icon is incarnation. Christ is the image of the invisible God. When we believe in the incarnation, it means we can see, feel, touch, hear and experience God in the person of Jesus Christ. So we can draw and paint the image of God as expressed in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. In other words, incarnation is the basis of icons.

All of the different arts are varying forms of bodily presentation. You manifest your body in different forms; it may be in music, image, or icon, or whatever; it has to do with the body. How important is the body as far as a Christian is concerned?

“The Word made flesh” is the base of our salvation. All of our liturgy is prayer and adoration, which is also a show. Everywhere faith is expressed or embodied in language, music, dance action and performance.

Do you recommend music, dance and performance in liturgy?

The liturgy was developed by the community of believers. If the community accepts something, that should be incorporated into the liturgy, there is no problem at all. It is the expression of our faith. If the whole community takes it well, then there is nothing wrong in incorporating music, dance, and other forms of art in Liturgy.

In other words, incarnation is the embodied happening of art. We people in India incarnate our faith in the literary, artistic, cultural forms of the land; are you then ready to accept our forms Bharatha Natya and Indian music as the expression of our adoration, prayer, thanksgiving etc?

If it is acceptable for the Church, then there should be no problem. Liturgy is not static; it is a process, and it should be developed further. Every church has its own tradition in this regard. So, it is from the background of that living tradition all developments should happen. But that tradition also has to be in tune with the culture where you live and breathe. It should interact more with the indigenous culture than with the western or foreign culture.

You have been for 30 years a priest; what have you found the most endearing and the most challenging in the gospel of Christ?

It is surely the love of Jesus Christ. But the problem is, we fail to express it sometimes. There is only one thing that we need, approach that love of Christ with deep humility. In the gospels, Jesus calls everybody to His banquet. He invites everyone, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and all. We stick to the universal approach, which is the most challenging part in the gospel. There should be an option for the poor always.

You are a man of prayer; what do you pray and why do you pray?

I pray to be always in touch with God. If I am in touch with God, then He will lead me. To the extent we pray, we become holy.

Every society, every community, every religion is increasingly shrinking into fundamentalism. It evidently happens in Islam and Hinduism; does it also happen in Christianity?

It is happening and it has become a trend, because, in recent times there has been a strong tendency developing among us to stick to our own community. A kind of communalism, which leads to fundamentalism. Christians also sometimes incline to such a mentality. But we must be very much aware of it. We should go against such a tendency and hold fast to our own great teaching of love and fraternity.

What does change of your name as bishop signify?

This is a tradition of the Malankara as well as the Antiochian Church, because in that tradition a bishop candidate always comes from a monastery. The parochial priests are married people, and normally bishops must be unmarried, so they are usually monks. Later it became a custom that, before making somebody a bishop, he should be a monk superior called ‘Ramban.’ There is a ceremony in which he is given the monk’s veil called ‘Ramban fisusa.’ It has a spiritual significance. Because in monastery a monk supposed to have a deeper touch with God than others, he must be the least attached to the world.

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