Prayer in a Plague
Easter and Passover in Quarantine
For Christians and Jews worldwide, the novel coronavirus pandemic is escalating in a spiritually resonant season. The days leading up to Passover and Easter naturally conjure thoughts of plagues, isolation, restraint, darkness, remembrance, waiting, hope and deliverance, but under self-quarantine, these ancient spiritual themes are embodied in all-too-present physical realities.
How are Jews and Christians persisting in worship when timeless traditions — fasting and feasting, prayer and almsgiving, penance and purification — are stripped of their temporal, physical and social components?
And how are clergy near and far supporting their flocks when the rituals most comforting in a time of uncertainty and loss — liturgical gatherings, shared meals, physical touch, clergy presence at hospital bedside and graveside — are, for the safety of living, forbidden?
Streaming Spiritual Sustenance
In the lead up to Holy Week, Pope Francis announced he will preside via live-stream over all scheduled liturgies without the faithful physically present, and the Way of the Cross service typically celebrated in the Colosseum will be streamed from the empty steps of St. Peter’s Square.
In the Holy Land, the Israeli government has issued a near-total lockdown, with a caveat for those wishing to pray outdoors: they may do so, but only ten at a time and standing at least six feet apart.
While the majority of Americans are already in some form of lockdown, the spread of coronavirus in the United States is expected to peak around Easter, and self-quarantine measures will remain in effect until the end of April.
Triduum Live Stream Schedule
- Thursday, April 9, 5:00 p.m. ET, Mass of the Lord’s Supper
- Friday, April 10, 3:00 p.m. ET, Celebration of the Lord’s Passion
- Saturday, April 11, 9:00 p.m. ET, The Paschal Vigil Mass
Catholic leaders have gotten creative with ministry continuity: a Catholic priest in New Jersey, and another in Florida, flew the Blessed Sacrament over their dioceses in helicopters while praying for an end to the pandemic. Still another, in Maryland, offers a drive-through variety of the Sacrament of Confession, while some bishops have lifted the requirement that Catholics abstain from eating meat on Fridays, noting that access to food may already be difficult for many.
Closer to home, Notre Dame’s Basilica of the Sacred Heart is closed to the public, but Masses are accessible via livestream with only a lector, cantor and presider in view — all of them practicing social distancing and minimizing the number of people who touch the altar’s eucharistic elements.
Rev. Brian Ching, C.S.C., rector of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, underlined the unprecedented nature of these times: “I cannot think of a time in the Basilica’s history when it has been closed to the public in this way, save for the two years of renovation from 1989-90. That said, we as a campus community are doing everything we can to make the Notre Dame family still feel connected even though we are dispersed around the world.”
“… we as a campus community are doing everything we can to make the Notre Dame family still feel connected even though we are dispersed around the world.” – Rev. Brian Ching, C.S.C.
Father Ching said the Congregation of Holy Cross is varying its typical five-priest rotation at Basilica Masses so students who are now home with their families can have virtual contact with their rectors and other beloved campus priests.
Still, he said, it is readily apparent that Catholics’ physical “resurrection” from self-quarantine will not coincide with this year’s celebration of Easter resurrection. “This Lent is perhaps the most intense Lent that we will experience that is not of our own choosing, but simply because of where we are,” Father Ching said.
For Rabbi Karen Companez of South Bend’s Temple Beth-El, moving Shabbat services to Zoom introduced technological challenges, but also surprising new connections. She said nonagenarian members of her community, as well as younger members who may not have turned up for in-person services, have reached out for connection and attended virtually.
Asked what aspects of Jewish tradition offer her strength right now, Rabbi Companez spoke of the Genesis creation narrative in which God said it is not good for people to be alone. She added: “Of course that verse in Genesis refers to Adam and Eve, but we can generalize. The whole notion of community is what most faith communities are about, and we aspire to be socially connected, but how much more so under these circumstances?”
“… The whole notion of community is what most faith communities are about, and we aspire to be socially connected, but how much more so under these circumstances?” – Rabbi Karen Companez
“I call it physical distancing, not social distancing, because I think it is possible to be physically distant and socially much more intimately connected,” Rabbi Companez said. “We are now getting glimpses into people’s lives on Zoom that we would otherwise never see.”
A virtual Seder, the central ritual feast of Passover, is scheduled for Temple Beth-El on April 8. The Seder recounts the story of the ancient Israelites’ exodus from slavery in Egypt, and its traditional text, read aloud, is called the Haggadah. Most Christians believe that Jesus and his disciples were celebrating Passover at what later became known as the Last Supper—or Maundy Thursday in the Holy Week Triduum.
“Something I hadn't noticed before in the Haggadah is that all ten plagues are visible, whereas the plague we are encountering now is invisible,” Rabbi Companez said. “There are four questions in the Haggadah, and as we anticipate Passover, I am wondering how, in our current plague, to reformulate those questions to be about freedom, slavery, wilderness, and the notion of hiding.”
Theology on Tap … Online
While communal markers of religious practice may be temporarily suspended, Notre Dame’s rich tradition of theological education continues apace in digital space, and faculty offered insights on the implications of coronavirus from the perspective of Jewish theology, religious history and Catholic liturgy.
