While living in Tunisia, and as part of the process of establishing residence, we needed to do an exit/re-entry trip. The closest, cheapest option was a quick trip to Malta. It was a surprising cultural experience, a very different one after our first months as foreigners living in North Africa.
Right when we entered the exit hall of the Malta airport, we saw an enormous sign with the word, “Jesus Saves”. Having grown up in the USA’s Bible Belt, we would see that sign all along the highways, but it was a breath-taking sight in an international airport.
During our few days in the tiny island nation of Malta, we stayed in a the lovely fishing village of Marsaxlokk (thanks to the recommendation of friends). The Maltese people were a blend of all the cultures who, over centuries, populated this strategic island in the Mediterranean Sea. The language is fascinating – a Semitic language (similar to Arabic and Hebrew), phonetically written in Latin script. We actually understood a lot of what was said as it was a mix of Arabic and Italian (we knew some of the Arabic, Italian not so much). English was the second language which made it really easy for us to find our way around.The kids loved it as much as we did. The bed-and-breakfast where we stayed had a hearty breakfast (ham and eggs, thick slices of homemade bread, and cornflakes as well). We spent all the days outside, exploring, visiting the street markets, and eating local food. The “food truck” hot dogs we devoured as we walked along the seawall were the best I remember. They may also remember that it was in Malta where we started their Playmobil collection – buying several little characters in one of the street markets. So much fun.
Malta is so small that we could visit any town easily via the public bus system. We spent a couple of days in the capital city of Valletta. I probably don’t remember this correctly, but it seemed all the streets flowed down to the sea. There were Catholic churches everywhere. We even found The Collegiate Parish Church of St Paul’s Shipwreck which was built sometime in the 1570s. It honors Jesus’ apostle Paul as Malta’s spiritual father. Paul first arrived there quite violently through a storm and shipwreck, as a prisoner of Rome. The story of this shipwreck is recounted in great detail in the Bible, including a description of the kindness of the Maltese people toward Paul and every single ship passenger miraculously saved.
The most intriguing events we encountered in our visit to Malta were the Good Friday processionals. There were parades, passion plays, and countless other displays memorializing the crucifixion of Christ. Church bells rang constantly across the island through that whole day. Every single church, it appeared, participated in some sort of ceremony marking the Via Dolorosa (Jesus’ “way of suffering”). We were watching a parade, and, quite remarkably by accident, found ourselves at the front of a huge cathedral where a processional had just begun.
Life-size statues depicting the fourteen stations of the Cross were being carried one by one, out of the cathedral, by several men dressed in white. These pall-bearers must have been members of the church and, by their faces and posture, took their role in this ceremony very seriously. Not being Catholic ourselves, we were still keenly aware of the spiritual import this had to those around us. We felt very privileged to have happened on such a large display of their reverence…especially to Jesus.
It was a Good Friday that I will never forget. We had long talks as a family over supper that day as the children had seen things they’d never seen before. What things we as Protestants and Catholics disagree on paled in comparison to what we agreed on, regarding that day. Holy God, the one God of the universe, made a way, on that day centuries before, for all of humanity, estranged in our sin, to be restored in relationship to Him. It was indeed a Good Friday.
Holy or Black Saturday (as it’s called depending on one’s tradition) was a quieter day for us. It’s the day between Good Friday and Easter (or Resurrection Sunday) – separating the sorrow of the death of Christ and the joy of the Christ risen from the dead. In Malta that weekend, my memory of the day was that it was more subdued. Our time away from Tunisia was winding down also.
On Easter Sunday, the church bells rang again. This time was different from the Good Friday bells, chiming darkly as a funeral dirge dark. This day, the bells rang out, all through the towns and villages, with a joyful noise, somehow full of expectancy. Right before we returned home to Tunis, we worshipped that Easter Sunday, in a very small Baptist church. After all the pageantry of the Catholic celebrations, our worship in this little Protestant church may have seemed meager in comparison. It was just right for our little family – on an Easter Sunday, far from our home church in the US and our new life in Tunisia. Worshipping together, in a language somewhat familiar, we celebrated God’s victory over death and the life He offers to us, through the risen Savior. Hallelujah!