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Easter thoughts

Easter brings a 4-day weekend with Bank Holiday Friday (aka Good Friday when I lived in Manila) and Easter Monday (which, thank you God, is also a bank holiday!).  Easter also brings a lot of chocolate and it’s been a tradition at the firm that I work in for the shareholders of the firm to give us Easter eggs before the office closes for the long weekend.  Easter also brings a time for me to rest.  I’ve not been a 100% per cent for a while, so I am thankful for the statutory time off!

Easter was quite different for me when I lived in the Philippines.  If you didn’t already know, the Philippines is a predominantly Christian country, where approximately 86% of the population are Roman Catholic (I belong to the 2% of the population, I think, who are protestant – I am a proud card-carrying Methodist!).  So Easter is a big thing in the Philippines – almost as big as Christmas.  But I think, whilst Christmas is a celebration of blessings (both spiritual and fiscal), Easter is more solemn…more devotional.

The country begins it’s slow down on Palm Sunday and all but shuts down in the afternoon of Holy Wednesday.  The proceedings begin on Maundy Tuesday, the evening when the ritual of the Last Supper is celebrated and everyone goes into a collective retrospective, spiritually contemplative and prayerful mood.  When I was younger, before the introduction of the mainstream cable TV subscription, local TV stations would cease their usual telecasts and it would only be “religious” films on TV (mostly about the last days of Christ, and Father Peyton TV specials).  Children weren’t allowed to play and we were all told to be quiet when we did laugh out loud.

When I started participating in my local church activities, the weeks leading up to Easter Sunday were very busy.  There were choir practices for the services that would be held for the evening of the Last Supper (Maundy Thursday evening) where we would have the ceremonial washing of the feet, the Last Supper and the service would end by the congregation stripping the altar of all its adornments in preparation for the afternoon service during Good Friday.  On Good Friday, there is a service in church where the focus of reflection is Jesus’ seven last statements whilst he was crucified on the cross.  I have been privileged to offer a reflection before.  There is a lot of hymn singing and the whole week is prayerful.

On Easter Sunday, most of the Catholic population celebrate Christ’s resurrection in an early morning (usually at around 4 or 5AM) ritual called Salubong (sah-loo-bong).  It is, most probably, the imagined reenactment of Jesus and Mary’s first meeting after Jesus has risen from the dead.  I’ve always known the Methodists (and other protestant congregations) to have an ecumenical (all are welcome) Easter sunrise service that usually starts at 5AM.  There is much singing and celebrating and then we all go back to our local churches to have our Easter Sunday services.  There is more celebrating via a church lunch following the requisite Easter egg hunt for the children.

Fairview Park United Methodist Church – photo credit: Matt de Guzman

The season of Lent is slightly different for me these days.  Since moving to the UK, because I’ve never really properly attached myself to a church, I don’t have the same Christian fellowship during these times.  I don’t have a choir to practice songs with, or a service to attend, during most times.  I know I should try to find a church, to regularly attend a Sunday service, to find Christian fellowship.  I find that whilst Easter still means a lot to me, because it represents the day Christ offered Himself to die for my sins, the day I became free from the shackles of death, it has become less contemplative.

I find that the life I live is more socially secular and more personally spiritual.  But I think that because of this lack of Christian fellowship, something is missing in my life.  I miss talking to people about my faith.  I miss sharing how little things in my life represent God’s goodness.  I miss talking about the instantness of God’s answers to my prayers.  I miss talking about how blessed I am to have certain people in my life because they represent God’s unconditional and illimitable love for me.  I miss talking about how amazing it is when I see God’s hand in the turn of events in my life.

While I lament the lack of opportunity to shout my faith from the mountaintops, I am also thankful for this personal stillness in my life.  I am reminded of the time when, in church, our youth group decided to focus on the internal spiritual growth of the church youth.  We decided that we needed to establish our fellowship first, before reaching out to other churches.  Because we felt the need for the bonds to be strengthened internally first before we reached out.  I think my move to the UK symbolised that as well.  Because after years of serving in church, after years of sharing myself, I needed to look inwardly and reassess my faith.  I needed to tend to my own relationship with my God and my Saviour Jesus Christ.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never felt removed from God, there wasn’t a sense that I wasn’t connected to God.  It was just I was letting Him do all the carrying (I don’t think He minded, but I know He would have loved it if I reached out to Him and carried my end of the yoke).  It is a relationship I have with my God.

I mean, ultimately, it is a commensalist relationship we have with our God.  Because whilst God can be without me (I am thankful that God loves me, and that this has never been a factor in His great plans for me), I am completely nothing without Him.  I benefit because I am with Him.  I am blessed because I am with Him.  Life would be a lot less if I existed without Him.

