THE SEARCH FOR JOY
Father Nick Meisl hears confession in the parking lot at St. Patrick’s church, where Easter mass will be delivered from an empty sanctuary. In a time of crisis, faith leaders are hoping to help Christians, Jews and Muslims alike find reason to celebrate.
There is sorrow across the land.
People everywhere face degrees of lockdown. Worry pervades humans in their isolation. Tens of millions have been laid off from their jobs. Hundreds of thousands are sick, many relying on ventilators. Some are dying.
How can Christians, Jews and Muslims mark their most important festivals this month in a time of COVID-19? Where is the joy in all this? Is it all right to talk about “celebrating” Easter, Passover or Ramadan when so many are suffering?
In any time it would have been remarkable for the Christian festival of Easter, the Jewish week of Passover and the Muslim period of Ramadan to occur in the same month. But that is what is happening this mid-april, since the lunar calendar guides these sacred Abrahamic events.
What makes the next weeks even more astonishing is that very few of the almost four billion people around the world who would have shown up at their churches, synagogues or mosques will get the chance to attend their places of worship, where they would experience solidarity and share how to keep up spirits in a difficult time.
Even during the Second World War, fighting a human enemy, the faithful were almost always able to gather. Now, against a viral enemy, they are abnormally separated — resorting to phone trees, group email notices, Zoom gatherings, and sermons and hymns experienced via livestreaming.
Almost all are being asked to stay at home to avoid spreading the virus that in December took root in China and by February began wending its way across the planet. In Italy alone, more than 85 Catholic priests have been killed by COVID-19. One of them, Father Giuseppe Berardelli, 72, died after giving up his ventilator for a young patient.
“It feels to some like society is crumbling,” says Father James Hughes, of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church at East 12th and Main in Vancouver, a parish of more than 1,600 predominantly Filipino families, many of whom are anxious about their health and worried about their jobs.
In lockdown, Hughes and fellow priests have been shifting to their church’s outdoor parking lot to offer “drive-thru” confessions for adherents, some of whom remain in their vehicles while others stand behind a screen on the pavement.
Instead of holding five well-attended masses this long weekend, Hughes will stand alone in an empty sanctuary and appear on camera, leading video services for Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
Almost none of Canada’s roughly 22 million self-defined Catholics and Protestants will be in church to physically ingest the eucharistic bread and wine, the body and blood of Jesus Christ.
Most religious leaders around the planet are telling their flocks to obey the social-distancing dictates of secular health authorities. The seat of Pope Francis, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, is behind barriers. Police are keeping Jews away from the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City. Mecca and Medina, Islam’s illustrious pilgrimage destinations, have banned travellers.
A few religious sects have been ignoring health officials’ warnings, thinking God will protect them. But governments are pressing extreme evangelical churches in the U.S., ultraorthodox Hasidic sects in Israel, and Muslim missionary groups such as Tablighi Jamaat in South Asia to stop meeting.
Scores of faith leaders across B.C. took part in a video conference this week with Premier
John Horgan, hearing his distancing instructions. Downtown Vancouver’s historic Holy Rosary Cathedral, for instance, is closed for the first time in 120 years.
Hughes says the virus has jolted Christians, as well as everyone else, out of their routines, including sacred ones such as mass. “It’s a great theological conundrum. Members will be in a stance of longing.”
His hope for the faithful is that they will yearn more than ever for physical communion with the holy through the wine and wafer. “Absence may make the heart grow fonder.”
An Angus Reid Institute poll released Friday suggests one in five Canadians are being supported in this crisis by their faith institution. Of the three of five Canadians who normally pray, a portion, mostly women, are doing so more often. Those who pray say it is easing their anxiety, grief and sense of isolation.
VIRUS NOT AN ACT OF GOD
Rabbi Dan Moskovitz does not see this crisis as an act of God.
“This is just the world we live in. Sometimes life is dangerous,” says the senior rabbi at Temple Sholom, a 900-family congregation in Vancouver.
With many of the temple’s families anxious about their health and finances and worried about seniors near and far, they were improvising this Wednesday to connect online for the traditional Seder meal, which is at the heart of Passover.
Even though the eight days of Passover that end Thursday, April 16, are meant to be a joyous event marking the liberation of ancient Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, the rabbi has been reflecting on how the Book of Exodus says God took advantage of a plague to weaken the Jewish enemy.
“It’s interesting,” he said, “to be acknowledging plague at a time of plague.”
