Churches find creative ways to celebrate Easter as coronavirus lockdown continues
The Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak has disrupted normal life for all, across every sector of society, and in every corner of the globe. Faith communities have not been spared, with countries currently enduring a lockdown ordering the closure of all traditional places of worship.
A possible positive spin has been that religious leaders have had to think outside the box to find innovative ways to help keep the faithful in touch, with a sense of continuity in the midst of this new reality.
For Christians, the lockdown has come at a particularly significant time in the church calendar, with Good Friday and Easter Sunday this week — apart from other services that traditionally mark Holy Week.
To help keep congregants 'plugged in', many churches have found ways to bring services into their congregants' homes.
Dean of the cathedral in Makhanda, Rev Dr Andrew Hunter, has live streamed daily prayers and devotions via Facebook since the lockdown started.
Says Hunter: “The Cathedral is livestreaming services on Good Friday and Easter Day. These will be on the Cathedral Facebook page. The service times are on that page, I think, as we speak.
“Whatsapp groups have become a vital way of staying in touch with various groups of people, over the years, and it seemed an obvious way to make contact with people during lock down. Initially I invited those on my various Cathedral groups to join, if they wished. A number did so. Then I sent a message to everyone on my WhatsApp list with the same invitation. Then we e-mailed everyone on the Cathedral parish roll. Then we put the link onto the Cathedral Facebook page. So now we have two groups of over 100 each.
“The group receives a voice message from me, or (once a week) from (Rev) Claire (Hunter). As far as I can tell, from private messages received, people are appreciating it all.”
Reflecting on live streaming worship, Hunter says, “I have found it personally very enriching, and I am enjoying it and finding it stimulating and challenging. A number of parishes all over the country are doing similar things.”
This is a time for us as Christians to stand up and not just talk about the love of God, but to be his hands, his feet, his eyes and his ears. Nkosi sikele iAfrikaRev Sharon Summers
St Albans Anglican church in Vincent, East London, has set up a website to keep services going during the lockdown.
Rector Sharon Summers has placed her Palm Sunday sermon on their church website (http://stalbansanglicanchurch.co.za/index.php/en/), and will publish both her Good Friday 3-hour service and Easter sermons. St Albans has also made an effort to reach out to the community during the lockdown. Summers says that, “As a parish I have made a call for help in making masks and donating food to the homeless shelters. This is a time for us as Christians to stand up and not just talk about the love of God, but to be his hands, his feet, his eyes and his ears. Nkosi sikele iAfrika.”
When asked what he feels is the impact of the national lockdown on churches across the country, Bishop Bethlehem Nopece, former Bishop of Port Elizabeth and suffragan Bishop of Grahamstown, reflects that it is “the realisation of the truth that God needs and lives in the temple of the heart of a human being, not a building of brick and mortar. The waves media is very powerful to transmit the Word in seconds to the other corner of the world. So the Church must do in prayer to heal us even from Coronavirus and every manner of disease.”
... having these services at home reminds us of Christian beginnings in the Book of Acts: they met at homes as the First Church (Acts 2:42-47)
Nopece is a strong believer in the medium of social media to share the gospel, especially during a crisis moment, such as the lockdown.
“To me this time also fulfills the aim of the Bible Society of South Africa celebrating its 200th year in the country ... that the Bible, the word of God, must be read at each and every home.
“So having these services at home reminds us of Christian beginnings in the Book of Acts: they met at homes as the First Church (Acts 2:42-47).”
Many other churches and denominations across the country have also adapted their services to adjust the changed realities of life under lockdown.
The Zion Christian Church (ZCC) called off all services relating to the popular Good Friday service pilgrimage to Moria, after church leader Bishop Barnabas Engenas Lekganyane put out a special appeal for the faithful not to make the trip this weekend.
In a statement released by the church, the ZCC said, “We would like to let you know that from the weekend of 21 — 22 March, the church choir and (mekhukhu), that were supposed to help with the church service preparations on the weekend of 28 — 29 March 2020, along with the Sunday school members and all church singers, that they should not come to Moria until further notice.”
Calvary East London has referred its congregants to its international headquarters, who have been live streaming services during the lockdown.
Before the national lockdown was announced, the Catholic church's bishops' conference of South Africa released a statement suspending Easter activities and offering guidelines for Masses going forward. With the lockdown in place, Johannesburg Archbishop Buti Tlhagale announced that all Masses were suspended indefinitely “until the lockdown is over and there is greater clarity on the way forward”.
Parishioners have been encouraged to livestream Masses from Radio Veritas and the Jesuit Institute, or read the homilies from the diocesan or church's website.
Pope Francis, the spiritual head of the world's 1,2 billion practicing Catholics, who is known to be fully in touch with, and a fan of modern technology, has taken to livestreaming Mass, with Palm Sunday celebrated in an empty St Peter's Basilica, to the theme of service and love.
The Jewish community is also journeying through one of the most significant celebrations of their faith – Passover, where Jews commemorate their liberation from slavery in Egypt and the gift of freedom. This year's Passover began on the evening of Wednesday 8 April, and will end on the evening of Thursday 16 April, when the national lockdown was originally scheduled to be lifted. The extension announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa on Thursday evening has implications also for how Passover will be celebrated this year.
At the beginning of Passover, a ritual feast is held, usually in homes where the family gathers. The ceremony starts with the Ma Nishtana, where by tradition the youngest child asks the question: “Why is this night different from all other nights?”
The foremost question on the minds of many Jewish South Africans this year will be, “how different will this Passover be from all other Passovers of our life?” The biggest difference will be that there will be no Shul (synagogue) service to set the tone for the evening. No extended family or special guests will be able to physically be with many families – though they will still be able to join in the celebrations through mediums such as Skype and other visual technology.
There are also those who may be on their own, and for them Passover may be a particularly lonely and strange journey this year.
A lockdown Passover does also bring with it, though, an opportunity to reflect on the fuller meaning of being free, especially given the demands of modern life.
The national lockdown has brought with it many challenges, but perhaps one of the positives it also brings is to compel us all to reflect deeper around what it means to be human, to 'be', to experience ... and to believe. Once this is all over, and South Africans return to their normal routines, much of what was thought of as routine and taken for granted may well be irrevocably changed. Let's hope it will be for the better.
As for this Easter weekend, lockdown most certainly does not mean an end to faith. Perhaps it may, in fact, become an opportunity for believers to reflect on what it means to have faith, and to experience God more intimately, amongst those we most love and cherish, especially in this trying time.
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