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Easter Celebrations Re-defined: Longing for Lifelong Traditions Amidst a Pandemic

April 10, 2020
An empty Coptic Orthodox Christian church. As opposed to the usual large crowds, churches this year will be empty during Easter holidays.

This year, I will not be going to our overcrowded local neighborhood church racing through palm leaf craftspeople and sellers for Palms Sunday. I will not be attending a single day of Esboo el Alaam (Holy Week) prayers, and feel the communal energy that drives us as we all pray in unison. 

I will not attend El Gomaa el Aazima (Good Friday) at church and sit gazing through the crowd as I try to spot family members from afar before we start doing our 400 matanya (prostrations – a sort of worship in which we do the sign of the cross 400 times) – something I would always get excited about as a child. And I will not attend Easter Eve at the church by my grandmother’s house, the same church we’ve been going to for Easter Eve since I was a child, followed by our traditional family gathering at my grandmother’s later that night. 

Although I may not necessarily consider myself a particularly religious person, these religious holidays and all the traditions that are tied to them hold a very special place in my heart – and I realize this now more than ever, when we have been told we cannot carry out these traditions this year.

As precautionary measures to halt the spread of COVID-19, the usual gatherings of religious holidays have been suspended and, with Easter just around the corner, the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt released a statement on April 2 stating they would comply with these new measures. 

Although this news carries a heavy sorrow for many Christians who look forward to the annual Easter traditions, people are understanding of the situation and are doing what they can to keep their spirits up from home. People are still fasting, they are praying at home, and our resilience to stay true to our nature seems to be what has been keeping us going.

Beyond Coptic Easter in Egypt, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected Christians worldwide in that all around the world Palm Sunday and Easter have already been celebrated at home (Catholic Christians celebrate Palm Sunday and Easter a week before Coptic Christians). Even Pope Francis celebrated Easter alone this year, as opposed to celebrating and praying with large crowds of people. Instead, the Pope released a video message of hope to Christians worldwide in which he states, “Even if we are isolated, thought and spirit can go far with the creativity of love. This is what we need today: the creativity of love…We will celebrate Holy Week in a truly unusual way, which manifests and sums up the message of the Gospel, that of God’s boundless love.”

His message goes on to say, “The Apostle Paul says: “And He died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves, but for Him Who died for them and was raised again” (2 Cor 5:15). In the risen Jesus, life conquered death. This Paschal faith nourishes our hope. I would like to share it with you this evening. It is the hope of a better time, in which we can be better, finally freed from evil and from this pandemic. It is a hope: hope does not disappoint; it is not an illusion, it is a hope.”

Coptic Easter prayer in Egypt. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

This pandemic however, has not only affected Christians worldwide, but also all religions. It has opened our eyes to the importance of the communal aspect of religion – buddhists can no longer go to temples to give offerings and pray, and Muslims can no longer attend Friday prayer, not to mention that the upcoming Ramadan holiday will surely have a different taste to it this year as well.

In Egypt, the use of technology has proven to be a necessary means of maintaining spiritual connection throughout this period of time. The Coptic Church has been actively keeping spirits up by continuing to broadcast prayers on television and across social media, and encouraging Christians to continue to take part in these prayers at home.

That being said however, the resilience to pull through these difficult times does not mean having to forget the reason these holidays meant so much to us in the first place. It is okay to feel upset about not being able to go to church, about not being able to gather with loved ones as one usually would, and about not being able to get moved by the energy of a large crowd. In fact, these are all very ordinary feelings in the midst of extraordinary circumstances. 

Yes, we will have to alter our traditions this year and adapt them to our current situation. But as my mother leaves the Palms Sunday prayer ringing on the television on Sunday morning, I will think about the nicely dressed morning crowd at church, each individual with their palm leaves and crowns and crosses, sitting patiently for communion. As we listen to the Good Friday prayers from home, I will think about a warm Friday afternoon spent at church, buzzing with worshipers excited for the upcoming Easter Eve holiday, followed by a family gathering in which we eat foul and taameya (beans and falafel). 

Above all, on an Easter Eve in which a nation-wide curfew is imposed, I will think of the inexplicably emotional portrayal of Jesus Christ’s resurrection at the church by my grandmother’s house – and that although it is the same every year, it still affects me deeply every time. I will think of that moment, followed by the large, loud family gathering full of laughter and good food. 

It is true that at times like this, we realize the things in life that we take for granted; celebrating religious holidays is undeniably one of those things. It may not necessarily be about the religious or spiritual practice of it for everyone, but one cannot deny that it is also about the community, tradition and connection. 

We will be celebrating Easter holidays and it will not be the same, but it will be special this year in that it will make us appreciate it, and everything it stands for, all the more.

*The opinions and ideas expressed in this article do not reflect the views of Egyptian Streets’ editorial team. To submit an opinion article, please email [email protected].

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