THE STORY OF JESUS IN ASIA
Fr Julian Saldanha, SJ
- The Asian context:
- Ultimate questions: A close observer of the Asian scene would probably remark, as Paul once did in Athens, “People of Asia, I perceive that in every way you are very religious" (cf. Acts 17.22). The signs and expressions of religiosity are obvious. He/she would also note that the people of Asia are familiar with suffering and deprivation, whether resulting from natural calamities or from human failure, as in the case of exploitation and widespread corruption, vicious ethnic and communal conflicts. Here from ancient times religious teachers, ascetics and prophets have sought to provide meaning for the lives of their people, in response to those questions which deeply stir the human heart: What is the human being ? What is goodness and what is sin ? What gives rise to our sorrows and to what intent ? Where lies the path to true happiness ? What is the truth about death, judgment, and retribution beyond the grave ? What, finally, is that ultimate and unutterable mystery which engulfs our being, and whence we take our rise, and whither our journey leads us ? (NA 1). Today this journey is confronted with the phenomena of globalization, growing materialism and consumerism (often fostered by the mass media), rapid urbanization and migration: all of which contribute to an erosion of traditional religious, cultural, moral and family values. For Asia it has been a very long journey, in dialogue with that ‘ultimate and unutterable mystery’ and has made Asia the birthplace of the world religions.
- Emmaus experience: In this journey the Asian people have been joined by a divine traveling companion, as were the two disciples on the way to Emmaus (Lk 24:13-35). At times “their eyes were kept from recognizing him" (v. 16), while they talked and discussed among themselves. But there were also times when “their eyes were opened and they recognized him" (v. 31). They have recognized him in varying degrees and perceived him from various angles, as “the Teacher of Wisdom, the Healer, the Liberator, the Spiritual Guide, the Enlightened One, the Compassionate Friend of the Poor, the Good Samaritan, the Good Shepherd, the Obedient One" (EA 20). Some have recognized him still more as the incarnate Word of God, true God and true man, “the Saviour who can provide meaning to those undergoing unexplainable pain and suffering" in the midst of so much suffering among Asian peoples. These made public profession of their faith and became his disciples. They testified, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road ?" (v. 32). Thus there arose communities of disciples of Jesus, local Churches. Some of these, date back to the earliest centuries of the Christian era in Kerala; others, in Central Asia, came later. And finally the great missionary enterprise from the 16th century saw many such communities arise across the length and breadth of Asia. However, the Story of Jesus in Asia has still deeper roots.
- Pre-history of ‘his Story’:
- We can speak of a certain pre-history of the Story of Jesus, which antedates the acknowledgment of him by name. This refers to the presence of the Word and the Spirit from the dawn of history. Like the wind, the Spirit’s action is universal: blowing where it wills (Jn 3.8). The outpouring of the Spirit on Cornelius and his family, even before they were baptized, shows that “God shows no partiality" (Acts 10.34). It is therefore no wonder that we see the fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5.22-23) in the lives of countless followers of other religious traditions, who “by the Spirit … put to death the deeds of the body" (Rm 8.13). John Paul II concludes: “The Spirit’s presence and activity affect not only individuals but also society and history, peoples, cultures and religions" (RM 28). The Word too was enlightening every person from the beginning (Jn 1.9), until “in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son" (Heb 1.2). For Word and Spirit are like two hands of the Father, always acting in unison and harmony.
- If the Word has been in communication with the human race from the beginning, we should expect that when people are presented with the Word become man, they would spontaneously “recognize" him and acknowledge in him the response to their deepest desires. This postulate is confirmed by the positive response which other believers have given and continue to give to the person and teaching of Jesus. This consideration should also inspire confidence in Christians to tell the Story of Jesus to others. As Vatican II says, “By manifesting Christ, the Church reveals to people the real truth about their condition and their total vocation" (AG 8). The saviour myths, which abound in some parts of Asia, may be interpreted as a ‘seeking expectation’, that is the anticipation, seeking and searching in history for the Saviour, the God-man who fulfilled human destiny through his cross and resurrection. In this sense Christ is ‘the expected of the nations’.
- The story of Jesus in the early Church:
- Early on, the Christian communities were keenly aware of the presence of the risen Lord in their midst. That is what constituted them as Church and led them to be “devoted to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship (koinonia), the breaking of bread and the prayers … with glad and generous hearts …" (Acts 2.42, 46). This awareness reached its high point during the celebration of the holy Eucharist, which culminated in the cry, “Marána tha" (1 Cor 16.22): ‘Our Lord, come !’, or ‘Our Lord comes’. They were primarily disciples of him who had said, “Make disciples !" (Mt 28.19). So much was their life centered on Christ, that very soon others began to call them “Christi-ani", i.e. ‘followers of Christ" (Acts 11.26). And their mode of life was so characteristic that the community is simply called “the Way" (Acts 9.2; 19.9, 23; 22.4; 24.14, 22). The form of life they lived was a ‘koinonia’, a unity of love and service, so that “there was not a needy person among them (cf Acts 4.32-35). Their presence in society was to be like salt, light and leaven (Mt 5.13-16; 13.33). Recounting the Story of Jesus could not be divorced from living it in the concrete circumstances of each local Church. Thus the Story of Jesus was being continued along ‘the Way’, to such an extent that Jesus could reproach Saul for his persecution of the Church, “Why do you persecute me ?" (Acts 9.4). The Story of Jesus was not something to be harked back to with nostalgia, but something to be lived and embodied in a community. Hence the earliest recorded writings of the New Testament are not the Gospels but the epistles of Paul, which concern the implications for the contemporary community of the life and teaching of Jesus, in the overarching consciousness of his risen presence.
