To say Easter was different this year would be an understatement — like saying it was kinda nice when the Chicago Cubs finally won the World Series. Growing up in the Episcopal church, I thought of Easter Sunday as a day of obligation, along with Christmas and Whitsunday, when you had to go to church and you had to take communion.
But this year, of course, we couldn’t go to church. So taking communion was out of the question.
(If Lutherans have the same requirement — go to church on Easter, or else — I’m not aware of it. As a matter of fact, I doubt the Episcopal Church does now, if in fact it ever did except in my adolescent understanding of the XXXIX Articles of faith in the back of the prayer book.)
So for whatever the reason, I wasn’t looking forward to Easter this year without communion. Technology, however, went a long way toward making up for it. I learned some new things about what it means to be in communion. And, of course, the Easter message was the same as it has been for 2,000 years.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit locally and Illinois closed down public gatherings in mid-March with a stay-at-home order, Peace Lutheran Church opened a YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UClQqSrbqGzv8fLTmJg0pGWQ and put up prerecorded services. So I’ll follow my understatement with another one — this year’s online services have been a welcome stopgap. More like a lifeline.
At the same time, the Dominican Sisters of Springfield, where I’m taking spiritual direction, went into quarantine and agreed “to forego the daily Eucharistic meal in solidarity with those who have no priests, and, therefore, have no choice.” They also made use of their website to communicate with the larger community in Springfield.
So the old message of Holy Week and Easter is being shared in new ways, in a time of emergency.
At Peace Lutheran the online services began just before Holy Week and culminated on Easter Sunday. Plans are to continue them as long as public gatherings are shut down, which realistically speaking could be the rest of the Easter season.
Debi wrote it up like this on her spirituality blog, Seriously Seeking Answers: “Some talented folks in our congregation have mastered the technology for online services in amazingly short order. Others have found creative ways to help us all feel included …”
(Check out the rest of Debi’s blog HERE. You won’t be disappointed.)
To the degree possible, the services are interactive. For Easter, we were invited to record ourselves saying, “The Lord is risen, alleluia” and email our videos to the church to be incorporated into the master video, which was recorded, edited and uploaded to YouTube the day before.
“At 33:11 minutes into the service,” says Debi, “you can see where the ‘He is risen!’ video clips created by congregation members were incorporated.”
She was right! There was some amazing creativity shown (which you can see it for yourself by clicking HERE and fast forwarding to 33:11), as parishioners of all ages — from a 3-year-old on up, and up and up and up to old folks like me — proclaimed the good news from the sanctuary at church, front yards, home offices and flowerbeds, even one of our youth riding a bicycle on the street in front of his house. You can see Debi’s and mine at 33:11 or at the top of this post.
The service itself was a service of the Word, like what we called Morning Prayer when I was growing up in the Episcopal Church. (I’m not sure what we call it as Lutherans, because we’ve always had communion on Sunday morning.) It was basically a Sunday morning service without communion.
But with some remarkable differences, reflecting today’s unexpected circumstances.
After the Gospel reading, the passage from Matthew 28:1-10 where the angel appears to the women at the tomb and tells them to return with the disciples to Galilee to await Jesus, Pastor Mary included a brief reflection in the printed bulletin. It ended like this:
… God will again build you. Christ is your life and you shall appear with him. And today the Galilee where, by the power of the Spirit Jesus may be seen alive, is in our own homes. Against all sadness, this is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Christ is risen. Alleluia.
Then, during the prayers of intercession, when “we join the people of God in all times and places in praying for the church, the world, and all who are in need,” this was added:
Bless the creative and helpful service of worship leaders this day: musicians, video crews, sound board operators, worship assistants, preachers, readers, and all others who provide for the production of this virtual and digital worship services. Lord, in your mercy,
[Congregation.] hear our prayer.
And then, at the end, the sending or dismissal:
Pastor. Christ is risen, just as he said. Shelter in place. Share the good news. Alleluia!
Congregation. Thanks be to God. Alleluia!
Watching the service and reading the bulletin, I felt like I was part of things, even sheltering in place at home with a cup of coffee in my hand and a couple of cats prowling around Debi’s office where we had the video livestreaming on her desktop computer. And the whole scene was enough to make me rethink my attitude toward technology, which usually oscillates between frustration, indifference and a grumpy realization I’d better learn to monkey-see, monkey-do my way through enough of it to get along.
The bulletin, by the way, was emailed to us as a Microsoft Word attachment.
Peace Lutheran in’t the only religious organization in my life that’s getting along with technology in unexpected circumstances due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Across town at the Dominican motherhouse, where I’ve been meeting with a spiritual director, the sisters took responsibility for preaching during Holy Week, and Sister Beth Murphy, wrote it up for their website under the headline “Stand Up Sisters! Holy Week from Sacred Heart Convent.”
More technology! I really do have to rethink my attitude.
Since F2F meetings with my spiritual director aren’t possible in these circumstances, we’ve kept in touch by email while we figure out a technological fix. Zoom? FaceTime? (Speaking of communication technology, I’ve learned all kinds of nifty online acronyms in recent years. Like “F2F” for face-to-face and “LOL” for laughing out loud. See? More technology. LOL!) In one of those emails, she mentioned that Sister Marilyn Jean Runkel, with whom I taught at Benedictine University Springfield, delivered the homily for Palm Sunday and enclosed a copy.
