President Trump has announced that he would like the country to be “opened up” by Easter, saying, “Easter’s a very special day for me…. Wouldn’t it be great to have all of the churches full?” Health officials warn against this short timeline. Still, to many Christians, the thought of being able to gather for this sacred day is appealing.
Health officials’ recommendations for preventing the spread of COVID-19 have been met by churches worldwide with indifference or defiance. The massive outbreak in South Korea in February has been traced back to irresponsible gathering practices of the megachurch Shincheonji Church of Jesus. Despite prohibitions in several African countries, pastors have continued to hold worship services in countries including Nigeria, Ghana, and Uganda. Conflict erupted outside a megachurch in Lagos, Nigeria as 10,000 worshipers yelled at the police barring the entrance. Likewise, in Greece priests continue to hold services despite government bans. Pope Francis’ cancellation of Easter papal Mass has come as a shock and disappointment to many.
I understand the desire to gather with our siblings in Christ. I love going to church. But celebrating Easter in our homes does not mean we have to miss out on worship. In fact, this is an opportunity to draw nearer to Easter’s historical roots and to focus on Jesus rather than on church planning and spectacle.
Jesus Can Appear There
After Jesus’ resurrection, “the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the [authorities].” The disciples remained inside with the doors locked against the dangers lurking beyond. And, in this isolated context, “Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you’” (John 20:19, NRSV). Jesus cannot be stopped by walls or locked doors. Jesus cannot be stopped by political upheaval, threats of violence, or a global pandemic. We can remain inside, doors locked against COVID-19, and Jesus can appear to us there, speaking into our fear and loneliness.
Easter did not become an annual event for over a century after Jesus’ resurrection, but it seems that “the early Apostles shifted their Sabbath from the seventh day to the first day of the week to commemorate the Resurrection on a weekly basis.” That is, the Jewish Shabbat shifted in significance for early Jewish Christ-followers. Rather than being primarily a celebration of God’s creation of the universe and remembrance of Israel’s escape from Egypt, this weekly celebration was a way to remember Christ’s resurrection. This shift in significance did not signal a shift in custom for quite some time, however, and Christ followers continued to observe Shabbat customs, which center around the home. Families partake in a candle-lighting ceremony, eat special meals, sing, and study together.
A Time for Reflection
Much later in history, after Easter had become a well-established part of the Christian liturgical calendar, it was “elevated… among American Protestants because it became customary to remember the casualties on this day.” Remembrance of Jesus’ sacrifice and hope in his resurrection led Christians to remember and grieve those who had been lost to violence. Today, the commemoration of Jesus’ death and resurrection provides us an opportunity to reflect on the ravages of disease, to remember the thousands worldwide who have been killed by the virus, and to hope for global restoration. In light of these deaths, “it would be blasphemous to use a day dedicated to the renewal of life in a manner that leads further to death,” and we should rather respect the victims of COVID-19 by doing our part in bringing an end to this violent virus.
Staying home during this holiday central to the Christian faith is not passive or weak. It is brave to stay put, remember, celebrate, and hope within the quiet walls of our own homes. It is an act of worship to do our part in preventing further spread of the disease and to trust that, even in isolation, the resurrected Jesus is present with us.
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