Unleavened bread is shared after being blessed for the supper at the ashram run by Chetna Bharati, an NGO based in Chatra in India's northeastern state of Jharkhand. (Photo supplied)
“We had a deeply spiritual experience of Jesus’ Last Supper,” Sister Joel texted me early on Good Friday. When I phoned for more details, she enthusiastically elaborated. And, surely, it was vibrant in many unusual ways.
During this coronavirus pandemic, many people are reflecting on possible changes to our "ways of being church": how do we celebrate the sacraments without going to church? What are the ways we can participate in Mass? But Sister Joel described a real-life happening which may have some indicators for us.
It happened at an ashram run by Chetna Bharati, an NGO based in Chatra in the northeastern Indian state of Jharkhand. The focus of this organization is on women of the lower castes and tribes of the area. Its leader is Vinay Senger, popularly known as Bhaiya (big brother).
A small team of field workers engage in village social justice issues and it is also a hostel for over 50 Mahadalit (a marginalized people outside the caste system) young girls who either have classes there or go to the nearby Nazareth school. Two nuns, Sister Joel and Sister Anna, play prominent roles in the ashram.
To celebrate the experience of the Last Supper, the sisters organized an agape meal, priti bhoj, for all those at the ashram. Present were 26 of the Mahadalit girls and a number of office and field workers, among whom only four were Christians.
Bhaiya, who is in charge of the ashram, washes the feet of children before the supper.
Moved by humble act
“Firstly, we had washing of the feet. Beforehand, for the feet washing we had chosen leaders, two boys and four girls, from among the children we hope to form as a team who in the future will carry on the mission of Chetna Bharati,” said Sister Joel.
“The feet washer was Bhaiya, who is in charge of the ashram, and it was no worry for him. He is a hardcore social activist, holds no religion and was just out after a long spell in jail. He washed the feet of the children. Before doing so, he told the children about Jesus who, without counting the cost, stood with the downtrodden, challenged the powers of this world and was consequently killed.”
Then the supper. “For bread we had indari appum, which is rice bread without yeast. As the eldest and house mother, I broke the bread, blessed it and gave it to each one,” said Sister Joel.
“First, I gave an ecumenical Sarvdharma talk about there being many religions, how Jesus is a person for everyone of whatever religion, that he knew he was going to be killed and so he had this special last meal with his friends. There he gave his greatest teaching: that there should be no discrimination with regard to caste, gender or religion.
“Then four children made some reflections which were very moving for Sister Anna and myself. The children shared that they were humbled by Bhaiya washing their feet, and Yogender, a youth of the Birhor tribe and an educated one, which is very unusual, said that he is committing himself to work for society.”
“I get inspiration in this place and I want to be a bit like Jesus,” Yogender said. One of them sang a revolutionary song. The celebration concluded with a shared meal.
Was it a sacrament? With the equal participation of non-baptized persons, the absence of clergy, the celebrant being a woman, the use of non-prescribed sacred species, the absence of any liturgy book structure, the Sarvdharma ecumenical dimension — all would indicate that it was not a sacrament.
But can we be quite so sure?
Tony Herbert is an Australian Jesuit based in Jharkhand state in India.