But I want to continue building my relationship with my God.  I stopped for a while.  I focused on myself but wanting to establish myself without His guidance is an exercise in futility.  Having my own way is what He has given us, we are free to make our own choices.  But ultimately, if we are not guided by Him and if we do not surrender to His will, we might as well walk our life journeys in circles.  When you do not have your internal compass you won’t get to where you need to go.

God has been waiting for me to properly come back, to pay attention to my relationship with Him.  He has been a constant presence in my life, in the people He has put in my life to remind me that I’ve not been walking the walk.  I am truly thankful that we have these Christian rituals during the year.  Because they serve as good reminders – of God’s love for us, and our responsibilities to Him.

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Thoughts of Lent

I grew up going to church every Sunday.  I will even go as far as to say that I have 2 home churches, one that I grew up in and one where I grew up spiritually in.  I went to Sunday school.  I sang in the children’s choir.  I eventually taught Sunday school and daily vacation church school.  My summers were spent in church and I was there nearly everyday!  I sang in the church chancel choir and completely immersed myself in all the church activities.  I spent so much time in church that I think it would be natural for me to miss church at Easter.

I think it’s fair to say that Easter is one of the busiest weeks in the Christian calendar, apart from Christmas.  Funnily enough, there is a Filipino term (Pasko ng Pagkabuhay) which translated means Christmas of the Resurrection.  We start counting down to this week from Ash Wednesday.  But it all starts unfolding on Palm Sunday, when Christians celebrate Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem with a Palm Sunday service.  The Catholics in the Philippines have their beautifully woven palm fronds blessed in church and they display this in their homes, mostly on their windows.  I grew up in a Methodist church and while we didn’t have the blessing of palm fronds, children of the Sunday school class came into the church waving their palms to re-enact Jesus’ triumphant entry.  This Sunday also marks the beginning of a very busy week.

I remember choir rehearsals in earnest because we would be singing during a series of services.  Our church usually had a service for the last supper where we would have the washing of the feet ceremony.  Our minister and members of the church would recreate the moment when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet in a display of his humility and servanthood.  We would have a communion service to commemorate the last time Jesus broke bread with his followers before his death and when he foretold of Judas’ betrayal.

One service that is closest to my heart is the Seven Last Words on Good Friday.  We start off the service at one o’clock in the afternoon.  We have seven speakers, a mixture of lay members and ministers, all speaking about the biblical basis of Jesus’ seven last statements.  Interspersed with the short sermons are songs by the choir.  The choir chronicles the last 24 hours of Jesus’ life with songs commemorating the kiss in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus’ journey carrying the cross through the Via Dolorosa, His nailing on the cross, His message to His disciple entrusting his mother into his care and His subsequent surrender of His spirit and His life into His Father’s hands.  Each song that we sings makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end because all the songs just underline the great sacrifice that The Lord undertook to save the world.  And because the songs paint a picture of how it was to be there, it just shakes me down to my foundations.  What it must have felt to be there!

We usually finish at three o’clock which is popularly believed to be the time of his death.  After all the speakers have finished their messages, and the choir have sung all their songs, the church is stripped as a sign of mourning.  Because Christ is dead and we are bereft without His divine presence.

Black Saturday is usually celebrated in silence, in contemplation.  Nothing really happens on a Saturday.  But the choir does try to sneak in a few hours of practice because we do have a sunrise service and an Easter Sunday service to sing in.

Easter Sunday is celebrated in so many ways.  But my favourite is a sunrise start.  We have an Easter sunrise service where messages of hope, joy and salvation resound in the sermons and the songs from the choir.  As a Christian, it is lovely to greet the brand new rays of the sun with the reassurance that Christ is not dead, He is alive and sitting at His Father’s right hand and waiting to come back for all of us.  We have an Easter Sunday service (yes, after the sunrise service, which is usually an ecumenical service with all the Christian churches in our community) that finishes with a lovely (and very traditional) Easter egg hunt for the children.

While I will enjoy the odd chocolate bunny and the occasional chocolate egg, and enjoy the bank holiday and the respite from the rat race,  the reason for the season will always resonate in my heart.  I will always know that Easter is the celebration of Christ’s resurrection, Christ’s ascension to heaven.  It is the fulfillment of the promises in the Bible.

Easter will always bring me hope, joy and a wonderful reminder of my salvation by Christ, but I will always feel a twinge in my heart because I will be missing my church family and the fellowship of Christians that I grew up with.  It is always wonderful to celebrate the fulfillment of God’s promises with like-minded individuals.

Fairview Park United Methodist Church - photo credit: Matt de Guzman
Fairview Park United Methodist Church – photo credit: Matt de Guzman