The Passion of Jesus staged by the Srilankans
Gamini Perera s.j.
Every Catholic community has its own way of exercising their religious piety according to the liturgical seasons. The catholic faith was introduced to Sri Lanka then known as Ceylon by European missionaries. As they brought the faith, along with it they also promoted a catholic culture with its own music and dramas. This was also a way in which the faith was carried to the hearts of the people. The music and dramas often speak to the hearts of the people.
Human feelings makes us feel that we are living creatures. Therefore religion needs to touch the feelings of the people. So the early missionaries who came to Sri lanka made use of music and the methods of balleys and dramas, as a very powerful ways of presenting the massage of the gospels to the converts.
The missionaries really wanted to celebrate and bring home the real significance and the meaning of the two great feasts of the liturgical year, namely Easter and Christmas.
During the season of Christmas the early missionaries composed the story of birth of our Lord and chanted it to the people in a very appealing ways with a great devotion. That was known as the Christmas carols. And then from the annunciation to the birth of Jesus was made in to a drama presenting and casting the every character which is involved in the story and proclaiming the entire story of nativity to people in a very powerful manner.
They were presented not only in churches but also on streets in the interior catholic villages. To this day they are preserved in some parts of Sri lanka and treasure them very much. Some times the entire village was involved in such devotional activities.
Often these groups will go from place to place during the season of Christmas and presenting the gospel story of the nativity in the form of drama and devotional singing. No doubt this was one of the powerful ways of bringing home the mystery of incarnation in a very vivid way. This was also in one way getting the laity involve in the proclamation of the gospel.
The greatest feast of the catholic community all over the world is the feast of Easter. In this we celebrate the suffering death and Resurrection of our Lord and Savior of the world Which is also known as the celebration of the paschal mystery of Jesus.The Catholics spent forty days of preparation for this feast.
Prayer, penance and acts of charity are main features of this great season known as the season of Lent. During these forty days the Catholics try to enter in to the suffering and death of our Lord by reading and contemplating the accounts of the passion of our Lord presented in the four gospels.
Making the traditional way of the cross is also another simple way of reflecting and entering in to the passion of Jesus. Lent is also the time of conversion and returning to the infinite Love of God. The passion of our lord reveals the way God loved the world and saved it. Therefore the suffering and the death of Jesus on the cross is the direct manifestation of Gods love for the sinful humanity.
This powerful love of God become the attraction for conversion and returning to the Lord. So the early missionaries who came to Sri Lasnka having understood that, the heart of the Christian massage is the paschal Mystery of Jesus, they invented powerful methods of presenting this to the people. They invented passan, which is the ways of chanting the various aspects of the passion of Jesus. After the setting of the Sun during the days of Lent and the Holy week of course before the Easter vigil they used to gather in groups and sing or chant this passan until the very late in the nights.
This singing also created a Lenten mood and the penitential mood in the village. Apart from this singing of the passan they also begun to dramatise the stations of the cross. This dramatisation of the stations of the cross became so powerful way of presenting the gospel massage of the redemptive act of Jesus to the people. Eventually these dramatisation became a long presentations of the suffering and death of our lord. In some situations they lasted even a half a day. The faithful took part in this with great devotion and respect.
These long presentation of the story of passion and death of Jesus is known as the PASKU . In English it is known as the passion play. Even to this day in some places in Sri Lanka not only during the other days of lent but specially on Good Fridays before the official liturgical celebration this type of Pasku is shown. What is this Pasku? It is a dramatical way of presenting the passion and death of our Lord. By this dramatic way of presenting the gospel massage of the passion of Jesus touch the very core of the heart of the faithful. They are moved and awakened to this Holy mystery.
This Pasku, namely the passion of Jesus presented in a form of a drama is a powerful way of inviting the faithful to enter in to the suffering and death of our Lord. Even the caste who represent the various characters are spiritually prepared for this before thy come on the stage.Often the one who represent Jesus would do the 40 days fast during the season of lent.
With this long explanation now let me share something that we Sri lankan did here in Naples for two occasions. At present there is a large community of Sri lankans living in Napoli.
Majority of them are Catholics. For many years they have been coming to Jesuits at "Gesu Nuovo" Church for their spiritual needs. Therefore there is always a Sri Lankan Jesuit in this Church to serve the SriLankans. At present there is Fr. Gamini Perera. Last year for the first time he gathered some laity and trained them to do a small Pasku program on Good Friday.
On Good Friday when the SriLankans gathered for the celebration of the death of Our Lord,this group presented the way of the cross in a dramatic form inviting the gathered to reflect and pray powerfully the passion of Our lord. This touched the hearts of many who came to celebrate the Good Friday. on that day many of them returned to their homes with a powerful Good Friday experience. Infact the few Italians who happened to witness this service on Good Friday shared with me that it was really moving experience for them too. They told me that they were experiencing as if they were on the mount Calvary. They really had a glimpse of Good Friday. this was in the year 2008.
Thais year we have almost abandoned the idea of having such a presentation on Good Friday since His Eminence Cardinal Sepe is going to have the way of the cross at Piazza del Gesunuvo. However Rev. Fr. Rolando who is responsible for C.L.C wanted to have a way of the cross in Italian and Sinhala on passion Friday namely the Friday before the Good Friday.
He suggested that the SriLankans prepare the dramatical part as well. so this idea of Fr. Rolando was well accepted by Fr. Gamini and proceeded in preparing the way of the cross for the proposed day. So we limited the stations for six. these six were, The condemnation, Caring the cross., falling , meeting the mother, crucifixion and the death.
We limited the the entire program for 90 minuets. The venue for the program was the sanctuary of the Gesunuovo church. So on the 3 rd of Apriel at 7.00 pm the two communities, Italians and the sri Lankans came together in the church o Gesunuo to make this very significant way of the cross.This was also occasion meant to pray for the victims of camora and the victims of the civil war in Sri Lanka. As the sri lankans youngsters dramatised the each station in a very moving ways Frs. Rolando and Gamini led the gathered in prayerful reflection in their respective languages.
At the end of each station few youngsters of Italians and Sri lankans lighted some candles remembering the victims of the camora and the war victims of sri lanka. This was a very touching symbol for every one who were there . The scenes that represented the each station deeply touched the hearts of the gathered, they were so moved some of them shed the tears and cried. No doubt it was a very powerful prayer and the meditation of the suffering and the death of Jesus. As st. Ignatius suggest in the spiritual exercises when one prays on the passion and the death of our Lord he must be moved with the suffering of Jesus. One must feel in his body the pain of Jesus.
I think the way of the cross that we made on the 3rd of April this year gave some of us this profound experience that St. Ignatius would wish for us to experience. Although the prayerful reflections were done in Italian and singhala no one felt that they were foreign languages.
Both the communities participated in this spiritual exercise with great reverence and respect allowing the suffering and the death of our lord to touch their yearning and thirsting hearts.We the sri lankan community in Naples is ever greatful to the jesuits for their welcoming hearts for us.