For millions of people around the world, the next few days—Holy Week for Christians and Passover for Jews—would traditionally bring a time of gathering with families, friends, and faith communities.

For Christians, the week allows the faithful to commemorate the events of Jesus’ Passion, to mourn his death on Good Friday, and to celebrate his rising from the dead on Easter Sunday. Passover brings Jewish families together to share in the Seder, the ritual dinner that consists of storytelling, prayers, and symbolic food items.

But this year, with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing people to stay apart, families will miss out on these traditions.

“Normally, I would enter the Week in the company of a great throng of other believers and be buoyed up, consoled, and strengthened by their faith,” Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham wrote in his April 5 pastoral message. “Normally, I would enter with holy dread holding a bit of the upper hand over eager longing. Normally I would pause before plunging into the Week to ask for the grace to walk with the Lord Jesus with unflinching courage. Normally. But this year and this Holy Week are anything but normal. We will not find ourselves in the company of large throngs. We will enter it and walk through it in a solitary way. We will all of us enter it with more longing than usual.”

This solitude is in contrast with the instinct people of faith have during times like these, said J. Patrick Hornbeck, II, Ph.D., chair and professor of theology.

“Think about the last major set of crises in New York City—9/11, the financial crisis of [2008 to 2009], people in these moments reported coming together,” he said. “Folks came together in their houses of worship, whether those be churches, synagogues, mosques, or whatever it might be, and that of course parallels trends throughout history. People, when faced with life and death catastrophes, very often turn to their religious leaders for solace or guidance or comfort. I think it’s been particularly painful for believers, and for clergy too.”

Feeling the Absence

For Anne Golomb Hoffman, a professor of English and comparative literature at Fordham, this means moving her family’s ritual into a “Zoom Seder.”

While this will still allow them, and many other families who decide to celebrate virtually, to gather and participate in some of the songs and storytelling that goes along with the evening, it will be shorter and will lack the physical connection they are used to.

“We’ll acknowledge the difference and at the same time acknowledge the bonds that tie us together,” she said.

Around Passover, there’s always extra room at the table for people who might not have somewhere to go, Hoffman said, so that piece will be missing this year.

“This is so deeply a time when people gather together, and within my own synagogue community, there’s always an awareness of who might need a place at the Seder table,” she said. “There’s always that opening to a larger bringing of people together so I think there’s a terrible awareness of social isolation, social distancing, and our efforts to connect and to affirm.”

For Christians, the days leading up to Easter Sunday often incorporate many physical traditions that the church community participates in.

The Fordham University Church in the springtime.

“Think of the foot washing on Holy Thursday, remembering how Jesus knelt before his disciples, like a lowly servant, to wash their feet,” said Thomas J. Scirghi, S.J., associate professor of theology. “On Good Friday, we will miss the veneration of the cross, when we individually express our gratitude for Christ’s suffering and accept the truth, that through the cross we have been saved. On Saturday night, at the Easter Vigil, we will miss seeing the new fire symbolizing Christ as the light of the world, leading us out of the darkness of sin to the light of eternal life.”

A Deeper, Personal Connection

But despite the absence of being physically present, both Scirghi and Hoffman said that these holy days, with the readings that come with them, are well suited to help believers get through these uncertain and challenging times.

Scirghi said that even during normal times, many Christians around the world don’t often have access to a priest or local church. For those who usually do have a local congregation, this experience of self-prayer and isolation can allow them to connect to those who usually don’t, as well as make their own connections with Jesus.

“It is a way to identify with Christ even more,” he said. “Your own experience of feeling isolated may give you an idea of what Jesus experienced. And, as we believe, he accepted all of this out of obedience to his Father, and for love of humanity. “

He also said that the Lenten season in general often has a feeling that “something is missing,” whether it’s the Gloria or the Alleluia that are removed from the liturgy for the entire 40 days, or how the altar is stripped on Holy Thursday and crucifixes and statues are covered throughout the week.

“We are living in the “absence,” that is, the awareness that something is missing, and we need to wait for it to be filled again,” Scrighi said. “Catholics do not fear absence. The Lenten liturgy is “filled with” the absence … all this time we live in the absence. How countercultural. The popular culture would have us fill up whenever we feel empty. But now we wait, aware of what is missing, praying patiently for the day when the Lord will return in glory.”

Hoffman said for Passover, the story of how the Jewish people escaped bondage in Egypt also offers a chance to reflect on current events.

“An amazing facet of this retelling is the commandment that each person should experience this coming out of bondage, this liberation, as if it’s happening to you,” she said. “In the modern era, the Haggadah, this text that sort of guides your prayers and retelling, is open to contemporary (issues)—to the Holocaust, to the birth of the state of Israel, to the refugee crisis—it is a text that opens up to acknowledging a particular historical moment that people are in.”

For this moment, in the midst of a pandemic, Hoffman said people can look to the Passover story and see how a collective group can get through a struggle together.

“There’s a collective affirmation of ‘we come through this together’ and it’s really open toward the larger human community—I think that’s really a facet of the Seder in the modern era,” she said. “It’s very Jewish and very historically Jewish and at the same time, it incorporates a recognition that the narratives of liberation, of bondage, are something shared with the larger human community.”

Connecting Virtually

The COVID-19 pandemic has required many faith leaders to get creative with how they can provide virtual offerings to their communities, Hornbeck said.

“The starter version of this for religious communities seems to be live streaming services that they previously did not livestream,” he said. “There’s obviously advantages to that—people who are looking for something like “normal” in their lives, they can pull up a video and they can see something like their ordinary service. The downside though, is a unidirectional experience—you watch passively while someone somewhere else does something.”

Some communities, such as the Church of Heavenly Rest, an Episcopal church in New York City, have taken to adding new offerings to connect people during this time, such as a daily prayer group with an active live chat, Hornbeck said.

“The chat function there has proven to be really valuable because folks can write out their prayers and everyone can see them,” he said. “You can have the official service going on and then also individual reflections going on.”

Scirghi said that he believes there’s something for the clergy and participants to learn from this period of virtual worship.

“Perhaps this new experience will provide a new perspective on our regular worship, so that we may come to see and hear in a new way,” he said. “We may notice our prayers and rituals anew. If nothing else, the virtual worship may leave us longing for ‘the real thing,’ that is, to get back inside the church alongside the people of God.”

WFUV 90.7 FM and will air Fordham’s Good Friday service at 8 p.m. on April 10 and Easter Sunday Mass at 11 a.m. on April 12. Easter Sunday’s Mass will also be live streamed.

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