On Easter Sunday, at the end of the Paschal Liturgy, the faithful exchange Paschal greetings. In some churches the priests and the faithful present each other with Easter (Paschal) eggs.
Wooden eggs with icons hang as decorations from lamps and chandeliers in the churches, and from the vigil lights in the homes. The Coptic Christians of the Orthodox church in Egypt often hang ostrich eggshells in the front of their churches. The eggshells evoke the image of the mother ostrich’s single-minded and calm concentration on the eggs in her nest. It reminds the faithful how they should pray and conduct their spiritual life.
There are many legends about the Easter (or Paschal) Eggs.
One apocryphal legend concerns Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ. It tells of the time when she gave eggs to the soldiers at the cross. She entreated them to be less cruel towards her son and wept. As her tears fell upon the eggs, they spotted them with dots of brilliant color.
Through the ages, the egg symbolizing new life and fertility appeared during many spring festivals. To the Egyptians, Persians, Romans, Gauls, and the Chinese, the egg symbolized the rebirth of the earth at springtime.
Saint Augustine, an early Christian theologian and philosopher whose writings influenced the development of western Christianity described the Resurrection of Christ from the dead as “a chick bursting from an egg.” This analogy represents the rebirth of humans through Christ. Hence, the Christians identify the egg with the tomb from which Christ rose and used eggs during Easter celebrations.
Many cite the following apocryphal story as the tradition of the first Easter Egg associated with Mary Magdalene.
Mary of Magdala is a major saint in the East, where she is never associated with women of ill repute and known as being equal to the apostles. She traveled with Jesus as one of his followers and was present at two most important moments in the life of Jesus: the crucifixion and the resurrection.
After the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ, Mary Magdalene gained an audience with the Roman emperor Tiberius Julius Caesar. She denounced Pontius Pilate, the fifth prefect of the Roman province of Judaea from 26-36 AD for his mishandling of the trial of Jesus.
She then told the emperor about the resurrection of Jesus. The unconvinced emperor pointed at an egg on the dining table and riposted that there was as much chance of a human being returning to life as there was for the egg to turn red. As soon as the emperor said this the egg miraculously turned red!
Hence, from antiquity, Mary Magdalene has been associated with red color. Most icons of Mary Magdalene show her holding a red egg.
From these tales originated the basis for dyeing Easter eggs. While people use all the colors of the rainbow to dye eggs, red is by far the most usual color used, especially in countries of the Eastern Orthodox faith. Sometimes the priests bless the red eggs at Orthodox masses on Easter Sunday.
With changing times, chocolate eggs or plastic eggs filled with confectionery such as jellybeans have replaced the real dyed and painted eggs as gifts.
While the commoners were happy to receive dyed and hand painted real eggs as gifts for Easter, the Russian Tsar Alexander III and his eldest son Tsar Nicholas II presented their wives and mothers jeweled eggs as Easter gifts. The two Tsars commissioned Peter Carl Fabergé and his company between 1885 and 1917 to create a series of 54 jeweled eggs. These eggs were often called the ‘Imperial’ Fabergé eggs.
Peter Carl Fabergé delivered the first Fabergé creation known as the “Jeweled Hen Egg” to Tsar Alexander III in 1885. It featured a seemingly ordinary egg, but inside was a yolk of gold that contained a golden hen with ruby eyes, seated on a nest of gold. Inside the hen was a miniature diamond replica of the royal crown and a ruby egg pendant that could be worn as a necklace. Tsarina Marie Feodorovna was overjoyed with the egg so much that Alexander III ordered a new egg from Fabergé for his wife every Easter thereafter.
While the Hen Egg is among those that have survived, the gifts inside have been lost to time. The Jeweled Hen Egg is currently located in Russia as part of the Vekselberg Collection and is housed in the Fabergé Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia.
Other famous eggs include the Danish Palaces, Memory of Azov, Diamond Trellis, Caucasus, Renaissance, Rosebud, Twelve Monograms, Imperial Coronation Egg, Lilies-of-the-Valley, etc.
Easter is a joyful and happy occasion for all Christians. They decorate their churches with flowers and attend church on this day.
In some Christian churches, Easter worship begins at about 11:30 pm on Holy Saturday. At midnight, they ring the bells to tell the world that Christ has risen from the dead.
In some churches of the Roman Catholics and the Church of England, people will hold a vigil. They will gather outside the church around a bonfire.
The church being in darkness, one of the Deacons or Acolytes (servers) will carry a large unlit candle called the Paschal candle marked with a cross and the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet Alpha (Α) and Omega (Ω).
The Celebrant after blessing the fire will turn towards the person carrying the large candle and prepare the Paschal candle by drawing with his finger or incising in the wax with a stylus a Cross while reciting these words:
Christ yesterday and today, (the vertical beam) the beginning and the end, (the transverse beam) Alpha (the Greek letter Α above the vertical beam of the cross) and Omega, (the Greek letter Ω below the vertical beam of the cross)
all time belongs to Him, (the first numeral of the current year in the upper left-hand angle of the Cross) and all ages;(the second number of the current year in the upper right-hand angle of the cross) to Him be glory and power,(the third numeral of the current year in the lower left-hand angle of the Cross) through every age and for ever.(the fourth numeral of the current year in the lower right-hand angle of the Cross) Amen.
Next, one of the Acolytes (servers) gives the grains of incense symbolizing the five wounds Christ received at the crucifixion one by one to the Celebrant who inserts them into the candle, saying:
By his holy(1) and glorious wounds(2) may Christ our Lord guard (3) and keep us.(4) Amen. (5)
The Celebrant lights the Paschal candle saying:
May the light of Christ, rising in glory, banish all darkness from our hearts and minds.
The Paschal candle is then taken through the church, with the deacon lifting it at three different times, singing: “The Light of Christ” (or Lumen Christi) and the congregation sings in reply: “Thanks be to God” (or Deo Gratias).
