It is true that several initiatives have sought to strengthen the movement of unity between Churches, but the main goal remains bridging distances between all Church families while preserving their differences. This diversity characterizes all churches at different levels such as beliefs, prayers, and traditions ... As for the resurrection, it is special as each of them celebrates it in different ways that indicate their richness to consolidate faith and remember the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the salvation and redemption of humanity.
It is necessary to shed light on the traditions of the evangelical family, especially during the celebration of Resurrection since it was among the first churches to call for ecumenical action. It was also one of the founders of the international ecumenical movement through the World Council of Churches and in the East through the Middle East Council of Churches.
So, how do evangelical churches celebrate fasting and resurrection? What celebrations do you perform in this annual event? How do you prepare for the Holy Week and the day of Resurrection? All clarifications are explained by Reverend Dr. Rima Nasrallah from the National Evangelical Church in Beirut in a Zoom interview with the Middle East Council of Churches Communication and Public Relations Department.
Fasting: A Time of Self Improvement and Forgiveness
Dr. Rima Nasrallah started by talking about the diversity that characterizes the family of evangelical churches, historically, geographically, and culturally as it includes the Reformed, Lutheran and Anglican churches all around the world. As for fasting, she explained that the Evangelical churches follow the Western calendar and that fasting extends over a period of 40 days before Easter. "In our churches we focus a lot on spiritual preparation, and meditation on the pain of Christ, his death and resurrection" she added, explaining that the church uses the color purple on the side of the pulpit and the outfit of the priests as an indication of suffering and psychological preparation. It also chooses hymns of repentance and demand for mercy but does not recite the "Gloria".
Dr. Rima explained that fasting is considered a time of self-evaluation, contemplation of life, its meanings, and the meaning of all that God has done for us, it is a time for repentance and avoiding all that distances us from God. The Evangelical Church encourages entering into a specific state to motivate the believer to "dive more into reading the bible, prayer, self-control, patience, kindness and forgiveness, in other words all that we have to do in our daily life but while emphasizing on it during fasting." She also indicated that in addition to the spiritual part and the psychological preparation, some evangelical churches also emphasize on physical preparation like fasting from food.
From what Dr. Nasrallah said, the Evangelical churches abide by what Jesus said: “It is not what enters the body and mouth of a person that defines him, but that which comes out of his mouth” (Matthew 15: 10-20). Many evangelical churches do not base this period on food fasting but on human actions and words. Instead, it invites the believers to carry out a kind of physical deed like abstaining from certain practices and food... but the preparation method is chosen individually. According to Dr. Nasrallah, the Evangelical Church generally encourages fasting at any time of the year and not only in the period leading up to Easter as fasting and prayer accompany and help believers.
As for the great week, Dr. Rima explained that the Evangelical Church performs several daily prayers, especially on Maundy Thursday, during which they focus on the Last Supper Jesus had with his disciples, and recites the readings of the last events on that day, in addition to having a divine supper, or breaking bread. On Good Friday, the Evangelical Church performs readings and hymns to remember the last hours of Jesus before dying and being descended from the cross without a funeral or parade, then comes the Easter prayer at the break of dawn.
Western or Eastern Calendar: Optional, Not Imperative
Reverend Dr. Rima Nasrallah said that the Middle East includes all Evangelical churches: The Reformed, Lutheran and Episcopal churches in Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran and the Arabian Gulf ... She explained that there is difference between one church and another, especially since each of them has seen the light through certain movements and in certain regions. For example, Reformed Evangelical churches were born in Switzerland with John Calvin, and have a special character and traditions, and Lutheran churches were established by Martin Luther in Germany, where they also have their own traditions. As for the Anglican Episcopal Churches, they were established in England and follow certain traditions, prayers and hymns as well.
The system of worship also differs from one church to another, particularly fasting. Dr. Rima added that most of the Eastern churches saw the light after 300 or 400 years through the United States and, therefore followed the American beliefs we still carry to this day. They emphasize on individual spirituality and self-evaluation. It should be noted that a large number of evangelical churches in the East do not follow the ecclesiastical chapters meticulously."
Dr. Nasrallah indicated that the eastern evangelical churches are not different from the western churches as she pointed out the slight differences that distinguish them. On one hand, the Western Evangelical churches begin fasting on Wednesday, while the Eastern churches begin on Monday. On the other hand, many evangelical families include individuals from different churches, so church traditions are mixed with family traditions in evangelical churches like the type of food they eat and celebration days...
About the approved calendar, Dr. Rima continued that Evangelical churches in the East generally follow the Western calendar, also known as the Gregorian calendar, but some churches in several regions of the East adopt the calendar of the country or region they live in. In Palestine and Egypt, for example, the Evangelical Church follows the Eastern calendar. As for Homs, Syria, all churches decided to celebrate the Resurrection together so the Evangelical churches proceeded to follow the Orthodox churches in the ecclesiastical calendar. This is a kind of alignment with sister churches, adhering to a specific calendar is optional and not an imperative. Evangelical churches are distinguished, according to Dr. Rima, with autonomy and diversity, especially as it includes the Lutheran, reformed and Anglican churches, each of which can define its own system and this is what makes it geographically independent since it doesn’t have one centered entity in a specific region it has to follow.
Youth and Fasting: Diversed and Creative Preparation Activities
As a university professor, and because of her closeness to the youth, Dr. Rima Nasrallah spoke about their activities during the time of fasting describing it as diversed, creative, practical and spiritual as they discuss different topics, to prepare themselves spiritually for Easter. Dr. Nasrallah gave an example of these activities: One year the topic was water and the World Council of Churches worked on it through a special program where youth undertook various activities focusing on water challenges, caring for creation, climate change... based on specific passages from the Bible. Last year, for example, work and preparation was based on the Bible of Matthew 25, and youth prepared activities related to this chapter.
This year and due to the Coronavirus outbreak, youth couldn’t meet or attend church, according to Dr. Rima they were not able to carry out such creative activities. They were frustrated, especially with the absence of meetings and the joyful atmosphere and burdened by economic crises. She added that their focus was on deeper thinking about the situation we are going through, such as the Coronavirus, various local crises and the global situation... talking about what God wants and requests us to do in these times, as well as the answer to everything that has been revealed and has become clear to us as Christians and believers in this period. Young people today ask many existential questions during their online meetings. This allowed us to support one another and renew contact with the youth of the Evangelical Church in the diaspora, especially since the emigration rate has increased after the Beirut explosion on August 4 and due to the exacerbation of many crises in the country.
At the end of the interview, Reverend Dr. Rima Nasrallah talked about the issue of Church unity, stressing that: “the pursuit of Christian unity and ecumenical work is one of the most important points in the evangelical Church's agenda, as it is its great commitment to promoting this work.” To apply unity, we should rely on dialogue among brothers of all churches, and thus living together without the churches being a copy of one another. She wished that Easter would carry hope for Lebanese people and Christians in the country, "Let us work together as churches for the continuous witness of the living Christ, God of life and joy."