- The Washington Times - Monday, April 6, 2020

Christian brethren are improvising Holy Week observances and practices as the novel coronavirus transforms worship, whether it’s delivering palm fronds by car, streaming Good Friday prayers or celebrating Jesus’ empty tomb before empty pews.

A nationwide survey Monday from WalletHub suggests a slim majority of Christians (56%) who attended Easter services last year hope to attend church this Sunday — the most important holy day of the year for the 167 million Christians in the U.S. (roughly 66% of the nation’s population).

But most won’t have that chance because only 1 in 10 American churches will be open Sunday, according to American Enterprise Institute estimates.

The scenario has been playing out around the world. Pope Francis, who delivered his homily to an empty St. Peter’s Basilica on Palm Sunday, is asking the global community of Roman Catholics to “stand before” the crucifix in their homes this Easter.

In addition, Jews will be celebrating Passover and Muslims will begin Ramadan this month.



But the biggest blow to worship for most Americans will be Easter. Leaders of virtually all the major Christian denominations, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Southern Baptist Convention, are urging folks to stay at home and follow federal health guidelines discouraging meetings of more than 10 people.

“Instead of coming together to hear someone preach or sing, we are coming together to pray in this major crisis as we face Easter weekend with hope,” Ronnie Floyd, president and CEO of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee, said in calling for a Good Friday online prayer gathering.

What’s more, Catholic bishops are giving parishioners a special dispensation from attending Mass and receiving Holy Communion.

In New York City, which has been hit hardest by the respiratory virus, the pews at St. Paul and St. Andrew United Methodist Church have filled with supermarket-style bags for the food pantry.

“The sanctuary is set up in some ways for that because we can create rows of food in some pews,” Greg Silverman, executive director of the West Side Campaign Against Hunger, said on the United Methodist Church’s website.

At Westminster Presbyterian Church in Middletown, New Jersey, volunteers wearing personal protective equipment handed palms through the windows of cars for members after its online service.

“We hope that the Palms and Psalms will provide the comfort and strength that the Cross and Word of God offers in the present crisis situation,” the Rev. Joseph Hein told The Christian Post.

At Asbury United Methodist Church in Prairie Village, Kansas, family ministries director Heather Jackson is organizing an Easter egg hunt that embraces social distancing.

Parents and children are creating colorful images of eggs to display in windows or on garage doors, and the “hunt” will entail families driving around in their cars or strolling on foot to spot as many eggs as possible.

At Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Ankeny, Iowa, a video series titled “From the Loft: a little musical encouragement for a difficult time” has cropped up on its website with music minister David Fandrich playing piano and singing songs from the church hymnal such as “Jesus Is a Rock in a Weary Land” above empty pews and with a darkened chapel behind him.

Other Christian communities that have suspended in-person services are the National Association of Evangelicals and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but not every church is halting in-person worship.

In late March, a pastor in Sioux City, Iowa, invited congregants to park their cars in the church lot and listen to him preach via FM radio instead of entering the church.

Megachurch pastor Rodney Howard-Browne in Tampa Bay, Florida, was arrested last week after holding worship in defiance of a county order prohibiting gatherings of more than 10 people. Charges wee dropped after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, declared religious activity “essential business.”

Nearly a dozen states, including New Mexico and New York, have issued stay-at-home orders but exempted religious houses of worship from penalties.

But even in churches that remain open, pastors are taking to bulletins and social media to encourage members to stay home and watch online, allowing only for ministers directly relevant to the service into the chapel.

In the Diocese of Phoenix, a group of priests and laypeople distributed an online flip book titled “A Journey Through Holy Week for Families,” in which they encourage finding a crucifix at home to venerate — or kiss or lay hands on — for the annual Good Friday ritual for many Catholics.

“I really believe that God is pouring out a grace now to strengthen the domestic Church in the family,” the Rev. John Parks, vicar for evangelization for the Diocese of Phoenix, told the Catholic News Agency. “And I think for some families that might be unique. They’ve never done a washing of the feet. They’ve never prayed the Stations of the Cross in their own home. … It can be a really beautiful moment of experiencing holy things in the home.”

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