- The Story of Jesus in Asia:
- Following the example of the early disciples, the Christian communities in Asia are called upon to continue recounting the Story of Jesus, with an “Asian countenance" (EA 20). This is “the greatest gift which the Church can offer to Asia" (EA 10). The Asian Churches continue, even in the midst of persecutions, to give this witness. The newness of life brought by Christ affects and as it were upsets certain criteria of judgment, determining values and models of life (EN 19). Thus Christian mission has contributed in no small measure to the uplift of the tribals and so-called lower castes, to the education and status of women, to the care of the poor and marginalized, especially lepers and Aids patients. Thus there is distinctiveness from other religions, due to the uniqueness of Christ. At the same time, there exists also a certain complementarity, for “dialogue can enrich each side" and result in “mutual advancement on the road of religious inquiry and experience" (Redemptoris Missio, 56).
- The FABC has, over the decades, reflected deeply on this privileged mission. The Asian context suggests an Asian way of sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ. It will be done in “continuous, humble and loving dialogue" with Asia’s poor, with its local cultures, and with other religious traditions. This approach, characteristic of the Asian outlook, is one which stresses the complementarity (ying yang) which exists between peoples, cultures, religious traditions and world-visions, without denying differences. The starting point is: “being with the people, responding to their needs, with sensitiveness to the presence of God in cultures and other religious traditions, and witnessing to the values of God’s Kingdom through presence, solidarity, sharing and word." The Christian communities in Asia will take care to grow in those religious, cultural and family values particularly cherished in Asia: such as love of silence and contemplation, simplicity, harmony, detachment, non-violence, religious tolerance and peaceful co-existence, the spirit of hard work, discipline, frugal living, the thirst for learning and philosophical enquiry, respect for life, compassion for all beings, closeness to nature, filial piety towards parents, elders and ancestors, and a highly developed sense of community (EA 6).
- For Christians in Asia, “to proclaim Christ means above all to live like him in the midst of our neighbours of other faiths and persuasions, and to do his deeds by the power of his grace." The process of inculturation grows out of this insertion: “A Church that stands with sisters and brothers of other faiths in confronting issues of life and death will necessarily be transformed in the process. In other words, it will become inculturated – at a level which includes but goes deeper than changes in ritual and symbol." Such involvement can provide the stimulus for the wide-ranging inculturation which John Paul II urges on the Asian Churches in EA 21-22.
- So evangelization “is a reality that is both rich and dynamic and has various aspects and elements: witness, dialogue, proclamation, catechesis, conversion, baptism, insertion into the ecclesial community, the implantation of the Church, inculturation and integral human promotion" (EA 23). All these elements may not proceed together, but may be phases of the entire process of evangelization (ibid.).
- The Story of Jesus in the lives of individuals:
- In the Asian context, people are more persuaded by the witness of life than by intellectual argument (EA 42). They look for the transformation wrought in the life of those who announce the Story of Jesus Christ: personal experience and detachment. After all, “a fire can only be lit by something that is itself on fire" (EA 23). A person who very powerfully presented the visage of Christ in Asia was Mother Teresa, “an icon of the service to life which the Church is offering in Asia, in courageous contrast to the many dark forces at work in society" (EA 7). By her charity and works of mercy she did indeed “make Christ present in some manner" (AG 6). Asians are called upon to witness to Christ, also in situations of migration, whether within Asia or outside Asia. We must appreciate the many Asian Christian emigrants who continue to remain true to their faith in “situations which are difficult economically, culturally and morally" (EA 7).
- The lives and deaths of our Asian saints and blessed illustrate graphically the Story of Jesus in an Asian context. It is important that we remember these “heroes of the faith" in Asia (EA 49) and publish an anthology of their lives. We should also ensure that the memory of those who have suffered martyrdom in recent decades is safeguarded, by gathering the necessary documentation (“Tertio Millennio Adveniente", n. 37).
The Christian communities in almost all Asian countries are a ‘little flock’. Far from withdrawing into a ghetto, in spite of persecutions and opposition, they are challenged to be leaven and salt in society, indeed “what the soul is to the body, let Christians be to the world" (LG 38). They are no less confident than the tiny Christian communities first established in Asia by that intrepid apostle Paul: “You yourselves know how I lived among you all the time from the first day that I set foot in Asia … testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance to God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ" (Acts 20.18-21).
The Story of Jesus continues to unfold in the lives and experiences of countless Christians and Christian communities in Asia. Like the two disciples, after their encounter with Jesus at Emmaus, they must tell “what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread" (Lk 24.35). There will also be those who will be told by Jesus: “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you" (Mk 5.19). We need to listen to their testimony, so that together we may celebrate our faith and life in Christ.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
- Would you like to share, from your experience, some aspects of the Asian context described in section 1 above ?
- Would you like to give a personal testimony to the difference which faith in Christ has made in your life ?
- Can you give some examples of the Spirit’s presence and activity affecting individuals, cultures and religions (section 2 above) ?
- In what ways do you find the situation of the Christian communities in Asia similar to that of the communities described in the Acts of the Apostles and the Pauline epistles? (section 3 above)
- What scope is there for the dialogue of life and of action in your own life (RM 57; EA 31) ? (section 4 above)
- What can be done to preserve religious, cultural and family values ? (section 4 above)