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Coronavirus has influenced how Christians observe Lent

Pastor Steve Aeschbacher, of the First Presbyterian Church, and his wife, Alice, stop to see if they can spot any deer in the lower foothills while walking near their home in Salt Lake City, part of their routine while practicing social distancing, on Saturday, March 28, 2020.
Pastor Steve Aeschbacher, of the First Presbyterian Church, and his wife, Alice, stop to see if they can spot any deer in the lower foothills while walking near their home in Salt Lake City, part of their routine while practicing social distancing, on Saturday, March 28, 2020.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Pastor Steve Aeschbacher, interim senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church, was scrolling through Facebook recently when a message about Lent caught his eye.

“Somebody was saying ‘I gave up more for Lent than I was expecting,’” he said. “I think that’s true of everybody.”

Memes with similar messages have been circulating online as Christians strive their best to observe Lent, the period from Ash Wednesday, Feb. 26, to Easter Sunday, April 12, as a season of sacrifice, personal growth and progress.

What most believers didn’t anticipate was the coronavirus pandemic and its disruptive effect on society. The dramatic changes have influenced how some observe the Christian tradition in different ways.

“So, what did everyone else give up for Lent?” one man tweeted. “Apparently, I gave up spending time with friends and family, going to bars and restaurants, and basically anything that requires me to leave the house.”

One woman tweeted about trying to forsake swearing for Lent.

“It isn’t going well AT ALL,” she wrote next to the cursing emoji and hashtag “COVID-19.”

Some faith leaders believe that because of community restrictions for gathering, including church during the holy season, entertainment and other conveniences, parishioners have given up enough already, nbcnews.com reported.

“Given the difficulties of obtaining some types of food and the many other sacrifices we are suddenly experiencing given the coronavirus, I have granted a dispensation from abstaining from meat on Fridays for the rest of Lent, except Good Friday, which is universal law,” the Most Rev. James F. Checchio, the bishop of Metuchen Diocese in Piscataway, New Jersey, announced on Twitter. The message was echoed in Boston.

The current health crisis has turned hearts to the penitential qualities that are symbolic of Lent’s spiritual practice of self-denial. Some have compared the concept of quarantine during the 40 days of Lent to Christ’s 40 days in the desert, the Catholic News Service reported.

”We need to look at this as a temporary thing we are doing for the sake of another good,” Paulist Father Larry Rice, director of the University Catholic Center at the University of Texas, Austin, said in the article.

The Rev. Michael Weldon of St. Mary’s Basilica in Phoenix suggested this Lenten season is giving Christians a new perspective, he told a local television station.

“This Lent for us is about ... doing penitence from each other and stopping for a while,” Rev. Weldon said. “Find our humanity and what we got in common.”

Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church tweeted his encouragement during this time to pray and “make space for God to come in.”

Mike and Karla Miller-Imperiale, who reside in the Sugar House area with their son, Peter, attend First Presbyterian. They entered the season of Lent wanting to improve their lives by giving up screen time, Mike Miller-Imperiale said.

“Why are we doing it? It’s an effort to build ourselves into a stronger person in our faith or spiritual walk,” he said. “I, of course, chose to give up the most difficult thing in a time like this — social media.”

Mike, Karla and son Peter Miller-Imperiale with their black lab Dave and bulldog Puddlegum.
Dottie Morley

He doesn’t consider himself a “detrimental addict,” but said he follows a variety of news outlets and likes to feel connected to trusted friends. But because of the coronavirus, technology is his only option for communication outside the home.

“I‘m an extrovert and I gain energy by being around other people, which is something that I really can’t do right now. I feel like Facebook or the like is kind of the next best thing, right?” Miller-Imperiale said. “As frustrating as that is, I’d love to say that I’m too social for social media, but I’m not.”

While the couple continues to use their devices, they maintain their spiritual goal at heart.

“We both have not been particularly successful with the choice to give up our phones or social media effectively during this time, but I don’t feel like I’ve failed at Lent,” Miller-Imperiale said. “As long as it’s not detracting from the relationships that I have with my son and my wife, that was the purpose of giving up social media to begin with.”

That’s in line with what Pastor Aeschbacher has noticed in recent weeks.

“People are spending more time talking with their family, spending more time with the opportunity to stop and reflect, to pray, to read scripture. I feel like it’s easier for people to engage in the most important things in life.” he said. “I think we’ve gotten pretty good at being so busy that we can sort of ignore those fundamental pieces of how we’re meant to live. And so I think this is calling us back to that in a funny way.”

One surprising thing Pastor Aeschbacher has noticed is that people seem to be more mindful of the food they are cooking and consuming. They also want to get out for a walk, he said.

“It’s not exactly a Lent practice, but getting out in nature and enjoying the beautiful spring weather is awesome,” Pastor Aeschbacher said.