Last month, Pope Francis and I were airborne over Asia together. In the air at the same time, but on different planes going in opposite directions. The Holy Father was coming back from Japan, and I was headed to India. We would both be thinking about the east, but in rather different ways.
En route back to Rome, the Pope began his customary press conference with this comparison of East and West.
“The saying lux ex Oriente, ex Occidente luxus inspired me a lot,” he began. “‘Light comes from the East’; luxury, consumerism, come from the West. There is this type of Eastern wisdom, which is not only the wisdom of knowing, but of time, of contemplation … The search for personal perfection through fasting, penance, reading the wisdom of the Eastern sages. I believe it would do us Westerners good to stop a bit and give time to wisdom.”
It was the typical generosity that Pope Francis shows when speaking about those outside the household of faith. But it was something of an unexpected response to a question that began with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, namely the experience of Japan in World War II.
There has been plenty of civilisational light from the Land of the Rising Sun, but not very much in the last century. There was precious little that shone during the War. The brutality of the Japanese forces in the Pacific theatre often exceeded that of the war in Europe, beginning with the Rape of Nanking in 1937 during the Second Sino-Japanese War. In the Pacific, World War II is often considered to have begun in 1937. While Japan suffered the first nuclear attacks, Japan’s neighbours would heartily conclude that Japan was more aggressor than aggrieved, and wickedly so.
As for today, Japan is perhaps the most materialistic culture on earth. Economic well-being is pursued to the exclusion of nearly all other goals, even the primary cultural project of survival. Japan has so few children that has opted out of the future in favour of present consumption. Elderly Japanese have a great deal of time to contemplate their choices as they wait to die alone in their apartments. The country refuses to reproduce itself, and remains at the same time entirely closed to immigrants, migrants and refugees. It refuses to take anybody.
Lux ex Oriente? Only a romantic idealism about Japan, as opposed to its actual behaviour over the past century, would justify that characterisation.
Lux ex Oriente, in its usual Christian context, means something rather different. It refers not to the nobility of the atheistic or pagan philosophies of the Far East, but rather the riches of the Church’s traditions rooted in the ancient Near East. There are three broad liturgical families – the Latin, the Greek and the Syrian. The West is Latin, and the East is comprised of those Catholic and Orthodox Churches which follow the Byzantine and Syriac traditions.
“The light of the East has illumined the universal Church, from the moment when ‘a rising sun’ appeared above us (Luke 1:78): Jesus Christ, our Lord.” So began St John Paul II’s 1995 apostolic letter Orientale Lumen, written “to safeguard the significance of the Eastern traditions for the whole Church”.
“Since, in fact, we believe that the venerable and ancient tradition of the Eastern Churches is an integral part of the heritage of Christ’s Church, the first need for Catholics is to be familiar with that tradition, so as to be nourished by it,” wrote John Paul.
Here in Kerala, home to the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Churches, fully in communion with Rome, that lux ex Oriente is very clearly seen. It was in large part to see that light, to become more familiar with and be nourished by that tradition, that I spent a few weeks in India this month.
That tradition is most obvious in the liturgy, though not only there. This Advent, when the Latin Rite marks the 50th anniversary of the Novus Ordo of St Paul VI, it is noteworthy that widespread energy in recent years has been devoted to enhancing the reverence for and primacy of God in the celebration of Holy Mass. The eastern liturgical traditions, which did not suffer the upheaval of 1969 and all that followed, are a privileged place to look for enhancement.
The Eastern liturgy, for the most part, is eastern, as in ad orientem. The primary “lux” toward which it turns itself is the lumen gentium, Jesus Christ, the light of all nations. On December 21, the Church prays in the great antiphons for the Magnificat at Vespers: O Oriens, splendor lucis æternæ et sol justitiæ (O Dawn of the East, splendour of the Light eternal and sun of justice). That is the lux which the Latin liturgy needs to find anew.
Another light one sees here in Kerala is given off by the flame of the Holy Spirit. The Charismatic Renewal is perhaps more lively in Kerala than anywhere else. There are more than 100 retreat centres offering day-long and five-day retreats to thousands every single week. The preaching is heavily biblical and charismatic. It may be that their prayers at Mass, which give great emphasis to the Holy Spirit, prepared the way for that. The Divine Retreat Centre in Muringoor, just north of Ernakulam, is one of the great powerhouses of prayer anywhere on the planet.
From India, from the East – a blessed Christmas to all my readers!
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