Across the North, Christians reflect on the meaning of an Easter spent in isolation

Normally the highlight of the Christian calendar, clergy across the North have had to improvise to keep the Easter spirit alive.

Normally the highlight of the Christian calendar, clergy have had to improvise to keep the Easter spirit alive

A small shrine in Colville Lake, N.W.T. Many Christians across the North will be celebrating Easter alone or with only immediate family as physical distancing measures keep them from congregating. (John Last/CBC)

Following 40 long days of self-sacrifice during Lent, the Easter church service, regardless of denomination, is supposed to be a highlight of the year.

But across the North, many Christians will be identifying less with Jesus emerging from his tomb, and more with his 40 days in the wilderness.

"This is a real long Lent for us," said Rt. Rev. Jon Hansen, the bishop of the Roman Catholic diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith.

In many churches, the week before Easter, known as Holy Week, is normally jam-packed with special services, from a full mass on Maundy Thursday to an overnight vigil Saturday night.

It's also an important time for the renewal of vows, and for baptisms and confirmations — what Hansen called the "sacramental life" of the Christian church. Now, those solemn commitments will have to wait a while.

"We are desperately missing the things we love to celebrate in church, but we know that that will come again," Hansen said.

St. Patrick's Co-Cathedral in Yellowknife would normally be filled for services during Holy Week, but its doors have been shuttered since March. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

In lieu of these gatherings, many northern clergy are turning to Facebook to serve their parish. Hansen's diocese has been streaming masses daily for three weeks already, to online crowds of more than 75 people.

That has its own pitfalls. The order of services in Holy Week guides worshippers through Jesus' final days, but for the priests who perform them, the need to pre-tape sermons and prayers has upended the rhythm of worship.

Lesley Wheeler-Dame, the Anglican bishop for Yukon, recorded parts of her Easter Sunday service, celebrating Jesus' resurrection, at the same time as her service for Good Friday, which reflects on the crucifixion.

"That's a very odd feeling," she said.

Easter services are also normally packed full of hymns — much better sung in unison with dozens of worshippers than unaccompanied over a patchy video stream.

"We'll have four of us … in the cathedral," said Wheeler-Dame. "We will have music … because I can't imagine Easter without the hymns."

Preaching against COVID-19

But the pandemic has also created room for a small revival of worship in the home — the original setting for Christian practice.

Darcy Borque, a pastor with the Holy Fire Fellowship in Edmonton, said he heard a voice from God calling him to pray for seven days against the pandemic. From April 1 to 7, he livestreamed a daily revival from his home in Morinville, Alta.

By the seventh day, his audience had grown to include people from India, Puerto Rico, and across the North.

"It was amazing to see just how fast this grew," Borque said.

A cancellation notice hangs on the door of a church in Yellowknife. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio-Canada)

On the final day, the province recorded its lowest single-day increase in cases of COVID-19 in nearly a month — a sign of success, he said.

"We were blessed by the outcome of people … pouring in, and seeing the results of prayer," he said. "It's beautiful."

Other churches are encouraging worship from home in their own way — prayer books for families or a list of readings for holy week.

For traditional churches like Wheeler-Dame's, it can't replace the Eucharist — the bread and wine shared among Christians as the highest form of worship.

But that alone is cause for reflection on "the meaning of Christianity, and the meaning of the church," she said, "that it's not about the building."

Radio church revival

For those who miss the sonorous sounds of sermons, another old tradition has been revived to pipe them into people's homes.

In Arviat, Nunavut, it's not unusual to hear people call into the local radio programs with a passage from scripture they'd like to share with others.

'I'm even trying to find some music, since we can't have live music here,' said Sister Fay Trombley in Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T. (Submitted Jon Hansen)

But now, every one of the community's four churches gets a full two hours on Sunday to fill with readings and gospel music.

Similar programs are underway in Fort Good Hope and Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., where Sister Fay Trombley, a Catholic nun, presides on the airwaves.

"I'm even trying to find some music, since we can't have live music here — unless I sing myself, which I did do once. I'm telling ya, it's no great show!" she said.

Finding connection

The important thing, these leaders emphasize, is that people don't feel afraid or isolated during the pandemic.

For his Catholic diocese, Hansen has set up a form on his website where people can write prayers that get put at the foot of the altar, and request a check-in from church members.

"My concern is with those who are really feeling the most isolated in their homes," said Hanley, the Catholic bishop. "Do what you can to let people know that they're not alone."

"These are the concrete things that, really, our faith is all about."

"I would say people are almost more attentive to each other," said Trombley, in Tuktoyaktuk. 

"They're checking in, they're phoning…. I find a very positive spirit."

For Hansen, that kindness and positivity is a form prayer, no matter the denomination of the person performing it.

"Easter is all about God incarnate," he said. "God is with us, and we can be the hands and feet during these times."


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