While for the Western communities, Christmas is a big deal- even though it has been abused commercially and lost its spiritual meaning to a lot of people, Easter for the Oriental and Eastern Orthodox churches is massively and traditionally well-celebrated, for it carries the very core of the Christian faith. The Coptic church is one of those churches that affords Easter a great account. For 55 days, the Copts (Orthodox Christians of Egypt) fast for Lent by abstaining from any meat, seafood, and dairy products. They tend to attend church more often and manage to live an ascetic life during this time. For any Copt, the Holy Week that precedes Easter is considered the highlight, not only of this Lenten season but also the entire year. Copts wait for this holy time from year to year. And this is due to the spiritual intensity encountered during this time when Copts get to spend most of their week in church amid long hours of praise and worship, prostrations, abstention, and tons of bible readings. This has been the norm, since forever, until 2020 came upon us.
All of a sudden and without warning, the entire world woke up to the coronavirus pandemic that turned most people’s lives into a nightmare. Life has paused everywhere. Nothing seems the same anymore. Work, school, social life, and even places of worship are put on hold. For the very first time, the churches have shut their doors to the worshipers! The first thought that came to most Copts; this can’t be happening in the Coptic church. The Coptic church had never closed its door to any of its children, even when it was most persecuted! But shortly after, the Copts received emails, letters, and verbal announcements informing them of the closure of the churches with the option of streaming the church services online, including Holy Week’s.
Most of the Copts thought it’s a silly joke. God must be kidding with us. It can’t be! It’s the Lenten season. It’s Holy Week. It’s Easter! There is no way we are attending the holiest time of the year outside of the church! This must be a horrible nightmare! After a while, reality kicked in. Copts began to realize this is not a joke. Holy Week and Easter are to be attended from home where services can be streamed online from churches with empty pews.
At first, I thought it should be ok. It is an opportunity to appreciate church more and get to miss it. Honestly, I felt it’s a good time to rest and take a break from everything, even church. I thought to myself; I got this. I began to look for the crucifixion icon, some candles, a black cloth, and the Pascha readings book to set up my Holy Week corner, as advised by the church leaders. This should give us a sense of church at home. And even though I did as instructed, and with the first service streaming, the strength and apathy I thought I had collapsed. I found myself crying and feeling very heart-broken, especially after I saw the emptiness cloaking the church. The priest with barley one deacon, and sometimes completely by himself, is praying alone in a massive, empty church. I got on my knees, sobbing, before Christ’s icon. And instantly, a flashback of all of the times I arrived at church late, all the Sundays I negotiated with God if I should go to church or stay in bed, the number of times I hated to wake up early, and the weekly service that sometimes was like a heavy burden that I carried with resentment, ran before my eyes.
As I was covering the rug underneath me with my tears, feeling extremely ashamed and full of regret, I felt God patting me on the back and initiated an internal conversation with me. He revealed to me that I should not be sad for not being physically present in a building, but rather with the community of believers. Because our homes are called to be churches and places of praise and worship. And because back in the days of the apostles, there were no churches other than the dwellings of the believers who used to get together and experience the marvelous work of the Holy Spirit. He also opened my eyes to see why He could have allowed us to go through this time without a church. I was able to get glimpses of how it feels to be a convert and can’t announce your faith due to a lack of religious freedom where you live. I was reminded of a time when I attended a talk to a convert who was sharing how she became a Christian and was still living with her non-Christian family who knew nothing about her new faith. She lived across the street from one of the Coptic churches. She used to sit by the window of her room, staring for hours at the church. She used to feel so jealous of the people coming in and out of the church freely. She used to read the bible in the bathroom and hide it under her bed. Also, I was reminded of all those who belong to the underground churches in the communist countries, back in the days, and even now as we speak. Those who are jailed for carrying a bible or holding a prayer meeting in their homes. I was reminded by our family members who left their homeland and came to the Western world, back in the 60s, 70s, and even 80s when the Coptic churches were very little, and they had to travel for over 2- 3 hours to get to church to partake of the Holy Communion once every 1-2 months. I was reminded by those who are persecuted all over the world and don’t have the privilege to practice their faith liberally.
And finally, God has reminded me that the reason why I go to church is to celebrate Him and partake of His Holy Communion. While I can’t currently be physically in church, I have Him in my heart, I commune with Him daily through prayer, and my home should always be a prepared and welcoming place for Him to come in and dwell with us. He has opened my eyes to the fact that no matter what happens in the world, nothing should take away from me the joy of His salvation and the gift of life He has given me with His death and resurrection.
No matter what happened or what will happen, no matter how much longer we will be living in this current situation, I am free because He died for me, I am alive, saved, filled with joy and hope because He resurrected. Christ is risen.
Photo Credit: Victor Yonan