Imagine a night so dark you can slice through its quiet coldness. A light so bright it pierces through the stillness and brings with it the hope of renewal, peace and goodwill. Imagine a hundred heads bowed as a bonfire rises to reach the trees, when fistfuls of incense are fed into the flame, and what unfolds is a centuries-old story of the arrival of the Messiah’s birth.
The Indian Orthodox church, which takes its origins from St Thomas the Apostle’s arrival in India in first century AD, celebrates the birth of Jesus through its songs and rituals on Christmas day. One such is the ‘Thee Jwala Shushrusha’ (service at the fire pit), which relives the night the shepherds hear the good news from angels of the saviour’s birth.
“The bonfire, which is a part of the Christmas service in the Indian Orthodox Church, is adapted from Syriac traditions. It’s the culmination of the procession of the faithful, outside the church, as they gather around the fire. In sync with that, the gospel of Luke is read to the congregation,” says Rev Fr Dr KM George, Director, Sopana Orthodox Academy, Kottayam, Kerala.
A cross-shaped pit is made, into which leaves from Palm Sunday, straw, old prayer books and old cloth from the church are often added to the flames, with incense as its most vital part. “Incense is an archetypal ingredient in many religious rituals the world over. All the traditions in the Indian Orthodox Church have its origins in Jerusalem, in its original form. In the Jewish tradition, prayers are likened to rise up like incense, as a sweet-smelling offering to god. It is a Jewish antecedent that comes into Christianity too,” says H.G. Dr Youhanon Mar Demetrios Metropolitan, Delhi Diocese. He adds that nothing of the rituals has changed even as the church in India grew from Kerala to spread out across cities and continents.
In Indian Orthodox churches across the world, this service is represented as a reimagination of the night of Christ’s birth. “In my childhood in Kerala, it was the time when sugarcane was harvested and the dry stalks would go into the bonfire. Today people use wheat or rice straws, and also bring back the palm-leaf crosses given during Palm Sunday. Once the fire dies out and the service is over, people would take the ashes from the bonfire for their fields, now it’s seldom done,” says Fr George.
Incidentally, the Hebrew word for incense, “ketoreth” is an acronym for the letters that allude to holiness, purity, mercy and hope. This service is also possibly the one time that the participation of every member of the congregation is added to the fire, with a pinch of incense in every hand. A senior church member recalls the time when the ashes from the pit would also be carried home, and mixed and purified with water, and given to the sick at home, for both spiritual and physical healing.
While the symbolism of Christ being the light of the world, and that we ought to die to ourselves is prominent in the idea of the service, it also reinforces the motif of fire as being both the destroyer and purifier. This becomes a befitting ritual as it sits on the cusp of a new year and the festival of birth and renewal.