* Fr. Cedric Prakash SJ
Since several years, 3 July has been a significant day for the Christians of India. It is the Feast of St Thomas the Apostle – one of the twelve disciples of Jesus. He came to India after the Resurrection of Jesus, around 52 AD. It is historically accepted that St Thomas was martyred near Chennai in 72 AD; his martyrdom is commemorated on 3rd July.
This year has added significance: for the first time Christians from all Churches in India (and also Indian Christians who live in other parts of the world) will come together to celebrate ‘Indian Christian Day’ (Yeshu Bhakti Divas). A Declaration prepared by a small group of initiators of the Day (representing various Churches) states:
“This declaration of 3 July 2021 as Indian Christian Day (Yeshu Bhakti Divas) as an annual day of remembrance, is for followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, of Indian origin, to celebrate the person and message of JESUS CHRIST which was brought to India in 52 AD by one of His twelve disciples, St. Thomas the Apostle.
This day, historically observed as St. Thomas Day, commemorates the martyrdom of the Apostle in 72 AD near Chennai. In marking it in 2021 and every year henceforth, we as followers of the Lord Jesus, also preserve our identity within the Indian cultural heritage, while uniting with all who wish to celebrate, irrespective of language, custom, creed, region or religion.
The celebration of Indian Christian Day (Yeshu Bhakti Divas) on 3 July 2021, will launch the Decade of Celebration (2021-2030) to honour the 2000th anniversary of the earthly ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ whose teaching and life principles have helped to shape and transform India and the world”.
Indian Christian Day (ICD) is important on several counts; among them are the fact that it is a grass-root initiative; mooted by a group of lay persons; it is non-political and seeks no political patronage and above all, it brings together Christians from various Churches in India to love, to serve and to celebrate. The Vision Statement of Indian Christian Day (Yeshu Bhakti Divas) states, “to celebrate the person and message of Lord Jesus Christ which was brought to India in AD 52 by one of His twelve disciples, St. Thomas the Apostle, while preserving our identity within the Indian cultural heritage and promoting unity in India”. The day itself is meant to be the launch of an annual day of remembrance for the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ who are of Indian origin and all who wish to celebrate the person & message of Jesus the Lord. The initiators of this day are also unequivocal in their invitation to all women and men of goodwill who would like to join in the celebration of the person and message of Jesus. As one of them states, “in these challenging and difficult times: the world needs more than ever the compassion, the mercy and the courage to stand up for the least, the lost and the last which Jesus radiated all through his life on earth”
Indian Christian Day this year will herald the launch of a Decade of Celebration: the ten years (2021-2030) would lead to honour the 2000th anniversary of the public ministry of Lord Jesus Christ whose teaching and life principles have helped to shape and transform India and the rest of the world. The success of this movement’s impact will be the incremental progress of wide-spread acceptance, appreciation and recognition of the historic presence and influence of the person and teachings of Jesus among Indians.
The day itself will see a plethora of events: locally (in Churches, organizations, areas, districts and even in one’s family); State- wise, a national event and a Global event. Because of the pandemic and the fact that numbers are restricted – most of the events planned this year will be (where physical events are planned) with very small numbers or virtually. A website www.indianchristianday.com has been constructed which provides one the possibility of accessing important information, PDF downloads and the opportunities for involvement in the Indian Christian Day.
Since the time of St Thomas, Indian Christians have contributed significantly to the country in every possible sphere. Christians have been an integral part of the freedom struggle and also members of the Constituent Assembly; they have been Ministers in the Central and State Governments, Governors of States, members of the Judiciary and of other Constitutional bodies of the nation. The contribution of Christians to the field of education and medicare is legendary. Some of the educational institutions of excellence are managed by the Christians (as is evident from the leading surveys in the country recently). Be it in academics or research; in literature or in sports; in the promotion of local cultures or the development of languages; in media and the arts, the Christian presence has always been invaluable. This presence is also seen from the white revolution to the green revolution; from botany to architecture; from social forestry to the care of the environment. Christians have worked selflessly for the upliftment of the poor and the marginalized, the excluded and the exploited, the tribals and the Dalits, women and children. In their loyalty to the Constitution, they have been visible and vocal in their stand for human rights of all. Christians have contributed significantly, objectively and with excellence in every field of human endeavour to this great nation!
There is certainly much to be celebrated! The significant contribution of the Christians to nation-building has come in for praise and appreciation from every quarter: there is no doubt about that. In 1964, the Indian Postal Department issued a commemorative Postage Stamp on St Thomas on the occasion of the visit of St Pope Paul VI to India; in 1973, another commemorative stamp was issued on the occasion of the 19th centenary of the death of St Thomas. Apart from these, Christians have been honoured by the nation through the whole range of National recognitions from the Bharat Ratna downwards for their selfless contribution to the nation!
