Sometime ago, someone asked me, “What is the purpose of providing offerings or doing prayers for the deceased? Does it reach them? Isn’t it all superstition?” I could hear the scientist and the rationalist speaking. Explain it to me. Give me a reason. Why are we doing this? When can we stop doing this?
The answer I gave in response was one that would later surprise me.
“It’s a cultural thing.”
And that’s the reason why we still debate ad nauseam about these matters. Our beliefs (or disbeliefs) in God notwithstanding, we continue to carry out these rituals and these festivals because it is a part of our culture. It is a part of our self-identity and how we establish our place in the world. It is a doctrine and a tradition, much like any other doctrine or tradition. If we are introduced to another way of doing it, we may–or may not–like it; yet alone accept it.
It’s not easy, I believe, to give up one’s cultural heritage. It requires the death of an old identity and an old way of life. Will we like our ‘new’ way of life better? It is hard to answer this question. There is much that gets hard-wired into us vis-à-vis our cultural upbringing. The unlearning process is difficult. The re-learning process takes time.
The epiphany may have happened suddenly, but conversion–either cultural or religious–never happens overnight.
A religious Conversion
A new convert looks upon their new faith with a sense of pride. They have found the answer–and the religious community–that they were seeking. Perhaps it even found them. Not all religious communities ‘accept’ or even ‘encourage’ conversion. But there is a reason why a convert did what they did.
The old ways were not working anymore. They were ‘caught’ at a particularly vulnerable time in their life. They were rejected or shunned by their community and decided to leave. They fell in love and wanted to marry someone from a different religious background.
For some, conversion is an easy decision. For others, it is not. They may have had their qualms. They knew that this big change of their self-identity would not be accepted; let alone welcomed by those around them–even if it was by the very people who had rejected them.
Not too long ago, I met a convert who would not stop bashing her old faith. After a while, it got tiring listening to all her rage and self-righteousness. I couldn’t bear the way she constantly criticised the people of her old faith. If she had found her happiness, I was happy for her. I just couldn’t understand the need to so systematically condemn her cultural heritage. Eventually, I said something along the lines of, “Why do you keep saying such terrible things? Leave people as they are. Just leave them alone.”
Since then, I’ve heard stories of many converts who bash their old faith and their old beliefs. They disown their heritage and their old cultural identities like the whole thing never happened. They think they can erase it with correction tape. Like any big change, however, it will take generations before the new belief system is fully integrated into your being.
Believe me, when I say this, it will not happen overnight. It is a fruitful process, yes; but it is also a painful one.
Jude, the apostle
Judas, who is now more commonly known as Jude the Apostle, was one of Jesus’ most mysterious and lesser-known disciples. In artwork, he is often depicted with the flame of knowledge over his head and a club in his hand. The two Judases–Thaddeus and Iscariot–were two of Jesus’ disciples. They were distinguished from each other by their surnames.
The name Judas is a Greek rendering of the Hebrew name Judah Yehudah which is Hebrew for ‘God is thanked’. It was an extremely common name during the first century CE, due to the renowned hero whose name was Judas Maccabeus.
The identity of Jude–and the name that he shares with the other Judas–has been a cause for confusion. St. Jude is said to be either the brother of James, the cousin of Jesus, or the son of Clopas and Mary: who was either the Blessed Mary’s sister or cousin. Other traditions hold that Jude may have been the son of St. Joseph.
Much of what we have come to know about the Apostles–especially the lesser known ones–comes from church tradition. This approach melded legends and stories together with facts. In scenarios such as this, it can be difficult to ascertain and distinguish between truth and tradition. This is especially true for less well-known disciplines like Jude where not much has been either written or recorded.
The Book of Jude
The Book of Jude is an open letter addressed to, “To those who are the called, beloved in God the Father, and kept for Jesus Christ.” As I read the text–without taking into account all the church traditions and commentaries–I highlighted the phrases, “The Called”, “Beloved” and “Kept for”.
Who is Jude referring to when he addresses “The Called”? Were they the new converts who would choose to follow Christ? Was it a reference to the church that St. Peter was building?
As the letter goes on, two aspects become clear. St. Jude felt the ‘necessity’ to write it. He had the desire ‘to remind’ the people he was writing to about the history of what had transpired in prior epochs. He takes us all the way back to Genesis and Exodus–to the story of Cain, Abraham and Moses. He says that for people who have sinned, “Black Darkness has been reserved forever.” An alternative translation for “Black Darkness” is the netherworld.
Jude’s letter is a warning–of what will transpire on the Day of Judgement. He is telling people to be on guard for false teachers. At the time, there were many doubts regarding who was the true Messiah. It had been foretold in the Book of Isaiah that there would be one. Was Jesus the one? Were the others the false teachers who had come to lead them astray?
While no all round consensus has ever been reached, it is safe to conclude that a conclusion was, indeed, reached. There were those who did accept Jesus; and there remain those who will. Others, however, didn’t. They continued on in their ‘old ways’. They did not want to change.
Among Christian groups, the story was further complicated by the doctrinal differences that ensued after the Messiah was accepted. The ‘false teachers’ also emanated from within the followers. It was not only external conflict, but also internal conflict that had to be dealt with.
The Tradition of Jude
St. Jude’s deeds during Jesus’ ministry were not recorded. Rather, he is credited with the authorship of the brief letter that bears his name. Apart from this short letter, all other knowledge with regard to Jude the Apostle is traditional; as opposed to scriptural knowledge.
When I was a student in Jerusalem and I studied the scriptures through a secular approach, I was asked: Who wrote these scriptures? Why did they write them? What were the intentions of the authors? Why does it matter now? What have they said? What haven’t they said? Is it wise to rely on the commentaries to ‘fill in the blanks’?
In the Catholic Church, St. Jude Thaddeus is invoked as the patron saint for all those cases which are the most desperate, the most hopeless, and the most impossible. This practice stems from the belief that few Christians invoked him due to a misplaced fear of praying to Christ’s betrayer–Judas Iscariot–due to the same name. Aside from being the patron saint of lost causes, St. Jude is a symbol of choosing faith when all seems lost.
But you, beloved, ought to remember the words that were spoken beforehand by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ, that they were saying to you, “In the last time there will be mockers, following after their own ungodly lusts.” These are the ones who cause divisions, worldly-minded, devoid of the Spirit.Jude 1: 17-18
There are many instances in the Bible when believers are told in strong words to exercise caution. They are reminded to enshrine the past within them as history embarked upon a turning point from which it could never go back. The Christian Era was a new beginning. It heralded a religious turning point that has lasted more than two millennia.
I’ve always believed that the past remains within us. It is this past that St. Jude is harking back to as a new dawn emerges on the horizon. Even as we change and welcome a new way of life, we should take care not to suffer from amnesia regarding the past. If we do, we are perhaps doomed to only re-create it.