The Rev. Mark Bialek normally celebrates Easter Mass for thousands of people at St. John Roman Catholic Church in Westminster, and the 4,300-family parish marks the day with what Bialek calls “breathtakingly beautiful” flowers and music.
This year, the 41-year-old priest will conduct the year’s most important service from a nearly empty sanctuary, streaming the proceedings online. The parish will skip the flowers to save money for ministering to the poor.
With the novel coronavirus spreading and lockdowns expanding, and two of the Judeo-Christian world’s major holidays coming up, faith leaders are hoping to preserve a sense of community.
Many churches and synagogues will stream Easter and Passover services live. Family gatherings will be held by video conference using FaceTime, StreamSpot and Zoom.
Clergy will reach out to their most isolated congregants by text, email and phone throughout Christianity’s Holy Week, which begins with Palm Sunday on April 5 for most U.S. denominations, and the eight days of Passover, set to start April 8 at sunset.
“We’re just beginning to get our arms around what this all means, but we’re working hard, and in solidarity, to practice safe social distancing,” Bialek said. “At the same time, we’re doing what we can to continue to build bridges, to be in communion with one another."
The senior rabbi at Maryland’s oldest synagogue agrees.
“As one of my teachers observed, we can’t meet physically, but we will gather," said Rabbi Andrew Busch of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.
“We’ll be with each other digitally, not physically. But we will very much be with each other.”
Passover is the holiday during which Jews commemorate their forebears’ deliverance from slavery in Egypt more than 3,300 years ago. The name invokes a night described in the book of Exodus when God passed over the homes of the Israelites while inflicting a deadly plague on their tormentors.
On the Christian calendar, about 13 centuries later, a Jewish carpenter rode a donkey into Jerusalem to start preparing for the Passover holiday. That week, Jesus shared a final meal with his disciples (Holy Thursday), was killed on a wooden cross (Good Friday) and is said to have risen to heaven (Easter Sunday), overcoming his death and creating a path to eternal life for believers.
This spring, rectors, pastors, rabbis, priests and preachers will celebrate the blessings of freedom at a time of extraordinary constraint.
Fortunately, they’ve had a few Sabbaths to prepare.
The state’s first coronavirus case had yet to be reported when the Right Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, mandated changes to limit contagion. It was Feb. 28 when he asked his more than 44,000 members to wish one another “Peace” without shaking hands and to refrain from dipping bread into wine during Holy Communion, as some Anglicans do.
A week later, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan issued an emergency ban on gatherings of more than 250 people, a limit he later shrank to 50, then 10. Combined with officials’ urgent guidelines on social distancing, it marked the end of communal worship.
Leaders across faiths and denominations took services and other events online, some for the first time.
On March 15, the Archdiocese of Baltimore, already in the practice of livestreaming and broadcasting a Sunday Mass on WCBM-AM, began sharing an 11 a.m. service live on its website from the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, with Archbishop William E. Lori celebrating.
Shot against a sparse backdrop, the webcast drew about 2,000 viewers. The following week, it attracted 12,000.
The Mass also airs live on WBAL-TV’s secondary digital channel, MeTV, reairs on WCBM at 7 p.m. Sundays and can be replayed from the diocesan website.
“We expect the numbers to increase exponentially, even as more and more of our parishes add livestreaming” and the word spreads, Sean Caine, a spokesman for the diocese, said.
Synagogues and churches large and small did likewise, from a March 15 sermon by the Rev. Terrence Alspaugh of Granite Presbyterian Church (membership: 80) that scored 100 YouTube views, to the Shabbat services streamed from Baltimore Hebrew and Chizuk Amuno congregations, to the sermons Bishop Walter S. Thomas, senior pastor of New Psalmist Baptist Church, has been sending out via multiple internet platforms.
As of early March, Thomas was streaming his messages from his church’s empty 4,000-seat auditorium. Now that the building is closed, he does so from his living room. Thomas says he can sense his viewers’ presence. A recent Sunday drew more than 10,000 viewers on YouTube.
“Just when you think things are over and can’t get worse, God may yet have something else he’s going to do,” he says. "Don’t ever count God out.”
So, with Passover and Easter approaching, faith leaders started tailoring their ingenuity to the holidays.
A few Catholic priests began offering “drive-through confessions,” with penitents driving to a church, stopping 6 feet from a priest seated in a parking lot, rolling down their windows and taking part in the sacrament of reconciliation. The rite is especially important in the six weeks of Lent leading up to Easter, a season in which many Catholics fulfill a requirement of confessing at least once a year.
“It’s a sign of hope that even though we can’t be with each other, the church goes on,” said the Rev. Tyler Kline, 30, who has been conducting the sacrament at the Ellicott City parishes of the Church of the Resurrection and St. Paul Catholic Church.
Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg of Beth Tfiloh Congregation, a Modern Orthodox synagogue, kiddingly complains he hasn’t been out of his house in weeks.
Unlike other branches of the faith, Orthodox Judaism prohibits the use of modern technology, including electronics, on the Sabbath or during high holidays. That means his faithful will miss out on formal services.
Still, the energetic 75-year-old has been emailing words of encouragement, “Touchpoints Without Touching,” checking on members by phone, and disseminating video messages from his book-lined study.
In the last full week of March, he conducted a “lunch and learn” session via Zoom on how Passover will be different this year.
Among other things, he said, the city of Baltimore canceled the chametz burning event it normally supports at Pimlico Race Course. Thousands usually gather to incinerate the unleavened food observant Jews are barred from eating during the holiday.
More important, Wohlberg said, the core events of Passover — family seders — will be radically constrained.
Extended families have long gathered in numbers for the ritual dinners, evenings that feature prayer, the sharing of symbolic foods, readings from a Haggadah text, and generally handing down the story of Passover from one generation to the next.
But limits on travel, particularly between the coronavirus-ravaged New York-New Jersey area and Baltimore, along with social distancing recommendations, will curtail attendance.
Wohlberg and his wife, Sherry, usually host 22 people; this year it will be just them. “The social element will be sorely missed," he said.
Officials at Baltimore Hebrew, a Reform temple, will stream a community seder April 9, as well as webcast elements of services.
Busch said he planned to lead a seder by conference call, connecting loved ones across state lines via Zoom and calling on individual participants to take turns leading the proceedings.
As for the services, he said everyone would miss the communal Torah reading and singing that normally fills the synagogue, which he said will be shuttered through Passover for the first time. It was founded in 1830.
Instead, temple rabbis and cantors will take turns streaming segments from their homes, encouraging the faithful to sing and pray along.
“We will not be perfect, but I’ve never led a perfect service, even in person," he said. “And it’s part of religious life to forgive where errors may happen."
A few blocks from the Cathedral of Mary of Our Queen, a Catholic family that has served the parish for years has embraced that attitude.
Christina Gaarder said her husband, Jason, misses his duties as an usher; her 18-year-old daughter, Annemarie, her work helping organize the liturgy; and her sons Michael, 16, and J.P., 12, their roles as altar servers.
But they’ve watched every streamed 11 a.m. Mass since the ban on large gatherings. The archdiocese has “done a great job” of keeping church life going, she said, amid a difficult time she prays will soon pass.
Their plan is to enjoy as normal an Easter as possible.
“We’ll all get dressed up," she said. "I’ll make a nice breakfast. We’ve already bought our leg of lamb to cook for dinner. We’ll carry on as many traditions as we can.”