NORTH METRO ATLANTA — In normal times, thousands would flock to churches and synagogues this week to celebrate Easter and Passover.
With social distancing measures expected to continue at least through the end of April, faith leaders have been forced to adapt.
Easter is a major Christian holiday commemorating the resurrection of Jesus following his crucifixion, as depicted in the Gospels. This year for most Americans, Easter falls on April 12, though in the Eastern Orthodox tradition it would be April 19.
Most churches also have services on the days leading up to Easter, commonly called Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday.
“Every church seems to have gone to online worship,” said Beth Allain, communications director Alpharetta First United Methodist Church. “Streaming live services comes with some technical issues, so our pastors have been recording messages beforehand.”
Alpharetta Methodist, like many churches, will be offering one online service this year, mixing the traditional and contemporary styles that would otherwise have their own service. The pastors will record messages from their homes, while the musical directors will compile music recorded at previous services, Allain said.
“We’ve deliberately scaled down the length of what we’re offering online because we know it’s a different experience when you’re sitting in your living room, potentially in your pajamas,” said the Rev. Brad Green, associate pastor at Alpharetta Methodist.
Though it’s been a challenge to adjust to the online format, Green said that, in a way, it’s a return to the roots of early Christianity, when most services were held in people’s homes and congregations lacked permanent church buildings.
“It’s new to us, and I think a lot of churches are in the same boat,” Allain said. “We’re not sure what to expect. We’re just offering the best worship experience we can for our congregation and inviting people in the community to join us as well.”
This year Passover runs from sunset April 8 to April 16. Passover is a major Jewish holiday also recognized by some Christians and Muslims. The feast memorializes God helping the Israelites escape slavery in ancient Egypt by inflicting 10 plagues as depicted in the Book of Exodus.
Passover is typically recognized with the Sedar, a ritual feast accompanied by sharing the story of Exodus.
Rabbi Jordan M. Ottenstein, leader of Congregation Dor Tamid, said the congregation would normally host its Sedar on the second night of Passover at its synagogue in Johns Creek. Instead this year, Ottenstein will virtually be inviting the congregation into his home for the first night.
Dor Tamid is offering all its usual Torah studies, youth classes and social groups through video conferencing, as well as additional lessons, such as tutorials on preparing the Sedar meal.
“The message of Passover every year is freedom,” Ottenstein said. “Not only are we celebrating our ancestors’ freedom from slavery in Egypt, but the message is freedom for all and that we need to look out for each other. I think the message this year, even more than most years, is that we always need to look out for those that are less fortunate.”
The message of Easter, one of hope and of faith conquering death, is also particularly apt in this moment, Green said.
“If there’s victory over death, then to me that’s ultimate hope,” he said. “In the face of any distress, any uncertainty, we have a belief in a God that has expressed power that goes beyond the worst thing we can imagine.”
Both faith leaders said that maintaining one’s connection with their community, even while separated physically, is crucial.
“This week, for Jews and Christians alike, is a holy week,” Ottenstein said. “There’s a lot of people saying ‘Oh, we’ll just skip Passover this year, ‘We’ll just skip Easter.” I think it’s important that we do celebrate our holidays and we do find the opportunities for blessings in these scary moments.”