SALT LAKE CITY — As if the cancellation or postponement of March Madness, baseball’s opening day and the Olympics weren’t enough, the COVID-19 pandemic will soon disrupt some of the world’s most sacred faith-based celebrations.
Passover, Easter and other major religious holidays all take place this month, and faith groups are scrambling to figure out how to move their traditional festivities online.
Jews will conduct seder meals like conference calls, Christians will tone down their typical Easter feasts and many Muslims will be forced to break their daily Ramadan fasts alone.
Everyone will have to be focused on staying positive during a truly challenging time, said Rabbi Leora Kaye, program director for the Union for Reform Judaism, which is based in New York.
“This is not a year to be hard on yourself about what you don’t have. It’s a year to be generous with yourself about what you do have,” she said.
Changes to annual rituals won’t be easy to accept, but religious leaders said there are still things to celebrate amid canceled plans. Here’s an overview of how faith communities plan to bring sacredness to a socially distanced world.
Passover: April 8-16
The Jewish festival of Passover is focused on food, family and a cherished story about being freed from oppression. The coronavirus won’t keep Jews from celebrating, but it will alter menus and travel plans, Rabbi Kaye said.
Rather than gathering around the same table with family and friends, most Jews will connect with their loved ones by video. They’ll still perform the rituals associated with the Passover Seder, a special ceremony and meal, but it’ll feel quite different than in typical years.
“The biggest challenge for everybody is figuring out how to move this in-person experience into virtual space,” Rabbi Kaye said.
Storytelling plays a prominent role in Passover, and it’s harder to do when participants aren’t in the same room. Families and synagogues have to find a way to keep everyone engaged in an online conversation about the Jewish community’s escape from slavery in Egypt and encourage the freewheeling dialogue that makes the holiday so fun.
“I’m trying to figure out how we’ll call on people so that everyone gets a chance to participate. We don’t want to mute everybody, because, especially during the singing, it’s supposed to be joyful and loud,” said Eileen Litchfield, who will lead an online seder for Congregation Anshe Emeth in Piqua, Ohio.
This year, Jews will need to be patient with each other and patient with themselves, Rabbi Kaye said. Many people will be dealing with technical glitches, homesickness and unfamiliar routines.
Litchfield, who usually travels to New York to be with her sister and extended family for Passover, will be spending this year’s festivities at home with her husband. She said she’ll miss her mom’s chicken soup with matzo balls and her sister’s dessert spread, but plans to make the most of this year’s pared down celebrations.
“We’ll miss all the cooking and eating together. But my family is still going to do a family seder (by video) with time to catch up and gab,” she said.
Despite required alterations, Passover will still be a reprieve from the stress of the COVID-19 crisis, Rabbi Kaye said. It’s an opportunity to connect with loved ones and remember the story of others who felt trapped and isolated and how they were miraculously freed.
“Passover offers the Jewish community a chance to come together over something sweet and meaningful and beautiful,” she said. The message is that “we’ll come to the other side of hard times and there will be healing.”
Easter: April 12
Tim Stuckey, like many Christians, typically spends part of Easter at church and part of it with extended family. This year, he and his kids may not make it out of their pajamas.
“It’s definitely going to be weird to not be with a big larger community of believers,” said Stuckey, a science teacher in Lincoln, Illinois.
Traditional Easter services, which generally feature packed pews, special music and families in their finest clothes, will be hard for churches to replicate online. But the day will still be special for the Christian community, despite the small, personal celebrations.
“Our churches may be closed, but Christ is not quarantined and his gospel is not in chains,” wrote Archbishop Jose H. Gomez, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in his Holy Week message.
At this difficult moment, Christians can still rejoice in the Easter story, celebrating Jesus Christ’s resurrection and God’s offer of grace and forgiveness despite our sins, he added.
“Even now, we marvel at ... how precious each one of us is in the eyes of God,” Archbishop Gomez said.
Easter is such a high point for Christians during the year that some churches plan to celebrate it again in person when social distancing guidelines are lifted.
“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,” said the Rev. Vanessa G. Cato, rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Ogden, Utah.
In the meantime, Christian families plan to do what they can to replicate the Easter spirit in their homes. The Stuckeys will cook a big breakfast and then sit together to watch their church’s worship service online.
The day probably won’t feel as special as it usually does, Stuckey said. But spending one Easter at home will make future church events even more memorable.
“Church will be really special when we get to gather again,” he said.
Vaisakhi: April 13
Vaisakhi, an annual Sikh holiday usually marked with parades and religious ceremonies, can’t go on as planned this year. Restrictions on group gatherings stand in the way of even smaller versions of regular events, said Inderpreet Kaur, Southern California community development manager for the Sikh Coalition.
“Parades, prayers and processions are canceled this year due to COVID-19,” she said.
So the Sikh community is getting creative to keep the spirit of the day alive.
“A lot of community members are finding ways to give back to the community,” Kaur said.
Vaisakhi, which is celebrated each April, doesn’t typically focus on acts of service. It commemorates the day that a Sikh guru made it possible for people who want to join the religion to be baptized, so Sikhs usually celebrate it with baptism ceremonies and prayer.
“There are often martial arts performances and hymns being sung. A lot of folks wear either yellow and orange or blue since those are the colors that kind of signify we belong to the Sikh faith,” Kaur said.
By serving others on Vaisakhi this year, whether by handing out free meals or delivering groceries to shut-ins, Sikhs can replicate the joy that comes from group celebrations, she added. In that way, charitable acts are a good replacement for Vaisakhi routines.
Kaur doesn’t anticipate parades or other festivities being rescheduled for later this year. However, people who were planning to get baptized will likely do so before Vaisakhi in 2021.
“There are other dates when Sikhs are able to take part in the initiation ceremony,” she said.
Ramadan: April 25-May 25
The holy month of Ramadan has always involved sacrifices. This year, the Muslim community will have to make a few more, Islamic leaders said.
The holiday, which is observed by healthy, adult Muslims, involves fasting from sunrise to sunset each day for 30 days. Participants abstain from food and water during daylight hours so they can better serve people in need and draw closer to God, said Imam Mahmood Kauser, who oversees four different mosques in New York City affiliated with the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community.
“When you are hungry, you understand how hunger feels to somebody who is less fortunate than you,” he said.
During Ramadan, Muslims typically wake up before sunrise to eat and prepare for another day of fasting. Some go to the mosque for prayer services throughout the day and many take part in communal meals after sunset with extended family, friends or even their whole congregation.
“You’re encouraged to serve others, so families with host other families or friends. It’s a very community-based holiday,” Imam Kauser said.
If bans on group gatherings remain in place, many Muslims will have to adopt a very different Ramadan routine.
“I’ve never in my life had Ramadan by myself,” said Imam Ossama Bahloul, the resident scholar at the Islamic Center of Nashville, to The Tennessean.
Without access to mosques or neighbor’s homes, Muslims will have to seek out connection in different ways, Imam Kauser said.
“I’m sure many family members will FaceTime each other. I intend to do that as well,” he said.
Most mosques will also stream daily prayers and lectures online and reach out regularly to members who don’t have family nearby. Many have already been practicing these skills over the past few weeks.
“Our mosque is currently closed to the public, but I come to the mosque regularly to do presentations and programs online,” Imam Kauser said.
Although it will be difficult to adjust to a socially distanced Ramadan, Imam Kauser takes comfort from knowing that this year’s challenges will bring Muslims closer to understanding the experiences of people in need.
“There are a lot of people right now who are alone. While we’re sitting in our homes feeling isolated, we’ll feel even more connected with those who are less fortunate,” he said.
Contributing: Trent Toone