Everyone lights their candle from the Paschal candle and join the procession. The Paschal candle symbolizes Christ, the Light of the World.
After the procession with the paschal candle, before the beginning of the Liturgy of the Word, follows the glorious Easter song of the Catholic Church: the Exsultet (spelled in pre-1920 editions of the Roman Missal as Exultet) or Easter Proclamation (Latin: Praeconium Paschale).
The Exsultet is a magnificent hymn of praise sung, by a deacon, before the paschal candle during the Easter Vigil in the Roman Rite of Mass. Exsultet is also used in Anglican and various Lutheran churches, as well as other western Christian denominations.
In the absence of a deacon, a priest or by a cantor may sing the Exsultet.
The lyrics of Exsultet are beautiful and has profound symbolism. It describes the dignity and meaning of the mystery of Easter. It tells of man’s sin, of God’s mercy, and of the great love the Redeemer has for humanity. It admonishes the faithful to thank the Trinity for all the graces lavished upon them.
Exsultet (Roman Catholic English text)
Exult, let them exult, the hosts of heaven, exult, let Angel ministers of God exult, let the trumpet of salvation sound aloud our mighty King’s triumph!
Be glad, let earth be glad, as glory floods her, ablaze with light from her eternal King, let all corners of the earth be glad, knowing an end to gloom and darkness.
Rejoice, let Mother Church also rejoice, arrayed with the lightning of his glory, let this holy building shake with joy, filled with the mighty voices of the peoples.
(Therefore, dearest friends, standing in the awesome glory of this holy light, invoke with me, I ask you, the mercy of God almighty, that he, who has been pleased to number me, though unworthy, among the Levites, may pour into me his light unshadowed, that I may sing this candle’s perfect praises).
(Deacon: The Lord be with you. People: And with your spirit.) Deacon: Lift up your hearts. People: We lift them up to the Lord. Deacon: Let us give thanks to the Lord our God. People: It is right and just.
It is truly right and just, with ardent love of mind and heart and with devoted service of our voice, to acclaim our God invisible, the almighty Father, and Jesus Christ, our Lord, his Son, his Only Begotten.
Who for our sake paid Adam’s debt to the eternal Father, and, pouring out his own dear Blood, wiped clean the record of our ancient sinfulness.
These, then, are the feasts of Passover, in which is slain the Lamb, the one true Lamb, whose Blood anoints the doorposts of believers.
This is the night, when once you led our forebears, Israel’s children, from slavery in Egypt and made them pass dry-shod through the Red Sea.
This is the night that with a pillar of fire banished the darkness of sin.
This is the night that even now throughout the world, sets Christian believers apart from worldly vices and from the gloom of sin, leading them to grace and joining them to his holy ones.
This is the night when Christ broke the prison bars of death and rose victorious from the underworld.
Our birth would have been no gain, had we not been redeemed. O wonder of your humble care for us! O love, O charity beyond all telling, to ransom a slave you gave away your Son!
O truly necessary sin of Adam, destroyed completely by the Death of Christ!
O happy fault that earned for us so great, so glorious a Redeemer!
O truly blessed night, worthy alone to know the time and hour when Christ rose from the underworld!
This is the night of which it is written: The night shall be as bright as day, dazzling is the night for me, and full of gladness.
The sanctifying power of this night dispels wickedness, washes faults away, restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to mourners, drives out hatred, fosters concord, and brings down the mighty.
On this, your night of grace, O holy Father, accept this candle, a solemn offering, the work of bees and of your servants’ hands, an evening sacrifice of praise, this gift from your most holy Church.
But now we know the praises of this pillar, a flame divided but undimmed, which glowing fire ignites for God’s honour, a fire into many flames divided, yet never dimmed by sharing of its light, for it is fed by melting wax, drawn out by mother bees to build a torch so precious.
O truly blessed night, when things of heaven are wed to those of earth, and divine to the human.
Therefore, O Lord, we pray you that this candle, hallowed to the honour of your name, may persevere undimmed, to overcome the darkness of this night. Receive it as a pleasing fragrance, and let it mingle with the lights of heaven. May this flame be found still burning by the Morning Star: the one Morning Star who never sets, Christ your Son, who, coming back from death’s domain, has shed his peaceful light on humanity, and lives and reigns for ever and ever.
Instead of using your two hands to pray to your God, gods and goddesses, why not stretch one hand and help the poor?
Lent is a solemn religious observance in the liturgical calendar of many Christian denominations. The season of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and covers a period of approximately six weeks before Easter Sunday.
For the Christians, prayer, fasting and almsgiving mark Lent. Of these three, almsgiving is the most neglected.
Why is almsgiving better than prayer and fasting?
In a way, almsgiving is a form of prayer and not just philanthropy.
Almsgiving is also a form of fasting. It requires some sacrifice. One has to give up something, even if it hurts. It is not just giving something to someone. It is “giving to God”.
The Book of Tobit, named after its principal character has an engaging story about Jewish piety and morality combined with folklore. The book has enjoyed wide popularity in both Jewish and Christian faiths. The inspired author of the book places a firm emphasis on almsgiving. The following verses 12:8-10 in Tobit is the only place in the Bible where prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are brought together.
Prayer with fasting is good. Almsgiving with righteousness is better than wealth with wickedness. It is better to give alms than to store up gold, for almsgiving saves one from death and purges all sin. Those who give alms will enjoy a full life, but those who commit sin and do evil are their own worst enemies. (Tobit 12:8-10)
Almsgiving is also a form of fasting. It requires some sacrifice. One has to give up something, even if it hurts. It is not just giving something to someone. It involves giving money, food, clothes, and materials or providing capabilities such as education, health facilities, and other amenities.
Almsgiving is a necessary part in all religions. It is “giving to God”.
