When the Rev. Todd Pendergrass thinks of his church’s Easter celebration last year, it’s not the sermon or the music he remembers. It’s the tears.
Like many houses of worship, Kingsland Baptist Church in Katy, Texas, did not gather in its sanctuary last spring for the holiday. Instead, the congregation held outdoor services in order to protect worshippers from COVID-19.
“We did a drive-in church. We had multiple screens on multiple campuses,” said the Rev. Pendergrass, Kingsland’s executive pastor for administration.
Although Easter is typically a high point in the church year, featuring joyous songs and sermons about Jesus Christ rising from the dead, many Kingsland members seemed depressed rather than uplifted by the service. The Rev. Pendergrass saw people crying as they began their drive home.
“They were weeping,” he said. “They hadn’t realized until they were sitting in a car next to someone they normally shook hands with or hugged that things were much different.”
Twelve months and hundreds of thousands of deaths later, “much different” feels like a major understatement. COVID-19 has shaken the country and the whole world to its core, the Rev. Pendergrass said.
“We’ve been through a lot of pain. We’ve buried some friends,” he said.
The losses and other painful events from the past year bring additional significance to Easter events, according to the Rev. Pendergrass and others. This weekend, Christians will celebrate not just the miracle described in the Bible, but also the miracle of vaccines and other medicines making normal life feel almost possible again.
“We can see a light at the end of the tunnel. You can sense that this nightmare we’ve all experienced is coming to an end,” the Rev. Pendergrass said.
‘A yearlong Lent’
For many Christians, the lead up to Easter Sunday is nearly as meaningful as the holiday itself. They use the season of Lent, or the 40 days preceding Easter, to reflect on the brokenness of the world and their limited ability to heal it, said the Rev. Tommy Hinson, rector of The Church of the Advent in Washington, D.C.
“It’s a time where feelings of frustration and angst and unfulfilled longing are foregrounded as a way of preparing for the celebration of Easter,” he said.
This year, most Christians felt overwhelmed and powerless long before Lent started. The COVID-19 pandemic and other recent crises served as reminders of just how much we need God’s help, the Rev. Hinson said.
“I knew things were broken, but I had no idea how broken. I knew race relations were strained, but I had no idea how strained,” he said. “I knew there was sickness and disease and that people died, but it’s been humbling to see a nation like ours and others around the world brought to their knees.”
“It feels like we’ve been in a yearlong Lent,” the Rev. Hinson added.
For that reason, he, like the Rev. Pendergrass, believes Easter will feel extra special this year. Its message of hope is coming at just the right time.
“Easter reminds us that suffering and injustice have an endpoint,” the Rev. Hinson said.
It offers comfort to those who feel frail and afraid, said President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in a video message released March 28.
“Easter is all about peace and hope,” he said.
However, it’s important to note, especially this year, that the Easter story doesn’t ask Christians to leave anxiety, pain and fear behind, religious leaders said. The Bible makes clear it’s OK to be hopeful and nervous at the same time.
“Easter is an invitation to come from the dark into the light. But you’ll still be squinting,” said the Rev. Juan Pablo Herrera, who works for Urban Village Church in Chicago.
The Bible says even Jesus was forever changed by the trauma he faced, said the Rev. Hannah Kardon, who serves as a teaching pastor at Urban Village.
“What really matters to me is that Jesus had scars from everything he went through. That tells me that resurrection doesn’t come from erasing the past,” she said.
It also doesn’t come from being overly optimistic, the Rev. Hinson said. Christians are called to celebrate the miracle of Easter even as they acknowledge the world’s many imperfections.
“We’re supposed to be hopeful realists,” he said.
That attitude will serve houses of worship well in the months ahead, he added. Although the pandemic seems to be nearing an end, it will still be a while before social distancing policies and mask mandates are a thing of the past.
“The light at the end of the tunnel is probably further away than we think, but we have hope that anchors us,” the Rev. Hinson said.
Christians can also lean on one another during this challenging and exciting time, the Rev. Pendergrass said, noting that he expects to see some faces he hasn’t seen in a while when he looks out into the crowd this Sunday.
“I think people that have been on the fence about returning to in-person worship will take Easter as an opportunity to give it a shot because it’s such an important day,” he said.
Hopefully, if he sees tears again this weekend, they’ll stem from joy instead of pain.
“Because of the way it was a year ago, it makes this Easter much more of a celebration than normal,” the Rev. Pendergrass said.