December 24th and 25th are the days when the universal Church celebrates Christmas and commemorates the birth of the Savior Jesus Christ. However, many Christian churches in Beijing have stopped worshipping on site due to the pandemic, and some churches have conducted online carol services instead. I had the honor to participate in a Christmas Eve worship service in one of the churches.
Around 2 o'clock in the afternoon on Thursday, I inquired about the services on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day of Beijing Christian Gangwashi Church, Chongwenmen Church and Fengtai Church through a platform called "Beijing Religious Places Reservation". I wanted to reserve for one of them.
To my surprise, I found that one of the churches had no reservation information. After checking, I learnt that they had started to issue admission tickets in front of the church gate as early as half a month ago and there had been no online reservation. However, that church had canceled its activities altogether for December 24th due to the new pandemic outbreak. The other church was fully booked and the third one had tickets available for the last evening service from 21: 00 to 22: 00. There were only four remaining tickets so my friends and I made a reservation quickly. On Christmas Eve, there were four worship sessions at the church, each of which was strictly limited in number with about 280 people in the main sanctuary.
After dinner, my friends and I went to the church by subway and walked in the cold wind for nearly 20 minutes after getting off the subway. Although it was cold, our hearts were happy and we looked forward to the service arranged by the church. As we arrived at the church gate we found the main entrance closed. The security guard instructed us to take a detour. We had to complete a number of steps before entering the church building: checking the Beijing Health Code, registering personal information and allowing personal tracking - measuring temperature – showing our reservation number – storing our bags (for both big and small bags) – facial recognition for measuring temperature again - going through a security check - applying sanitizer on hands for disinfection. After completing all of the steps we were welcomed by the church attendants, who handed each of us a "Peace Fruit" in a package.
During the security check process, we also remember hearing an old man yelling: "From where do I enter? I’m totally confused." In a word, none of the steps could be missed to enter the site.
After entering the church, we were organised to sit down one meter away from each other. We were required to wear masks throughout the one-hour worship. I have a hobby of taking photos, but when I picked up my phone and was about to take a photo, I was immediately reminded that I was not allowed to take pictures and post them on WeChat Moments. We were also surprised to find that even the cell phone signal was blocked.
As the service started, the pastor gave a sermon about "peace", which lasted only five minutes, but there was still a brief call for those who might seek Jesus. They prayed for the visitors who came to the church for the first time. The main feature of the worship service was the performance by a choir. Choir members stood on stage wearing masks to sing and their voices were sometimes low and sometimes high with duets. The accompanying instruments were the piano and violin. The service was also broadcast live for those participating online.
After the service was over, we were needed to leave by a special passage and then we took our backpacks after going out of the gate. After nearly an hour of worship, believers were still chatting with each other, but they were unable to see each other’s faces completely with masks on. However, I found the service touching. When I sang about the Savior's incarnation and when I prayed for a place to greet the Lord along with my singing, when the holy music of Universal Joy and Hallelujah sounded, although they could not be together, I could feel the joy and touch of the believers of the Universal Church celebrating the Savior's birth together.
I have participated in Christmas activities many times in churches in Beijing. Recalling the past, Christmas was particularly lively every year. One year, I took my friend to Chongwenmen Church. Because we were late, we could only sit in the side chapel. It was always not so wonderful to watch the projection screen. In another year, I went to Gangwa City Church, but there were too many participants for the event and some of them had started queuing outside the church three or four hours in advance just to get into the main chapel to have a view of the main stage. I didn't even go in the side chapel, so I had to watch the big screen in the churchyard, shivering from cold while singing the Christmas hymns. Luckily someone left early so I could enter the side chapel to enjoy the heating. The church I went to last night was the same. In previous years, not only the main and side chapel were full but also many people stood in the aisles on both sides of the main building. The service was also wonderful including Christmas dramas, recitation, singing and dancing, music, and even Sunday school children's performances. Christmas dramas are often a reconstruction of the scene of Jesus born in Bethlehem. There was no place in the inn, so Mary had to give birth in the stable, and the baby was put in the manger after being born. Shepherds in the wild rushed to the scene, and the three wise men also worshipped the infant.
After arriving home and ready to rest I saw a message from the Fengtai Church WeChat official account. It said that because of the pandemic, the Fengtai Church was not able to hold the Christmas celebration on the evening of December 25th. The message asked for understanding and support from brothers and sisters.
On the Internet, on December 24th, Haidian Church issued a notice in its official website saying that due to the recent new cases of infection in Beijing, beginning on December 24 Haidian Church would suspend opening to society and collective gathering activities, and the resumption time would be announced separately. "Please understand and actively cooperate with your brothers and sisters, and continue to do a good job in pandemic prevention and control. Let us continue to pray for the early end of the pandemic."
On the same day, the official website of Gangwashi Church also sent a similar message.
Due to the pandemic and decoration work, Yanjing Theological Seminary has been closed to the public. Brothers and sisters are invited to attend Christmas and Sunday services online.
On the afternoon of December 24, Beijing held its 190th regular press conference on pandemic prevention and control, giving information about the latest situation of pandemic prevention and control. Beginning a midnight on December 23 to 4:00pm on December 24, there were 2 new asymptomatic cases in Beijing, and there were no new confirmed cases or suspected cases in China.
After the on-site gathering was canceled, Haidian Church, Chongwenmen Church and Yanjing Theological Seminary all provided live online worship during Christmas.
Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the churches in Beijing stopped public gatherings since the end of January 2020. Despite a notice that gatherings could resume on June 14th, they were temporarily cancelled again due to a new outbreak, and public gatherings did not resume until early August. At that time, I went to Chongwenmen Church and used its reservation system. When I entered the Church, I went through health code and the appointment number, temperature measurement, disinfection, and security check. When I attended the church, I was seated at a strict distance of one meter. When the service was over I left immediately and did not stay. Churches in Beijing generally have thousands of people. After strictly limiting the number of people, each church has increased the number of worship sessions and provided online live broadcast or playback to meet the worship needs of believers.
2020 is about to pass. In this year, COVID-19 suddenly spread all over the world. According to the World Health Organization, as of 18: 09 on the 24th Central European Time (1: 09 on the 25th Beijing time), the number of confirmed cases worldwide increased by 662,825 from the previous day reaching 77,530,799 cases. The number of deaths increased by 13061 reaching 1724904.
The pandemic situation has also changed the way of worship in Chinese churches. All churches have actively explored how to provide online worship, and we watch and help each other together without losing confidence and hope in difficult times.
- Translated by Charlie Li