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Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church is silhouetted against the rising sun in Kansas City, Mo., ... [+] Wednesday, April 8, 2020. With Easter Sunday in four days, many churches are looking for ways to celebrate the occasion in light of stay-at-home orders and restrictions on gathering in an effort to slow the spread of the new coronavirus. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Easter Sunday is the most important day on the Christian calendar, so the idea of not heading out to attend church is unimaginable for many Christians. But then, living through a deadly global pandemic was not necessarily imaginable for most people either.
Despite stay-at-home orders in nearly every US state, about a dozen states have classified religious services as “essential” or otherwise allow them continue if social distancing is observed or if they cannot go online. Many of those states are home to residents at the highest risk for coronavirus.
And some churches are choosing to meet in person even if online is an option—or even in direct defiance of the law.
Yet several tragic clusters of cases have shown that social distancing during services is not adequate for protecting people from transmitting the disease. A choir that met in Washington state in March was cautious and used social distancing—but 45 of the 60 people who attended got sick, and two died.
For many Christians, this Sunday present a dilemma: follow public health experts’ advice to stay home or physically attend church services Sunday?
Instead, church leaders say, reframe how you think of Easter worship this year.
“It is an act of faith to stay home this year,” Rev. Jennifer Berry, pastor of New Paltz United Methodist Church in New Paltz, New York, said. “Staying home says that you believe God is still working among us, not in our predictable worship but in our creative, loving, healing, and saving actions to care for one another.”
Risks of In-Person Church Services Are Serious
Staying home is also a way to show that you care for your neighbors and friends, said Rev. Jeff Clinger, lead pastor of First United Methodist Church in Topeka, Kansas.
“It is hard to imagine not worshipping in person on Easter Sunday, but doing so is not the responsible or caring decision,” he said.
The coronavirus is passed from person to person in droplets, but scientists are still learning how far those droplets can travel. It may be more than six feet—we still just don’t know enough yet—and it may not require coughing or sneezing. Talking—and singing—may be sufficient for infected droplets to reach others.
The Constitution guarantees the right to worship and the right to assemble—but people do not have a right to put others at risk. Legal scholars have suggested that courts would likely uphold current bans on in-person services because “there’s a compelling interest in preventing death through communicable disease,” as Constitutional law scholar Eugene Volokh told CNN. As the aphorism goes, the right to swing one’s fist ends where the other person’s nose begins.
People are contagious for at least several days before their symptoms start, and a single person infects an average of 5-6 other people. That means attending in-person church services can endanger yourself and the people around you.
Activities that involve dozens or hundreds of people during a pandemic can result in what public health experts call “super-spreading events,” such as weddings and funerals that led to dozens of infections. And churches have been a major source of such events in the US and across the globe. A church revival in Kentucky and Christ Church Georgetown in Washington DC both led to clusters of infections. One person’s decision to attend church services in South Korea led to an estimated 64% of cases in that country, and the largest cluster of COVID-19 cases in France arose from a church prayer meeting.
“Traditions such as handshaking, embracing, touching the Torah, use of prayer mats and passing offering plates could place persons at risk for acquiring severe COVID-19 in close proximity to those who may be asymptomatically or inapparently infectious,” wrote David M Hartley, PhD, Heather Schacht Reisinger, PhD, and Eli N Perencevich, MD, in Infection Control & Hospital Epidemiology.
Most Christian leaders are following the science in taking measures to protect against COVID-19 by not holding in-person services. A minority are defying public health experts and state orders, risking the health, safety and wellbeing of their parishioners.
But Easter can be celebrated in many ways away from a physical building, multiple church leaders told me.
“I encourage people to understand that nothing is the way it usually is right now and there are many opportunities for them to experience the presence of the risen Christ on their own or at home with their family,” Rev. Clinger said. He suggested lighting a candle, reading the gospels (John 20), watching the sunrise, journaling, or reflecting on favorite memories of past Easters. “Even if we can’t worship in person this Easter, we all have the potential to come through this season closer in our relationship with God and in our relationships with others, and I imagine this would be pleasing to God,” Rev. Clinger said.
