19 April 2015

Bright Saturday: a chaotic, exhausting, exhiliarating holy day

Yesterday was Bright Saturday, probably better known to Western Christians as Easter Saturday, and it was the day we had arranged to have a farewell service for Fr Athanasius Akunda, who was returning to Kenya after 13 years in South Africa, and a kind of mission rally at the same time, at the Monastery of the Descent of the Holy Spirit at Gerhardsville, west of Pretoria.
We had arranged to take Grace and Hellen Malahlela, from our Mamelodi congregation, out to the monastery on Friday evening, to prepare to feed the masses. We had no idea how many people might be coming, so we estimated about 100, and hoped that if 5000 turned up, we'd be able to feed them. So on Friday afternoon we set out shopping. Five bags of potatoes, 2 boxes of tomatoes, one box of beans, carrots and spinach for Africa, etc etc. How would we get it all in the car?
We looked at gas plates, knowing there was only a small electric stove at the monastery, but in the shop we went to, all the ones displayed were ones that had been returned as defective. We were on our way to another shop when Hellen suggested that they cook it at home, where they had all the equipment and knew what they were doing. We still had no idea of how many pots and pans and serving dishes were at the monastery. So we took Grace and Helen home. They'd had their load shedding in the afternoon, so hoped to be able to cook all night.
At 5:50 am we set off to Mamelodi to fetch them, and there were rows of plastic serving dishes, with rice, potato salad, macaroni and tuna salad, spinach and all other kinds of good things. No meat, because though it was Bright Week, when there was no fasting, it was also a monastery, and monks don't eat meat. There were no monks, but Fr Elias had urged that we respect the nature of the once and future monastery by observing the monastic fast.
Then the chaos began. We were trying to get the church ready for the Divine Liturgy while all the time there were frantic phone calls from people who were coming and had got lost. I had just returned to the vestry from dealing with one of those calls and getting vested when Fr Elias started the Liturgy, and it also became apparent that half the St Nicholas Choir, who were supposed to lead the singing, were lost too. Val had been asked to read the Hours and was about to start when the Liturgy started. So I took off my vestments and went out to join the few who were singing, and trying to negotiate their way to the right places in the service books.

Fr Athanasius, the guest of honour, was also not there. His car had broken down, and he had been up half the night repairing it, and it had broken down again in the morning. He was also binging Deacon Pascal Luse, so in the end the service had about five priests, and no deacons. The bishop phoned to say there was an accident on the road and he was delayed, so start without him. Georgia and Azar Jammine arrived in time for the Epistle, which Azar read, and Georgia was able to lead the singing, which immediately improved.

But the lost were found, and the church was filled, and we made a joyful noise to the Lord. I hope he forgave our imperfections.

Brunch followed. It went quite slowly, in a tent that Fr Elias had hired, and those who had eaten were milling around and thinking of leaving while others were still queuing for food,.We decided to split the speechifying, so Fr Elias spoke first to those who had already eaten, and explained the grand vision for the monastery.

The church where we had had the Divine Liturgy, dedicated to St Demetrius, was just the first of many. It had been built in 2003, and was a kind of parish church, where ordinary people would come. The monastic church would be over the wall to the south, where, for the moment, the donkey Mussolini was making his presence heard by occasional braying. There would be a coenobitic monastery, and a number of small sketes, which could represent different Orthodox traditions -- Russian, Greek, Serbian, Bulgarian, African etc. Over to the west would be a mission, training and retreat centre. And a women's monastery. And somewhere near that would be a seminary.

His Eminence Archbishop Damaskinos added a few words, saying that he was already familiar with the vision, and that things were moving forward to achieve it.

The thing most urgently needed to fulfil this vision is some actual monks. And a kitchen. Start with a properly-equipped kitchen, to feed the 100 before they grow to 5000.

As Fr Elias began to repeat this inside the tent to the second lot of people who by then had just finished eating, I managed to grab some of the delicious food that Grace and Hellen had been up all night cooking. They had truly worked a miracle.

Father Athanasius then gave his farewell address, which reminded me of St Paul's exhortation to the elders of Ephesus at Miletus (Acts 20:15-38).

I think, like St Paul, that he could fairly say that he had been among us for 13 years, and had held nothing back, declaring to us the whole counsel of God, that he served us in humility of mind and taught everything that was profitable. We hope that a better fate awaits him in Nairobi than that which awaited St Paul in Jerusalem, and that those he teaches at the seminary there, as well as those he taught here in South Africa, will heed the advice that St Paul gave to Timothy: And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also (2 Tim 2:2).

Fr Athanasius characteristically exhorted us to love one another, and be caring Christian communities who would see that no child was left without education, that we should care for one another and so show the love of God.

Father Athanasius was asked to come and help when Archbishop August Thamaga of the African Orthodox Episcopal Church, an uncanonical African independent church, asked to be received into canonical Orthodoxy in the Patriarchate of Alexandria. There were no clergy in the Archdiocese of Johannesburg and Pretoria who could teach them in English, so the then bishop, Metropolitan Seraphim, asked Fr Athanasius, then a deacon, who had just completed his studies at Holy Cross Seminary in Brookline, Massachusetts, USA, to come and help. He arrived arrived in May 2002, and was ordained priest a couple of months later.

Fr Athanasius worked first in Soshanguve, where Archbishop Thamaga became first a Reader, and later was ordaned, as Fr Simon Thamaga. Archbishop Seraphim then asked Fr Athanasius to set up a Catechetical School, to train leaders, and two of the students, Simon Shabangu and Deacon Pascal Luse, also attended the farewell service. The Catechetical School closed in 2009, and after that Fr Athanasius was priest in charge of St Nicholas of Japan Church in Brixton, Johannesburg.

South Africa has been in the news laterly in connection with xenophobia, but the turnout at the farewell service shows that a lot of South Africans, from various communities, loved their Kenyan priest, and Deaconb Pascal Luse came as a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo. By no means all South Africans are xenophobic and the majority are kind and welcoming.

On the way home we discovered why so many had got lost. There are road works along the M26 from Laudium to Gerhardsville, and for the first time the new section through Erasmia was open to traffic. After that we went on detours and sections of the old road to the Gerhardsville turn-off, and one landmark was a narrow bridge with a stop sign, which we had crossed in the morning. But by the time we returned in the afternoon the new section of the road had been opened, and the narrow bridge had been closed off, so those who came after us might never have seen it, and we were referring them to a non-existent landmark.

1 comment:

CherryPie said...

Your day sounds like quite and adventure!!


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