As Easter, Passover and Ramadan near, religious leaders adapt holiday observances during the coronavirus pandemic

As the coronavirus pandemic spreads, religious institutions — and how we celebrate holidays — are changing. (Photo: Getty Images)
As the coronavirus pandemic spreads, religious institutions — and how we celebrate holidays — are changing. (Photo: Getty Images)

Churches, synagogues and mosques are closing to contain the coronavirus global pandemic, and religion is traversing a new virtual world without roadmaps for prayer and celebration. As such, religious leaders are employing artistic license and bending holy rules while families create new rituals that respect social distancing.

Last week, Pope Francis was depicted praying alone in a haunting photograph captured in Rome’s St. Peter's Square while public celebrations for Holy Week festivities (Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday and Good Friday) will pivot to livestream, per the Vatican website. And “considering the rapidly evolving situation” of the pandemic, a decree called “In time of COVID-19” outlines resources to amend April holidays, including Easter.

Churches are holding “drive-thru” services, and a New Jersey bishop has eased rules for the remainder of Lent (until April 9), permitting the consumption of meat on Fridays, except on Good Friday, “given the difficulties of obtaining some types of food and the many other sacrifices which we are suddenly experiencing given the coronavirus,” according to a tweet from the Diocese of Metuchen.

Meanwhile, bar and bat mitzvahs, large Jewish coming-of-age ceremonies which demand years of vigorous studying and preparation, have been moved online or postponed. And Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has encouraged Jewish, Christian and Muslim citizens to “avoid family visits” during respective April holidays.

In Georgia, St. Anne Catholic Church in Columbus provides virtual-only services on social media (an option since January 2019 to include elderly, homebound or military members), but speaking to empty naves, not friendly faces, got lonely. So last week, leaders taped photographs of congregant faces onto their pews.

“From the altar, there’s now a sea of photos,” Rev. Emanuel Vasconcelos tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “It’s a way to stay united in prayer, not look out into an empty space.”

Designing a fair seating chart for 650 photos was hard, as regulars have their preferred places, but the church did its best. “This has been a challenge for everyone — we’ve never faced anything like this in our lifetime,” he says. When pandemic restrictions are eventually lifted, there may be a ceremonial photo removal.

On March 15, the Clackamas United Church of Christ (UCC) in Milwaukie, Ore. closed for the first time since its inception in 1895. “This is a political, economical and spiritual crises and everyone is anxious,” Pastor Adam Ericksen tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “It brings up a lot of questions about where God is in all this.”

Bible study and prayer meetings via Zoom haven’t been easy for everyone, so Ericksen has personally counseled his 70 communicants over the phone and created a phone tree pairing “buddies” together for spiritual support. There are plans to organize a multi-church online Easter service and possibly a 72-hour “Easter Triduum” from the evening of Holy Thursday to Easter morning with pastors taking shifts to lead continuous prayers.

And the church posted an outdoor sign displaying the phone number for a “senior loneliness line” during isolation. “Nothing will go smoothly but we have to embrace the mess and go with the flow,” says Ericksen, who is planning an at-home Easter egg hunt for his three children.

Rabbi Josh Stanton of the East End Temple in Manhattan has brought his entire synagogue online, including bat-and-bar mitzvah tutoring and Shabbat services. “Judaism is 4,000 years old and records that date back to plagues and quarantines have guided us,” he tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “We’ve had this in our religious discourse for generations.”

Ahead of Passover, which falls between April 8 and 16 and observes the freeing of Israelites from slavery in Egypt, Stanton says “we’re trying to host the world’s largest virtual seder that’s open to the world — singing, eating and reflecting together, even if it’s not at the same table. This Passover could be holier than any other time in our lives.”

Families traditionally abstain from or donate leavened bread (which contains yeast) and avoid technology, but Stanton dismisses perfectionism. “What matters is intention and in circumstances like this, creativity.” When food is scarce, he says, there’s little reason to discard bread, and technology is permissible for online seders provided cameras are activated one hour before sundown.

“Why not have a virtual seder with someone in Israel or South America?” says Stanton. “This might forever change Passover.”

For the holy month of Ramadan, this year from April 23 to May 23, Muslims self-reflect and perform good deeds, and pray and fast from dawn to sunset. “This is done in groups, however while living in our comfort zones, we can rely on online services,” Imam Tahir Kukaj, vice president of the Albanian Islamic Cultural Center in Long Island, N.Y. and chaplain of the New York Police Department, tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

At the end of the month, a celebration called Eid al-Fitr breaks the month-long fast. Typically held in mosques or outdoor areas, it’s marked by a feast with lamb, desserts and other dishes. “We have to play by the rules in isolation,” says Kukaj. “This year, how about we celebrate modestly and donate any money toward finding a cure for this virus? Why not invest in science?” says Kukaj, adding that celebrators can “eat whatever is available to you.”

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