I reached out to a number of church leaders from various Christian denominations across the country to hear their advice to Christians on how to approach Easter Sunday worship in the midst of the pandemic.
Jeopardizing Health is Not Real Faith
Rev. Dr. Forrest Krummel, affectionately known as “Frosty” and minister of the First Federated Church in Peoria, Illinois, said he believes “that God gave us gray matter between our ears to use.”
“I do not believe that faith and science are in conflict but are complementary of one another,” he said. “One of the Temptations of Jesus faced was to throw himself off the pinnacle of the temple in order to prove that he was God’s son. Jesus refused the test because to foolishly do something is to put God to the test. We need to take care of one another, including the lost, the lonely, and the forgotten. Jeopardizing the health of others or our own health is not real faith but foolish faith.”
Experience Holy Week as the Apostles Did
Rev. Jennifer Berry, Pastor of New Paltz United Methodist Church in New York, whose 9: 45am ET Sunday services can be accessed through their Facebook page, said the “whole point of Easter is to remember that we follow a resurrected Christ, which means one who is made new and different. We must be willing to be new and different if we are to call ourselves Christian.”
And something “different” could be a chance to experience this season as Jesus’s earliest followers did, she said.
“The desire for the ‘comfort food’ of Easter Sunday as we have experienced it every year is so very understandable right now. However, this is an opportunity to experience Holy Week like the disciples did, and that is a gift that shouldn’t be turned down,” Rev. Berry said. “The disciples were in Jerusalem to commemorate God’s liberation of the Israelites from bondage by sending a plague that would not touch them—if they stayed in their homes until the scourge had passed. The Passover memory feels awfully familiar, and would have been foremost in the minds of Jesus and his followers.”
Even the anxiety many people feel right now is reminiscent of that time: “The disciples spent much of this week, and the week to follow, closeted away, fearful, not sure of who to trust or when it would be safe for them to be seen in public,” Rev. Berry said. “Finally, the morning of the resurrection was a profoundly solitary one: Mary Magdalene went alone or in a small company of women, heartbroken and afraid, to find that the tomb was empty. Would she be believed? Dismissed? Accused? After all, she had impossible Good News when everyone she knew thought all hope was gone. This is a foundation of Christian faith. And it is palpable this year in a way that makes my spine tingle.”
Loving Your Neighbor Is Physically Distancing Yourself From Them
Rev. Raegan Seaton, an elder in the United Methodist Church in Lexington, Texas, pointed out that “Christ is still Risen this Easter even if our churches are as empty as Jesus’s tomb. God is bigger than this virus, and God can show up in each one of our homes as we celebrate Easter Sunday.”
Today’s circumstances are a time “where the best way we can love our neighbor is distance ourselves physically from them,” she said. “Jesus tells us that the greatest commandment is to love the Lord God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and the second is to love your neighbor as yourself. Basically, we are loving God and each other by staying at home to worship.”
Rev. Season also pointed to Methodism founder John Wesley’s General Rules to be a faithful follower of Jesus Christ. “In today’s language, they are to Do No Harm, Do Good, and Stay in Love with God,” she said. “In following with this, we should do everything we can to stop the spread of COVID-19.”
“God Is Everywhere”
Rev. Alexandra E. Honigsberg, of the Apostolic Catholic Orthodox Church, Eastern Region and an adjunct instructor of ethics and biomedical ethics at SUNY-Suffolk in New York, said that Jesus told the Apostles and Marys before he died “to care for one another and called them all family to each other.”
“So, in this time of Corona, how do we best care for one another, love one another, serve one another and ourselves? We stay home. The sanctuaries and gatherings are grand and glorious—but God is everywhere.”
Christianity thrived for more than 300 years before there were buildings, she said. “We worshipped wherever—at home, in the wilderness, in our own hearts in silence. We can still do that. Want to make Easter special? Save a life. Stay home.”
