Orthodox Christians celebrated Easter this Sunday with millions of the faithful under lockdown at home as their clergy delivered sermons before empty pews.
Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is normally packed with thousands of worshippers during the holiday − locals and pilgrims from across the globe − was almost deserted this weekend because of Israel’s strict anti-COVID-19 measures.
Church leaders urged their congregants to stay home to avoid spreading the deadly coronavirus.
In the Palestinian territories, worshippers were also encouraged to stay home.
Most Israeli and Palestinian Christians follow the Eastern Orthodox calendar when observing religious holidays.
Father Jamal Khadar, a parish priest at the Holy Family Church in Ramallah, told The Media Line that this year was very different.
“The way we celebrated in previous years was to hold big celebrations with the whole community, especially on Palm Sunday and Good Friday and every day,” he said. “This year, because of the coronavirus lockdown, everyone is staying home.”
The annual ritual of traveling to Jerusalem, just a few miles to the south, was also dropped.
“One important thing that we will miss this year is to participate in the celebrations in Jerusalem. To walk in the Palm Sunday procession in the streets of Jerusalem, spend Holy Thursday in [the Garden of] Gethsemane, and especially to be [at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre] for the [descent of the] Holy Fire, so we can rekindle it here in Ramallah with all the scouts,” Khadar said.
Orthodox Christian tradition holds that on the Saturday before Easter, a blue light emits from within Jesus Christ’s tomb, rising from the marble slab covering the stone bed believed to be that upon which his body was placed for burial. The light is believed to form a column of fire, from which candles are lit. This fire is then used to light the candles of the clergy and pilgrims in attendance, and taken to Orthodox churches locally and abroad.
“What we are trying to do is to hold our services without the presence of the faithful in the church, and to transmit those celebrations by TV or the internet so that people can follow from home. We encourage people to sit together as a family this year and to participate in those celebrations, and return to the true meaning of Easter, without all the festive celebrations but still we can feel the spirit of the feast,” Khadar said.
There have been more than 350 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Palestinian territories, and two people have died.
Lucy Heshmeh, an instructor at Al Quds Open University and a resident of Ramallah, told The Media Line she and her family are adapting to the changes.
“We used to have a normal life in our daily routine. Now, however, we are facing the problem of the world, the coronavirus. Our life has changed and turned upside down. Everything is different right now; we are under quarantine. We work through online courses, so I teach my courses to my students online,” she said.
The pandemic changed how she celebrates Easter.
“We used to be very busy preparing our homes, the decorations, buying new clothes, running to watch the parades, whereas now we are focusing on it spiritually, because we do not go outside the house. We participate in everything via the internet, so it has a different feel nowadays,” Heshmeh said.
She said that thanks to modern technology, she was doing her part to fight the coronavirus by staying home.
Khadar said, “At the same time, we are not practicing our faith the way we normally do. The problem of course is the virus. What we do now is to conduct the prayers through the internet, online; we practice our faith online. We attend the daily Mass and Sunday Mass online.”
People should live the message of Easter, he said, despite all the sadness, despite not being able to attend sermons in packed churches, and despite not knowing when normal life will resume.
“The message of Easter is the death and resurrection of Christ. Life is stronger than death, light is stronger than darkness. This message of the passage from darkness to light: This is the message for us, the Christian community, and the whole of humanity.”