Today Lopez was my guide – Lopez is the brother of Pastor Thomas Francis who showed us around Dubai. He kindly drove me around the city showing me the sights and helping me get my bearings. Chennai is a great, bustling city. We went to the famous Marina beach and the historic Fort area.
A lot of what we saw was to do with the Apostle Thomas. Tradition has it that the disciple who only believed when he saw the pierced feet and hands of Jesus went to India in 52AD (first to Kerala and then he ended up in Madras [Chennai]). He was then martyred in 72AD on what is now called Saint Thomas Mount. We went to see the church of St Thomas which, it is believed, is built over the tomb of the Apostle; and then latter we went to St Thomas Mount.
This was interesting on so many levels. First of all it speaks of the historic roots of Christianity in India. When Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India, tries to claim that to be Indian is to be Hindu he is revising history. Whatever we make of the stories about Thomas and Bartholomew all historians agree that there was a strong Syrian Christian church in India by the 6th century. Soon after that Muslims spread eastwards into India too. Those dates are significant since this was about the same time as many northern European nations were starting to have established Christian churches. Indians are historically just as ‘Christian’ as British people are. (Of course, it is also true that most of the Middle East was originally Christian so we could argue that, by the same logic, Syrians and Turks should be ‘ethnically’ Christian…)
From a Western Protestant perspective all the shrines surrounding Thomas were bizarre. My comments here are merely my observations and so I freely admit that I may well have misunderstand various cultural references. Nevertheless, for what it is worth, this was how the Basilica and Mount Shrine impacted me:
It is hard to see much difference between the Hindu expressions of worship I observed in Mylapore (at the Kapaleeshwarar Temple – a temple of Shiva) and at St Thomas’ Church. As you can see in the photo while we were there a man came up to the statue of Thomas to touch it as he prayed to Thomas. I am well aware that RC theology teaches that we should not pray to the Saints but we follow their example and we ask them to intercede with Jesus on our behalf. However, that was not what I saw here. People were praying to statues for health and wealth in exactly the same way their Hindu neighbours do. The shrine at St Thomas’ Mount is not something westerners would really know how to take in. It is hard to describe – full of miraculous relics but mostly it is comprised of concrete statues displaying scenes from the gospels. Again, it is quite likely that I am mis-interpreting Indian culture here but the whole scene seemed gaudy and run down… Like a really cheap theme park. This is not meant to offend Catholics, Hindus or, indeed, Indians. Rather it is just the raw response of a Brit on his first day in Chennai. There is much to love and be impressed by Indian culture. The photo below tries to capture something of the feel, so have a look and make your own mind up. (Actually, looking at the photo below it doesn’t seem so bad. I have other photos … 🙂 )
But I’m not here to pass judgement on the faith of people I do not know. Most of all today has taught me to cherish the book of Hebrews. I am so grateful that Christians no longer need a High Priest because Jesus has already fulfilled that role. We can pray directly to the Lord of all creation. What a fantastic thought.
* ETA (Edited to Add)
According to the Emirates website Emily, Abi and Sophie have just left Dubai so please pray that they get home safely … Even if 24 hours late!)