June 27, 2022
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    Bringing Christ back to our Christmas celebrations

    December 08, 2019

    In a few days it will be Christmas. Already the sound of crackers and church choirs rehearsing for the carol services, and a few enthusiastic carolers singing to their neighbours fill the air. For many of us this is a time for enjoying family get-togethers, cooking favourite Christmas dishes including the Christmas cake, pudding, Yule log and Breudher - and of course shopping for presents and decorations to hang on the Christmas tree. These traditions are what most Christians across the world never fail to observe at this time around. So commercialised has the season become that even the name Christmas is now replaced with Holidays so as to avoid offending any ethnic and non Christian groups. In Sri Lanka where we don’t get snow people still count ‘jingle bells’ and ‘sleigh bells on the snow’ as their favourite Christmas carols. Sadly the mention of Christ is hardly present.

    By far, most of them are so steeped in folklore that go back to the dim past, that it is often difficult to sift them from the few facts that teeter on the edge to remind us what Christmas really means.Hidden in this welter of myths one fact stands out; the birth of the Christ Child. Just this month newspapers across the world published an intriguing report. It stated that a fragment of wood reputed to be from the manger where Jesus was laid after his humble birth went on display in Jerusalem in late November ahead of its transfer to Bethlehem for the official launch of the Christmas message. The wood piece, said to be just a few inches long, was once kept in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome and handed over earlier last month to the custodian of the Bethlehem church. Unveiled to the public at the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center, encased in silver coloured ornamental table top stand it was to be taken to Bethlehem which was the birth place of Jesus.

    There it would be placed inside the Saint Catherine church adjacent to the Church of the nativity in Manger Square in time for the lighting of the Christmas tree. The relic according to the statement issued by the Vatican, dates more than 2,000 years and was “part of the manger in which Baby Jesus was laid”. It was sent to the Vatican in the 7th century. While proving the truth of these ancient relics is often questionable, they are nevertheless revered by the Christians. I recall joining a tour of pilgrims and having to squeeze through a narrow sandstone entrance in the Church of the Nativity to see some of these relics that we were told had never perished.

    Announcement of the birth

    The gospel of Luke tells us that it was to ordinary shepherds engaged in one of the lowliest professions at the time, that God chose to send an Angel to deliver this extraordinary birth announcement of the birth of a new born baby which would “cause great joy for all people”, which indeed He did. In Luke’s account of the Christmas story which we believe is the most authentic records, written by Jesus’s disciples shortly after His death, the angel who announced his birth to the shepherds said, “do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all people. For today, in the town of David, a Saviour has been born to you: he is the Messiah, the Lord”.

    It was a life changing message. For the joy His birth brought was not for a few people but for all. Since then the message has spread through the centuries to the present day where Christ’s messengers of joy continue to carry His message of Peace, Love and Joy to all.

    The coming of a Saviour was nothing new to the Israelites who had been promised that a Messiah would soon be born to save them. Moses had promised them of a new saviour. So did Prophet Isaiah and other prophets of the Old Testament, several hundreds of years before Jesus’s birth.

    He was first publicly acknowledged as the saviour by John the Baptist who when He baptised Him in the river Jordon called Him, “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, and one who was the true messiah the son of the living god.

    The day December 25 is still a hotly debatable date. The birth of Baby Jesus, born to the Virgin Mary in the Palestinian town of Bethlehem was said to have been recorded in the year 1 CE (i.e. the start of the Gregorian calendar). Yet no matter the date, year, or time, the fact is that the only Son of God was sent as a babe born in a manger to a young virgin mother, lived 33 years on this earth and carried out His remarkable ministry in the space of three years, an incomparable feat that accomplished and won the respect, love and acceptance of so many.


    Christ’s birth signifies Hope and Peace. It provided the world a kind of bridge that brought God to us directly without the need of intermediaries which was even at the time He lived was assaulted by conflict, divisions, and hatred. The most important gift we can ever receive is God’s gift of His Son, our Saviour and with Him forgiveness, restoration and the promise of spiritual life that begins now and lasts forever.

    We can put Christ back in our lives and give Him our hearts. So let us take priority over the birth of Christ; let us make this Christmas a Christ centred event above writing Christmas lists in which decorations, food, presents and last minute bargain sales and shopping.

    The month of December is synonymous with Christmas. It is a season where gifts are exchanged. As we reflect on giving, what is the highest form of gift one can give? Some have given their entire life, in every aspect to the service of God. That is the gift made in total surrender.

    At the Carmelite Convent located adjacent to Campbell Park in Colombo 8 the façade resonated with colonial architecture. A beautiful garden accentuated the serenity of this venue. A sister attired in the hallmark brown habit (uniform) greeted me and we sat in the visitor’s room, which was adorned with green curtains. Sister Fatima is the Provincial Secretary of the chapter in Sri Lanka. She said, “Our order was established by a lady named Sophie Leeves, who was originally an Anglican. Her father was Rev. Henry Leeves. As a child she had been attracted to the lifestyle and love displayed by the Dominican Convent. She was awed by Holy Communion.

