One venue made tickets available online starting at 12:01 a.m. Another kept adding additional time slots as the others filled up.
Neither sign-up involved a rock concert or appointments to get a COVID vaccine — just reservations to attend Easter services in person this weekend.
Easter arrives in Maryland as some restrictions on gatherings have lifted and more people have been vaccinated, making what is traditionally Christianity’s most joyful holiday even more celebratory this year.
“People are just so hungry to gather,” said the Rev. David J. Ware, rector of the Church of the Redeemer in North Baltimore.
Like other congregations, the Episcopal parish was deluged with parishioners eager to celebrate in the company of their fellow faithful. The 75 seats available for an outdoor service on the courtyard were quickly snapped up, Ware said, so the church added another and another until finally stopping at five.
Similarly, Sacred Heart of Jesus in Baltimore’s Highlandtown neighborhood scheduled seven Masses on Easter Sunday to accommodate the overwhelming desire to gather for the holiday.
“It’s part of being culturally Catholic: Inside you, there’s this clock that goes off on Easter that says, ‘I have to be in church,’ ” said Bishop Bruce Lewandowski, the pastor of the largely Latino congregation.
His parishioners were particularly devastated by COVID, which has disproportionately hit minority populations. But as vaccines become more accessible, Lewandowski said, he’s seen some of the pain and anxiety of the past year shift toward hopefulness for the future.
“This is right in tune with the Easter season,” he said. “They’ve gotten to the point where they’ve gotten vaccinated. They feel, ‘I’m on the other side of it. I survived, and I’ve helped others survive.’ ”
Somechurches have turned to online ticketing services like Eventbrite to handle registration for services, egg hunts, pancake breakfasts and other Easter events, even as they continue the livestreams and online offerings that have kept them in virtual touch with their congregations over the past year.
That is the current reality: With the number of COVID cases down from the winter peak, and the pace of vaccinations quickening, many are ready to mingle more freely, at church and elsewhere. And yet, a recent uptick in cases in Maryland and nationwide has prompted health officials to warn that the pandemic is far from over.
And indeed, some churches are facing their second Easter of virtual-only services. Others, though, feel it’s time to return, at least to outdoor spaces that are generally considered the safer option.
“Hallelujah! We are meeting in person outside for worship on Easter Sunday,” one church in Calvert County announced on its website. Others are planning drive-up events or services in gardens,at various waterfronts or, in Ocean City, on the boardwalk.
Damascus Road Community Church in Mount Airy scheduled services both indoors and out. Reservations for the former hit their maximum quickly after they were offered online at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday.
But space remained available outside, where the nondenominational church set up a new 16-foot LED screen and sound system for weekend services. Worshipers are invited to bring lawn chairs and blankets and make themselves comfortable on the lawn, where squares that can accommodate up to six members of a family have been spray-painted, six feet apart from one another.
Damascus Road’s senior pastor, Rajendra Pillai, said a recent survey of members found them split almost evenly in three camps: “can’t wait” to return, not ready yet and waiting to be fully vaccinated. The church has had limited indoor services over the year, following the restrictions that have tightened and loosened as case numbers have risen and fallen.
It’s been a “dispiriting and disappointing year,” said Pillai, who contracted COVID at the end of last summer and has since recovered. It’s been hard for his members who went through “pivotal moments” in their lives, from weddings to funerals, and yet could celebrate or mourn only remotely or with a handful of loved ones.
Now he is looking forward to preaching this weekend on the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 24, the story of Jesus rising from the dead.
“This year, the whole idea of resurrection takes on a new meaning,” Pillai said.
For many, the memories of last Easter make this one particularly sweet. Then, COVID had just begun its spread in the U.S. and restrictions were so tight that most houses of worship went fully virtual.
Still, President Donald Trump said on March 24, 2020, that he wanted the economy to reopen by Easter, April 12, and for people to pack their churches for the holiday. Instead, the number of COVID cases and deaths rose in what would be the first of three peaks in the pandemic, and Trump ultimately conceded that people should spend the holiday at home.
One year later, some still remember that as a lost Easter.
