The contrast between the observance of the Easter season in Zambia and at home in America reflects a deep cultural difference in worldview. I have been thinking about what we can learn from each other.
The first thing I noticed here was the absence of any special observance of Lent. In many mainstream Protestant and all Catholic churches in America, there are Ash Wednesday services to mark the beginning of the Lenten season. This is the time when we remember the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness, fasting and preparing for his ministry. Many church members use Lent as a time for study and reflection in preparation for Easter. The custom of fasting has diminished in importance, but some people give up a food or a habit or an activity as a symbol of self-sacrifice. The church may be decorated differently and the hymns change to reflect the more somber mood of the season. In Zambia, I noticed no difference at church worship or activities. [However, I recalled that every couple of months, there are all-night prayer and fasting services at our church on weekends, and this is a popular occurrence in all churches.]
Here, the Easter observance begins the full week before Easter Sunday. Well-attended services took place each day. To my amazement, these Holy Week services were full of joyful music and praise. Even more than usual! When the beat of the song was strong and fast, older women would at first stand up in the pews and move to the beat, then come forward and dance traditional dances, accompanied by ululations. A few younger men and women would join them, but the spirit clearly was especially present among women of a grandmotherly age. They radiated spiritual energy, bordering on ecstasy. Even the Good Friday service was upbeat. One day during the week, we actually sang "Joy to the World", in Bemba, and no one but the Muzungus thought it odd to be singing a Christmas carol in April.
The tempo and exuberance of the services seemed to increase as the week progressed. Although I was feeling under the weather and did not attend Holy Thursday services, I could hear the singing and dancing all the way to my house, a fair distance from the church. (Turns out they take the service outdoors with candles on Thursday, and sound travels far on this campus.) I did attend Good Friday, and again it was joyful. The emphasis was not on the suffering of Jesus, but on the gift of forgiveness and redemption he represented by his sacrifice.
I was discussing this with Ryan, a young minister from the USA who is working here. He and Molly, his minister spouse, were giving their training in another location during Holy Week, and they reported the same kind of services there. His idea, with which I agree, is that in America, we have mostly given up the concept of sin. I thought about the public figures who have apologized for their misdeeds by saying "mistakes were made" or, a littler more honestly, confessed "I made a mistake." I don't think that calling the offense a mistake is quite the same as facing up to the reality that I did something reprehensible that hurt other people and I am sorry for it (not just sorry for being caught.) I've seen occasional statements of repentance, but mostly our culture isn't very preoccupied with acknowledging our personal or corporate sins.
Anyway, Ryan said that in America we need to be reminded of sin and its cost, and for Christians that happens on Holy Thursday and Good Friday. Here in Zambia, personal sin is a culturally accepted concept, mentioned often and emphasized in prayers and in those old-fashioned hymns we sing. In fact, daily life is often seen as consumed by struggles with the devil and temptation. Most of the messages in chapel are about personal morality. So much attention is focused on trying to avoid sin that people give much less emphasis to the potential for good that is within, and the importance of cultivating their strengths and gifts. And this preoccupation with personal sin means there less focus on the need to listen for God's promptings in leading one into new challenges, new ways to work to carry the messages of love and redemption into the world.
So my thought is that we could each learn something from the other about life and how to work with the human condition--imperfect, struggling, looking for the best way to live meaningfully. We in America could stand a little more serious thought about sin and about the effects of our behavior on others. In Zambia they could benefit from less moralistic judgment of self and others, and more focus on co-creating the world of peace, love, and forgiveness modeled by Jesus.