Sister Marilyn Jean’s homily focused mostly on the Passion story in Matthew. But she also mentioned the Old Testament lectionary reading from Isaiah: “The Lord has given me a well-trained tongue that I might know how to speak to the weary a word that will rouse them.” And this: “Each morning I am awakened to hear, to listen like a disciple. I set my face like flint.” Then she added:
And what is flint? It is a variety of quartz that when struck sparks a fire. We set our purpose like flint. Is not love a fire that burns within our hearts? What might serve as our piece of flint sparking a fire within our hearts during this Holy Week?
She answered her question by suggesting contemplation and quoting the Dominican Sisters’ Prayer for the Life of the World, which suggests that contemplation is an act of love that “transforms us to listen deeply to one another.”
I wasn’t familiar with the Prayer for the Life of the World, so it sent me off on a Google keyword search. Another benefit of technology, BTW (to use the techies’ acronym for “by the way”). LOL. Anyway, I Googled it, and, sure enough, I found the passage on the Dominican Sisters’ website.
We renounce our participation in the sin of racism
and reject the societal barriers created by the misuse of power.
Through our contemplation, transform us to listen deeply to one another and to the brokenness of the world.
Bless our efforts to be the holy preaching.
The Dominicans are known as the order of preachers, of course. So preaching is central to their mission. So is social justice. So the prayer sounds a chord with me. In fact long before I came back to the church, I was running into Dominican sisters working with a variety of good causes around Springfield. It wouldn’t be going too far to say it was one of the things that helped cause me to reevaluate some of my long-held negative feelings about the church.
Other passages strongly resonated with my spiritual journey as a lapsed Episcopalian who wanted nothing to do with organized religion for 40 years, dabbling occasionally with spiritual traditions ranging from Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Unitarians to Beat generation Buddhism, and belatedly wound up in a small-town Lutheran congregation. A spiritual mutt out on the margins of organized religion, in other words, who was deeply touched by this:
Holy Mystery, ever ancient, ever new,
we, the Dominican Sisters of Springfield, come before You,
aware of our interconnectedness in the cosmos,
and in solidarity with the rostros concretos* of the marginalized.
Even the footnote touched me. The order of preachers is also an order of teachers, and as a retired teacher who wrestled with Modern Language Association citations in freshman English classes, I have a soft spot for footnotes. This one read: “Rostros concretos literally means ‘specific faces.’ Nevertheless, it is a concept which includes the people (poor, immigrants, LGBTQA, etc.), oppressive situations, creation, anything placed on the margins.”
Teachers preaching to a teacher. In a footnote, no less!
The Spanish language also speaks to their work with immigrants and other marginalized Latino communities (and to this old member of the MLA).
Anyway, the interconnectedness of the cosmos, and the prayer’s inclusiveness and commitment to social justice, sounded a chord with this spiritual mutt. These are the things I’ve been looking for, and the Prayer for the World gives me another way of seeking them.
So did this. Especially during a Holy Week when normally I would have been singing with the choir at Peace Lutheran’s palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter services, it was good to read the Dominicans’ prayer:
Draw us into communion with You and all creation.
Living with intentional awareness and openness to change,
we seek to expand the expression of our vows,
inviting others to walk with us in sharing our charism.
Free our hearts to recognize and attend to Christ in hidden and unexpected places.
Draw us into communion … how much I needed that!
But first, another footnote. For any fellow spiritual mutts who may be reading this: A charism, if I understand it correctly, is a gift of the Holy Spirit to Catholic religious orders that Protestants might consider a spiritual mission statement. The Springfield Dominican Sisters’ charism is: “Teaching & Preaching, Care for Creation, Healing the World, and Dismantling Racism.” The Prayer for the Life of the World came out of a goal-setting General Chapter meeting last year, and it closely reflects that charism or mission.
All footnotes aside, I came out of Holy Week and Easter feeling interconnected, included and drawn into communion with God and all creation.
So … a big thank-you to the folks at Peace Lutheran, the video crews and editors, the sound board operators, worship assistants, musicians, readers, and all the parishioners who sent in video clips. And to the Dominican sisters who sent me emails and posted homilies to their website.
And, yes, thanks to technology, too. How unexpected!
So in spite of all enforced isolation due to the COVID-19 outbreak, I could feel interconnected with the cosmos, and with the people of God.
And out of it all, I could sense a renewed sense of mission. If I train my tongue and set my face like flint, as the prophet Isaiah calls me to do, where am I going to strike fire? And to what purpose? When the angel appeared to the women at the tomb in St. Matthew’s story of the resurrection, he told them to go to Galilee where they would meet the risen Christ. Where is my Galilee?
The answer lies, I’m coming to realize, in unexpected places. Here’s one for a time of sheltering in place during a pandemic.
“And today the Galilee where, by the power of the Spirit Jesus may be seen alive, is in our own homes,” Pastor Mary said on Easter morning at Peace Lutheran. “Against all sadness, this is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Christ is risen. …”
Another footnote: Sister Marilyn Jean contacted me by email and said, “You were able to weave the Easter celebrations of Peace and the Dominicans into a masterpiece of spiritual enrichment. If all religions could weave their rituals and celebrations, it would be a different world. You created a kind of Communion that is so important for peace and unity.” I don’t know if I’d want to call anything I write a masterpiece, but I love the idea of weaving rituals and celebrations together.