While Covid-19 is now raging in other parts of the world, the virus has subsided in China, and in Wuhan, where it started, restrictions are very slowly being lifted. A Catholic based in the city, who has been living under lockdown since February, sends his thirteenth reflection.
Easter Sunday turned out differently to what I had expected. Perhaps this is a feature of the Christian life ever since the friends of Jesus went to the tomb and found it to be empty. Originally, I was looking forward to being with a Chinese family to celebrate the great solemnity at their humble home in Wuhan. A change of plan by the family on the previous evening led to a cancelation of Sunday lunch and so I continued the recent practice of eating alone. However, as often happens in China, a few hours can bring many changes. A Chinese friend visited me on Sunday afternoon, the first friend to cross the threshold of the apartment in 11 weeks. As I prepared some food for evening meal, Joseph mentioned that the one hour drive from Xiantao to Wuhan had not involved any checking of health codes or any questions about his destination, all reflecting the well-publicised relaxation of restrictions within the province in previous days.
Joseph then made a suggestion that was as novel as anything I had heard during previous weeks. He asked if I would like to go with him to his parish in Xiantao for a few days. The possibility of going out of Wuhan seemed like a good idea, and an opportunity to be with people that I have known for several years in a setting where we could talk about our shared experiences, part of which would surely include these recent weeks of coronavirus restrictions.
By the time we sat down for evening meal I had already agreed to go with Joseph to Xiantao. Later I put some items in a bag and was ready for the unexpected journey. As we walked towards the security gate of the housing compound we took out our newly issued health codes, the new way by which the local authorities hope to trace the movements and close contacts of any new virus cases. Having shown our health codes and successfully passed the temperature checks, we were now free from all other monitoring in the city because we were not getting on public transport or entering any large shops. As we drove out of Wuhan I felt as if we were like the two disciples who had experienced something special at the meal in Emmaus, the subsequent journey late at night being one that they gladly undertook because it was happening with joy and renewed hope. The road out of Wuhan is familiar to Joseph and myself and on Easter Sunday it symbolised a change that was finally taking place with the COVID-19 restrictions that have defined three months of life in central China.
Waking up on Monday morning provided further affirmation that an invitation to leave the city was a genuine Easter blessing. The view of several acres of vegetables beside the parish residence breathed its own new hope on the second day of Easter. What had been seen in previous times takes on new significance when it stands in contrast to recent restrictions. During the past week in Xiantao the same has been true when sitting down to eat with the two priests and three sisters who live here. The opportunity to talk about events of the past few weeks, as well as recount some shared experiences of recent years, have revealed fresh views and occasional laughter. At a time like this it also becomes apparent that the daily events of life also contain the calm gentle ways in which God's loving care is communicated to each of us. Sometimes a Lenten experience is necessary before we realise that the deeper meaning of our lives is supported by a variety of daily greetings, gestures and conversations with people who share a precious circle of friendship.
On Monday afternoon of last week Joseph, Sr Song and I went to one of the nearby supermarkets. The overall impression during this outing was that, apart from schools still being closed, life has almost returned to normal in this part of China. It is a distance of 100 km from Wuhan, providing it with the freedom to adjust at a faster pace in comparison to the more populated provincial capital. A first haircut in over three months was also a refreshing experience, one that gave an insight into how one profession within the community has been severely stretched during these recent weeks of immense challenge. The barber explained that the rent for his premises needs to be paid as normal but that he is thankful to be in a quiet area of the town where the rent is moderate. These recent weeks are obviously a testing time for many people as they balance the disruption of their small businesses with their ability to provide a livelihood for their families.
The fertile plains in this area of the Yangtze River basin have been a large producer of cotton for many years, leading to the development of a large industry that produces cotton products, many of which are linked to the medical profession. The more recent parallel development of synthetic products that have replaced cotton has seen this area of China become one of the leading producers of face masks and other personal protective equipment. The increased worldwide demand for these products has seen a huge recent concentration of labour in their ceaseless production. Many families have purchased small machines to help fill gaps in the production process. Families in one village we visited last night specialise in just producing the ear strings that are needed for face masks, this task requiring 24-hour production as much as any other in the ongoing international containment efforts.
Throughout China most schools remain closed. Their return to a normal schedule is awaited as a sign of confidence by the government in its combat of the virus. No date has been issued yet for when this will happen.
Churches in this part of China also await news about when they can return to a normal schedule for their parishioners. Fr Paul, the parish priest in Xiantao, does not know when this will happen. He points out that anyone who comes by to check what is happening on Sunday mornings can see that the doors of the new church are closed and that there are no church services taking place as would normally happen. He does allow access to a small chapel in the basement for parishioners who wish to visit occasionally. A question about whether or not the gradual return to normal life in Xiantao has made it possible to have ceremonies in the small chapel during the past two weeks, even for a few people, is met with a smile and a clarification that the doors of the church are closed, something that is clearly visible to anybody who looks in from the street.
Throughout the world the traditional announcement of Easter takes place in a liturgical setting where the flame of the paschal candle breaks the darkness, the great proclamation that death has been swallowed up by God's love. This announcement happens quickly in a way that seems to reflect how suddenly the followers of Jesus realised that something completely new was happening at the resurrection. This year's restrictions in so many countries have meant that many of us have not been able to participate in the Easter Triduum in a normal way to celebrate the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Perhaps these weeks of the Easter season can become an extended Easter Vigil as we pay attention to the many places where the flame of the paschal candle may be seen announcing new life, whether that be as we eat alone or with family, whether we live in China or in other parts of the world, whether among people in the hospitals that still face such immense challenges or in the places where restrictions are gradually being lifted. As happens each year in the Easter Vigil, eventually the light of the resurrection moves out from that single flame of the paschal candle to touch the hearts of all.
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