Celebrating ‘a new way’: Utah faith leaders find meaningful Easter messages in face of COVID-19
Being ‘Easter honest,’ ‘keeping our chin up,’ ‘we are not alone’ and looking to the hope and joy of the Resurrection to help during pandemic, faith leaders say
SALT LAKE CITY — Just a few weeks ago, Pastor Jim Harris, of Calvary Salt Lake, was planning a large nondenominational Easter service to be held in Abravanel Hall.
The 2019 Easter service drew about 2,200 guests, and expectations for another “wonderful event” were high, the pastor said.
COVID-19 had other plans.
Calvary Salt Lake’s Easter service will still be held online this coming Sunday morning, but Pastor Harris will miss the opportunity to fellowship and associate with people face-to-face.
“We get a couple of times a year — Christmas and Easter — when we do big events,” he said. “It’s a great time for everybody to come together and see others in the church ... and encourage one another. That’s what we miss the most. It’s not so disappointing that it was moved online. It’s still a great celebration for us. It’s what gives us hope.”
Like Calvary Salt Lake, many churches in Utah and across the world won’t be holding in-person Easter services due to the coronavirus health crisis, forcing Christian faithful to alter how they celebrate Holy Week and the resurrection of Jesus Christ this springtime.
With churches forced to close, most faith communities have moved online with sermons, Bible study classes, upcoming Easter services and various other plans. Some churches around the country will offer drive-in services at outdoor theaters in compliance with social distancing, according to nbcnews.com.
A church in Texas is planning a virtual Easter egg hunt using the popular video game Minecraft, Foxnews.com reported.
The Rev. Vanessa G. Cato, one of the church’s clergy at Ogden’s Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, lamented that her congregation wouldn’t be able to meet for Easter and Holy Week services like they normally do, but she knows that time will eventually come.
“We have decided that once we’re all allowed to worship together in person, we are going to celebrate Easter on that very first Sunday back,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s the middle of June or July, we’re going to celebrate Easter. We’re going to have a big service and brunch and everything as a great resurrection celebration together.”
The Deseret News spoke with various faith leaders recently about how their Easter traditions have been affected by COVID-19 and how the message of Christ’s resurrection might be uniquely meaningful under these difficult circumstances. Here are their thoughts.
Pastor Harris: With all these things happening, people are looking for answers. And a lot of them are coming to the church and back to God. So what makes Easter significant is Easter is the one thing that gives a Christian hope. It’s the resurrection of Christ. Through his death and Resurrection, we are guaranteed eternal life with him. That’s what we look forward to. That’s our hope in just keeping on, keeping our chin up during difficult times. We can rest on knowing he’s in control, he’s on the throne.
The Rev. Cato: Holy Week and Easter is the most holy sacred time of the Christian year. It is what the Christian faith is based upon: the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Without that, our whole belief in the self-offering of God in Jesus for the sake of the whole world means nothing. Our understanding of the Love of God is diminished.
I believe the sense of loss, the fear, and the feeling of being exiled from all that is familiar and dear to us, may help us to experience more fully how it was for Jesus, his family and his friends. Even the Resurrection took place, in a cemetery and a locked room, not in a beautiful church with lilies, joyful music, incense and a sacred meal. That first Easter Day was a day of confusion and puzzlement, but ultimately of joy. This year we will experience the hope and joy of Easter in a different way, but maybe a more meaningful way, as we find a new way of being in the Risen Christ that will strengthen our faith, and give us courage to come through these dark times, knowing how much we are loved by God, and with renewed love and compassion for one another.
The Rev. Elizabeth McVicker, pastor at Centenary United Methodist Church and First United Methodist Church: Easter is a major annual celebration in the Christian tradition because it tells the story of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the Easter story, we hear of God’s ultimate power over death, darkness, evil and sin. Jesus Christ was crucified and buried. Three days later on the first Easter, Jesus rose from the dead signaling God’s saving grace and forgiveness for all our sins. Nothing can keep Jesus in the tomb enshrouded in burial cloths — not even the coronavirus.
