The Rhythms of Holy Week During COVID

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This year, for most Christians in the Western world, the sacred movement from Palm Sunday to Easter will be virtual.

There will be no children waving palms in the aisles and no joyful sounds of brass trumpets or angelic choirs. Those Holy Week services will go by without sharing the bread and cup (at least not sharing it in the same way) or foot washing or the raw experience of “Were You There.” COVID-19 has changed everything. For almost all of us, the rhythms of the holiest season on the Christian calendar will be experienced with family via our phone, laptop, or smart TV.

I, for one, am sad.

Three weeks into this virtual way of doing church, I am missing the church gathered. I can’t begin to imagine Holy Week and Easter Sunday without warm handshakes and hugs, or belting out “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” or even reciting the Lord’s prayer in one voice.

I’m also struggling a bit to link science to this season. We are so saturated by COVID-19 news. This pandemic threatens to overwhelm our preparation for the day when the church must always proclaim, The Lord has risen! He has risen indeed!

So as we try here at Science for the Church to help the church to engage science, facing a Holy Week unlike any in my lifetime, I want to offer three apparent realities coming from the scientific community.

Vaccine Development

By all accounts, a vaccine for COVID-19 is at least a year away and perhaps longer. Vaccines normally take 4-5 years to develop as they run them through various levels of development and testing. When researchers do find an approach that works, it also faces the additional hurdle of being scaled to meet the urgent demand which could be many millions of persons around the globe.

The good news is that movement towards a vaccine is happening faster than ever before. Initial trials are already underway here in the US, only about two months after NIH scientists set to work in developing one. But those trials use a technique with RNA that has yet to produce a single vaccine approved for use on human subjects. So, we may be hopeful, but we must also remain realistic.

Giving Declines

We all have seen—and many are feeling—what this pandemic has done to our economy. The news is not good and charitable giving may not fill the gap. Researchers who study philanthropy have shown that our giving does not increase when the economy falters. Need increases overall, but individuals and foundations do not (and sometimes cannot) raise their overall giving to meet that need. This does not bode well for churches and non-profits of all sorts for the remainder of 2020.

For example, during the crash in 2008-2009, total charitable giving declined by about 15% overall. There is one silver lining, however. The inverse was true for food banks and homeless shelters. In those same two years, they experienced a 10% increase in giving.

Pollution Reductions

Satellites are seeing how different the earth is when factories shut down and cars remain parked as we stay home during COVID-19. This is good for us in two ways: first, pollution weakens our ability to resist respiratory ailments like the coronavirus; second, our air is cleaner and less fossil fuels are being burned, both of which are good for the environment.

For example, in China, NASA satellites have seen reductions in nitrogen dioxide pollution as high as 30%. Parts of northern Italy have seen reductions closer to 40%. Already in the first week of social distancing in the US, satellites were seeing some reductions here as well.

Social distancing appears to be giving the atmosphere a reprieve as we dramatically decrease use of our cars and planes and factories. Could we make travelling less and burning less fossil fuel a permanent change? One can hope.

  • As we race to produce a COVID-19 vaccine, this article considers some of the fast track candidates.
  • Research suggests charitable giving declines in times like this rather than rising up to meet the increase in need.
  • “The largest-scale experiment ever seen” shows major reductions in air pollution in the regions hardest hit by the coronavirus.
  • A Christian psychologist helps us consider hope in this difficult season.
  • For preachers and teachers who are preparing for Easter, we considered science and the resurrection last year.

Lingering in Holy Week

For churches that celebrate the full experience of Holy Week, the rhythm of the Christian calendar teaches us to wait as we approach Easter morning. We do this, revisiting the events and experience of the cross each and every year. We know the story ends in victory. We know that suffering unto death ultimately ends in resurrection. But, to get there, we must linger in the events and the suffering that precede the empty tomb.

The need for hope is especially present this year as we wait, physically distanced from one another, hoping to flatten the curve while scientists race forward in pursuit of a vaccine. We have no choice but to linger.

In the rhythms of Holy Week, much like the rest of Lent, we slow down, examine ourselves, and attend to our walk with God. COVID-19 has given this slowing down new meaning for many of us (though not for others like those in health care or the grocery industry). This slowing down might literally be a breath of fresh air for us and our entire planet.

Finally, slowing down in Lent and Holy Week allows us to consider how to respond to what God has done for us in the walk to the cross and the empty tomb that follows three days later. There are many faithful ways to respond to God’s amazing grace, one of which is to care for the needs of others. At a time when history suggests charitable giving will most certainly decline, we must give and give generously, in whatever way we can, to those who are meeting the needs of the most vulnerable.

Our experience of Holy Week will certainly be different from what many of us expected when Lent began. Many are suffering: those with COVID-19, the entire biomedical industry, those whose jobs and/or safety nets have been cut, and even those who are distanced from the loving touch of grandchildren. And by all accounts, it looks like we will linger for a while in that suffering.

I pray that we will breathe in deeply the events of Holy Week and exhale empowered to be the church. We know about suffering, but we also know how it ends. Let us show the love God first showed us as we embrace the suffering of so many.


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