Tzvi Novick, Abrams Jewish Thought and Culture Associate Professor of Theology, said it was around the early March festival of Purim, which celebrates the events in the biblical book of Esther, that coronavirus became a topic of theological conversation within Jewish communities.
According to Novick, the deeper biblical roots of the Esther story lie in the conflict between Israel and the Amalekites after the Exodus from Egypt. “What makes the Amalekites’ attack upon Israel so reprehensible, as described in Deuteronomy, is that they target the tired and the weak — the stragglers trailing behind the camp,” he said. “The natural move is then to identify coronavirus with the Amalekites, since the virus poses a special threat to the weak and immunocompromised.”
Novick said that in Jewish reception, there is no ‘people’ the Amalekites. Rather, any kind of menace can be slotted in as Amalekites — Nazis in the recent past, but also other literal and figurative enemies, such as the inclination to sin, and, today, coronavirus. The Jewish obligation to wage “war” against the “Amalekite” of coronavirus is fulfilled through social distancing measures.
Letters issued by rabbis from multiple Jewish denominations have strongly discouraged, even prohibited, extended families from gathering for Passover this year, citing pikuah nefesh, the principle of Jewish law which states that saving a life trumps all other commandments. Novick underlined how necessary, but also how disorienting, this is.
“At the center of the Seder is the Pentateuch’s obligation to transmit the story of the Exodus to one’s children, so the intergenerational aspect is absolutely key to the theological logic of Passover,” he said. “Traditionally, the Seder constitutes an intergenerational conversation between children, parents and grandparents, but the coronavirus pits the young and old against one another.”
While the coronavirus and the Catholic Church’s response to it are by definition novel, this is not the first time the Church has responded to a pandemic. Daniel Hobbins, associate professor of history at Notre Dame, pointed out that at the time of the Black Death of the fourteenth century, Church leaders understood the pandemic as punishment from God for sins, even as they also acknowledged that there were natural forces at work that brought it into being.
“By contrast, the modern Catholic Church fully accepts the scientific understanding of the coronavirus and has gone to the extraordinary expedient of closing Mass to the general public — even through Easter, the holiest season of the year,” he said.
“In the fourteenth-century pandemic, Pope Clement VI ordered processions and issued a plenary indulgence for those who died but had properly confessed,” Hobbins said. “He was dealing with a mortality that is almost beyond our comprehension. Most experts think the coronavirus has about a 1-2% mortality rate. Historians believe the fourteenth-century pandemic wiped out between one third and one half of the population.”
“… in this moment as we face a pandemic, longing for an encounter with God is itself a spiritual offering and part of the pursuit of holiness.” – Timothy O’Malley
For theologian Timothy O’Malley, director of education for the McGrath Institute for Church Life, the move to online teaching has been smooth because he had been teaching online for years in the McGrath Institute’s Satellite Theological Education Program (STEP). Still, he said, the spiritual and liturgical dimensions will look and feel markedly different this Easter.
“The reason so many are shaken by having liturgical celebrations taken away is how integral such gatherings are to what it means to be a Catholic,” O’Malley said. “But this doesn't mean that such liturgical offerings may not take place in the home.”
O’Malley noted that at times throughout history, Catholics have been unable to attend Mass because of a dearth of available priests. “In those times, and in this moment as we face a pandemic, longing for an encounter with God is itself a spiritual offering and part of the pursuit of holiness,” he said.
Go Forth (Stay Home)
While social distancing for worshippers is a social and moral guideline modeled and messaged by Pope Francis, Father Ching acknowledged that Easter Vigil is almost always a time when new Catholics are welcomed into the Church, and there is a sense of sadness that this will be postponed.
“For eminently rational reasons, there also will be no washing of the feet on Maundy Thursday, no kissing the cross on Good Friday and no sharing of the light at Easter Vigil, so we will miss the richness of these traditions,” he said. “At the same time, we are excited because we are still able to help everyone who tunes into the Basilica’s live-stream to pray well this Easter.”
“The Passover rite suggests that it is in the very midst of danger, with the plague just outside the door, when we are most conscious of our mortality, that we turn in praise to God.” – Tzvi Novick
Considering the many lessons inherent in this season, Novick said, “Theologically, I think about the coronavirus as something that underscores the fragility of the human condition. The Passover rite suggests that it is in the very midst of danger, with the plague just outside the door, when we are most conscious of our mortality, that we turn in praise to God.”
Rabbi Companez cited tikkun olam, the Jewish mystical notion of fixing the world in partnership with God, as an important guide for collaboration between people of all faiths in responding to the coronavirus crisis. “It is not ours to complete the task,” she said, “But neither are we free to desist from it, and we can only do this together.”
Father Ching offered an additional takeaway, “Part of what this pandemic leads us to is a reminder that no matter how hard we work, some things are beyond our control. The more we learn to be okay with that, the freer we are to live in joy, happiness and freedom, which is what allows us to bring those very same things into the lives of the people around us.”
For more information on the University's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, visit coronavirus.nd.edu.