Almsgiving in Buddhism
In Buddhism, a layperson shows respect to a monk, a nun, a spiritually developed person or to any other sentient being by giving alms. It is not charity. Being humble, giving alms, and showing respect to the monk or nun and the religious society, provides a symbolic binding of the layperson with the spiritual realm.
According to the Buddhists, the more a layperson gives without seeking anything in return the wealthier he or she will become. The act of giving destroys the acquisitive nature that leads to further suffering. Generosity is an act of merit performed by a donor to help the receiver.
The Mahayana Buddhist tradition emphasizes that generosity towards others as one of the perfections (paramita) as found in Lama Tsong Khapa’s ‘The Abbreviated Points of the Graded Path‘:
Total willingness to give is the wish-granting gem for fulfilling the hopes of wandering beings.
It is the sharpest weapon to sever the knot of stinginess.
It leads to Bodhisattva conduct that enhances self-confidence and courage. It is the basis of the universal proclamation of your fame and repute.
Realizing this, the wise rely, in a healthy manner, on the outstanding path of being ever-willing to offer completely their bodies, their possessions, and positive potentials.
The ever-vigilant lama has practiced like that.
If you too would seek liberation, Please cultivate yourself, in the same way.
Almsgiving in Hinduism
In Hinduism, Bhiksha is a devotional offering. It is usually food, presented at a temple to the destitute, a religious Brahmin, a swami, or an ascetic.
In Chapter XXIX of Vasishtha Samhita we find:
Through Alms giving to poor obtains all his desires.
(Even) longevity, (and he is born again as) a student of the Veda, possessed of beauty.
He who abstains from injuring (sentient beings) obtains heaven.
By entering a fire the world of Brahman (is gained).
By (a vow of) silence (he obtains) happiness.
By staying (constantly) in water he becomes a lord of elephants.
He who expends his hoard (in gifts) becomes free from disease.
A giver of water (becomes) rich by (the fulfilment of) all his desires.
A giver of food (will have) beautiful eyes and a good memory.
He who gives a promise to protect (somebody) from all dangers (becomes) wise.
(To bestow gifts) for the use of cows (is equal to) bathing at all sacred places.
By giving a couch and a seat (the giver becomes) master of a harem.
By giving an umbrella (the giver) obtains a house.
He who gives a House to a poor family obtains a town
He who gives a pair of Shoes obtains a vehicle.
Now they quote also (the following verses): Whatever sin a man distressed for livelihood commits, (from that) he is purified by giving land, (be it) even “a bull’s hide”.
He who gives to a Brâhmana guest a vessel filled with water for sipping, will obtain after death complete freedom from thirst and be born again as a drinker of Soma.
If a gift of one thousand oxen fit to draw a carriage (has been bestowed) according to the rule on a perfectly worthy man, that is equal to giving a maiden.
They declare that cows, land, and learning are the three most excellent gifts. For to give learning is (to bestow) the greatest of all gifts, and it surpasses those (other gifts).
A learned man who, free from envy, follows this rule of conduct which procures endless rewards, and which through final liberation frees him from transmigration.
Or who, full of faith, pure, and subduing his senses, remembers or even hears it, will, freed from all sin, be exalted in the highest heaven.
According to the Hindu scriptures, every human owes five important karmic debts called pancha-maha-yajna: to gods, to ancestors, to guests, to mankind, and to nature.
Debt to the gods for their blessings. Repaid by rituals and offerings.
Debt to ancestors and teachers. Repaid by supporting them, having children of one’s own and passing along knowledge.
Debt to guests. Repaid by treating them as if they were gods visiting one’s home.
Debt to Mankind. Repaid by mutual cooperation and helping others by giving money, clothes, shelter and land to poor people, feeding the hungry, and helping orphans and destitute.
Debt to Nature. All humans are indebted to plants, trees, birds, animals and nature. Repaid by offering good will, food, water, or any other help that is appropriate.
So, a human to place himself in correct relations with the gods, ancestors, spirits, men, the cosmos, nature and himself must repay these debts during his or her lifetime.
Almsgiving in Islam
One of the most important principles of Islam is that all things belong to God and, so, human beings hold wealth in trust.
Islam divides the concept of charitable giving into Sadaqah or voluntary giving, and the Zakāt, an obligatory practice governed by a specific set of rules within Islamic jurisprudence.
Sadaqah is possibly a better translation of the Christian notion of ‘alms’.
Zakāt (Arabic: زكاة ,”That which purifies”), the third of the five pillars of Islam, is the mandatory practice of charitable almsgiving. Every mentally stable, free, and financially sound adult Muslim, male or female, has to pay Zakāt to ease the economic hardship of others and end the inequality of financial status. Zakāt consists of giving 2.5% of one’s savings and business revenue and 5-10% of one’s harvest for distribution to the poor or needy, including slaves, debtors, and travelers. As such, Zakāt plays a much larger role in Islamic charity.
Zakah expenditures are only for the poor and for the needy and for those employed to collect [zakah] and for bringing hearts together [for Islam] and for freeing captives [or slaves] and for those in debt and for the cause of Allah and for the [stranded] traveler – an obligation [imposed] by Allah . And Allah is Knowing and Wise.
(The Holy Qur’an 9:60)
Almsgiving in Judaism
In Hebrew, Tzedakah literally means righteousness but is commonly used to signify charity. In Judaism, Tzedakah refers to the religious obligation to do what is right and just. It is considered one of the greatest deeds that a human can do. In practice, most Jews carry out Tzedakah by donating a part of their income to charitable institutions, or to needy people that they may come across.
Traditional Jews practice “ma’aser kesafim,” tithing 10% of their income to support those in need. Jewish farmers leave the corners of their fields for the starving to harvest for food. They do not pick up any grain dropped while harvesting because such food may benefit the starving.
