Easter in Eastern Cape 2008
We were invited to the Easter celebrations (they call it Passover celebrations) in the Lutheran church in Eastern Cape Circuit. After some deliberations the circuit commission and Dean Maho asked me to give a lecture on “Salvation and Grace according to Luther” to be held on the Saturday.
There are a few obstacles on the way to and in connection with such a celebration. The way is long: from
We were in a village church on a hill outside town, in this beautiful hill country, I and my wife Barbro, the only ones who were not speaking Xhosa, from Maundy Thursday afternoon to Easter Sunday. It was quite an insignificant black community of about 200 people having come together from the whole region/circuit; and yet it was one of the most profound experiences I have ever made in my life.
My talk on Luther took place late on Saturday morning. I could sense, through the marvellous interpretation by my old friend Joe Jongolo, that people could follow what I was saying: that works make us dead in terms of religious faith, that faith and the promise that goes with it, still always entails works as a result of one’s faith. I was given an hour, but the questions and discussions lasted even longer. One young woman thought our church was out of touch as we did not teach and practise healing, but most speakers elaborated on the matter of faith as the unavoidable entry point for what God does for us, through Christ, especially in the Good Friday events and on Easter Sunday. I could not refrain from repeating what I preached in the same circuit some 25 years ago, namely the significance of Easter Saturday; a day of rest, it seems a day of faith in the waiting, faith deferred… but that is not the whole truth. In an African context one should talk about what Christ did among the dead, who in
However this moment of theological exchange with ordinary congregants, of which few or none had a degree in anything, was not what made this Easter unforgettable. It was the corporate manifestation of the life and faith of these largely rural people, many of whom are poor.
Saturday afternoon had come. Due to an important funeral far away, that some had had to attend, it was uncertain to what extent there was going to be a Saturday night vigil and lay revival preaching. I was told that perhaps nothing would actually take place. But I insisted finding out and ended up in a genuine revival meeting that became an event. One reservation is of necessity. I am personally not very fond of too much of witnessing and emotionalism; I prefer honest, clear cut and well thought through information and in that sense I was not a very good listener, because listen I would have to do, listen…
It turned out to be a typical revival meeting with only lay people preaching. Two or three pastors were there, but none of them spoke that night. First the men and later on the women came in more and more. I was fortunate to have Joe’s wife Glory at my side. She was my interpreter and her role was just to indicate what each one person talked about, not the details. I thought perhaps that the message somehow would be coloured by the moment, the Eve of Christ’s glorious resurrection, but no. What I was forced to listen to was low-church pietism and in my silent meditation I blamed the Berlin Mission who started work in this part of
The preaching was revivalist, loud, it was in fact preaching by shouting, a thing that never would impress me, but there it was, and on this evening it was somehow acceptable even to me. But there was much more to it than that. The preaching came from the heart of this individual Christian, more often than not it was about sorrows and pains in life. I heard the word ‘bridge’ repeatedly in a young woman’s testimony and I asked Glory, what is this? Why is she saying this? The answer was stark: she is mentioning a bridge in
The preaching was however not only shouting. It was a constant interaction between preacher and congregation. It was not primarily the usual ‘alleluias’ and ‘amens’ but all kinds of responses, sometimes in the form of long sentences, even jokes and laughter, and of course a lot of other sounds typical of the Xhosa idiom and sighing. For a time I thought it was a bit like Hyde Park Corner in
It was Easter Saturday and we were going to have it confirmed that Christ did not just die for our sins, he was also raised from death for our justification.
It is virtually impossible to even make an attempt at describing the atmosphere and the process unfolding this evening. I have not even come close to what I wanted to say: the shouting, the sweating, because it became very hot in the hall, the joy and the sorrow, it was all there, very tangible. What was creating the momentum and the basic structure in everything was however the singing and the dancing, totally inseparable. It is collective, typically women moving forwards in the church in different formations, sometimes with one particular leader, who, after a while, would give over to someone else. But the men also did not do so badly, but they are clearly secondary to the women, regardless of age.
Myself being completely comfortable with African culture as I have come to know it, especially the musical and rhythmical part, I felt I was a part of all this, but not completely, I never thought it would be possible, but I was definitely not an outsider, regardless of what others might think, I did not think so. But I simply cannot do what they do, even if it is natural to sing and dance, I could never become what they are, of course not. But that did not disturb me in the least. Here I was enjoying myself finding one of not so many instances in the world where worship, singing and dancing formed one perfect whole, encompassing everybody, very monotonous in terms of the music taken in isolation, very powerful if seen in conjunction with the other two elements, the dancing and the praying.
It so happened that Joe, my friend, also was going to preach, after all, and he first wanted to involve me even more in the dancing than I had hitherto given proof of. It was about 11h00 p.m. and Joe pulled me into a small group of men, four of us, and he made me take part in a circular dance with certain steps required at a regular pace. We continued like that for about ten minutes with a lot of other people doing similar things nearby. Here I was in church, near the altar (it was not much of an altar anyway) dancing with a group of elders, incessantly, laughing, enjoying, yet conscious of the seriousness of things. Those ten minutes were important to me. It proved to me that I was indeed a part of all this and I thought this is a lesson to be learnt by all.
I am not as naïve as to think that we all should do like this on Easter Saturday; not at all. But we could at least start taking this kind of worship seriously. It is authentic, it is real and it is there in the
This Easter Saturday revival service with its low church, pietistic preaching in fact had an added dimension thanks to the way in which things were done. What emerged through the evening was an embodiment of faith and I mean it literally: you become one with the message in your body, because you dance until it has become integrated in your whole being, the body being the ultimate frame work. So, despite pietistic dualism, there came a wholeness that made people feel very good about themselves, which was all too apparent seeing all the beaming faces, and in doing this they in fact also embodied the very message they preached, to the extent that the whole congregation became a visible sign of the glorious resurrection, body, soul and spirit.