However, what also is a painful fact is that in recent years there has been increased misinformation about the historicity of the message of Jesus in India; besides from certain quarters there are efforts to discredit the Christians with falsehoods and half-truths. The Christian faith and practice existed in India centuries before European colonization. What is wrongly promoted is the narrative that Christ was introduced to India by European colonialists and to conclude that Christ is against the Indian cultural ethos and people. Indian Christian Day also aims at celebrating the coming of the message of Jesus Christ with Apostle Thomas’ arrival in India and to counteract attempts of promoting a revisionist history with solidarity and hope. Besides, given the circumstances today, it is necessary to establish the historicity of Christ in India, to highlight the impact of the person and message of the Lord Jesus Christ on India and to showcase the ongoing contribution of the followers of Jesus to the development and nation building of India.
On 4 December 2020, the ‘Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity’ of the Vatican, gave to the Church a path breaking document “The Bishop and Christian Unity: An Ecumenical Vademecum.”. The document spells out various dimensions(dialogues) by which a genuine Ecumenical Spirit can be fostered and ultimately move towards the prayer of Jesus, “that all may be one”. The Vademecum emphatically states, “The Dialogue of Life includes the opportunities for encounter and collaboration with other Christians in pastoral care, in mission to the world and through culture. These forms of ecumenism are here distinguished for clarity of explanation, but it should always be borne in mind that they are interconnected and mutually enriching aspects of the same reality. Much ecumenical activity will engage a number of these dimensions simultaneously. For the purposes of this document distinctions are made in order to help the bishop in his discernment. (#15). Further adding, “Ut unum sint teaches that “There is no important or significant event which does not benefit from Christians coming together and praying” Christians from different traditions will share a concern for the local community in which they live and the particular challenges that it faces. Christians can demonstrate their care by marking together significant events or anniversaries in the life of the community, and by praying together for its particular needs. Global realities such as warfare, poverty, the plight of migrants, injustice and the persecution of Christians and other religious groups also demand the attention of Christians who can join together in prayer for peace and for the most vulnerable.” (#19)
There was certainly no connection between the Vademecum and those who initiated the idea of Indian Christian Day. Strangely enough the movement towards this day began early in 2021, a little after the Vademecum was promulgated in the Catholic Church; interestingly enough, the spirit and the thoughts (in a very primary way) of the vademecum began to be actualized in India. Since early February monthly virtual ‘Concept and Vision Meetings’ have been held which have brought in several eminent speakers from the different Churches besides hundreds of participants from everywhere. Among the speakers from the Catholic Church were Mr. John Dayal, Bishop Thomas Dabre of Pune, Archbishop Thomas Macwan of Gandhinagar, Archbishop Anil Couto of Delhi, Bishop Agnelo Gracias of Jalandhar and Archbishop Peter Machado of Bangalore. The underlying message in these preparatory meetings were clear: Christians of India need to come together to celebrate the person and message of Jesus Christ and in doing so ensure that the Constitutional values – which are also in the Gospel of Jesus- of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity become an intrinsic and non-negotiable dimension for all Indians – so that in the years to come peace, joy, harmony and pluralism reign in our land!
The conclusion of the Ecumenical Vademecum has a meaningful but apt prayer for Indian Christian Day: “Father Paul Couturier (1881–1953), a Catholic pioneer in the ecumenical movement and particularly of spiritual ecumenism, called upon the grace of Christ’s victory over division in his prayer for unity which continues to inspire Christians of many different traditions. With his prayer we conclude this Vademecum:
Lord Jesus, on the night before you died for us, you prayed that all your disciples may be perfectly one, as you are in your Father and your Father is in you. Make us painfully aware of our lack of faith in not being united. Give us the faithfulness to acknowledge, and the courage to reject, our hidden indifference, distrust and even enmity towards one another. Grant that we all may meet one another in you, so that from our souls and our lips there may ever arise your prayer for the unity of Christians as you will it and by the means that you desire. In you, who are perfect Love, grant us to find the way that leads to unity, in obedience to your love and your truth. Amen”.
Come 3rd July 2021, Indian Christians are called in a very special way to celebrate in unity (one in heart and one in mind), their faith: to love and serve others; to give and not to count the cost; to be a witness to justice and truth – just as Jesus would have done and expects his disciples to do likewise today! Let us NOT shy in doing so!
*(Fr Cedric Prakash (GUJ) is a human rights, reconciliation and peace activist/writer. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org )