Jews perform special acts of Tzedakah on significant days. At weddings, it is a tradition among couples to offer charity to symbolize the sacred character of marriage. It is traditional at Passover to be welcome hungry strangers, and feed them at the table. During the joyous holiday of Purim, to increase the total happiness, it is obligatory for every Jew to offer food to one other person, and gifts to at least two poor people, in an amount that would equate to a meal each.
Jews are cautioned about how they give out Tzedakah money. They should check the credentials and finances to be sure that their Tzedakah money will be used wisely, efficiently and effectively.
Also, they are admonished:
“Do not rob the poor because they are poor, nor crush the needy at the gate;” (Proverbs 22:22)
Jews are taught that Tzedakah money was never theirs to begin with, rather, it always belongs to God, who merely entrusts them with it so that they may use it properly. Hence, it is their obligation to ensure that it is received by those deserving of it.
Almsgiving in Christianity
Jesus spoke of almsgiving thus:
“[But] take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father.
When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.
But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.” (Matthew 6:1-4)
My article “Actions speak louder than words!” has evoked a good response from my readers. One person after reading the article has asked: “So what is your action?”
This is my reply:
Look at this (sinful) woman. She has come to Jesus and found in him her Saviour. She wetted his feet with her tears and then wiped them with her hair. Look at verse Luke 7:50, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
It is our faith that saves us. We either look at this woman and say, “Thank you Lord, I am not like her,” then the question becomes, “Has your faith saved you?”
But if our response is “Lord, have mercy on me,” then the good news is mercy is freely given.
Jesus is here and He will always be wherever we are or who or whatever we choose to be. This woman knew Jesus was there to forgive her and she loved Him for that. In the same way, I know Jesus is forever here to forgive me, no matter who I am or what I have done. I know he will forgive me.
Most of us do not get over our afflictions and then go to Jesus, rather we approach Him and He removes them, and He also gives us something else to live for.
My action in life has always been “do more than what I am paid for,” like the woman wiping the feet of Jesus with her tears, wiping it with her hair, and anointing it with perfumed ointment.
There is nothing in this world we could ever do to make up for the sacrifice Jesus made for us. Yet, most of us are not called to do anything. So, most of us forget that it is easy after being Christians for a while to become a Pharisee and point a “holier than thou” finger at others.
In the gospel of Luke, the story of the pardoning of a sinful woman (Luke 7:36-50) illustrates the axiom that “actions speak louder than words.”
A Pharisee named Simon invited Jesus to dine with him. On entering the house of the Pharisee, Jesus reclined at the table, the normal posture of guests at a banquet.
On learning that Jesus had come to the house of the Pharisee, a woman of that town who lived a sinful life, came there with an alabaster jar of perfumed ointment.
Weeping, she fell down at the feet of Jesus and wet them with her tears. Then, she wiped his feet with her hair, kissed them and anointed them with the perfumed ointment.
When the Pharisee saw this, he said to himself, “If this man was a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what sort of woman she is – that she is a sinner.”
Jesus understood his thoughts and said, “Simon, I have something to say to you.”
“Tell me, teacher,” Simon said.
“Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other owed fifty.”
At that time, one denarius was the normal daily wage of a laborer.
“Neither of them had the money to repay his loan, so the moneylender forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”
Simon replied, “I suppose the one whose larger debt was forgiven.”
Jesus said, “You have judged rightly.”
Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? When I entered your house, you did not give me water to wash my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. As my host, you did not greet me with a kiss, but this woman, from the time she entered this house, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not place oil on my head, but she anointed my feet with perfumed ointment.”
According to the Christian canonical gospels, Jesus Christ fasted for 40 days in the desert, where he encountered the temptations by Satan. So, the solemn religious observance of Lent originated as a mirroring this event. Hence, Christians fast 40 days as preparation for the Easter Sunday, the day of the resurrection of Christ. In Latin, Lent is referred to by the term Quadragesima (meaning “fortieth”), in reference to the fortieth day before Easter.
Today is Ash Wednesday, a day of fasting. In Western Christianity, it marks the start of the 40-day period of fasting, the first day in the season of Lent.
Ash Wednesday derives its name from the practice of blessing the ashes made from palm branches that were blessed on Palm Sunday of the previous year, and placing them ceremonially on the heads of the participants. The Ash is either sprinkled over their heads or more often a visible cross is marked on their foreheads to the accompaniment of the words “
Ash Wednesday derives its name from the practice of blessing the ashes made from palm branches that were blessed on Palm Sunday of the previous year, and placing them ceremonially on the heads of the participants. The Ash is either sprinkled over their heads or more often a visible cross is marked on their foreheads to the accompaniment of the words “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” or “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” based on Genesis 3:19
By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread, Until you return to the ground, from which you were taken; For you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
In Western Christianity, during Lent, every Sunday is regarded as a feast day to commemorate the resurrection of Jesus Christ on a Sunday, and so fasting is considered inappropriate on that day. And so, Christians fast from Monday to Saturday (6 days) for 6 weeks and from Wednesday to Saturday (4 days) in the preceding week, thus making up the number of 40 days.
Many Western Christians, including Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, Anglicans, and Presbyterians observe Ash Wednesday. However, not all Catholics observe Ash Wednesday. Eastern Catholic Churches, do not count Holy Week as part of Lent, and they begin the penitential season on Monday before Ash Wednesday called the Clean Monday. Catholics following the Ambrosian Rite begin it on the First Sunday in Lent.
Throughout the Latin Church, the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church and in the Maronite Catholic Church, the Ashes are blessed and ceremonially distributed at the start of Lent. In the Catholic Ambrosian Rite, this is done at the end of Sunday Mass or on the following day.
Here is today’s reading in the Church for Ash Wednesday. It is the continuation of the sermon on the mount. Jesus warns against doing good in order to be seen and gives three examples. In each, the conduct of the hypocrites is contrasted with that demanded of the disciples.
Teaching about Alms-giving
[But] take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father.
