When Reverend Timothy Cole learned he had Covid-19 in early March, it was the first known case of the virus in Washington. Mr. Cole, the rector of Christ Church Georgetown, was hospitalized for three weeks.
Now fully recovered, the Episcopal Priest leads his church through what is typically one of the busiest and most festive seasons on the Christian calendar. In a typical year, up to 800 people could attend just one of the church’s Christmas Eve services. There would be a children’s show and Christmas carols and benches full of worshipers.
This year, pandemic restrictions cap attendance at the sanctuary at 100. Singing is now known to be one of the most dangerous activities for virus transmission, so the annual Christmas carol service has been put into effect. line. The children took photos in their pageant costumes at home.
“The darkness looks pretty dark right now,” Cole said a few days before Christmas. But he finds hope in the spiritual significance of the Christmas story: a small event, the birth of a child, which turned out to be a turning point in human history.
On Christmas Eve he will preach hope in the face of fear and sadness, drawing on his experience as a chaplain in the British Army. “Just as wars end, so do pandemics,” reads his sermon. “Until then, we are supported and made strong by what we celebrate on this day.”
When Easter arrived in April, the United States was about a month away from widespread shutdowns. Then, many pastors were still adapting to the restrictions of the pandemic and working on the technological problems of the services broadcast on Zoom or Facebook. But relatively few had been personally affected by the virus.
Eight months later, the virus is more than just a symbol of fear. At least 18 million Americans have been infected, and more than 325,000 have died, or nearly one in 1,000 people nationwide. Almost everyone knows someone who has had the virus.
“What was once an abstraction is now very real,” said Reverend George Williams, who will preside over Christmas Eve Mass at St. Agnes Catholic Church in San Francisco.
The priest contracted the virus in June while serving as chaplain at San Quentin State Prison, where more than 25 inmates died from the virus. Watching him spread around the prison was an experience of “real terror,” he said.
And now comes Christmas. Culturally, this is the time for family reunions, cross-country trips, intergenerational gift exchanges, and sprawling group meals – rituals made difficult or impossible by the pandemic. Spiritually, it is a time to celebrate the arrival of God in human form on earth.
“How do we reconcile the hopeful theme of Christmas with the desolate year we have just experienced?” Father Williams wondered. His homily at his new ward on Thursday evening will focus on “the heart of the Christmas message: the Incarnation,” where God enters the mortal experience of pain, sorrow and death.
Across the country, other Christian leaders were making similar attempts to reconcile spiritual hope and situational despair. “In my heart, I really don’t feel like Christmas because it didn’t look like Thanksgiving, and it didn’t look like Labor Day, or July 4th,” said Reverend James Riley, senior pastor of the House of Baptist Prayer Church in Baton Rouge, La. “It’s hard to bring this joy together.”
Still, he plans to preach on God’s faithfulness, even in dark times, during a brief Christmas service on Friday.
Participants will wear masks and will be spaced around the small shrine singing “Joy to the World”. Large white cardboard letters on the front of the pulpit, visible to those looking from home on Facebook, read “HOPE”.
In Dallas, the Abundant Life African Methodist Episcopal Church has been worshiping online since March. The church held its main Christmas service last Sunday, along with a virtual children’s program with song, dance, poetry and a play, all digitally stitched from children in their homes.
Reverend Michael Waters, the founding pastor of the church, preached a sermon inspired by the Biblical account of Mary and Joseph’s arduous journey to Bethlehem, where they were told there was “no room for them to the hostel ”. Mr Waters compared the perilous situation of Mary and Joseph to the recent announcement of low intensive care capacity in Southern California and a potential wave of evictions if a national moratorium is not extended.
‘No room’ are scary words and scary experiences’ that have a deeper resonance at the end of this grueling year, he said in an interview. The sermon was titled “Make Room”.
The pandemic has prevented pastors from preaching in crowded benches, but it has also prevented them from other duties: sitting with the sick and comforting the grieving.
“This loss is just huge and cavernous because you not only have death but the inability to connect,” said Reverend Carol Howard Merritt, pastor of Bedford Presbyterian Church in Bedford, NY. give those hugs or cry with people the same way.
Ms Merritt became a pastor at the church in September and still has not met all of her congregants in person.
On Thursday afternoon, Ms. Merritt’s Church will host a Christmas Eve ‘Pop-Up Show’, where children will receive masks on site and join in a small procession outside. The windows of the church will be open and organ music will float in the air. In the evening, Mrs. Merritt will preach outside, with a small group of parishioners gathered in front of the church.
The childbirth-centric vacation reminds her to be a new mother, to watch her baby girl, and to feel overwhelmed by the potential of a new life – hopefully 90 years of life in a six-pound baby.
This year, “there is so much death and horror all around us, but somehow we have the audacity to come together and remember life, hope. and the beauty of potential, ”she told herself. “We are seeing glimmers of that with the arrival of the vaccine. We can see enough around the corner to know there will be life.
Across the country in California, the First Presbyterian Church in Palo Alto has not met in person since March and has no plans to meet in person until late next summer.
During the Advent season leading up to Christmas, Reverend Bruce Reyes-Chow, the senior pastor, found himself reverting to the word “Emmanuel.” a name for Jesus which means “God with us”.
“’God with us’ takes on a whole new meaning this year,” he said. “He is with us who lives sorrow and lamentation, but also joy and hope and peace.”
Mr Reyes-Chow’s grandmother died of the virus on December 11. She was buried on Wednesday, the eve of Christmas Eve.
In preparation for the Christmas Eve service broadcast live this week, the church sent candles and the words of the Christmas carol “Silent Night” to worshipers, some now in remote locations.
At 5:00 p.m. and again at 11:30 p.m. Thursday, members will gather on Zoom, dim the lights in their homes, and sing “Silent night, holy night / Everything is calm, everything is bright.” On the screens in front of them, a grid of rectangles will glow by candlelight, a glimpse of warmth in the long dark night before Christmas morning.