Originally posted April 25, 2011, at Andrew in South Africa. Republished with permission of the author.
It was a cold, windy and misty Palm Sunday. The other volunteers and I were not dressed for the weather, but at least we had packed some hard-boiled eggs to hold us over until the end of the service.
My start of Holy Week began in Soweto, South Africa’s most famous township and the epicenter of the anti-apartheid struggle.
As we processed through the streets of Soweto with our palms, I had one of those “awesome moments.” Here I was, singing hymns in Setswana, processing with hundreds of South Africans in the place where the struggle for freedom hit a turning point in the 1970s.
After walking a few blocks, the cold weather didn’t faze me any longer as I was taking it all in.
We then had a Palm Sunday service to remember, including three confirmations, eight baptisms and Holy Communion. Four and half hours later, the service was over. It was such a blessing to worship alongside brothers and sisters in Christ, and it was a great start to Holy Week.
My home parish, Bloemfontein South, held a church service every night of Holy Week.
I could really feel the energy and excitement building as we approached the weekend. I had always been told that Holy Week and Easter were the biggest Christian holidays in South Africa, even bigger than Christmas. And I became a witness to it.
As there were a lot of similarities between the liturgies and scripture, there were also differences that I have never experienced before.
Our Good Friday service began at 10 a.m. on Friday. This was the first time I had gone to a Good Friday service in the morning. And as I went to the service, I was anticipating the usual somber, silent and grieving themes of a Good Friday service back home.
But I was astonished to see people singing hymns with energy and praise. There were smiles and dancing in the pews and aisles. I sat there dumbfounded, not sure what to make of it all.
I am used to a service in silence, with the lights dimmed and people grieving. But instead I was faced with people who were in celebration.
After a three-hour service, we broke for lunch and returned for a “seven stations of the cross” type service.
There were seven readings accompanied by two or three preachers for each passage. The readers ranged from children in Sunday school to elders of the church. There was passion in their preaching, and the resonating “amens” from the congregants were constant.
After another three hours or so, we finished our Good Friday service. As I was trying to make sense of the service, I explained to some people how my usual Good Friday services are and asked them to explain theirs.
One person stated, “We understand that Christ died today, and it is sad and we do grieve. However, we want to celebrate the gift of life and for God sending his only Son to save us. Because of Jesus’ death, we are able to be here and worship. This is something to celebrate.”
Like many things I’ve experienced in the Southern Hemisphere, my thoughts were flipped upside down. I had never thought about it that way and have always carried the North American mentality of extreme grief and sadness during one’s death.
There is still an emphasis placed on reflection, but rather than on one day, the entire Lenten period is a time of extreme personal reflection.
The service played to the way funerals are in South Africa, in which there is more celebration of the person’s life than of the sadness of their passing. Now, seeing this side, I was extremely excited for Easter Sunday.
And I wasn’t disappointed. Easter Sunday was a joyous celebration and our church was filled to capacity.
There were numerous hymns and choruses sung celebrating the resurrection of Jesus and our being saved.
Hands were flung into the air praising God, and everyone was smiling and happy. For the first time in my life, I could truly sense the meaning of Easter and feel God’s presence and grace.
The strength of the Holy Spirit on Easter Sunday was powerful, and the service was a perfect culmination of a Lenten period that will always remain with me.
Find a link to Andrew Steele’s blog Andrew in South Africa at Lutheran Blogs.