When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.
But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.
– (Mathew 6: 1-4)
Teaching about Prayer
When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.
But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.
In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words.
Do not be like them. Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
“This is how you are to pray:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread;
and forgive us our debts,
as we forgive our debtors;
and do not subject us to the final test,
but deliver us from the evil one.
If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.
– Matthew 6:5–15
Teaching about Fasting
When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.
But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.
During the last months of 1709, Joseph Vaz suffered from a peculiar kind of fever, which subsided for a short time and then recurred with renewed force. Though weak, during the periods when the fever subsided he visited the Mission. He went even as far as Kottyar on the southern coast. He had no proper lodging there. Years of continuous work and hardships fatigued him and broke his constitution.subsided he visited the Mission. He went even as far as Kottyar on the southern coast. He had no proper lodging there. Years of continuous work and hardships fatigued him and broke his constitution.
In January 1710, Joseph Vaz became seriously ill and there was no physician to attend to him. As soon as he felt a bit better, sent him off on a bullock cart. After eight days, he reached Mahanuwara.
In the capital, he was given good medical attention. After careful nursing, infections and fever left him, but he was found himself weak. Though he regained a bit of strength, his legs were partly paralyzed.
He asked Father Jacome Goncalvez to come to the capital and entrusted him with the care of the Catholics.
Inspite of partial paralysis, Joseph Vaz never ceased to work. He could no longer go on distant excursions as before. People saw him daily on the streets of the capital, dragging himself in extreme pain with the help of a stick. He visited the sick in their houses.
Every morning sitting in front of his door, he taught children Catechism. When his sufferings did not allow him even to do that, he spent the whole day in prayer.
Though Joseph Vaz recovered, he was weak. From then on, he was unable to leave the Church premises again, but whenever a call came to attend the sick and if Father Jacome Goncalvez or any other priest was not there, then he would immediately set out, but carried in a dooly (a kind of litter suspended from men’s shoulders, for carrying people or things; a modified stretcher).
On one occasion, when the bearers were descending a hill, he fell off the dooly. He was unconscious when the bearers picked him up. They brought him back to the church. He suffered body pain for about four months. He bore his illness with great fortitude.
In spite of his illness, Joseph Vaz undertook eight days of spiritual exercises prescribed by the Oratorian Rule. He considered himself a great sinner. He received the Sacrament of Penance every day as well as Holy Communion.
Joseph Vaz realized that it was time to resign from office, both as Vicar General and Superior. From then on, he spoke of death only.
On January 15, 1711 Joseph Vaz wrote the order of change of charge from him to Father Jose Menezes.
On the morning of January 16, 1711, Joseph Vaz wanted to make his confession. He dragged himself to the church as usual, attended Mass, received Holy Communion and went through his daily spiritual exercises. That day, he requested a stunned Jacome Goncalvez to have the holy oils ready for the last anointing.
When Father Goncalvez anointed him, Joseph Vaz made all the responses to the prayers for the sick and the dying. He kissed the crucifix which Pope Clement XI had sent as a gift to him through Monsignor Charles Thomas Maillard de Tournon, the Papal Legate. He requested Father Jacome Goncalvez to send the Crucifix to the Oratory in Goa.
Fathers Goncalves and Miguel Francisco Ignatius de Almeyda asked Josep Vaz to give them a message that they could etch on their stricken hearts. After a few moments of thought, the dying priest said in Sinhalese:
“Remember that one cannot easily do at the time of death what one has neglected to do all his life. Live according to the inspirations of God.”
Just before midnight on Friday, January 16, 1711, Joseph Vaz expired with Fathers Jacome Goncalves and Miguel Francisco Ignatius de Almeyda, beside his deathbed.
The young King Vira Parakrama Narendra Sinha, greatly affected by the death of his friend, the saintly priest Joseph Vaz declared a three-day mourning. He ordered all Catholics of his Court to attend the funeral. Many Catholics came from Colombo and other parts of Ceylon to attend the grand funeral.
After a solemn funeral ceremony, the body of the great Missionary was laid to rest in front of the high altar in the church he had built on the shore of the Bogambra lake.
Later on, a rumour spread that the Oratorian priests had exhumed the body of Joseph Vaz and had taken the remains to Goa. This distressed the King. However, Father Jacome Goncalves opened the tomb in the presence of a few nobles of the Court and show them that the body was still lying there.
King John of Portugal bestowed the highest praises on Joseph Vaz in a letter dated April 11, 1726. He called him:
“The model of Missionaries, a great servant of God, and founder of a truly apostolic Mission.”
During the Portuguese rule in Ceylon, the attitude of the rulers towards non-Christians had been oppressive and destructive. The concept of the time was that all religions except Christianity were wrong and had no right to exist.
The Portuguese forces pillaged and plundered Buddhist and Hindu temples and converted a few into Catholic churches. They gave the Franciscans all the lands of the Buddhist and Hindu temples.
Although Joseph Vaz desired people to convert to Christianity, he followed a policy of tolerance, co-existence and friendliness towards the adherents of other faiths. When nursing the sick during the smallpox epidemic or distributing alms to the poor, he treated both Catholics and non-Catholics alike. He never resorted to the destruction of their temples nor offered favours and privileges to converts. He convinced the non-Christians by his self-sacrificing charity, service to fellowmen, and by leading an exemplary saintly life.
Joseph Vaz demonstrated to the Church of his time an alternate way to approach the non-Christians, different from that followed by the Church in alliance with the state.
In the olden days, people in India and Ceylon considered their kings divine. Hence, the rulers rarely appeared before their subjects. Even great dignitaries and nobles of the land prostrated on the ground when they approached the king.
