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Vermont Episcopal Bishop Shannon MacVean-Brown loves the feel of the 40-day Lenten season, from Ash Wednesday’s thumb to the forehead to Palm Sunday’s waving of branches, Maundy Thursday’s washing of feet, and Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday’s convergence of the faithful.
“The thing that makes it so special is we are physically present with each other,” says MacVean-Brown. “To not have that is really unsettling.”
Instead, the threat of the coronavirus has shuttered churches worldwide, sending MacVean-Brown and Christian colleagues to their cellphones and computers for online prayers and programs to mark a holy period centered on the turbulent yet transformative time between death and new life.
“It’s so different this year,” the Burlington-based bishop says. “We’re a church that normally has communion every Sunday, but that requires a gathering of people.”
So do Easter parades, egg hunts and other secular observances of a holiday that annually revisits the 2,000-year-old story of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But for all the cancellations, MacVean-Brown isn’t discouraged.
“I’m thinking about the first disciples and how the time they were living through was so unprecedented,” she says. “They experienced grief, uncertainty and trying to sort out what to make of circumstances. They had no context, all they had was each other. Their instinct was to say, ‘We’re not sure what to make of all of this — let’s pray together.’ We’re like them. We’re doing that.”
Vermont’s Episcopal bishop and other spiritual leaders statewide are plugging into technology to connect with their congregations. MacVean-Brown has prayed online at 8 every morning and evening since March 15 with up to 100 or more video viewers and phone callers.
“The first Sunday service I did,” she says, “we exceeded the limit for our Zoom account.”
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But for all the mutable bells and whistles, a conferencing service doesn’t allow for such rituals as offering sacramental wafers and wine.
“It’s forcing me to really simplify,” MacVean-Brown says.
Then again, the cleric recalls the Bible story of the destruction of the temple.
“They figured out how to be people of faith then,” she says. “Not being able to access a building can’t stop us from our worship now.”
The bishop recounts how followers went to Jesus’ tomb after his death and found it empty.
“He’s not there, he’s in the people,” she says. “There’s some significance in the empty tomb and the empty church building today. That did not mean the end. That was really the beginning.”
Vermont’s five largest religious denominations all are planning online Easter observances.
The statewide Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington, with 118,000 members in 72 parishes, will present a Sunday Mass with Bishop Christopher Coyne at 10 a.m. on its website, which also features local parish information and a daily broadcast service.
“My encouragement is to keep these days as holy as you can,” Coyne told Catholics this week on a video on his Facebook page. “We pray that somehow, some way all this may end soon and we may get back to our normal patterns and rhythms of life.”
The Vermont Conference of the United Church of Christ, with 14,000 members in 135 congregations; the Vermont district of the United Methodist Church, with 8,200 members in 115 congregations; and the Vermont Episcopal Church, with 5,700 members in 47 congregations, also are listing offerings on their websites.
And American Baptist Churches of Vermont, with about 6,000 members in some 75 churches, is posting local and state information on its Facebook page.
Christians aren’t the only religious community observing a major holiday this month. Vermont Jews are marking Passover by virtually retelling the Exodus story of how the Israelites saw a deadly plague miraculously “pass over” them some three millennia ago, helping lead to their emancipation.
Muslims at the Islamic Society of Vermont will begin the holy month of Ramadan April 23 by performing good deeds and praying and fasting from dawn to sunset — all with help from video teachings on the society’s Facebook page.
At the Vermont Episcopal Diocese in Burlington, MacVean-Brown will hold an online Easter Sunday service followed by a Zoom diocesan coffee hour.
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“The essential thing is being able to see each other’s faces and pray together,” she says. “We’re really in this together. That’s the truth of it, and now we’re really seeing it. That empty building is evidence we love and care for each other and our world by staying apart and celebrating in a different way.”
Because for the bishop, the loss of tradition won’t lessen the season’s promise.
“Easter happens no matter what and, in the ways that we believe, resurrection happens all the time,” she says. “It’s always present to us, even in this great grief we’re experiencing now. While there’s a lot of uncertainty, I also feel positive anticipation about how we’ll be a changed church. There’s new life coming out of this really bleak time.”