A memorable Holy Saturday service

By on April 1, 2002

In the Solomon Islands last year, Archbishop Michael Peers baptized a baby girl named Dorothy Peers in honour of his wife.

IF, FOR SOME reason, you found yourself in circumstances where you could only attend one church service a year, what would it be? For me, there’s no contest: the service that takes place in the night between Holy Saturday and Easter morning.

In that service the scripture passages include everything from creation through the exodus from Egypt, from the Hebrew prophets to the resurrection of Christ.

The service begins in darkness; after the proclamation of Christ’s rising the church is flooded with light and sound.

There is baptism (at the very least the renewal of baptismal promises), sometimes confirmation, then the celebration of the Eucharist. As one of my friends says (exaggerating slightly), it’s most of the Bible and most of the sacraments.

Last year I shared in that service at the Airahu church training centre in the diocese of Malaita in the Solomon Islands, in very spectacular circumstances. Hundreds of people were present in a huge tent because the church was too small; I baptized a child (the parents had chosen the names Dorothy Peers, but that’s another story); the bishop confirmed 51 young people – a glorious occasion altogether.

But the most spectacular thing of all was something that only those of us at the centre of it all could see. The service always begins by striking a new fire. Here we usually do it with flint on metal, fuelled by butane, a cigarette lighter in fact.

In Airahu the service began at the gate to the church property, and the young man who struck the new fire did it with only wood. I had always heard the old story about “just rub two sticks together”, but had never seen it done. It is not as simple as it sounds and it is not the work of a moment. He had prepared a sharpened stick the size of a pencil and had hollowed a cavity in a larger piece of wood. He also had prepared a pile of wood shavings.

Taking the stick between the palms of his hands, he rotated it rapidly back and forth for some minutes until there was a wisp of smoke. Feeding this first sign of life with shavings, he continued until eventually there was a flame on which he put more wood until there was a blaze everyone could see.

And all this is more than just a charming piece of antiquity. The electrical system for the communities on the island function for only a part of each day because they cannot afford fuel for generators. Living in the dark poses a real challenge to what we Canadians take for granted as a routine part of life. Being able to make fire is a talent as necessary there as turning on a switch here.

Solomon Islands as a country, and Malaita as an island, are suffering the social and economic after effects of serious civil disturbance. Their responses (the ability to strike fire is only one, there is also a great revival of traditional music) – go to the heart of the most basic needs and the classic traditions.

It is an interesting contrast to the response of the leaders of our society last year when we were confronted with the prospect of social and economic turmoil. They said, “Spend, shop, buy, consume.” Maybe that advice really represents our fundamental tradition and our greatest need.

But to me, making new fire to celebrate Jesus’ victory over death seems more to the point.

Michael Peers is primate of the Anglican Church of Canada.

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