Buddhism is an ancient and tolerant religion. It never obstructed the dreams and passions of Joseph Vaz. He revealed this aspect of Buddhism in his communication with the Kings. He never made any distinction of faiths while serving the people on the hostile Island of Ceylon. The unbounded charity of Joseph Vaz was one of the reasons, why King Vimaladharmasurya II respected him. The King considered the priest as an awesome supernatural being. For him, the priest was an enigma.
The way the King conversed familiarly with Joseph Vaz and taking him to his private chambers for chatting astonished the nobles, dignitaries, and the people.
Father Emmanuel de Miranda was stationed in Colombo, the most dangerous and exposed place. He had organized the Catholics of that town so well that they came out openly and even protested against the Dutch penal Laws.
In 1706, when Joseph Vaz wanted to visit Kottiyar on the eastern coast with Father Jacome Gonsalves, he fell mortally sick and was unable to walk. Yet, placing his full trust in God, he continued the 14 days long journey on foot until he arrived in Puttalam.
King Vira Parakrama Narendra Sinha of Kandy
King Vimaldharmnasurya II of the Kingdom of Kandy, patron of Joseph Vaz died in 1707. His 17-years-old son Vira Parakrama Narendra Sinha succeeded him and reigned for 32 years. He was the last Sinhalese King of the Kingdom of Kandy.
Vira Parakrama Narendra Sinha was a pious monarch, and like his father lived in peace with the Dutch invaders. He devoted himself to the furtherance of literature and religion.
The young monarch proved to be an even greater supporter of Joseph Vaz and his Missionaries than his father.
A few days after the death of Father Joseph Carvalho, the young King passed before the church with a large retinue. He ordered his elephant to stop in front of the church. He then sent one of his courtiers with his condolences to Joseph Vaz, saying that he would like him to bring more priests of such great virtue as his deceased nephew to Kandy.
According to the law of the land, the dead ought to be buried outside the towns and villages, but the King allowed Joseph Vaz to entomb the body of Father Joseph Carvalho in the church. Later on, the King extended this privilege to all the Oratorian Fathers. Such instances of royal favour made a great impression on the people. It helped to boost the Apostolate of Joseph Vaz and his Indian Catholic Missionaries from Goa.
However, persecution of the Catholics by the Calvinist Dutch raged outside the Kingdom of Kandy. Without the protection given to the Missionaries by the Buddhist Kings of Kandy, it would not have been possible to establish the present flourishing Catholic communities in Ceylon.
Having now resident Missionaries in all the principal towns of Ceylon, Joseph Vaz was continually on the move. In 1708, the health of Joseph Vaz began to decline, and yet he visited his Missions.
In 1709, there was a rebellion against the young King Narendra Sinha headed by his own uncle. At that time, Father Manoel de Miranda and Jacome Goncalvez were with him in the capital. Sensing that there would be inevitable robberies and sacking of properties, the priests distributed beforehand everything that was in the Church to the poor, without keeping anything for themselves. Keeping the doors of the Church open, the three priests committed themselves to prayer and sung the office of the dead during the rebellion.
None of the rebels or looters attacked the Church and its properties. After the rebellion was over, a great amount of help from unexpected quarters came to them, which was more than what they had distributed before the rebellion.
Joseph Vaz carried his mission to the main centres of the island with his group of Goan Bammon (the Roman Catholic Brahmin) priests. As their Superior, Joseph Vaz directed the work of all the Missionaries. The priests under his leadership and inspiration moved about undercover and served the persecuted Catholic population in Ceylon. Joseph Vaz paid them frequent visits, encouraging them with his indefatigable zeal. He was cherished and venerated by all.
As there were resident Missionaries in all the principal towns of Ceylon, Joseph Vaz was continually on the move. He visited the Missions along with one or two priests and a few devoted Catholics. He went from village to village wherever there were Catholics or the hope of converting the Buddhists and Hindus. Sometimes, he went out of his way to visit a single Catholic.
Many former Catholics, who under compulsion or for worldly interests apostatized, returned to the Catholic Faith after performing required penance.
Joseph Vaz had taught the Christian Faith to a young man from an influential family. He was a page at the Royal Court and was bound to go wherever the King went. As the lad wished to become a Christian, it was not always possible for him to avoid going to the temples along with the King.
Seeing the precarious position of the young man, Joseph Vaz advised him to withdraw from the Court. Following the advice of the priest, the lad went to a remote village to live. Sadly, because of the idle life in the village, the young man, now living far from the saint, lost his innocence. By and by, he plunged into vice. Eventually, he got married.
When Joseph Vaz came to know the fate of the young man, he prayed to God for him, and hoped that he would one day become an instrument in the hand of God for the salvation of many.
One night when the young man tried to sleep, he remembered his early youth, of the saintly priest and of his pious instructions.The thoughts tormented him. Struck with remorse at his apostasy, and at the wicked life he had led since, he spent the rest of the night in prayer. At dawn, he along with a Catholic neighbour went to the capital.
Since Joseph Vaz had gone to visit the Missions, the young man found Father Pedro de Saldanha whom he did not know. So, without revealing his identity to the priest, he humbly begged the priest to admit him among the catechumens.
After a few days, Father Saldanha on observing the young man’s piety and knowing he was perfectly instructed in the Christian Faith wished to baptize him. Then, the young man prostrated himself at the feet of the priest and told him his story. He made a general confession and resolved to expiate his crime by working for the glory of God and left.
Some days later, Father Saldanha went to his place, baptized him and his family, and blessed their marriage. The once recalcitrant young man now brought over to the Catholic Faith forty more people.
The news of such the mass conversion infuriated the anti-Christian mob. They were afraid that the conversion of the young man would induce others to follow his example, and that he would use his influence to help the priests in their Apostolate.
The Buddhist mob knew from their past encounters with the King that neither political considerations nor their threat of rebellion could move him from his sincere affection for the Catholic priests. So, they sought to rouse his religious and his superstitious sensitivity.