If you need to get beyond the four walls, Rev. Honigsberg recommends taking a walk—but with respect for life.
“Listen to the birds, look up and see the sky, breathe the air, and be thankful for being alive,” she said. She added that the 23rd Psalm talks about fearing no evil while walking through the valley of the shadow of death.
“‘Through’ means that it has an end, that there’s a light at the end of that tunnel and it’s not an on-coming train to crush you,” she said. “It’s back to life, eventually. And yes, we will be changed, hopefully, for the better, because we chose life by staying home. Let Easter remind us that we will get through this valley of the shadow of death to the other side. Easter is love. Easter is hope. Easter is joy and power. You don’t need to go to a church building with many other people to know that. Listen to your heart.”
“Love Thy Neighbor”
Rev. Elizabeth A. Larsen, of St. Mark's Lutheran (ECLA) in Portland, Oregon, described staying home as a way to love others.
“Jesus calls us to love our neighbor,” Rev. Larsen said. “Out of deep love for our neighbors, our elders, our immuno-compromised friends, we have chosen to gather virtually rather than in person. We are conscious that this excludes people without the technology or the web access, and we grieve that and hope to do better in the future.”
She pointed out that her most precious Easter memories from childhood, growing up outside of a regular church, were not confined within a building.
“Early, before sunrise, we drove up into the mountains, and one of us read to the others one of the resurrection stories from the gospels,” she said. “Indeed, a central part of my understanding of the Easter story will always be hearing Luke 24 read out in the Siskiyou Mountains of Southern Oregon, miles away from anybody else.”
“Staying Home Is Sacrificial Love”
Rev. Jeff Clinger, lead pastor of First United Methodist Church in Topeka, Kansas, who invites anyone to join his online services at 10: 30 CT on Easter online, acknowledged the difficulty of staying home but noted that sacrifice is central to Christianity.
“Staying home is a sacrificial way to share Christ’s love with our neighbors and to prioritize our faith in Christ over our desire for individual freedoms,” he said. The discussion about attending church in Kansas has begun centering on questions of individual freedom—and that’s not his primary concern as a person of faith.
“As a Christian, I seek to follow Jesus, and the gospels contain a number of challenging teachings,” he said, noting several of Jesus’s teachings:
“The most important thing is that we love God with everything we are and have and that we love our neighbor as our self.”
“If one wants to be great, one is to do that by serving, thinking of and acting in the best interest of others.”
“If one wants to follow Jesus, we must take up the cross and deny ourselves daily.”
“He gives us a new commandment, that we are to love one another as he has loved us and that the world would know his love by the love we share.”
He noted that the current circumstances also present an opportunity to get to know and share God’s love independent of in-person services. “It is a great chance for people to engage more in disciplines of reading scripture, praying, and connecting with others in their community of faith,” he said. “I encourage people, whenever they think of someone in their church family, to send a quick text, make a quick call, or send a card.”
The Most Loving Thing Is Keeping Distance
Rev. Eileen P. Walsh, an episcopal priest at St. Christopher's Episcopal Church in Portsmouth, Virginia, reminded people that “with or without us Jesus will rise”—and none of the early disciples witnessed the resurrection.
“Our most important consideration right now, as always, is the Great commandment: Our promise to love God with all of our heart, soul, and mind and to love our neighbor as ourself,” Rev. Walsh said. “The most loving thing we can do for ourselves and one another is to keep our distance, and we cannot do that in corporate worship.”
She urged those whose churches are still holding in-person services not to attend. “As the church, we cannot put one another in harmful situations,” she said. She suggested those who miss regular worship to set up a home altar or prayer corner with candles, religious symptoms or “anything that brings you peace and a feeling of worship.”
“I understand that change is difficult but this also opens us up to new and creative ways to worship,” Rev. Walsh said. “It most definitely will not feel the same, but we are called to worship God and right now there is no greater way we can do that than by taking care of God's people.”
