FEATURE ARTICLE

Tuesday, April 14, 2020
foborji@hotmail.com
Pontifical Urban University, Vatican City (Rome)
'EMPTY CHURCHES' AND 'TRUE WORSHIPPERS' AT EASTER

"The hour is coming - indeed is already here - when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth: that is the kind of worshipper the Father seeks. God is spirit, and those who worship must worship in spirit and truth" (John 4:22-24).

he present article is a follow-up to my last article titled, "Easter at the Crossroads of Empty Tomb and Empty Churches." The two articles constitute my Easter reflection this year. In the first, we reflected on the significance of Easter story of the 'empty tomb' (cf. John 20:1-10), the spiritual imports of Easter story of the 'empty tomb' at this time of COVID-19 - Coronavirus pandemic lockdown.

The present article, will however, focus on the significance of 'empty Churches' at this year's Easter liturgical celebrations. The aim of which, we emphasized in our previous article as follows:

"Today's image of our 'empty churches', which we see on televisions and hear every day on the news, will eventually turn out to be a 'new beginning' - a new 'spring-time' for us Christians, the churches and the world in general. Our churches and customary liturgical church-community public worship will resurrect again, in the power of the Risen Christ, at the end of the present COVID-19 lockdown."

Just as the story of the 'empty-tomb' turned out to be good news of Jesus' Resurrection to the bewildered and frightened Apostles and other disciples, so will the present lockdown and empty-churches be for Christians and the world at the end of the road! "It is going to be the beginning forever of our 'rebirth' in Jesus Christ, the 'renewal' of all God's people on earth through the Christ-Event at Easter. It is also going to change us forever for better, transform our society in general."

Moreover, it will turn out to be a 'saving-grace' for the Church and the world. In the same way, the initial 'painful' story of Jesus' 'empty-tomb' turned out eventually, to be the good news of Christ's Resurrection for the fearful and bewildered disciples, "so will be our present experience of lockdown and 'empty-churches', become a catalyst for a renewed Christian life and transformed world-community and Church."

Just as it happened at the empty-tomb, during his first post-Resurrection appearance, so it is going to be with us as a Church and Christians with our present situation, at the end of this ravaging torment of COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. The Risen Christ is saying to us today, as he said to those holy women at the 'empty-tomb', and later to the apostles and other disciples, addressing them with the following words of faith, hope and courage: "Don't be afraid; go and tell my brethren that they must leave for Galilee; there they will see me" (Matthew 28:10).

The Risen Christ indeed appeared to the disciples later at Galilee as he had promised, on the first day of the week after His glorious resurrection. "The doors were closed in the room where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews. Jesus came and stood among them":

"He said to them, 'Peace be with you, and after saying this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were filled with joy at seeing the Lord, and he said to them again, 'Peace be with you" (John 20:19-20).

Again, what we are passing through presently as a result of COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, can be likened to the experience of the disciples of Jesus, when they were at the boat with him and suddenly a violent storm broke over the lake. So violent was the storm that the boat was being swamped by the waves. But Jesus was asleep. So the disciples went to Him and woke Him saying:

"Save us, Lord, we are lost! And he said to them, 'Why are you so frightened, you who have so little faith? And then he stood up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a great calm. They were astounded and said: Whatever kind of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?" (Matthew 8:23-27).

This implies that what the world is passing through today as a result of COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, is a 'violent storm'. The world is at war with COVID-19 'violent storm.' This 'violent storm' of COVID-19 pandemic, however, challenges us to face it with strong faith, hope and courage in the power of the Risen Christ. It is strong faith, hope and courage that we need more today than ever. We must keep alive our faith, hope and courage as Christians and people of faith at a time like this. Because whatever happens, God is in charge of the world and humanity in general. God never lets the world and His people down!

It is because of our salvation and redemption as His creatures, that God allowed evil men to crucify His own begotten Son Jesus Christ on the cross. But we know that the story did not end there, on the cross? Because after 'Good Friday', we have the Easter Sunday of the Resurrection. 'God calmed the storm, and put to shame all those sinful men who unjustifiable put the only begotten Son of God to death on the cross. That is the justice of God.

On the cross, God's mercy and justice met. All for our good - our redemption and salvation in Christ Jesus. Not only that the Satan - that evil genius and 'prince of the underworld', who deceived men to put Jesus to death, received his eternal condemnation and final judgment on the cross, but that God Himself, has through the sacrifices of Jesus on the cross, paid for our sins with Jesus' innocent blood. He redeemed us by forgiving our sins on the cross. Such that while ours are redeemed sins, the sin of Satan is unpardonable by its very nature. Because not only that Satan did not believe in Jesus Christ, but he went about deceiving 'men and women' in their hearts, from accepting the gift of salvation God has offered the world through Jesus Christ.

This also, is the reason why Bible tells us that any other sin may be forgiven, but sin against the Holy Spirit, is an unpardonable sin. It is unpardonable by its very nature. The Holy Spirit is the protagonist of Church's mission and dispenser of Christ's saving-grace and Paschal mysteries, which the Church is the universal sacrament and instrument of making it reach every creature on earth. But because, Satan, in his cunning way, has not ceased to deceive men and women, block their hearts from accepting the offer of salvation in Christ. That is why Satan's sin by its very nature is unpardonable, a blasphemy against God. And God's judgement on him is final. This is the sin against the Holy Spirit (cf. Matthew 12:32).

This means that at the end of the present 'violent storm' of COVID-19, we shall rise again as a Church and as a people of God, with all our 'empty churches', we see today. All shall be well again! Our churches, surely, will flourish and be bubbling with life again. 'Everything will turn out good to all those who believe.'

We human beings are the only reason why God took flesh in Jesus Christ. We are also the only reason why God the Father allowed His only begotten Son Jesus Christ to undergo the way of the cross for our redemption and salvation, and why Jesus Christ Himself had to die on the cross to save us from damnation of sins and evil men.

So, how does one think that there will ever arise a situation where God will allow His people and the Church to perish or suffer untold hardship such as COVID-19 without God himself coming to our aid as he did for the disciples at the lake during a violent storm. Especially, as is evident with other encounters with his disciples and the early Church after his resurrection, as well as throughout Church history to our day! Surely, God will calm this storm of COVID-19, humanity is facing presently. All we need now, is to keep alive our faith, hope and courage, be calm, but vigilant and patience, because God's time is the best (cf. 1Peter 5:8-11).

'Empty Churches' and 'True Worshippers'

The foregoing discussion brings us to the main point of our article, the 'Empty Churches vis-à-vis COVID-19 lockdown.' Since the lockdown of towns and cities and suspension of public gathering in churches for our customary liturgical celebrations as church-community, some individuals and writers have attempted to offer a distorted interpretation of the Scriptural teaching on who really are the 'true worshippers' described in the gospel of John we quoted at the beginning of this article.

True indeed, the Holy Scripture tells us that "the hour is coming - indeed is already here - when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth" (John 4:23-24). However, this passage of the New Testament must not be interpreted out of context. This is because God calls us, not as isolated individuals, but as members of His family, the Church and society, he loves. God, through Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit, calls us into His Church and assigns each one of us a mission to render unto Him through and for the Church and humanity.

In other words, personal prayer and individual spirituality do not take the place of community liturgical worship in our lives. Each, however, has its own place in God's salvific plan of how we humans should be relating with God and among ourselves as a worshipping-community - human beings created in the image and likeness of God the Trinity - and in the model of the communion, shaped by the type of love between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is the image of God in us through our Baptism and as creatures of God.

There is therefore, the need to maintain the balance, and not put the carte before the horse. Because, our personal prayer and spirituality derive their source and strength from our community religious heritage, sensibility and forms of worship, not vice versa. Otherwise, we may be extolling individualism at the expense of our shared common religious and cultural heritage as a worshipping community.

In fact, each one of us is first and foremost, born into his/her community socio-religious heritage, worldview, philosophy, cultural sensibility, spirituality, and so forth. It is within that community upbringing and consciousness, that one's identity, humanity and dignity begin to blossom; protected, and become what they are destined to be in this world, as creatures of God, individuals created in the image and likeness of God, who live in a given community, society and the world. As the saying goes, 'Each one of us is born without a culture or religion.' But at the same time, we are born into a given culture/religion of our parents and people, that is, in which one grows and imbibes the religious cultural principles and practices thereof - which in turn, introduces the individual into wider society and the world.

This means that through process of cultural 'socialization' in our villages, towns and neighborhood, one is introduced, first, into the cultural and religious worldview and philosophy of his/her own people. This often occurs, through the customary church-community gathering and worship, societal organization, education, religious-cultural socialization and other cultural practices available in one's own area and society.

In this way, one is equipped, ab initio (culturally, philosophically, and religiously, etc.), from his particular cultural context and community/society, with all the necessary tools and religious culture, with which to succeed and live a dignified life in the wider world and society, especially, in a multi-cultural and multi-religious world like ours today.

This implies that there is no way our personal prayers or even spirituality can supplant that of church-community worship and religious heritage. Because even those things we call our private or personal prayers, or say and recite as prayers in our homes (or outside our churches), are expected to be linked up with those of the entire worshipping-community in which one belongs, and to be in accordance with the general accepted norms of prayer and worship. In fact, they are to draw from, and depend on the link the individual has and maintains with his/her worshipping church-community. Outside of which, such a prayer is nothing other than a 'show of personal ego' of the individual.

St. Cyprian of Carthage, would say, "Extram ecclesiam nulla salus." (Outside the Church, no salvation). Although, St. Cyprian made that statement in reference to Christian heretics (and not about Non-Christians, as some modern thinkers erroneously, often interpret it). However, interpreted in our context, it simple means, that without the necessary rapport with the worshipping church-community, one is missing the necessary link of prayer with the entire Church of Christ. Because our prayers, whether at liturgical celebrations in the churches, or in our homes, are supposed to be part of the 'prayers' of the Church. Christian prayer and spirituality, which the Church teaches us and represents, is one. Our prayers, in whichever form, is one of the means through which we are helped by the Church in our earthly journey - a salvific means of sanctification of the faithful, which the Church itself is the Sacrament and dispenser. Therefore, our prayers in whatever circumstance has a public character.

This is why it is necessary that one does not interpret the biblical teaching on 'true worshippers who worship in spirit and truth', out of context. There is need to maintain the equilibrium and the link with the worshipping church-community, for our personal and private prayers at home to be meaningful and achieve the desired end!

Moreover, worship of God in spirit and truth is the vocation of every Christian, indeed, of every man and women, irrespective of one's state of life. This is because God is spirit, and he is the Truth. Again, human beings are created in the image and likeness of God, and therefore are expected to live 'life in spirit and truth', and let it manifest in the way they live and worship God in His Church as well as relate with one another and the world. Prayer is the vocation and 'life-wire' of any true child of God, who fears and worships God sincerely in spirit and truth.

The Church is the Sacrament and instrument through which God sanctifies and empowers the believers to enable them worship God in spirit and truth. This means that the biblical passage is telling us the importance of sincere profession of faith in God through the mysteries of Christ, which Church celebrates in its liturgy, preaches, and teaches in its doctrine and life as a worshipping community. This is independent of whether one is praying alone in his/her home or in the church.

Furthermore, to demonstrate that humans need the Church for salvation in Christ, Jesus Himself spent most of his adult life forming his 12 Apostles as future pillars of His Church. In addition, he commissioned Peter as the head of the Apostles to lead His Church on earth as a visible leader (cf. John 21:15-19). He promised to be with the Church till the end of times (cf. Matthew 28:16-20). So, Christ never despised the Church, nor does he say that humans do not need the Church and its liturgical action for their sanctification and salvation through Him. The Church is the Body of Christ. There is no way Christ would have said that humans have no need of His Church, which is His Body, any more, simply because he also spoke elsewhere of 'worship in spirit and truth'?

Moreover, we should not forget that the Church is 'Qahel Yahweh', God's people, convoked in assembly by God Himself, and who in turn are the true worshippers, called upon to worship God in truth and spirit. Again, worshipping God in truth and spirit is therefore, the vocation of all Christians. It is a vocation in which we are called to renew each day of our lives, as individuals and as a community of believers in Christ, our faith in God revealed in Christ, whether in assembly during liturgical worship in our churches or in our private homes, as stipulated by the Church itself.

Liturgy is the summit of Church's life and that of every true believer in Christ. It is the spiritual and liturgical source from which the Church as Body of Christ, draws its own strength, and nourishes itself every day. Through the liturgy (and liturgical celebrations), the Church nourishes itself, sanctifies the faithful, dispenses the means of salvation through the sacraments and life of prayer to believers and the world. From liturgy and our participation in liturgical celebrations as a worshipping-community and as individuals in our churches, we draw spiritual strength for our family, group and personal prayers and life; and in whatever circumstance one may find him/herself.

Furthermore, the believers' public worship in our churches are irreplaceable, also because, the Church, which is the 'Body of Christ' - Christ's universal saving Sacrament on earth, is the bearer and custodian of that truth that saves. That Truth is Christ Himself, his saving mercy, and message of the gospel, which the Church is the sacrament and bearer in the world.

In fact, the Church as a worshipping-community is a 'liturgical assembly.' Through the liturgy, the Church professes its faith in Christ, and introduces the believer into that 'Profession of Faith', as well as into the 'Sacramental life' in Christ. Through these saving mysteries and Church's means of sanctification work on earth, one is born anew into the 'Fountain love' (Amor fontalis) of God the Father, through Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit.

The gift of the Holy Spirit on the Pentecost day, was the gift of the Risen Christ to His Church. The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the Risen Christ, dwells in the Church, leads, protects, guides, intercedes for her just as the Spirit itself is the protagonist and advocates of the Church's life and mission. The Church through the Sacraments and other liturgical actions and prayers, dispenses to the faithful the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit can and does work outside the Church, however and always, for the Church, to bring people into the Church for their sanctification and salvation through Christ and Church's saving sacramental life, prayer and preaching. So that when the Holy Spirit works outside the Church as it is expected to do, He does so for and on behalf of the Church, to direct the people (including non-Christians), to the Church, so that all will be saved through the saving mysteries of Christ and Hid Church.

Therefore, liturgical worship is at the heart of Church's life and existence as a Body of Christ. The Church exists, in the first place, as a worshipping community, an assembly convoked in faith and love by God through Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit. It is an assembly convoked by God to worship Him, and to continue Christ's saving mission on earth until the second coming of Christ in glory. That is, at the end-of-time, which nobody knows about except God Himself (cf. Matthew 24:36-44). To neglect this public character of Church's liturgical life is for the Church to deny its very raison d'être.

However, this does not mean that the Church as a Body of Christ is neutral or disinterested in our personal or family prayers we say in our homes and by ourselves. Neither, does it mean that our personal, family or group prayers said in our homes and at other places outside the church and liturgical celebrations, have no place in Church's liturgical life and mission. Rather, Christ in His Church looks at the world from the perspective of His saving mysteries, which the Church embodies and celebrates in its liturgy. Thus, every other prayer and spiritual exercise, which Christians do, must depend, and draw its source and strength from Church's liturgy, sacramental life and preaching.

Outside of this, such a prayer is devoid of its ecclesial character and the saving mysteries thereof. This is why in spite of the present COVID-19 lockdown and 'stay-at-home' order it imposed on us all, we should not lose sight of the ecclesial-liturgical character of our Christian life as members of the Church and as a worshipping-community in our different parish churches. This is because in spite of the lockdown, every Christian is still expected to follow the instruction or liturgical directives from his/her bishop and parish priest/pastor. United with their bishops and parish priest/pastor in prayer and spiritually, Christians maintain that liturgical-ecclesial link and spirituality, even during an emergency-situation such as that of COVID-19 lockdown.

'Empty Churches' and 'Social-distancing'

As the saying goes, 'social distancing' does not mean 'religious-distancing.' It does not mean either 'church-distancing' or 'spiritual-distancing! Neither does it mean permanent 'closure of churches' and other places of worship. Because, what is announced to the public is temporary 'suspension' of large gathering of persons during such public meetings like religious functions to checkmate the spread of Coronavirus - COVID-19.

This is why bishops and priests have continued to celebrate the liturgy and offer prayers and supplications in the name of the Church for everybody. Although, without the usual public gathering of the faithful at the church. The lockdown, therefore, is a temporary measure taken at this period of COVID-19 pandemic to save lives and protect us from the dangers posed by the deadly virus pestilence.

Secondly, our people say that 'a brave person is known at a time of trial', when the person's faith, hope and courage are being put to test. This is very important message, especially to the people of Africa. Because already the 'self-styled' scientists, mobile, and computer magnets, the so-called Western philanthropists, who often parade themselves as 'friends of Africa', have started their usual colonial mentality hangover propaganda again against the African people and continent. Most of them are still behaving as if they are God who looks over the affairs of men.

With the current COVID-19 pandemic, some of these so-called 'friends of Africa' and Western philanthropists, are pushing their anti-life agenda to depopulate Africa with their much discredited COVID-19 vaccines and stimulating 5G technologies emission radiations and fibers. They want to export immediately into Africa, those vaccines, which are not yet certified by credible world scientists and medical experts, and use Africans as guinea-pigs for their laboratory test.