    She got baptized as a Catholic much to the dismay of her mother. During the period of Easter she heard a still voice saying – peace I leave with you. She joined the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition. Subsequently she heard the words - I want you in Carmel, which encouraged her to go the Carmelite Convent in Pau, France. Here she adapted the name of Sister Veronica. She sailed to India and began a mission in Mangalore, with a focus on educating the young women. By April 1862 she established the Apostolic Carmelite Order. It is said that on a voyage, the ship in which she sailed came to Ceylon and berthed in Galle for three days. Sister Veronica was amazed by the beauty of this exotic island and exclaimed Oh city of paradise when can I see you again?

    By 1900 many Christian clergy were active in Ceylon from various denominations. The Sisters of Cluny had completed their tenure of service and vacated their small convent.

    Bishop Romez had decided to invite the Apostolic Carmelites to work in Ceylon. The first of batch of three Sisters came to Trincomalee in 1922 and began their work with zeal.

    They started teaching the children under the shade of a large tree. As the years went by more nuns came from India, and the persevering Carmelites were able to establish two schools - St. Joseph’s Convent and St. Mary’s College at Trincomalee. Later they moved to Batticaloa and began St. Cecilia Convent. We were now joined by the Superior of the Community, Sister Hiranthi Perera attired in a white habit. She explained, “This is our Provincial House in Sri Lanka. Our Provincial Superior is Sister Marie Lourdes. Globally we have almost 3,000 nuns serving God in 9 regional provinces. In Sri Lanka we have 250 nuns working in 37 convents. We have convents even in Jaffna and Mannar. Our motto is God alone is sufficient”. The pioneer Carmelites also set up Holy Cross Convent in Gampaha.

    Sister Fatima who has been a nun for 40 years added, ‘I recognized the call of God as a teenager. My father encouraged me. When I came to Colombo as a novice there were kind nuns from India who trained us. Colombo was very different then, unlike the vibrant city you see now. Our vision is to awaken from within. We focus on education and other works of mercy to instill faith formation. I was blessed to serve in our first convent in Pakistan which was a wonderful experience.

    God always provided for us. I remember when we were building our Home of Compassion at Madampitiya; the bank manager reminded me we were short of 170,000 rupees. I returned to the convent and we gathered and prayed. The very next day the bank manager informed me that a gentleman had deposited that same amount in our account. This is one of many miracles we have witnessed’.

    We walked into the Refectory (dining room) where a nun was in the process of straining wine. Sister Maureena had mastered this art, from a recipe passed down to her. In a clam and soft voice she said, ‘This year I was able to make king coconut wine and rice wine. We hope to sell this at a church sale. The rice wine is made by soaking the rice in cold water, adding raisins and sugar. The liquid is left to ferment for 10 days. This is a unique wine’. A few teenage girls were busy making some Christmas decorations.

    They are originally from Puttalam and Jaffna, coming from dysfunctional families. At this convent they have found acceptance and love. These youth are taught English and other subjects. I was surprised to see an older lady attired in a light brown saree with a crucifix on a chain. Her gentle smile radiated like sunshine.

    Sister Therese is also a Carmelite nun, who has spent 50 years of ordained life. She said, ‘My father was a school principal and my mother a teacher in Jaffna. When I was nine years old Carmelite nuns used to visit our residence. At that tender age I was impressed by them and decided to become a nun. After my advanced level I entered the Carmelite Convent. I was then sent to the University of Peradeniya. I graduated in 1971 in Mathematics and Economics. I have been a teacher and principal since then. I served in the North and East for 20 years. I remember the days at St. Mary’s College, Trincomalee.

    During the period of the war, the Army and Air Force always helped our convent. There was an incident where some villagers had to be evacuated across a river. A kind Colonel from the Army came with us by boat and brought them to safety. Together we were able to serve Buddhists, Christians, Muslims and Hindus. I believe that consistency brings competency’.

    In 1999 in recognition of her dedicated service this amiable nun received an award from UNESCO, and was introduced to the audience as the angel of peace. Now aged 75 she remains active in the Carmelite mission still undertaking long journeys to Jaffna and Mannar.

    During this yuletide season it is good to reflect on what we can offer God, after the joyful indulgences of Christmas. For these Carmelite nuns they all came in as young women.

    They went through the process of candidacy, postulancy, novitiate and final profession of vows - a period of almost 10 years of consistent commitment before being ordained. Since 1922 their mission has faithfully touched thousands of Sri Lankans, especially young female students.

    In the Bible we read of Jesus Christ talking of an abundant life through him. Some have sadly mistaken this for the pursuit of material possessions and prosperity. Christmas is a time to focus on the manger and the birth of the Christ child - his humility and renunciation of worldly possessions.

    Jesus Christ made the supreme sacrifice on the cross. The Apostolic Carmelites are testament to the joy of living for God and serving others in his name, in that we definitely witness true biblical abundance.





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