Without the opportunity to gather, how does one join an Earth Day project, attend a Passover Seder, a Ramadan Iftar, an Easter brunch, a Vaisakhi celebration, or a Ridván festival? This April ushers in holidays and celebrations for millions of people around the world. All of them pivot around community gatherings that will not be possible this year. With this in mind, I began to wonder what is lost when people around the globe participate in these holidays in isolation, as we all do our part to flatten the curve of COVID-19 through physical distancing.
I turned to the stories of these holidays, and to friends and experts – and was surprised by what I found. Although community gatherings will not occur, there is tremendous opportunity at this historic moment for unique and deep understanding to arise from these holidays. In the ten days from April 5-14, three of them take place. The week of April 19, three more occur. Let’s begin with reflections this week on the first three, holy to Christians, Jews, and Sikhs. I hope that similarly you will find hope in your stories and traditions this year.
Christian Holy Week
Palm Sunday, April 5, marks the first day of Holy Week for Christians. This year, Christians will gather with extended family if they are able to over Zoom on Maunday Thursday, to recall Jesus’ last supper with his disciples and friends. They will sit in the quiet of their own homes on Friday, to contemplate the death of Jesus, who was condemned by Rome to crucifixion on a cross, his body then placed in a cave and sealed with a stone. Easter Sunday is the holiest day of celebration of the Christian year, and continues for many on Easter Monday. Easter morning, when congregations would normally be filled to celebrate that the stone was rolled away and Jesus risen from the dead, Charles Wesley’s classic hymn, Jesus Christ is Risen Today, will be heard over the airways only. But the message of Easter is more real than ever – the Easter story holds assurance for Christians of life after death.
But what we may not fully appreciate is it also brings assurance for any who are suffering in this life, right here, right now. Just when people are feeling closed in, like there is no way out, comes assurance that being stuck is never the end, death is never triumphant. The story is both metaphorical and lived truth in the experience of a human life. The good news of Easter is that life always emerges out of death, hope out of any sorrow, no matter how small. Christians may ask this year: what new life awaits us when we emerge from this suffering, from this enclosed space? Further, how might we do our part to alleviate suffering in the world?
We are living with so much less as we stay at home in these enclosed spaces this year, which may bring new meaning to the celebration of Pesach. April 8 marks the first night of the eight-day holiday of Passover, commemorating the departure of the Jewish people’s years of slavery in Egypt. Typically at sundown on the first evening, Wednesday, Jewish people gather with those they love around a table for Seder, set with symbolic foods recalling the exodus of their ancestors from Egypt. Rabbi Corie Yutkin, Director of Jewish Life at Chapman University, explains that according to the story recorded in the Book of Exodus, the people left in such a hurry there was no time to bake leavened bread – hence the eating of matzo, an unleavened cracker, during Passover (see her blog, Chag Sameach, Happy Passover, for more reflections).
This year for many Jews, Seder will be experienced alone or with a few family members. Chapman students join Rabbi Corie and Rev. Cisa Payuyo in a virtual Interfaith Matzah on the Move Seder via Zoom. Rabbi Corie suggests that in these settings, Jews might reflect uniquely upon the Passover story. How are we wandering through this uncertain time? Stripped of work, gatherings, school and so many of the practices we thought were essential to our lives, Jews might ask: just what is truly essential to take with us on our journey?
Sikhs are continually looking ahead on the journey for how to strengthen steadfastness and service. Vaisakhi is celebrated with festive community gatherings, this year on April 13 or 14 in various locations throughout the world. It is also a Hindu holiday, marking the solar new year and celebrated as a spring harvest festival. According to Gurpreet Singh, co-founder of Sikhlens, for Sikhs, Vaisakhi commemorates Guru Gobind Singh Ji’s initiation of the “Khalsa Panth” in 1699, a community of Sikhs who were entrusted with community leadership and the responsibility to practice genuine diversity, inclusion, and equity, including gender equality. The gathering of community is as important as individual spiritual practice, and Sikhs normally gather together for festivities on Vaisakhi. In almost any humanitarian crisis, and this one is no exception, Sikhs can be found mobilizing around the world for the foundational practice of “Seva” or service, preparing vast quantities of vegetarian meals for people without regard to nationality, gender, or class, who are without work or home or sustenance.
Valarie Kaur, Sikh leader and founder of Revolutionary Love, sees the pandemic as an opportunity to dig deep into ourselves, to ask: Will we let social distancing isolate us? Or will we find new ways to reach out, deepen our connections, step up community care, and tend to the most vulnerable in our communities?
The first half of April, 2020 brings opportunity for celebration, and for deep reflection. People around the world will be asking: can we take the lessons of this time to ask what is truly essential for us to carry on this journey? How will we venture into life anew, and will we turn ourselves to connect with one another and care for the most vulnerable?
Stay Strong. Blessings to you all.
Dean Gail Stearns
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