For Christians, this year’s Easter may be best described as a ‘quarantined Easter’. It could remain imprinted in the minds of this generation for many years to come. The unprecedented global pandemic of COVID-19, the positive cases and deaths continue to alarmingly and exponentially rise. Figures of infected cases and deaths go out dated by the day. Forced to cancel celebrations, courtesy lockdowns, campuses of basilicas, cathedrals and churches all over the world were deserted on Holy Week and Easter Sunday, the most significant festival in the Christian calendar.
This extraordinary situation makes one recall the first Easter in history. The maiden Easter 2000 years ago was a ‘quarantined Easter’. As per biblical account, after Jesus’ arrest on Thursday evening all his followers went into ‘quarantine’. They went into hiding. Except for a couple, none was at mount Calvary the next day, Friday. Joseph of Arimathea (not the disciple of Jesus) had to assume the responsibility of burying his body. Terrified, the disciples went into confinement. So petrified, the Gospels say they were huddled together in a room in Jerusalem. May be Christians could relate to the first Easter as the world population is grip with fear of novel coronavirus.
According Gospels’ description Jesus rose from the death at dawn on Sunday. The tomb was empty. They huge stone that covered his tomb collapsed. He then appeared to Mary Magdalene and other women early that Easter morning. Jesus then went on to appear to his disciples in Jerusalem assuring them, “Don’t be afraid, it is I”. According to the scripture Jesus continued to appear to his disciples at different locations to prove that he had truly risen from the death.
Though circumstances confined us to a quite home celebration we could also take it to heart that Jesus’ resurrection was not a triumphant resurrection. There was no spectacle and splendour and grandeur, glory and exaltation. He did not prove to the Jews or the Romans that he came back to life. He did not revenge for their ‘wrong doing’. The on and off appearances to his disciples were more a personal encounter.
If we look at the life of Jesus he often ‘quarantined’ himself. The Gospels frequently narrate, ‘He went into a lonely place to pray’. It appears this ‘self-isolation’ of Jesus happened on a regularly basis. But the most well-known ‘quarantine’ took place before he began his public ministry. He withdrew into the desert for 40 days. Desert is a dreaded place. It is a lonely place. It is a place with no food and water. It was a harsh experience. But Jesus came out trump. He emerged stronger. It defined his personality. The experience formed the foundation of his mission. The lockdown could be a desert experience for many.
It is said that during those 40 days Jesus met with three temptations – to turn stones into bread, to jump from a cliff without being hurt and to worship Satan to gain his kingdom. The first temptation is to live easy by misusing his power. The second temptation is to be a clown and the third is to worship wealth (Satan’s kingdom). Jesus rejected all the three offers. Even as we are in home quarantine, a moment or two could be spared to ponder on the temptations of Jesus and his 40 days of ‘self-quarantine’.
In Shillong, Meghalaya a MLA in a Facebook post allegedly wrote to the Chief Minister urging him to direct the Deputy Commissioner to lift the ban on loudspeakers so that church leaders could pray and preach through the public announcing system. At the face of it was fine. Preaching and praying through the loud speakers without people gathering in a particular place does not violate the social distancing rule. However, a second thought convinces one that the decision of the Deputy Commissioner was wise and it was correct that permission was not revoked. Is COVID-19 lockdown rendering religious leaders irrelevant?
The MLA is of a particular area in the state capital. In that particular locality, many remark that in a distance of about four km, there are at least five churches. If all the churches seek permission for an ‘on air’ preaching for one hour each it would be a nuisance. Extend it to the whole of Shillong and the whole state it would certainly be annoying during the days of the lockdown. Apparently a pastor wondered as to why Christians are being denied their ‘rights’ while a pressure group based outside the state is being favoured. In his open letter to the Chief Minister he pointed out that ‘idols and temples’ are seen in government establishments. If this is true it is highly objectionable and corrective actions must be done forthwith.
Returning to the point, probably for many in the society, including religious leaders life is too easy. The means of livelihood just come easy for many, including this writer. Worse we might have given into the temptation of easy life probably even misusing our ‘power’ and position. We are a privileged lot. There are few struggles and challenges. Even during these days of lockdown I am quite comfortable. The struggle, anxiety and hardship of the farmers, the daily wage earners, the slum dwellers, the migrant workers, the abandoned minors, the single mothers is by no means comparable. We have never experienced hunger. Jesus rejected easy life. Have we embraced it to the point of isolating oneself from the hardship unprivileged people face daily? We can still afford to preach while the rest of the world suffers.
In the second temptation Jesus refused to be a clown and the ‘Son’ of God at the same time. Sorry to say but there many clowns among spiritual leaders and preachers of all religions. They perform magic to falsely claim they have God’s power to do miracles. These ‘prophets’ or ‘men of God’ ‘heal’ sick people and perform incredible ‘miracles’ but they are pre-fixed. Many have been exposed to be frauds.
In the third temptation Jesus withstood the lure to ‘worship Satan in return for his kingdom. Certainly today there are religious leaders who possess ‘kingdoms’ of their own. Wealth is one of the possessions they value dear. They are rich. They run business empires in the name of religion. They fly in private jets and stay in five and seven star hotels. Over all religious leader, godmen and godwomen live a more comfortable life than ordinary folks.
There were religious leaders who still insisted that no one could stop them and their followers from observing Easter in churches. Not even the mighty Romans 2000 years ago could! This is arrogance to say the least. In the midst of an unimaginable situation and when religious gatherings are rightly blamed for spreading the virus across international boundaries, such utterance shows scant respect for human health and life. Easter was best celebrated in ‘quarantined’ dwellings.
In India in particular COVID-19 and the lockdown have more than ever before revealed the unpleasant distinct classes in the society – the bungalow (elite) class, the balcony (middle) class and the ‘None of the Above’ (poor) class. The hardest hit are the millions of poor people. The plight of lakhs of migrant workers in the unorganised sector post lockdown was in full display. In my own state, Meghalaya I thought the classes are not so pronounced. But I am wrong. Numerous reports are there of desperate people in towns and villages struggling to cope with the lockdown. Even on the third or fourth day of the shutdown people were seen lining up in public thoroughfares to pocket a Rs.100 note distributed by politicians. Children of the lesser gods were seen gathering ‘dal’ on the street.
It was in this context that Easter was celebrated. In other years, celebrations like Christmas and Easter, the hard reality did not come to the fore. But this turn it was in full glare. Perhaps, it was an opportune that the COVID-19 pandemic and the complete lockdown coincide with Easter. Would the Risen Jesus ask us, “Why there is so much disparity in the society?
It is not just in India. Even in prosperous and rich countries COVID-19 has exposed cruel inequalities. Even in the first world like USA, Italy, Spain, Germany, France, UK COVID-19 has revealed the thousands of homeless desperate to survive. In London, a report said that a homeless person died of suicide by jumping into a running train.
A take away lesson of ‘quarantined Easter 2020 could be to mellow down religious celebrations. One cannot say of Easter but certainly Christmas is an exaggeration. The lights, the sounds, the decorations, the dresses, the feast, the commercialisation are obvious amplifications.
Another ‘quarantined’ Easter might not come about. 2020 is unique. As we stare at a prolonged lockdown, we could utilise this time to do what mystics tell, “Go into the desert experience of Jesus”. COVID-19 lockdown represents a desert. This is a challenge - physically, economically, mentally and spiritually. It could be extremely difficult. Days might be dark and stormy and uncertain. But we can come out of this better and stronger, both individually and as a society. “Tough times don’t last, tough people do” – Robert H Schuller.(Published on 20th April 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 17)