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Making a joyful noise – celebrating Easter in South Asia

CMS workers D and S serve in education in a Muslim-majority country in South Asia. They share how local Christians celebrate Easter. 

In some ways we were surprised how Easter is celebrated in this country, because it is done with such fervour. We had assumed that, given this is a majority Muslim country, local churches would keep quiet, but that is not the case. Many churches broadcast their services via loudspeakers in the neighbourhoods, and in this way they try to make themselves known.  

The Christian churches here are made up of many denominations, from the large mainstream churches to the smaller fringe groups, with everything in between. Hence you tend to get a mix of different styles of celebrations.  

On the Sunday, early morning before sunrise, many congregations walk through their respective neighbourhoods, candles in hand, proclaiming with word and song that Jesus has risen.

The challenge of sharing life and faith 

Sharing the gospel in a country such as ours is challenging, especially for local believers. Christians are a very small minority in our part of South Asia and generally Muslims and Christians live quite separate lives. Often Christians will seek out Christian neighbourhoods to live in. In some cities, there are more Christians living among the majority people, but in our particular city, there are some very large and densely populated Christian neighbourhoods.  

Sharing life with people of different faiths can be problematic. As foreigners, it is important that we are sensitive to the requirements of people’s faiths. We don’t pick it up as much because we are not only Christian but also Anglo-Saxon Australian. Where we could mix with the majority people, sometimes local Christians might have a problem. Mixing with the majority people is not an issue for us, but for them it is not that easy, or often done. For example, a Muslim might visit our house, drink from our cups, or eat from our plates, but that is much more complicated when Pakistani majority people visit Pakistani minority people. 

Easter is an opportunity for Christians–local and foreign–to declare and celebrate their faith. It begins with Lent. 

A visible faith 

Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, where the application of charcoal on the forehead is practiced, and the month of fasting is announced. Different degrees of fasting are promoted depending upon one’s theological perspective and Christian practice. Even in the mainstream Protestant churches fasting is preached on and practiced, although not to the same extent, or with the same passion, rules and regulations as with Ramadan.  

On the Thursday prior to Easter, the ‘washing of the feet’ is celebrated where the pastor washes the feet of his church members. This tradition is, we think, practiced more in the smaller congregations, mainly for practical reasons, since even the larger churches here are single pastor churches. At about that time, there is often a musical performance called the ‘Evening before Calvary.’ It is a melodious performance but with a sad and sombre mood.  

The Sunday before Easter, Palm Sunday, is also celebrated with great attention to detail with palm leaves but also often using other branches, because palms are becoming increasingly scarce in our location. 

Then, on Good Friday, the congregations meet mid-morning for an extensive celebration of singing interspersed with small sermons given by seven different men and women from the congregation about the seven sayings of Jesus on the cross. This service usually lasts for two to three hours. 

Celebrating the resurrection  

On the Sunday, early in the morning before sunrise, many congregations walk through their respective neighbourhoods, proclaiming with word and song that Jesus has risen.  

The processions start at 4:30am, with the pastor and the elders leading while the rest of the congregation follows behind, each with a burning candle in their hand. When they come to a corner or intersection, the procession stops, the megaphone is turned on and a very short message is given, and at the end everyone shouts “Hallelujah, Jesus is risen!” (in local language) and then they move on to the next crossing. The procession does a loop of the neighbourhood, which consists of narrow alleys and slightly wider roads, then makes its way back to the church while singing hymns and somebody banging the drum.  

The first time we participated in a procession we were a little nervous, but it grew on us! The sound, the excitement and the number of people was an eye-opener for us. The government usually provides some policemen for occasions such as these. 

Later in the morning, churches hold their Easter service, which is also very well attended. Most in our country endeavour to buy new outfits for the Easter celebration. This year, Good Friday and Easter Monday coincide with public holidays which allows many more to celebrate the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. 

PRAY 

Give thanks for the faithfulness of Christians in boldly proclaiming their faith at Easter despite discrimination and challenges to their faith. Pray that God would open the hearts of many in South Asia to Jesus.