Challenging tradition with hope
Posted on: 26th October 2021
CMS missionaries Chris and Grace Adams serve in the predominantly Catholic nation of Timor-Leste. They share how the Catholic celebration of All Souls’ Day (2 November) has been integrated with local traditional practices into the annual observance of Loron Matebian (Spirits of the Dead Day) and the challenge this poses for Timorese Christians.
The joy of faith
We recently celebrated the commitment of 19 young Christians who publicly declared their faith. After completing ‘The Foundation of the Christian Faith’ Bible Study series with Chris, they were confirmed in a heart-felt and moving service. Celebrating the Lord’s Supper together after an extended period of COVID restrictions made it even more joyful. There was a deep sense of community of God’s family and manifestation of God’s grace among us.
The challenge to faith in Timor-Leste
The following morning, as we prayed for this group of young people, we realised that soon many of them, along with other Christians in Timor-Leste, will face a challenge to their faith on arguably the two most important days in the national calendar (1—2 November). Loron Matebian which means, ‘Spirits of the Dead Day’, is known in English as ‘All Souls’ Day’ according to the Catholic tradition. (According to Catholic tradition All Souls’ Day follows All Saints’ Day which in turn follows All Hallows Eve, i.e. Halloween). It’s one of the most significant times of family gathering and commemoration in Timor-Leste.
During this long weekend, the streets of Dili will be empty. So will our church. Many people from the capital city will have returned to their families in the districts to observe religious obligations to their deceased members of the family.
What happens on Loron Matebian?
The spirits of the deceased members of the family are an integral part of life for many Timorese. Loron Matebian is a special day set aside to affirm the family’s dedication to the spirits of the dead. We have learnt from our Timorese friends that this celebration often involves the Catholic tradition of praying for deceased loved ones.
However, what is more significant, in terms of Timorese culture and identity, is what happens in each household to ensure blessings and to avoid curses. Families display photos of those who have died alongside special food and other items prepared for them. A designated member of the family prays to invite the spirits into their presence. Family members will leave the room for the deceased ones to accept the offerings. Then, the family members return and eat the sacrificial food prepared for the deceased ones, with a special prayer asking the spirits to bless the family.
“The spirits of the deceased members of the family are an integral part of life for many Timorese. Loron Matebian is a special day set apart to affirm the family’s dedication to the spirits of the dead.”
The dangers of syncretism for believers
Many professing Christians, including some who are part of our church, also take part in this false worship. What is even more grieving is that many Christian leaders, especially in the districts, willingly participate.
Young Christians, including those who have been feasting upon the truths of the gospel through the confirmation Bible studies, will be pressured to conform to these practices. But a believer who participates in these customs is denying their exclusive commitment to Christ as their Lord and Saviour.
Standing firm in Christ
Timorese Christians face a crossroads every year at this time. Will they choose Christ or deny him? To trust in Jesus alone comes at a significant personal cost.
A few days ago, just over a week before the festival, we held a gathering of young people, and others who were interested, to support them and provide a biblical perspective on Loron Matebian. Together we looked at the questions of:
“What happens when a person dies?”
“What does the Bible teach us about evil spirits?”
“What difference does our faith in Christ make?”
We heard living testimonies of our Timorese brothers and sisters, including Pastor Kris and Pastor Carlos, of God’s empowering grace in departing from the old practices and choosing exclusive worship of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob through faith in Christ.
Other Timorese leaders shared pastoral wisdom about how young people can respond with an attitude of love and respect when they are pressured to participate in the rituals of Loron Matebian.
We will be praying for our Christian brothers and sisters in Timor on Loron Matebian, especially the young people from the Dili church who have heard the gospel and made a commitment to exclusive worship of Jesus Christ.
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” (Philippians 4:6)
Pray for Chris and Grace and all involved in teaching a biblical perspective on Loron Matebian. Pray for the people of Timor-Leste to know the assurance of salvation in Jesus, to have true peace with God and to experience a living hope through the Holy Spirit. Pray for Timorese Christians to cling to Jesus as the only Saviour and redeemer.