JAKARTA — There is no Easter like this year.
Christian communities in Indonesia have seen it all in the past, from natural disasters, to terrorist attacks and persecutions, but the COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented in how it has changed the way Christians celebrate holy days.
With the number of COVID-19 infections in the country growing, the government has asked religious communities, including more than 23 million Christians across the archipelago, to cancel any religious meetings and pray from home.
It was an hour before the Maundy Thursday Mass began when Jessica Juliani stood in the middle of St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Kotabaru, Yogyakarta. She held a laptop to her chest. A feeling of emptiness struck her as she looked at the vacant benches and hallways inside the church that are usually packed with people on a special event like that day, she told The Jakarta Post.
Maundy Thursday is celebrated in the middle of Holy Week, the week preceding Easter Sunday, one of the most important religious days, when Christians around the world celebrate the resurrection of Jesus on the third day after his crucifixion.
On normal days, around 3,000 people gather at St. Anthony church. In previous years, some people have even had to join the mass from the street in front of the church because there was not enough room for everyone.
But with churches closed for services as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, many processions and sacred church rituals during Holy Week have been canceled. Jessica and a small number of church committee members came almost every day during Holy Week to live stream the Mass for the church’s members who pray at home.
Jessica said the church members had been practicing choir and preparing events for Easter since February. They are all now canceled. She said while they understood the situation, they could not help but feel devastated about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their religious routines.
“It feels lonely. […] I know we can pray anywhere, but I miss praying at church. […] This community is like a family for me. After church services end, we usually stay for a while and have lunch together, particularly on a special day like Easter,” the 18-year-old college student said.
“I hope everything will go back to normal soon.”
Less than a dozen Easter committee members came to the church that afternoon, including the priests, some choir members, altar boys and lectors.
Talking softly to four other committee members through their face masks, Jessica operated the live-streaming mass services from her laptop, while her friends prepared the recording equipment in front of the altar. At 5 p.m. sharp, with the help of that small quiet group, the Maundy Thursday Mass live stream began and was watched by thousands of the church members from their houses.
In a house in Rawamangun, East Jakarta, Joneka Hehuwat, 54, sat at her dining room table with her mother, husband and two children. Together they were watching the live stream of the Good Friday service from the Indonesian Christian Church (GKI) of Kavling Polri.
“Honestly it’s sad that we can’t celebrate Easter as usual. For me the meaning of Easter is more powerful than Christmas, because it’s how we all left our dark ways of life behind and started a new better life with His resurrection,” Joneka said. “But I’m grateful that I can celebrate it with my family in our home.”
Joneka said some Jakartans she knew had contracted the coronavirus, and was therefore well aware that social distancing, including the cancelation of religious gatherings, was pivotal to curb the spread of the virus.
By Saturday afternoon, Indonesia had reported 3,842 confirmed cases nationwide, mostly in Jakarta, which has imposed large-scale social restrictions since Friday.
But while Christian communities in big cities like Jakarta can attend the Holy Week Masses online, a stable internet connection to access the live steams remains a luxury for those who live in remote areas.
“I tried to do a live stream for Maundy Thursday, but the stream only worked until the first reading of the Bible, after that the internet signal went down,” Christoporus Aria Prabantara, a priest from Kristus Sahabat Kita Catholic Church in Nabire, Papua said.
Paulus Christian Siswantoko of the Indonesian Bishops Conference estimated there were around 8.5 million Catholics in 37 dioceses across the country, and all so far have been compliant with the pray-from-home policy during Holy Week.
Paulus said that although some regions had had difficulty providing or joining live-streamed services, they managed to access similar services through television channels and local radio programs.
“We even heard that some priests at a church in Larantuka in East Nusa Tenggara used megaphones for the Holy Week Mass so that many could listen to their services,” he said.
Churches have also become an integral source of emotional support for many Christians during the pandemic.
Bonifasius Melkyor Pando, a priest at St. Theresa Catholic Church in Central Java’s Semarang, found that some members of his congregation, in the hope to attend Mass, had gone to the church almost every Sunday even though it had been temporarily closed down since the middle of March. And every single time they had to return to their home since there was no Mass at the church.
That longing for a Mass and prayers was the reason why the church held a Maundy Thursday Mass live stream on YouTube that they had never done before.
“Hope is stronger than despair. Love is stronger than hatred. And life is stronger than death,” Father Melky said in the live-streamed Good Friday Mass a day after.
A number of churches under the jurisdiction of Ruteng diocese in East Nusa Tenggara have also turned to radio for Easter services, while Christians in Manado mostly used video streaming.
In Vatican City, the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis celebrated Good Friday in an empty Saint Peter’s Square that would normally be packed with visitors during Holy Week.
As lockdowns and stay-at-home orders are in place in many cities worldwide, Pope Francis has asked people to pray for and assist those who are homeless.
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