During April this year, four of the world’s major religions celebrate important festivals. It’s a remarkable coming together of these different faiths in a time when celebration is muted.
Christians, of course, are celebrating Easter. Jews celebrate Passover from April 8–16. Muslims celebrate Ramadan during the month from April 23 to May 23. And Sikhs are celebrating Baisakhi (or Vaisakhi) on April 13.
For each of these religions, these festivals are foundational to our stories.
Passover celebrates the deliverance of the people of Israel from their slavery in Egypt over three millennia ago. This eight–day festival celebrates freedom and liberation by telling the story which forms the identity of the Jewish people. But it’s not just an historical observance. Rather, it becomes contemporary in each generation as faithful Jews commemorate God’s continuing activity in the life of the people.
In the same way, Christians celebrate Easter as our foundational story of life. Like Passover, it’s not just an historical remembrance of something that happened long ago. Rather, we praise God who continues to be active in the life of God’s people, bringing life out of death so that we might shine with God’s light in the darkness.
Ramadan is the most sacred month of the year for Muslims. They believe that it was during Ramadan that God revealed the opening verses of the Quran to the prophet Mohammed. It’s a time of spiritual discipline, a time to contemplate one’s relationship with God, a time of extra prayer and increased generosity in almsgiving.
Sikhs celebrate Baisakhi, which commemorates the inauguration of the Khalsa. The word “khalsa” itself means “pure”, and is used for Sikhs who have been inaugurated or baptised . Baisakhi is also a harvest festival and has come to mark the beginning of the new year.
All four festivals are celebratory … but in this time of COVID 19, it will be a muted celebration.
I will speak out of my own tradition. It is a difficult time for people of faith, as it is for the world. We long to be in community as we celebrate, but this pandemic has taken us way out of our comfort zones. We feel the loss keenly. Even so, we are trying to find new ways to be in community as we reach out in different ways. But honestly, texting and emailing and phoning just can’t replace hugs.
Nevertheless, it is true that while our religions buildings — churches and synagogues and mosques and temples —are closed, the community of the faithful is not closed. We remain open as we reach out to our friends and families and neighbours in all kinds of new and innovative ways. Many faith groups are worshipping online, through youtube or facebook or zoom. Others worship by using rituals at home. We are trying to stay in touch through all the different ways we can.
While we are trying to maintain physical distance, we are also trying to maintain social connection.
We are all celebrating differently this year. Christians celebrate the empty tomb this year in empty buildings.
I’ve been thinking that Easter 2020 is so very much like that first Easter. In a Facebook meme, Casey Kerins wrote, “Maybe, for once, we celebrate Easter differently. Maybe, we celebrate the resurrection just as the disciples did: alone, in the silence, hoping the faith outweighs the fear.”
The stories of that first Easter in the gospels are rooted in fear, confusion, doubt, and anxiety. Each of the gospels tells the story of women coming to the tomb, expecting to find the dead body of their friend Jesus. They come with spices to prepare the body for burial. They come to say goodbye.
In each of the gospels, the good news of resurrection and life is a story that is literally unbelievable. They were afraid. They were confused. They didn’t know what was happening. It’s so eerily similar to our situation in this pandemic.
My favourite among the four is Mark’s way of ending the story. When the women peer into the empty tomb, a young man in a white robe greets them and says, “Don’t be afraid. He is not here. He has been raised. Now go, tell his disciples …” But they don’t tell anyone. Mark ends this way, “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
A couple of later scribes thought that ending was too abrupt, and they added two other endings in which the women do tell the disciples (they are called “the shorter ending” and “the longer ending” of Mark in your Bibles after Mark 16:8).
But most scholars believe that Mark intended to end his gospel with the silence of the women. Why? Because Mark wants us to know that it’s up to all of us to tell and live out the good news. We continue the story of the gospel as we live it out, as we become witnesses to the new life of God. In every act of kindness and generosity and compassion, we complete the story. As we isolate to keep ourselves ad others safe, we live in love. As we reach out to help others, we live in hope. As we complete the gospel, we cling to God’s grace and become grace–full.
As at that first Easter, so for us the heart of the gospel message is “Don’t be afraid.”
That is a good word for us in this time of pandemic. While our faith celebrations are different and muted this year, our faith remains strong and focussed on a new future.
Faith remains possible. Understanding will come. The voice of the risen Jesus calls us by name, and the God who destroyed death is ever able to turn our tears into joy. All is not lost.
It is a good word for us to hear and to trust.
Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook