Obeying the Commandments
Twenty minutes before pray-off the pews were full. Disappointed worshippers in their best heels tottered down the aisles as though a catwalk, hoping the early-birds who’d captured much space might share their good fortune. Few obliged.
The warm-up act featured a sextet in blazers blue – the theme colour for this year’s Good Friday service. They sang superbly, as did a soaring soprano, a Kate Cambridge dressalike. On the ceiling images of arrows and stars swirled. If the congregation hadn’t been so sober and subdued it could have been a nightclub.
Instead it was the Gereja Kristen Indonesia, a major Protestant church in Malang. The multitudes had come to remember the cruel death of a good man, and be reminded of the ageless lesson: Intolerance begets hate which begets violence which begets war.
Everyone could participate. Giant TV screens carried the message and opportunities to note what friends and neighbours were wearing, for a crane camera swooped and soared above the crowd.
This is what it must be like in the Yemen or Afghanistan. The drones circle high like vultures; their lenses focused for signs of AK-47s or improvised explosive devices. Should a hellfire missile be launched – or should the forgiving joystick god in Langley let the drone Passover?
But here in church the almighty surveillance controller could have spotted only backsliders reading comics instead of Bibles, or fashion faux-pas, like crucifixes that don’t match shoes.
Islam does public worship better, insisting women wear sajadah, the same white envelope and stay at the back. The men, who make the rules, can kneel at the front in their smartest sarongs and colourful caps.
Then the readings. The preacher urged his flock to follow the text, a good excuse to power up smartphones and check the Bible app along with Facebook. Soon we’ll procession an electronic device to the pulpit. There’s a precedent: Moses brought down the commandments on tablets.
Suddenly a crash and much shouting. Had terrorists struck? The police were supposed to be on duty but they were in a huddle far from the church gates, presumably working out who to shake down. There’d be no shortage of victims; Easter brings out the finest European limos, and many would have full ashtrays or other defects demanding fines.
Fortunately the noisemakers were not modern fanatics bent on persecuting a minority faith, but their counterparts from two millennia past. The glistening helmets shook as soldiers flogged a brutalised Christ down the aisle to face his temporal judge; a proud Pontius Pilate presciently dressed in a tunic featuring a crown and cross.
The lashed Jesus crashed convincingly on the plywood stage, and was then dragged away. Though not before we witnessed in shock and awe his ripped and ragged clothing, his gore-splashed pain-wracked features - though those who hath eyes to see noticed he was wearing glasses.
Spectacular – but attention was rapidly re-focussed on the altar where the screens flashed scenes of Calvary at sunset and cataclysm worthy of a Russell Crowe movie. Somewhere must have been the message from the nailed man – to forgive our enemies – though it could have been swamped by the special effects.
The logistics involved in Communion were handled impressively. If the congregation had tried to come to the priest there would have been a traffic jam equalling those outside and we’d have to call back the centurions.
Trays of tiny white bread cubes were passed among folk whose diet is rice. Drain cleaner masquerading as wine was served in thumbnail plastic cups to people who live in an alcohol-free culture.
All this dispensing and gathering was done while the orchestra played and choir sang, so passed pleasantly enough. Also passed was the peace, though without eye contact or handshake warmth.
After two hours Jesus had been laid in his cave grave and it was all over for three days. There was a rush to the exits; worshippers woke their Muslim drivers and drove away in a blast of horns, annoyed at the delays, hungry and tired.
We had supped together. We had experienced the transubstantiation. We’d remembered the awful persecution and death of a man who had tried to change the world through love. But we returned to the darkness as we had come; strangers all.