“It was the worst. We missed being able to celebrate the most important time of the year,” said Herminia Balbuena, 37, a member of St. John’s Roman Catholic Church in Westminster.
Balbuena, who with her husband, Manuel, has four children, is so grateful that restrictions have loosened that she likely will go to two Easter services Sunday: a morning Mass at which her 12-year-old daughter Kristy will be an altar server, and one in the afternoon that is conducted in her native Spanish.
Kristy said she at first worried she would forget how to serve at Mass, but it all came back to her once she was back in church. Even with fewer people in the church given current restrictions, and fewer altar servers as well, Mass is so much better in person than on a screen, she said.
“I really missed it,” she said.
Kristy, who attends the parish’s school, helped assemble the hundreds of kits the church distributed to congregants who will continue to attend services from home. Dubbed “Triduum in a Bag,” referring to the liturgy of the three holy days before Easter, the kits include holy water, crosses, candles and other items to use to follow along with services starting on Holy or Maundy Thursday, which commemorates the Last Supper.
The kit is yet another improvisation during a year full of them, said St. John’s pastor, the Rev. Mark S. Bialek.
“They didn’t teach any of this in seminary,” he said with a laugh.
Like other churches, St. John’s will have a mix of indoor, outdoor and livestreamed services this weekend. Located in Carroll County, which follows Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s orders, unlike other jurisdictions that have imposed stricter limits, the church has been having socially distanced indoor Masses with overflow space available in a parish hall.
“It can be done safely, it can done well,” Bialek said. “You can follow safety protocols and still keep things sacred.”
But some rituals simply can’t be done via Zoom, Bialek said, such as sacraments like Communion and the anointing of the sick.
“For Catholics in particular, we need to be able to gather in person,” he said.
“There’s an immense sense of gratitude that we can gather in person this year,” Bialek said. “We haven’t seen some people in a whole year.”
Not all churches are ready to throw open their doors for Easter. Two traditionally African American churches in Baltimore, where as elsewhere in the country Blacks have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic and have lower vaccination rates, are continuing with virtual-only services for now.
New Shiloh Baptist Church in Baltimore gave serious consideration to reopening for Easter, said its senior pastor, the Rev. Harold A. Carter Jr.
But with the future so uncertain, he said, would that raise the congregation’s hopes that they could return every Sunday to their church in the Mondawmin neighborhood, only to close again should another surge appear on the horizon?
“Let’s pump the brakes,” he decided. “We’re not ready yet.”
Having to celebrate a second Easter remotely is “a psychological letdown,” Carter said, but he finds comfort in the essence of the holiday.
“If Resurrection Sunday is about anything,” he said, “it’s about hope and renewal.”
The Rev. Alvin C. Hathaway Sr. will be at the pulpit of Union Baptist Church in Upton for Easter services, but the senior pastor’s flock will join him remotely via Zoom as they have for the past year.
“We’re not fully prepared for people,” Hathaway said.
He said the church would need to establish a system of taking temperatures at the door, contact tracing and other safety measures before welcoming worshipers back. Hathaway has been a vocal proponent of increasing African Americans’ access to vaccines and hosted a clinic March 13 at Union Baptist where more than 250 people, including some church members, received their first doses. On April 10, they’re scheduled for their second doses.
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That, with the coming warmer weather, has Hathaway hopeful for a return to in-person gatherings, and he plans to clear an area on the church’s property to allow outdoorservices there.
“This has had us thinking how to use our space,” Hathaway said.
For Ware, the Church of the Redeemer’s rector, the holiday has him looking both backward and forward. He remembers the earliest days of the pandemic, when “we were all completely making it up day by day.” On Easter, with his church closed, he set up a small table in front of his Butchers Hill home and offered “some words of hope” on Facebook Live.
While he’ll be back at Redeemer this Easter, Ware said, he remains mindful that the pandemic and its devastating toll continues — which makes the meaning of the holiday more relevant this year than ever.
“I’m very aware of our losses, the people who are not going to gather this year or ever again, the people who are stretched thin financially, the people who continue to be sick,” Ware said.