As the pandemic again prevented most Jewish and Christian communities from observing Passover and Easter in person, joyful celebrations continued, infused with the sense of hope exemplified by both holidays — and by the progress toward ending the pandemic.
Signs of the coronavirus lingered over weekend rituals. Some places of worship required congregants to RSVP for a limited number of in-person service seats. Most planned to gather exclusively over Zoom. Some distributed Seder plates and communion materials ahead of the holidays — having perfected COVID-safe routines over the past year. Live-streamed from their lecterns or their living rooms, faith leaders are encouraging vaccination and announcing plans to return to in-person services in the coming months.
Some aspects of the pandemic and its approaching end underscore the holy season’s themes of liberation and renewal, Massachusetts faith leaders said.
“I think that there’s a confluence between the hope that people are feeling around Passover ... and with hoping that the pandemic will soon subside, that life will return to normal as people are vaccinated,” said Rabbi Andrew Vogel of Temple Sinai in Brookline. “So I think [Passover and Easter] are still full of hope. Especially now that we’re turning the corner.”
Passover, the commemoration of the Israelites’ exodus from slavery in Egypt, began on March 27 and ends Sunday evening. Easter ceremonies began for some congregations on Thursday and culminate in Sunday’s services celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
For his congregations located in cities hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, Father John Sheridan said this year’s Easter carries special meaning.
“We see the light ahead of us, the light that we’ll bring into our church tomorrow night at the Easter vigil. We see the light ahead of hope that the vaccine and our continued work at taking care of business — the distancing, the masks, the protocols — bring,” he said.
Sheridan’s congregations at Our Lady of Grace, which serves Chelsea and Everett, and St. Mary of the Assumption in Revere, will welcome a limited number of congregants in person for Easter services.
The Rev. Young Ghil Lee of the Korean Church of Boston has dubbed COVID-19 shots the “resurrection vaccine” — a chance at new life that he expects to promote in his Sunday sermon.
Glimpses of that new life have already appeared, he said, with state guidelines on in-person worship increasing just in time for a handful of members to celebrate Easter in the sanctuary.
“Being strong and trying to be fruitful for the whole world — that is the main theme of [the] message that I’m going to share with our congregation,” Lee said.
In his predominantly Black congregation in Haverhill, pastor Kenneth Young of the 150-year-old Calvary Baptist Church said some people have faced difficulty accessing vaccines. In response, the church set up a text messaging service to help members find appointments.
Like Lee, Young saw the country’s experience of the pandemic and the arrival of vaccines as reminiscent of the Easter story of crucifixion and resurrection.
“What happens on the cross is as if God presses the reset button to allow his son to reset our condition and our relationship with Jesus,” Young said. “So we’re definitely talking about the pandemic and the way the nation is going through a reset — how we are actually going through a reset individually because of everything that’s happening.”
Religious leaders drew connections between the pandemic and Passover lessons, as well.
In Hebrew, the name for Egypt means “narrow place of living,” said Rabbi Elaine Zecher of Temple Israel of Boston. The liberation from constriction that Passover celebrates resonates in our current moment, she said.
“We’ve seen the anguish of systemic racism. We’ve seen the terror of the lack of health care, and the inequity, and how people died needlessly because of decisions” by the country’s leadership, Zecher said.
“So to enter into Passover is to be able to tell this story that doesn’t leave us in this narrow place, but actually guides us and helps us navigate out of the narrow place into a place of dignity, into a place of expansiveness, into a place of hope.”
Rabbi Mayer Zarchi, whose congregation at Central Synagogue Boston has not gathered in person for more than a year, said he is optimistic that coronavirus transmission will subside enough to enable a safe return to in-person worship soon — allowing his and other communities to “come together as we should be coming together.”
“Passover is all about freedom and hope — unshackling oneself from all different kinds of physical and spiritual chains,” Zarchi said.
Though faith leaders’ Easter and Passover messages largely focused on the pandemic’s end, the coronavirus’s ongoing costs and dangers still permeated the holidays. Currently, state guidelines allow indoor religious services to proceed with up to half of a building’s maximum occupancy, or up to 10 occupants per 1,000 square feet. Many congregations continue to skip in-person services altogether.
COVID-19 also prevented the multigenerational family gatherings that usually mark both holidays, Passover in particular. The holidays reminded many families of loved ones lost to the pandemic — a grief that several religious leaders acknowledged in special services and memorials over the weekend.
Some congregations reflected on other forms of loss that have accumulated in the past year, which for many communities has been marked by sharp rises in unemployment and poverty, heightened racial violence against Asian and Black Americans, and political turmoil.
At St. Luke’s-San Lucas Episcopal Church in Chelsea, Father Edgar Gutiérrez-Duarte’s bilingual and multicultural congregation has long discussed these issues. Easter Sunday will be no different, he said.
“The whole message of the three [Easter holy] days can be resolved in one: love,” he said.
Love right now means adhering to public health guidelines, caring for those who are vulnerable to sickness or in need, and speaking out against hatred and racist scapegoating, Gutiérrez-Duarte said.
“When we look at restoration, it cannot be my own resurrection without others. It is the restoration of all of us, the idea that we are responsible for one another,” he said.
This year’s holidays also come at a critical point for religion in the United States. A Gallup poll published Monday found that for the first time, a minority of Americans are members of a church, synagogue, or mosque.
But Massachusetts faith leaders said they have seen engagement expand and deepen during the pandemic, with virtual services attracting more attendees and members finding new ways to express their faith through service.
“During this pandemic our congregation, our faithful, have been doing a lot of outreach — showing the love, putting the love into action,” said Father Khachatur Kesablyan of Saints Vartanantz Armenian Church in Chelmsford.
The church, founded in the early 1900s by Armenian refugees, has organized new food donation programs since the start of the pandemic. “That’s the promise of a new life for us. That’s the message of new life we will be celebrating [on Easter],” Kesablyan said.
What engagement looks like after COVID-19 remains uncertain for most faith communities. Some congregations that are currently entirely virtual said that as soon as late April, they expect to begin limited in-person services or open their doors for small ceremonies, such as baptisms and bar or bat mitzvahs. Others plan to remain virtual for the foreseeable future. Many hope to offer streaming even once most worshippers return in-person.
At St. John the Baptist Parish in Quincy, Father Matthew Williams and his staff have worked tirelessly to provide multiple forms of socially distant engagement — from outdoor holiday installations to drive-thru confession services to a petting zoo for families.
What remains will be dictated by congregants, he said. “It’s supply and demand. If the people demand it, we’re going to supply it.” What’s here to stay, Williams said, is his congregation’s commitment to service through JOY — an acronym for serving Jesus, others, and yourself.
Zarchi of Central Synagogue said he expects the pandemic’s call to community and compassion to have long-lasting effects, regardless of what form post-pandemic worship takes.
“The pandemic had people really look into the interiority of their person,” he said. “These are enduring commitments that you see people make, and they’re deathless. They always stay. They always remain.”