One of the texts recited during Passover reminds Jews that “in every generation ‘they’ rise up against us to destroy us.” But this Passover, the rabbi is aware that “they” is a non-human enemy, a virus, that health authorities are combating with science and medicine.
It is not insignificant, Moskovitz said, that throughout Passover an emphasis is placed on both spiritual and physical cleanliness, including heightened washing of hands.
The ancient purity guidelines of Judaism, Islam and to some extent Christianity are relevant to the coronavirus. Mohammed, the seventh-century prophet, told his people how to avoid spreading plagues, and added “Cleanliness is part of faith. The blessings of food lie in washing hands before and after eating.”
Raza Mirani, a vice-president with the B.C. Muslim Association, believes most of Canada’s more than 1.1 million Muslims are following hygienic protocol by not gathering at their mosques. In B.C., Sunni Muslims are instead watching imams’ daily sermons via livestreaming, often from Surrey Jamea mosque.
Haroon Khan, a trustee at Vancouver’s Jamia mosque, said Muslim males normally follow a tradition of standing tightly “shoulder to shoulder” in mosques. Formally, mosques must remain open and “enlivened” at all times, Mirani said. But during this outbreak only a handful of elders are allowed into each B.C. Sunni mosque to perform the five daily prayers.
Mirani’s hope is the restrictions caused by the pandemic will encourage many Muslims to take Ramadan, a time for inner reflection that begins April 26, “a little more seriously.”
FINDING THE JOY
How are people meant to find meaning and gratification in Easter, Passover and Ramadan during COVID-19?
The answer seems to lie in combining a sense of sorrow with celebration.
Pope Francis, while encouraging people to acknowledge they may be fearful that the Earth is floundering, called on Christians to trust that “God will not leave us at the mercy of the storm.”
Similarly, Queen Elizabeth, a devout Anglican, said the pandemic “presents an opportunity to slow down, pause and reflect, in prayer or meditation.” Better times will come, said the 93-year-old monarch. “We will meet again.”
Hughes, of St. Patrick’s parish, said Jesus Christ, whose crucifixion was marked on Friday and resurrection will be celebrated Sunday, said, “The profound meaning for Christians of this weekend has not changed.”
Adherents will be “called to a spiritual communion” with Christ through the televised eucharists presided over by priests.
Christ didn’t abolish the presence of evil in the world, but suffered with humanity, Hughes said. Even when humans face death, the priest said, Jesus brings strength. “We can’t be drawn into hopelessness. We’re called to be sorrowful because of the current situation, but not sad.”
The priest said it was “heroic” of Italian priest Berardelli to give up his ventilator for another, similar to how Jesus sacrificed his life on the cross. Hughes compared the priest to Maximilian Kolbe, a priest at Auschwitz concentration camp who offered to die in the place a stranger.
Rev. Brian Fraser, of Brentwood Presbyterian Church in Burnaby, which has suspended its regular jazz services, said Easter is about overcoming the “confused disappointment” surrounding the crucifixion.
The foundational event of Easter resurrection is ultimately about healing the many literal and figurative “infections” from which humans suffer, Fraser said. “It is that vision of healing that is being highlighted so powerfully in this pandemic.”
During Passover, Moskovitz will be tempering the joy linked with the liberation of the ancient Hebrews from oppression with mourning the Egyptian soldiers who died in the Exodus story. Similarly, he will stress compassion for the many struggling today because of COVID-19.
Moskovitz also believes this is a time for the country’s 330,000 Jews to be thankful for the “God-given talents” of the health-care workers who are striving to “redeem us out of our slavery to isolation in our homes.” He compared physicians and nurses to the leader Moses, who embodied the power of miracles.
The rabbi also sees this Passover as a moment “to celebrate the virtual technology that still allows us to be together.”
Khan, who is in the pharmacy business when not overseeing the Jamia mosque, believes there is “no such thing as coincidence” and the pandemic might be bringing the world a “global spiritual awakening.”
Khan goes even further in his Islamic theology, saying, “There is predestination in life, and what matters is how you deal with it. Hopefully, we come out alive, but I think we’re learning we’re all in this together, all of us.”
His friend Mirani, who is also a high school principal, says the COVID-19 lockdown may help Muslims go deeper into Ramadan, which is always a time for reflection and purification.
“This pandemic is simplifying things. It’s got many people, including my family, looking more at what’s important. It might help all of us to slow down and get our act together.”
Easter, Passover, Ramadan. They have never been unidimensional festivals, in the best and worst of times. They have always been seasons in which to contemplate life’s sweetness and bitterness.
During this pandemic, people are again learning lamentation and celebration often go hand in hand.