Friday, 31 March 2017

Easter Through Middle Eastern Eyes

The Easter story binds together Christians everywhere across the global Church but there are many rich and varied ways of celebrating Jesus’ death and rising.  

Uniting Church members in Sydney recently attended a workshop ‘Easter through Middle Eastern eyes’ exploring how Easter is observed in the UCA ‘s different cultures.

NSW/ACT Moderator Rev. Myung Hwa Park joined about 30 participants at the workshop organised by the Christ and Cultures Gathering in partnership with Uniting Mission and Education.

A highlight was a demonstration of a ‘seder’ meal as part of the Jewish observance of the Passover led by Rabbi Zalman Kastel. 

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Leading the workshop, Levon Kardashian, a lay leader in the Uniting Church, shared some of the traditions of Easter for Lebanese Christians.

“There is no Easter Bunny in Lebanon – but we do have eggs,” said Levon, adding, “I never understood how the Bunny got the eggs.”

He explained that during Holy Week in Lebanon it was custom for cars and trucks to drive the streets with huge speakers playing Easter hymns and music.

“On Good Friday, the Armenian Evangelical Church holds a service at 3pm, then our members join with the Armenian Orthodox Church outside the Catholic Church and all three Churches take part in a procession. Jesus is ‘taken down’ from the cross and the empty cross leads the procession.”

“As we walk people join the procession and it gets bigger and bigger.”

Rev. Dr John Jegasothy, Minister for Rose Bay-Vaucluse Uniting Church and the Tamil faith community in Northmead, shared about Easter in Sri Lanka.

“For us, Easter is not a church-alone celebration – it is a village celebration,” he said.

“Just as we celebrate with our Hindu or Buddhist neighbours when it is their festivals, everyone in the community knows it is Easter.”

“On Palm Sunday we have a procession through the streets waving palms and singing ‘Hosanna’ and waking everybody up. It is a public display, a witness.”

On Good Friday everyone goes to Church for a deeply solemn service mourning Jesus’ death.

“Easter Sunday is festival day. We eat chicken curry which is something special as most people cannot afford to eat meat every day.”

Rev. Fie Marino, NSW/ACT Multicultural Ministry Consultant, shared about Easter in Samoa.

“It is very family-oriented, with lots of singing and dancing and acting,” said Fie.

The predominant denomination in Samoa is the Congregational Christian Church.

Fie said Easter is the one time of the year the congregations come together.

“Each congregation is given a part of the Easter story to perform so that the whole of the Easter story is told by the end.”

“On Easter Sunday there is a huge sports day and lots of feasting.”

Rev. Matagi Vilitama, Minister at Ramsgate Uniting Church and Chairperson of the Niue National Conference, shared how Easter was similarly celebrated in Niue with an emphasis on singing, preaching by lay people, performance and of course feasting.

He spoke about a special Niuean tradition, the ‘blessing of the yams’, a cultural celebration which over time has been incorporated into the celebration of Easter.

“We have a saying in Niue, ‘die not the death of a rodent but the death of a yam, for the yam will come back to life after many moons’.”

The yam, which holds an important place in Niue culture, has come to be a symbol of Christ rising to new life.

To reflect on the ways Jesus might have celebrated the Passover, workshop participants were led through the rituals of the seder meal by Rabbi Zalman Kastel with an explanation of their significance to Jewish people.

Zalman explained how the various symbols of the bitter herbs, the matzah (unleavened bread), the salt water and the wine reminded Jewish people of how the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt.

“There are two themes threaded through the rituals of the seder, one of liberation and one of slavery. For example, we lean to the left to symbolise that we are free people, then we eat bitter herbs as a reminder of the bitterness of slavery.”

The rituals are designed to arouse curiosity and stimulate questions.

The workshop began with a Middle Eastern lunch meeting the strict requirements of the fast observed by the Armenian Apostolic Church during Lent – no meat, dairy or eggs. 

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Also speaking was Rev. Dr Clive Pearson from the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture who recently visited Lebanon.

Clive reflected how Christianity in the Middle East is framed by its social and political context, the impact of war in the region and its relationship with Islam as the majority religion.

Adding to this complexity for Christians in Lebanon is the huge influx of refugees from Syria into the country and the call for Christian Churches to assist.

With Christian communities being decimated in many parts of the Middle East and persecution by Daesh or “ISIS militants”, Churches were determined to maintain their presence in the Holy Land.  

In facing these challenges, Clive said the one thing Church leaders asked was to be remembered by Christians around the world.

UnitingWorld has begun a fundraising campaign to support Churches in Lebanon to provide education for Syrian refugee children. To find out how you can help go to https://chuffed.org/project/syriakids

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