At that time, as even now, the Buddhists of Ceylon were imbibed with all the superstitions of the Hindus. For the Hindus, the cow was most sacred. In many countries in India, killing a cow was the greatest and heinous crime that one could ever commit. It was equal to murdering three Brahmins on the shores of the sacred Ganges. And, the punishment decreed for the crime of killing a cow was death.
The mob told to King that Father Pedro de Saldanha had baptized the young man, once a page of the King and all his companions with the blood of a cow. As such, it was clear that his Superior Joseph Vaz and his Missionaries too were killing many cows. The Buddhist King, in dire indignation, ordered the last six converts, whom Father Saldanha had baptized, thrown into prison and to confiscate their properties.
This was a great setback for Joseph Vaz. Fearing a renewal of persecutions, he prayed to God to avert this new danger from His Church. Fortunately, there were then two factions at the Royal Court: one opposed to the Catholics and hostile to the Catholics, and the other enlightened, or indifferent, and hospitable to the Catholics. The latter faction approached the King and proved to him that the Catholic Missionaries had been slandered; that the Catholic Missionaries never killed cows; and that they baptized the converts with water to which they added a little oil with balm.
The King, realizing his folly immediately ordered the release of the six prisoners and restored their properties. The released men went straight from jail to the church to thank God for their liberation.
It was the last persecution that the Catholics of the Kandy Kingdom had to suffer during the lifetime of Joseph Vaz. From then onwards the saintly priest was able to spread the Catholic Faith in peace in the whole kingdom.
.In 1668, after the smallpox epidemic ceased entirely, life turned back to normal in the capital. Leaving Father Joseph Carvalho to take care of the Catholics of the capital, Joseph Vaz went visiting the Missions and the villages.
In 1699, Joseph Vaz went to Gurubevelle, a village to the east of Colombo. There he met Father Jose Menezes, appointed by him as the missionary of Puttalam, Negombo and its districts up to Sitawaka and Colombo. Despite the vigilance of the Dutch, Father Jose Menezes and the Catholics there had instructed their Buddhists brethren in Christianity in and around Gurubevelle. In the short space of 13 days, Joseph Vaz baptized more than a thousand.
The Dutch Governor of Colombo, on knowing what was taking place in Gurubevelle, ordered the arrest of the two priests. A company of Dutch soldiers came to the village and surrounded the house in which Joseph Vaz was staying. At that time, Jose Menezes was not there.
The soldiers then barged in and searched the house, and although Joseph Vaz remained all the time among them, they did not see him.
The anxious Catholics who had assembled outside the house saw Vaz in the midst of the Dutch soldiers. They expected the arrest of the priest at any moment. But the soldiers could not see him. Joseph was invisible to them. Joseph Vaz, with the box containing the requisites for Mass, passed among the soldiers, but they did not see him.
The Dutch soldiers were sure that the priest was hiding somewhere in the house and searched every nook and corner. But they did not find him nor did they find any incriminating evidence to prove that people had assembled there for a Catholic service. However, in one room, they saw a lady and were bewildered. The lady asked them whom they sought. But the officer and the soldiers seized with terror fled from her sight and found themselves outside the house.
Ashamed for having run away from a woman, they once again entered that particular room and found nobody there. And, they saw on the spot where the lady had been standing a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Filled with awe, they went away without touching the statue. The infuriated soldiers returned to Colombo and reported the failure of their expedition to the Governor.
At once the news spread throughout the region that the Blessed Virgin had appeared in that house, and people came in haste to venerate the statue.
The infuriated soldiers returned to Colombo and reported the failure of their expedition to the Governor.
Joseph Vaz left Gurubevelle on a boat on the Kelani River. He went to Seethawakapura (now known as Avissawella), the capital of the Kingdom of Sitawaka. Though the Dutch territory was only a few miles away, Vaz established his headquarters there.
On knowing that Joseph Vaz had gone away from the capital, a group of Buddhists decided to take strong measures to prevent the progress of Christianity in the kingdom. They approached the King and asked him to arrest Father Joseph Carvalho and also forbid Joseph Vaz to set foot again in the Kingdom of Kandy. When they saw that the King would not give in to their demands, they threatened him with rebellion.
Since the leader of this Buddhists faction was a powerful Kandyan Chief, the King out of fear of being the cause of a rebellion yielded to their demands. He agreed to exile Father Josep Carvalho from Kandy. However, the King sent one of his Catholic officials to the priest to assure him that he would suffer no harm and that he was free to take along with him whatever he possessed.
Yet in spite of the King’s assurance, the Buddhist mob manhandled the priest. Carvalho took refuge in a country-house that belonged a Catholic named Anthony de Herta, a few miles from the capital, on the other side of the river.
Twenty-five days after Carvalho’s departure, the Buddhist mob led by their Chief, razed the church to the ground.
On learning about the events in Kandy during his absence Joseph Vaz wept.
A few days later, a dreadful malady afflicted the Chief. He was unable to move his legs. A hideous ulcer appeared on his tongue, and putrid pustules covered his entire body. People considered his fate as a just punishment from God for driving away the priest and demolishing the church after desecrating it.
At the end of 1699 Joseph Vaz returned to Mahanuwara with Father Joseph Carvalho, who had been expelled from the capital at the instigation of Buddhist Bhikkus. The two priests constructed a new church. Joseph Vaz then went into service for the king, translating Portuguese books into Sinhalese. From this vantage point, Vaz intensified his ministry and converted some Sinhalese nobles to Catholicism.
Joseph Vaz declines the office of
the Vicar Apostolic of Ceylon
Pope Clement XI received news of the Apostolate of Joseph Vaz conveyed to from Goa. The Pope, sent a Papal Legate, Monsignor Charles Thomas Maillard de Tournon, Patriarch of Antioch (and afterwards Cardinal), with instructions to make inquiries about the work of the indefatigable Joseph Vaz in Ceylon and the Mission he founded, and render him every assistance.
In December 1703, Maillard de Tournon arrived in Pondicherry, India. Deputed by the Bishop of Mylapore, Father Paulo de Sa, the Parish priest of Kodulur, welcomed him. The Papal Legate inquired from the priest about Joseph Vaz and his Apostolate work in Ceylon. Impressed by what he gleaned, the Papal Legate proposed to make use of his extensive powers to appoint Joseph Vaz the Vicar Apostolic of Ceylon.
The Papal Legate sent a letter to Joseph Vaz through Father Francisco da Cruz, an Oratorian priest stationed in Tamilnadu. The latter sent a courier to Joseph Vaz along with a beautiful crucifix inlaid with silver sent by the Papal Legate as a present to Joseph Vaz.
Being a humble person, Joseph Vaz had not taken pains to describe much about his Apostolate work and had avoided taking the credit for himself. So, he deliberated over what this appointment could lead to. He had seen enough of the ecclesiastic squabbles that resulted from the appointment of the Vicars Apostolic in the Padroado regions. Since his Mission in Ceylon belonged and had its seat in Padroado territory of Goa, he feared that accepting the Papal Legate’s nomination would mean the ruin of the Church in Ceylon, which he had planted and nurtured with great personal sacrifice.
Replying to the letter of the Papal Legate, Joseph Vaz said he was confused when he received the letter, which in his humility he felt unworthy of, and signed his reply as unworthy servant. He excused his delay in replying saying that he was not worthy of corresponding with persons of so high dignity and submissively thanked him for the crucifix.
On receipt of the reply from Joseph Vaz, Monsignor Maillard de Tournon wrote to the Sacred Congregation of the Propaganda Fide that he had proofs of the virtues the humble priest and the “modesty with which be brushed aside some miracles which are said to be operated by God through him“.
This explains why Saint Joseph Vaz is commonly portrayed in a simple surplice with a bishop’s mitre and crozier beside him.mitre and crozier beside him.
Six more Missionaries come from India
In 1705, the Superior of the Goa Oratory sent six more priests to Ceylon. They were: Pedro de Saldanha, Manoel de Miranda, Joseph de Jesu Maria, Miguel Francisco Ignatius de Almeyda, Basil Baretto and Jacome Goncalvez.
After reaching Ceylon and meeting Joseph Vaz, Father Jacome Goncalvez wrote to his Perfect in Goa:
“That ejaculation ‘Oh my Jesus‘ which he used in his sermons in Goa to excite fervour in our hearts, I have now heard many times repeated by him by day and night…
He always carries with him a piece of white cloth to wipe his face for he often sweats due to fatigue or has tears of compunction…
He is always absorbed in God and forgets himself…
At the first sermon we heard from him in Tamil, we saw the people crying because they understood him. Even though we could not understand him, we felt also like crying because the way he was preaching he was moving our hearts..
During the journeys, he always holds fast to the beads of the rosary and recites it alternately with his companions with great devotion.”
Of these six priests, we have more information about Father Jacome Goncalvez than the other five priests.
Father Jacome Goncalvez
Jacome Goncalvez was the eldest son of Thomas Goncalvez and Mariana de Abreu. They lived in the parish of Our Lady of Piety (Piedade), Divar, Goa. Though the Goncalvez were Konkani Brahmins, they had been Christians for more than two generations. They were among the first converts at the beginning of Portuguese rule in Goa.
Jacome studied at the Jesuit College of Goa. He enrolled in the University of Goa, probably Collegio São Paulo, and obtained the degree of Bachelor of Arts. In 1696, he joined the Academy of Saint Thomas Aquinas in Goa to study theology. He also held the post of an organist, and this led him to appreciate poetry, prose and music.
In 1700, Jacome Goncalvez was ordained a priest of the Oratorian Order in Goa, India. On January 1705 he was appointed to the chair of philosophy at the Collegio São Paulo, but he relinquished it the same year to go to Ceylon.
Father Jacome Goncalvez left Goa on May 9, 1705 and arrived at Talaimannar, Ceylon on August 39, 1705. At the time, he knew Konkani, Portuguese, Latin and Spanish.
During the long journey from Goa to Talaimannar, he studied Tamil. He improved his knowledge of Tamil by reading Tamil classics written on ola leaf (palm leaf manuscripts).
There were now ten Oratorian Missionaries in Ceylon, all natives of India. Joseph Vaz was now able to organize the Catholic Mission in Ceylon. He divided the Ceylon Mission into eight districts and appointed a priest to each, to serve the needs of the Catholics. Soon, the number of adherents to Catholicism grew rapidly.
Father Jacome Goncalvez mastered the Tamil language during his first assignment on the islands of Mannar, Arippu, Musali and other places in the Mannar district. He also learnt Dutch. Joseph Vaz then sent him to Mahanuwara to learn Sinhalese in the Malwatta Chapter, known for their high and elegant mastery of the Sinhalese language. He also studied Sinhalese under the tutelage of educated laymen like Gaskone Adikaram.
Joseph Vaz and Jacome Goncalvez worked on the creation of Catholic literature comparable to that of the Buddhist literature.
Jacome Goncalvez, became a specialist in Tamil and Sinhalese languages. He won name and fame in the literary history of Sri Lanka, as a classical poet in Sinhalese and as a writer of about forty books. He is rightly called “the creator of Catholic literature in Ceylon”. He wrote many of his works at Bolawatta, near Negombo. Since there was no printing press, he employed 12 Sinhalese clerks to copy his works.
S.G. Perera, in his book “Life of Blessed Joseph Vaz Apostle of Sri Lanka” says:
“[Jacome Goncalvez has been called] the most successful missionary that this island [Sri Lanka] ever had, the creator of Catholic literature in Ceylon, whose name is still held in benediction and whose literary works in Sinhalese and Tamil are still in daily use in the church of this island.”