On Easter morning we will celebrate the Risen Christ, albeit in new ways. We won’t be in our sacred sanctuaries yet we will still be connected as the Body of Christ. We may be dispersed, but we are not alone. God binds us together in community through the power of Jesus Christ.
The Rev. Steve Klemz, pastor of Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church: Those weary souls seeking to escape the continual flow of news, advice and theories about the coronavirus may as well try to avoid light and air. Last year we were surrounded by Easter lilies and choirs, with morning sunlight falling through stained glass windows. This year I will preach in an empty church, trusting the Spirit to move through a digital video.
The pandemic calls us to be Easter honest. Perhaps now, more than ever, we plumb the depths of why we believe what we believe. We are learning that Easter is not an eternal springtime, with Easter bunnies, fresh flowers, binging on chocolates or dancing on tiptoe through budding tulips.
For Easter to be good news, we walk with the women who first came to the tomb, “while it was still dark.” For Easter to be Easter, I believe that God reaches in the darkness of this pandemic, raising the One who is love, so that it is not only life, but love that is stronger than death.
Easter calls us to see love and life even in the dark places of the pandemic. Because of Easter, I believe that love flows where the virus cannot rule. I see signs of that love among doctors, nurses, and medical personnel who are sacrificing and placing themselves at risk because of their love for the human family. I see signs of that love from my Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints neighbor, who asks how they can pray for my Lutheran community of faith. I will pray in thanksgiving for the New York City immigrant hospital janitor, who is the only one to offer comfort to the patient who is compelled to die alone.
Because of this pandemic, I cling to the promise, that love and life are stronger than death, which means that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.
The Rev. Oscar T. Moses, pastor at Calvary Baptist Church: What is significant about Resurrection Sunday is that Jesus Christ actually made good on what he said he would do. To be raised from the dead is no small event. If we cannot believe that he is actually raised from the dead, then we really can’t believe everything else.
I think God is strategic. I think that he allows certain things to happened by his permissive will, that even if we don’t understand he allows it to happen to get our attention. Because of the coronavirus, more people are focusing more on faith and spirituality. They’re turning to God, a higher source.
I think it’s an excellent time to remind us that there is victory in Christ Jesus, even through this coronavirus. The end game says that God is providential. He has not disconnected himself from what we are going through, and in the end it will all work out for our good (Romans 8:28). And so even in this season where we are fearful, it’s stretching our faith, it’s increasing our faith. We have to believe that God is working it all out for our good. Ultimately, the end game is that we win.
Father Joseph Delka, parochial vicar of the Cathedral of the Madeleine: Easter is the great proclamation that Jesus Christ has taken all the sin, darkness, and death of the world upon his shoulders and has conquered it. Death and sin do not have the final say in human existence, and Christ offers us a share in the life of God himself. It’s easy to pass this off as a “nice thought” when everything is fine and we seem to be in control. But now the rug of our security has been pulled out from under our feet and our vulnerability is more apparent. We certainly hope, pray, and work for an end to this plague. In the meantime, we have the opportunity to recognize more deeply the gift of Easter — Christ rising to life that we might have life with him.
Holy Week contains the highest holy days of the year. There was discussion about the possibility of moving the Easter. The answer was a firm “no.” The celebration will go on. It will be solitary and somber, but it will go on because Christ is risen and the work of salvation doesn’t stop. Ultimately, nothing should uproot our faith and hope in Christ who has risen from the dead, whose death has overcome death.
Elder Gerrit W. Gong, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (taken from his general conference talk): In celebrating the ongoing Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ, we also prepare for Easter. In both, we rejoice in the return of Jesus Christ. He lives — not only then, but now; not just for some, but for all. He came and comes to heal the brokenhearted, deliver the captives, recover sight to the blind, and set at liberty those who are bruised. That’s for each of us. His redeeming promises apply, no matter our past, our present, or concerns for our future.