‘For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.’ (Matthew 18:20, from the New International Version of the Bible)
These words, spoken by Jesus to his disciples in the Gospel of Matthew, underpin my love for being in church; there’s something powerful, not to mention healing, about gathering in worship and prayer with others. Not being able to gather physically has presented a serious challenge to Christian communities the world over: how can we “be” church and “do” community when we cannot be together?
Easter is the pinnacle of the church calendar, a joyful proclamation to the world that, on the cross, Jesus – whom Christians believe to be God incarnate – willingly took the sins of the world upon himself and gloriously conquered death, offering freedom and forgiveness to anyone who puts their faith in him. In short, Easter’s kind of a big deal in Christianity.
This year, thanks to Covid-19, churches have had to get creative. It’s no mean feat to conduct virtual church services, but possibly even more of a challenge to maintain a close-knit, active community when it’s impossible to gather in person. Many churches have opted to hold their services online, with some featuring full remote choir performances or worship band sets, and others coming together over Zoom or other platforms for prayer meetings. While churches have been dealing with these issues for weeks, Easter inevitably brings them into the spotlight.
Nowhere are these questions more salient than in Jerusalem. Palm Sunday in Jerusalem, which commemorates Jesus’s entry into the city and signals the start of Holy Week, is usually celebrated by a march of thousands of pilgrims – not exactly compatible with social distancing. With Israel in lockdown, this year required a different approach to the festivities and saw a small group of clergy distributing olive branches to Christians on their balconies. “This year, because of the new situation, we are trying to come to all the Christians in our Christian Quarter to bring branches of olives, the sign of new hope,” Reverend Sandro Tomasevic, a Catholic clergyman at the Latin Parish of Jerusalem, told Moshe Edri of Associated Press.
Far from the paths walked by Jesus in the Easter story, church services and time-honoured rituals are adapting to a new (if hopefully temporary) reality. In the initial moments of this sea change, concerns centre on communion, also known as the Eucharist. Though understood and carried out differently across denominations and individual churches, communion is celebrated as a commemoration of the death and resurrection of Jesus, and it includes the breaking of bread and sharing of wine. Though the Greek Orthodox Church initially announced its belief that coronavirus could not be transmitted via the communion wine and bread or wafer – a controversial position, to say the least – Greek Orthodox congregations are now taking a more pragmatic approach to the crisis.
Father Loucas of St Spyridonas Church in the Engomi neighbourhood of Nicosia tells Culture Trip about the situation for churchgoers in Cyprus: “The churches have been closed since 24 March, and are empty besides the priest, chanter and the candle lighter (verger) who carry out the Mass. We, the few, pray for everyone else who cannot attend.”
Greek Orthodox Easter Sunday is on 19 April, with Mass carried out every day of the Holy Week – something that would ordinarily draw huge crowds. Easter 2020 will be a more solitary affair: “The faithful can still watch the liturgy on TV, radio or online. Some churches do Facebook live streams through a priest’s phone, for example, while other churches have websites where people can watch live,” says Father Loucas. Any attempt at communion, normally a key part of Orthodox Easter, will need to be a home-made effort.
Perhaps the most striking image of the effect of Covid-19 on religion is that of the Pope delivering a blessing to an eerily empty St Peter’s Square. While the papal audiences planned for Easter would have seen tens of thousands pack the square, this year, Pope Francis will join with the faithful worldwide via the internet, television and radio. Those tuning in may do so surrounded by loved ones in their family home, or alone in a more solitary moment of spiritual contemplation.
Facilitating the relational aspect of church life, which may be missing from tuning in to such a broadcast, normally falls to the local church. For Reverend Lydia Corbett, curate at St Dionis Church – an Anglican church in London’s Parsons Green neighbourhood – an Easter in lockdown need not be a lonely one. Community, rather, takes a new shape.
“While it’s a weighty and shaky time, I’m conscious as a church leader that God hasn’t changed, and neither have we as human beings. We still have the same need for relationship and connection,” Reverend Lydia tells Culture Trip. “At St Dionis, we are basically working out how to meet people’s relational needs and worship God. Our services are now streamed via our website; we are calling people regularly and hosting Zoom ‘meet-ups’.”
As much as is possible, Easter will also take on a community focus: “This Easter, we’re celebrating Maundy Thursday via a ‘Zoom’ supper, Good Friday via meditations on our website, and Easter Sunday via our online services, followed by Zoom coffee. While a little different than usual, we hope it’ll be a real time of joy and fulfilment,” says the reverend.
Marie Saba, communications officer for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Westminster, in London, shares Reverend Lydia’s enthusiasm and confidence that church can continue to be a source of support and hope during this challenging time. “Our churches may be shut, but the Church is alive and well. So, there is still very much a sense of community, at both the parish and diocesan level,” she says. She explains the many initiatives ongoing in the diocese during the coronavirus crisis, such as encouraging messages recorded by the Archbishop, Cardinal Vincent Nichols; parishes offering live-streamed Mass; the continuing operation of food banks; and using video conferencing apps to keep the community in touch, to name just a few.
More than 8,000km (4,971mi) away in Santa Monica, California, Easter at the vibrant St Monica Catholic Community is set to be as full of life as ever – not least thanks to the church’s technological savvy. “We just completed a parish-wide webinar on how to best prepare for Holy Week and Triduum – with almost 1,000 people watching via Facebook Live and Zoom,” says communications and development coordinator Loreena Garcia. And visitors can still expect a warm welcome. “We have our hospitality ministers on our live stream, just as they would if someone were to walk into our church. They utilise the chat functions, welcoming new people to our parish.”
Easter will come and go, and we – the global church – must adjust. Even though the place to which so many of us turn for solace and a sense of family is off-limits, God, I believe – and am increasingly witnessing – is not limited to buildings or by distance. People who would never normally go to church are tuning in online, and perhaps finding comfort in the message they hear. My prayer is that when lockdown is lifted, they might decide to step inside a church of the non-virtual variety, where they will be met by a community all the more open, resilient, joyful and compassionate for this experience.