Holy Days Go Virtual As COVID-19 Response Keeps Pews Empty

As the COVID-19 pandemic has changed life for people around the world, it also dramatically altered the look of recent religious holidays.

This weekend’s Easter holiday, for example, had a decidedly different look.

As one of thebiggest services of the year for all Christian denominations, packed pews and standing-room-only assembly halls gave way to wide open spaces, with priests or pastors talking to their congregations through a phone or computer camera in the midst of empty sanctuaries.

As Round Hill United Methodist Church Pastor Daniel Wray prepared for Good Friday services April 10, and looked ahead to the weekend, he admitted he was in for a much different experience. The church typically draws around 70 to 75 attendees to its 10 a.m. Sunday worship service, but since the pandemic has seen religious institutions curtail in-person services, he’s instead engaging the community via Facebook Live.

“It was strange at first. Sometimes you tell jokes in a sermon and you don’t get any response when you’re by yourself,” he said with a laugh.

Losing out on being together as a church community during the Easter holiday was a big blow when reality sank in, Wray admitted. But the pastor has seen the silver lining of sometimes being able to reach an even larger audience via the internet. He’s witnessed an active comment section during service live-streams, and even family members of congregants, or those who have not attended a church service, participating.

Round Hill United Methodist Church had to hold its Good Friday worship service via Facebook live because of the COVID 19 pandemic. Here Pastor Daniel Wray and Pastor Joshua King extinguish candles during the ceremony. (Photo By Douglas Graham)

“I think however we can get the Good News out there is good. I’m always for physically gathering and being with one another. But if more people are hearing the message and may not have normally come to gather but are hearing what Jesus is doing for them in their life then absolutely it is a good thing. We have seen some of that benefit,” he said.

The benefit has been big enough for the church to even consider extending its livestream service, even when social distancing guidelines are relaxed, and church gatherings resume.

“We’re in discussions [about extending the livestream]. We have seen the benefits of it during this time. If it can help us to share that message and to reach people that may not normally have heard it, we are certainly going to be considering it,” Wray said.

The internet has also been a blessing of sorts for Beth Chaverim Reform Congregation in Ashburn during the Passover holiday, which began April 8 and runs through Thursday. On Saturday evening, the faith community hosted a Seder, with 75 participants joined in from the comfort of their homes.

“For many, the technology of the internet and web platforms like Zoom redeem social media’s vaunted [capabilities] by providing such a vibrant way to connect with one another across distances,” said Rabbi Amy Sapowith. “This has even allowed family members and friends who wouldn’t normally celebrate this holiday together to be together—across oceans, across the country—and this is truly joyous.”

It helps to counter the loneliness many are experiencing during this period of social isolation, she said. The pandemic also draws an ironic comparison to the history of the eight-day Jewish holiday, which commemorates the Israelites’ escape from slavery in ancient Egypt that was preceded by God’s infliction of 10 plagues upon the Egyptians.

“The fear, confinement and prevailing sense of risk that characterize the ancient story is, this year, palpable,” Sapowith said.

Traditionally, the Seder meal ends with a declaration of “Next year, in Jerusalem.” This year, owing to the unusual circumstances, Sapowith said they also added, “Next year, in person.”

The financial toll the pandemic has had on religious institutions, many of whom rely on in-person giving during worship services, also cannot be ignored. Fr. James Gould, pastor of St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church in Purcellville, said he anticipates a “profound” impact on church coffers, with weekend Masses typically bringing in $10,000 to $12,000 weekly in collections. Despite many turning to online giving, or even slipping donation envelopes under church doors—sometimes with encouraging notes inside—Gould doubts the past few weekends have been anywhere near those usual numbers. However, he’s confident the parish will be fine, since it runs a lean operation with a small staff.

Father John Heisler walks into an empty church during Easter Sunday services at Saint Francis De Sales Catholic Church. (Photo By Douglas Graham)

It was a “terrible loss” to not be able to celebrate Easter with the 1,600-family congregation, he said, a holiday that, along with Christmas, typically sees some of the highest attendance of the year.

“People by their nature are communal,” Gould said. “That’s kind of a key element of what this is all about.”

Still, the weekend’s Masses, including services on Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Saturday’s Easter vigil Mass, had healthy livestream viewership, with Gould’s early Sunday morning Mass drawing around 180. Gould points to the Mass’ centerpiece, the church’s ornately decorated and brightly colored altar, a marking of the Renaissance age that followed the Dark Ages. Another centerpiece of the Mass, the chalice used in Communion, has its own interesting history. The chalice used by Gould during his services was once used by his great-great-great uncle, a priest who conducted Mass during the 1918 influenza pandemic. These, he said, can serve as a hopeful reminder for viewers and those who come to the church privately to pray that the future holds promise.

“Easter is all about resurrection. Our experience is like [moving from the Dark Ages into] the Renaissance, coming alive again. It’s a rebirth in the faith,” he said.

Gould followed that thought with what could be an open-ended question for many faiths as the world considers a future post-social isolation, and with warnings of a second outbreak of coronavirus later this year or next.

“The big question people are going to ask is, ‘will anyone ever come back when the pandemic is over?’ On the opposite side, the number of people affected and disenfranchised from any church, will they come back?” he asked. “I’m hoping so.”


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