Why do we love Onam? Should a Christian celebrate such secular festivals?
With ref. to Jinesh John's observation reg. Onam at Church on 31/7/10. All of us must be waiting eagerly for `Onam'this year fall on 23/8/2010 (Monday) which is one way of making ourselves feel near to our roots. Onam is dear to us as it is more a national festival of the people of Kerala than a festival for the Hindus. Thought about the popular appeal of Onam, it came to realize that its popularity arises from the values that the festival tries to uphold. It is actually a nostalgic journey back in time into the golden era of King Mahabali's rule. Many of us, who have done their schooling and spent their childhood days in Kerala, know the Malayalam 'Onappattu' about the time of yore when Mahabali ruled. 'All humans were equal. Life was joyful and there was no danger. Sickness, sorrow, child deaths and evil were unknown in his country. All people were good. There was no thieving, cheating or lying. Double measure- which the Bible says is abhorrence before God (Proverbs 11:1) was also unknown in Mahabali's country'. It seems a Utopia-a Ramarajya or Kingdom of God.
“He valued these wedding festivities because they involved people, and Jesus came to be with people. Our Christian mission can often be accomplished in joyous times of celebration with others. We can bring balance to our life by bringing Jesus into times of pleasure as well as times of work.
Onam is a history of `summum bonum'. The remembrance of goodness helps us to keep up our faith and values and the belief in the ultimate victory of Good.
However, the story of Mahabali is not all beauty and harmony. He is sent to the `Netherlands' by Lord Vishnu as Vamana. Why does this happen?
Mahabali was a proud man and prided himself in his benevolence. It was this pride that caused his end. Against the advice of his Guru Sukracharya, he promises Vamana land equal to 3 measure of his feet/or 3 steps and Vamana shows his true stature. He covers the universe with 2 and Mahabali bows before him and allows Vamana to find space for the 3rd step on his own bowed head rather than arouse the anger of Vishnu and destruction of his subjects. He is allowed one grace- he could visit his beloved people once in every year at Onam and the people welcome him with rituals that recall the time of his rule. Just as we remember the Supreme Sacrifice of Christ at Calvary (Divyabali) by way of the ritual of the Church-the Eucharist or Holy Qurbana, Onam recalls the Maha- Bali or the great sacrifice of the King. The king had actually sacrificed everything he possessed including himself to Vishnu or God. He had given away Bhur-the matter, Bhuvah-the mind, and suvah-the soul. These three combine to form the human. This is in consistence with the exhortation of St.Paul as he has said in his epistle to Romans: "Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God- this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is-his good, pleasing and perfect will" (Verses 12:1-2).
Onam is also a festival of harvest and sharing. Of course sharing involves a sacrifice. The centuries have not taken away the sanctity of the sacrifice. People of all faiths-Christians, Hindus, and Muslims-all joins together and rejoices, and shares their resources. People try to come together in merriment and live in amity at least for a few days during Onam season. The event substantiates the hope and belief of the people in complete communal harmony and creates in them a sense of common cultural heritage. This will indeed inculcate a sense of civics,sense of oneness, and patriotism among the people of the God's own country wherever they be. More than everything else, it proves that the good deeds are the seeds to beget love.
Generations have been thriving on them till today. Hopefully they will continue to do so in the times to come. Since Onam is a Feast of Harvest with the first fruit of the crops sown in the field, there is nothing wrong in celebrating it. And it is biblical to do so. (Exodus 23:16). There may be some tint of paganism attached to Onam, but the instance of Abraham giving tithe following a pagan practice prevalent in his time and that tradition which has still been an accepted practice of the Christian church vouchsafes the celebration of onam by the Christians.
But how that Onam is is relevant to us- the Christians? Is it not the very same supreme sacrifice of Christ Jesus on the Cross of Calvary that is being implied through the commemoration of the sacrifice of King Mahabeli that is mentioned supra? Where else we find trace of historical evidence for such a noble king? Is it not correlative and coincidental that on analytical study of the nature and attitude of Jesus Christ-the historic king of the Jews (Mat: 27:37) and the Mahabali- the legendary king of the Malayalees, both seem to be one and the same? (Ref: Proverbs 11:1, Micah 6:9-16). Both have to their credit a life full of goodness, compassion and a unique sacrifice. Their posthumous visitation to `Sheol'(Hades) , followed by the coming again to visit his flock, happens to be another common feature. (In 1 Peter 3:18-19 Jesus is seen at `Sheol' preaching the good news to the departed souls and after resurrection he is seen very often visiting his disciples (John 20:2-23, Mat28:1-10,1 Corinthians 15:6-8, Acts 1:4-8,9:1-9) .The Christians live in the hope of `Parousia'-the second coming of Christ as the ultimate visit to his people. Onam is nothing but the commemoration and celebration of the coming again of King Mahabali.
Harvest and Sharing are the salient features being highlighted in both the traditions. Onam is undoubtedly a festival of harvest and sharing and the very concept of Christian life and hope is all about harvest and sharing (Genesis 8:22, Deuteronomy 16:15, Mathew 9:37, Hebrews 12:11, Revelation 14:15). In short, the legendary story of Mahabali carries in it connotations of sacrificing of our lives for our friends as our Lord Jesus taught us (John 15:13). Our celebrations of onam become meaningful only when we have a spirit of selfless sacrifice in our own life. The spirit of Onam is akin to the spirit of Christianity and we-the Christians who awaits the second coming of Christ - are supposed to absorb this festival as our own, in this spirit. It is possible if we are able to see Christ in place of King Mahabeli.
At this auspicious occasion of Onam, let us take an oath that we would lead an honest life free from corruption and set an example to other human beings to get to a righteous way of life. Moreover, let us pray for and re-dedicate ourselves for the welfare of our fellow beings. We are living in a time when racial discrimination splits apart nations throughout the world and ethnic wars destroy entire cities. We have to bring in peace and unity to the world around us. What all we need to do in achieving this goal is to do what is just, to show constant love, and to live a humble fellowship with God and our fellow beings as taught by the holy Bible(Micah6: 8).
At this joyous moment, let us share our resources with all those who are poor and needy... Let us cherish the virtue of sharing and look forward hopefully and prayerfully to the eschatological coming of Christ. Let us make ourselves and our fellow beings ready for the final judgement. May God be with us always and guide us in His love with His wisdom and blessings.
Let our lives be a message to all those who are around us. Though we miss in the Diaspora our dear ones and our mother country, let us pray for them and be proud of our rich cultural heritage. Whereever we are at present on the globe, let us impart the glory of Onam to our young generation. With a purity of heart, love and enthusiasm, let us usher in the festivities of onam to our midst and join hands in our efforts to bringing down the blessings of heaven.
I wish you all a very Happy Onam in advance and a prosperous new year!
With love and prayers,
St.Peters Cathedral, New Delhi