Protect the Vulnerable
Rev. Krista Paradiso, of Elston Ave UMC and Berry Church in Chicago, Illinois noted that this year offers “a chance to experience Easter in a new way, much more like that first Easter than anything most of us have lived before.”
“Like Mary and the women, like Peter and the beloved disciple, we don’t know where to go (stay home!),” she said. “We don’t know who will believe us, we are full of both joy and fear at the same time, we are wondering where God is and what God is doing, and yet deep in our bones we know that something is different.”
Rev. Paradiso said people’s understanding of resurrection can shift and grow right now.
“Whenever this is over, life will not be the same. Many Christians in the US have grown accustomed to being part of the power structures of our country and world; we take for granted that we are respectable, privileged, even blessed, and that good things will happen to us and bad things will not,” she said. “COVID-19 reminds us that the prosperity gospel is not the gospel that Jesus taught and lived, and that we are all woven together in ways we can’t fully understand.”
And staying home means participating in “the resurrection, in new life” in a novel way, she explained.
“When we don’t gather in large groups, doing what we can to protect the vulnerable and allowing our medical professionals to work with the little they have, we start to notice and live out that connection to others,” Rev. Paradiso said. “When we do all we can, even when we don’t like it, we move beyond ‘resurrection is life after death’ and into a deeper belief that resurrection is God’s new life all around us.”
The Resurrection Happens on “God’s Timetable”
Rev. Eric Atcheson, an ordained pastor in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Vancouver, Washington, and author of On Earth as it is in Heaven: A Faith-Based Toolkit for Economic Justice, pointed out that one of the most important aspects of Easter Sunday and the Gospels in general “is that resurrection happens according to God's timetable, not necessarily ours.”
“When Jesus arrives to raise Lazarus from the dead in John 11, He tells Lazarus's sister Martha that Lazarus will be resurrected, and Martha responds by saying that she expects Lazarus to resurrect in the end times with everybody else,” Rev. Atcheson said. “But that wasn't Jesus's timeline—He raised Lazarus that day, confounding Martha's expectations.”
Similarly, when people encounter resurrection in person this year is determined by God’s timetable, he said. “By staying home, we are in fact enabling resurrection—we are saving other peoples' lives who might otherwise be lost, including potentially our own,” he said. “This virus has emerged among us, but we are also given ways to keep claim to lives the virus might otherwise claim for itself. That, too, is a form of resurrection, even if it is not so glaringly obvious as an empty tomb and a risen Christ.”
How and Where To Worship If Your Church Isn’t Online
If your own church is not holding services online, you can search online for your denomination to find links to online services, Rev. Larsen said. Or, you can go “old-school” and worship outdoors as her family did. She provided a link to a DIY worship at home on Easter.
Rev. Honigsberg noted that ECUSA’s Church of the Heavenly Rest and St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Cathedral are two (of likely thousands) of churches live-streaming their services for anyone.
Rev. Seaton had similar advice. “The blessing of the internet in this time is that you can find an online service of every single denomination and style,” she said. “If you don’t want to be online, then read the Resurrection account in the Scriptures. Watch the sun rise. Sing ‘Christ the Lord is Risen Today’ or your favorite worship song, and you can worship at home.”
Rev. Atcheson noted that even fellowship meals can take place over virtual platforms like Skype and Zoom and be meaningful. “And as the loss of lives and livelihoods continues to grow, there will be a lot of need for mission and justice work in your community, whether it is at your local food bank or through your local public school district or more,” he said. “The need for basic staples is being acutely felt by many, and we should remember how the road to Emmaus story in Luke's Gospel ends—that the Risen Christ was made known to the travelers in the breaking of bread. That, too, is resurrection.”
Rev. Paradiso also recommended people take time to read the stories, noticing how different each of the four Gospels are and marveling “at how we draw truth from these different accounts, and how each can speak to different people, and to the same people at different parts of our lives.”
She also advised decorating your living space, such as picking out the words that speak to you from the Gospels and putting them “places where you’ll see and remember that the Easter story is bigger than one day.”
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