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The unique pain of a COVID-19 surge at Christmas

For the Christian community, the timing of the omicron variant’s arrival couldn’t have been worse

Residents wearing face masks as a safety measure to curb the spread of the coronavirus walk outside the St. Joseph Parish Church after attending the first of nine daily dawn masses before Christmas day in suburban Las Pinas city, Philippines on Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021.
Aaron Favila, Associated Press

A new surge in COVID-19 cases was always going to be heartbreaking. But, for Christians, it’s the timing of the omicron variant’s arrival that makes it especially hard to bear.

Infection rates began climbing in the United States and around the world just as churches were putting the finishing touches on their Christmas worship plans. Now, as some cities reinstate safety measures from early in the pandemic, pastors are wrestling with how to keep worshippers safe during one of the most special times of the year.

“If this was a normal week and I saw these infection rates, I would have already called it” and moved services online, said the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas on Tuesday. “Christmas week is something else. It’s something people look forward to. Going to church on Christmas Eve is just a big deal.”

In the U.S., Christmas worship is practically a “cultural phenomenon,” noted the Rev. Thomas, rector of All Saints Episcopal Parish in Hoboken, New Jersey. The hymns, the candles, the Christmas greetings — they all hold a special place in people’s hearts.

“For a lot of people, Christmas Eve is only time they go to church,” she said.

In part because of the holiday’s religious and cultural significance, some churches in areas being hit hard by the omicron variant are choosing not to close their doors.

A spokesman for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York told The New York Times that the safety measures already in place for in-person worship, including a mask requirement, will reduce infection risk.

“These measures have been working and effective,” said the spokesman, Joseph Zwilling. “There are no additional measures being put in place at this time.”

So far, government officials seem content to let church leaders make their own decisions. Any new efforts to limit or ban in-person worship would almost certainly be met with lawsuits, as they were when the COVID-19 crisis first began.

Just over half of Americans (52%) believe that religious services should be considered essential during a pandemic, according to a recent survey from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which the Deseret News reported on earlier this month.

In the absence of closure orders, pastors are turning to public health officials and congregational leaders for input on what to do. Early research indicates that vaccination is protective against the omicron variant, but even relatively mild breakthrough cases are a cause for concern, the Rev. Thomas said.

“If I can prevent (breakthrough cases) from happening, I’d rather do that,” she said.

The Rev. Thomas contacted the Deseret News on Wednesday to share that she and other church leaders had decided to move Christmas weekend services online.

“While this is extremely disappointing, we believe that love of neighbor means doing our part to stem the tide of transmission of this virus,” reads the church’s Instagram post about the decision.

The Cathedral of St. John the Divine was the first major house of worship in the New York City area to announce its return to an online-only approach. On Monday, the church, which is the seat of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, told The New York Times that it wanted to do its part to stop this month’s case surge.

“Placing the needs and concerns of the wider community first is crucial,” said Isadora Wilkenfeld, the cathedral’s director of programming and communications.

On Wednesday, Washington National Cathedral, which is one of the largest churches in the country, announced that it, too, would close its building over Christmas weekend.

“Given the spike in infections, I simply cannot justify gathering massive crowds as the public health situation worsens around us,” said the Very Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith, dean of the cathedral, in a letter posted on the church’s website.

Unlike in the early days of the pandemic, many churches are now prepared to pivot to virtual services on short notice. They’ve gained livestreaming capabilities and figured out how to post videos of recorded worship services online.

But technology skills don’t make this week’s painful decisions much easier, the Rev. Thomas said. Even a well-produced recording of a Christmas service won’t keep worshippers from missing in-person gatherings.

“When I’ve looked out (in recent weeks) and seen the congregation sitting there, it’s almost brought tears to my eyes. Being together in that space feels like home,” she said.