For instance, the other day, Ms. Melinda Gate (who, together with her husband, Bill Gate have been in the vanguard of all these agendas), was reported to have said that, very soon, "there will be many dead bodies' across the streets and villages of because of the deadly Coronavirus." To this, however, many well-meaning Africans have replied Ms. Melinda Gate, to remind her that she forgot, neither her, nor her husband or any person for that matter, except the Almighty Creator, is the God of Africans. Therefore, her wish or rather projections against Africa, will never come to pass.

The same with the case of two racist French doctors who recently advocated a similar thing during a Press interview, suggesting that Africa should be used as laboratory testing ground for the Western and Chinese poisonous and discredited COVID-19 - Coronavirus infected vaccine. Instead of them doing the test in Europe, North America or China, where people have died and are dying in hundreds on daily basis of the Coronavirus, these racist Western scientists and doctors are planning how to depopulate Africa and use Africans as guinea-pigs laboratory test of deadly Coronavirus infected vaccine. With the aim to bust it with the installations across African cities and towns, the much discredited 5G technology, not minding the health hazards presented by the stimulant electrochemical radiation fiber emissions of the 5G.

In the past few years alone, the same people started with propagating vaccines (for diseases they created first, in their laboratories). First, it was vaccine for malaria or polio. This was followed by vaccine for HIV-Aids, then Ebola and later, Lazar fever. Now, the new narrative is Coronavirus - COVID-19 vaccine. In fact, Africa, in the imagination and political calculations of the West and its allies, remains in that way, the 'basket case' of the world. For these people, Africa is nothing else, but home to anything that is 'humanly embarrassing.'

This is despite the fact that most of those diseases such as HIV-Aids and Ebola have been proven to be laboratory made diseases, with Africa as the target geographical zone for their infections and spread. The present COVID-19 - Coronavirus and 5G, experts are telling us, are also of the same origins and purpose. So, who is fooling who?

That people in the West, in this 21st century, still think and relate with Africa with this type of stereotype hangover from colonial mentality, should give us all a cause for concern. This is where serious work needs be done, if modern world is to remain safe and conducive for all us to live in peace and tranquility. And as children of the same God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Otherwise, all the gains of the last two hundred years' struggle against anti-racism and anti-colonialism will be in vain and remain an illusion.

This ugly situation or reality is an indictment to our profession of faith as Christians, that is, after over 2000 years of Christianity. Indeed, its continued presence in the consciousness of the world and the so-called Christians of the Northern hemisphere, is a betrayal of our Christian faith and gospel's central message of love, equity, honesty, truth, and of equality of all men and women before God.

Therefore, this period of COVID-19 pandemic should not be used as an opportunity for advancing Western neo-colonial projects and racist agenda against the people of Africa or any other people for that matter.

This is the test and challenge of the story of the 'empty tomb' and of our 'empty Churches', as humanity passes through the present cross of COVID-19 pandemic. Such that it is very instructive, we are celebrating the Easter of this year during this time of COVID-19 pandemic. Christ's triumph over death and suffering brought upon him by evil men and sins of the world - the story of the 'empty tomb', assures us as believers that victory is ours in spite of the challenges of the moment. St Paul summarizes it well as follows:

"In all things, we are more than conquerors through Him who has showered His infinite love upon us - Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:37).

This implies that, at long run, the grace of Christ's 'empty-tomb' and of our 'empty churches' today, will heal the Church and save us all from this pestilence of COVID-19 pandemic, and any other evil plan against the people of God. This period of COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, eventually, offers us a unique opportunity to renew our faith in the Risen Christ.

Conclusion

All these are important aspects of our faith in the Risen Christ, which we must not lose sight of, even as we battle against the present scourge of COVID-19. The Easter message is that of triumph of Jesus Christ over death and the evil one. The early disciples who visited the tomb of Jesus and found it empty, felt sad about it. However, they, eventually, became the first announcers of the good news of Christ's Resurrection. Their sorrows turned into joy.

That alone, is enough significance of the 'empty-tomb' and of our 'empty churches' today. It is the message of triumph over death and suffering which the evil one has brought upon God's Son, and people of today. Therefore, as God's people, victory is surely, ours!

Let us not allow the worries of the moment, to make us forget the most essentials of our human existence, namely, 'strong faith, hope and courage! The major problem of humankind today is 'crisis of faith.' Our Easter message, however, invites us to renew our faith and absolute trust in God. Because, no matter the circumstance one may found him/herself today, victory will be ours at the end.

Wishing you a Blessed Easter and pray that you stay safe and very strong.

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