Easter in the time of coronavirus: Empty churches, unused communion hosts reflect a world where prayer has gone online

As countries around the world starting urging people to stay at home amid the coronavirus outbreak, and India announced its 21-day lockdown, priests and other clergy had to suddenly befriend that familiar beast, technology, ahead of Easter. | Joanna Lobo writes in our #SummerWithout series

Joanna Lobo April 12, 2020 12:55:43 IST
Easter in the time of coronavirus: Empty churches, unused communion hosts reflect a world where prayer has gone online

This essay is part of our 'a summer without...' series. Read more here.

***

Goa is hot in the summer. Sweltering. The humidity claws at your face, sends rivers of sweat down your back. It is worse when you’re out in the sun or when you’re wearing your stuffy Sunday best and are packed in a room with a few hundred people. You fidget in your seat, unable to fan yourself with a book or a handkerchief because of the solemnity of the occasion. “Jesus suffered for our sins. He died to give us life…,” says the priest. Your mother nudges you with her elbow giving a look that says, ‘if Jesus could be beaten and crucified, surely you can handle a little heat’. You subside in your seat, trying to focus on the priest’s voice, inwardly telling god this is your penance for the day. The Good Friday service continues on.

You leave the service after two hours, drenched in perspiration. It is cooler now in the evening; the sun is gone, and the Mass is over. You have the prospect of raisin-studded hot cross buns to savour, and break your fast.

The sweat is worth it.

Easter is typically a summer festival in India. The mandatory 40 days of fasting and penance, Lent, ends in one of India’s hottest months, April.

April has always been my favourite month. As a child, it meant summer holidays, no school or homework, days spent at either of my grandparents’ homes, eating and playing (or reading), the onset of mango season, a birthday celebration and of course, Easter. Easter is the holiest of festivals for Catholics, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who died for our sins and rose again so we could have eternal salvation. These aren’t my words…the Bible says so.

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Pope Francis presides over an Easter vigil ceremony in St. Peter's Basilica, empty of the faithful following Italy’s ban on gatherings to contain coronavirus contagion, at the Vatican on Saturday, 11 April 2020. AP Photo

I’ve grown up in Goa and live in Mumbai, both places known for their heat and humidity. The summer heat and the stifling quiet lends Holy Week services an air of gravitas that goes well with the Church-prescribed solemnity. Holy Week follows Jesus’ journey into Jerusalem, the Last Supper where he washed the feet of his disciples, his crucifixion and subsequent resurrection. It begins on Palm Sunday, and the most important days are Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Or what non-Catholic people call a long weekend!

Though Easter Mass is typically held at midnight, or early evening in cities that have sound restrictions, Holy Week services happen during the day – early afternoon and evening.

Easters in Goa were memorable. It meant stitching or buying a new dress to wear to church, which would later become my ‘birthday outfit’. It meant failed attempts at making a cross using the palms handed out on Palm Sunday. It meant three visits to the church on Good Friday: for Stations of the Cross (following Jesus’ journey to Calvary where he was hung on a cross), for a three-hour agony in the afternoon, and for Mass later in the evening. It meant carrying candles to midnight Mass, and ensuring we didn’t spill the melting wax or burn holes in our clothes. It meant drinking sweet coffee and eating crumbly cake after Mass, while playing Housie, and taking breaks to wish the senior folk in the village and hear every one of them say, ‘you’ve grown so big’.  The celebrations were similar to Christmas, minus the decorations and the sweets. Easter, instead, had mangoes and cake, a lot of cooling food and dessert like tender coconut soufflés, and fewer spicy/heavy dishes.

When I moved to Mumbai, my Easter celebrations changed drastically. The family was missing as was the solemnity. I would rush to attend Holy Week services from work and then rush back to work – media folk don’t have the luxury of long weekends. I chose chapels and churches that were within walking distance from office, sometimes ending up listening to Mass in Marathi and not understanding anything. I was usually done with Easter Mass — it begins at 7pm in Mumbai — even before my family was heading out for their service. Over 12 years, I accepted that my Easter celebrations wouldn’t rival those in Goa.

Enter 2020.

Nothing could’ve prepared me for how I would be celebrating Easter this year, indoors, with a laptop for company.

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A woman lights a candle in her window ahead of Easter. AP Photo

The first sign that things would be different was when the Vatican cancelled public participation in Easter services, back on 15 March. At the time, Italy was the worst hit by the coronavirus outbreak and the country had been on lockdown for a week already. The announcement, a month before the actual festival, felt ominous. Catholics protested. Things were definitely bad if an institution that was notably reluctant to change and which relied on century-old traditions, was ready to bend them. As countries around the world starting urging people to stay at home, and India announced its 21-day lockdown, priests and other clergy had to suddenly befriend that familiar beast, technology. The sermons preaching the vices of technology had to change to sing its praises. Masses were live-streamed, or recorded and released later.

As priests changed, so did the laity (lay people).

Some turned to humour, sharing memes about how even Jesus doesn’t want to rise this year, or how we should wash our hands like Pontius Pilate (inside Bible joke). Other, like me, had to reconcile ourselves to listening to Mass at home, from our laptops or TVs, trying very hard to imagine we were in a Church. In Goa, my family is tuning to cable TV to watch Mass and pray.

It’s a change I was underprepared to embrace. I had so many questions: do we place the laptop/ TV below the altar? Do we dress in our Sunday best? Can I sit on my bed instead of a chair? Do I need to place flowers or a cross near the laptop? Do I answer the door if someone rings the bell? And where can I find hot cross buns? Is spiritual communion a good enough replacement for actual communion?

The first Mass I heard at home felt surreal. I was alone. In the absence of a nudging arm and anyone to shush me, my attention wandered. I fidgeted a lot – we have an AC but I felt it appropriate to replicate Masses in church. My dog interrupted me several times, wondering why I keep standing up and sitting down. Am I allowed to pet her?

This Holy Week, I decided to embrace the change. In the absence of rules, I created my own. I had the luxury of choosing what services I could attend: English or Konkani, finding a priest who could grab my attention during his sermon, and picking a time of my convenience. I shuttled between priests and churches for different Masses. I got out of pyjamas and wore something comfortable and in the required mourning colours. Yesterday evening, I ‘dressed up’, and lit a candle during the Easter vigil service. Today, I will eat good food, and a cake that my friend has baked so we can celebrate. I will wish the family and friends over call: video call so they can blow kisses to me and so I can see my 111-year-old grandmother and take her virtual blessings.

I did everything, and yet, it doesn’t feel like a proper Easter celebration. There is no confession, mandatory before the festival; or palm crosses. The sense of community is missing. Watching people raise their candles in a dark church to welcome the risen Christ, their voices united in song, is missing.

The only constant is the heat.

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