Easter services at churches across the country typically draw many more worshipers than usual wanting to celebrate in the Resurrection of Christ and the hope that brings for eternal salvation.
Bethany Assembly of God, in Agawam, would normally be preparing for such a turnout, but restrictions on large gatherings issued by Gov. Charlie Baker to help contain the spread of coronavirus have closed many churches who are now preparing to serve their congregations remotely during Holy Week and on Easter Sunday.
The Rev. Stephen Thee, lead pastor of the Bethany congregation, acknowledges the “unique challenge” of delivering such online services, especially for a church whose Sunday services are normally attended by some 750 adults and 150 children in related programs.
However, he adds, music and hope, trademarks of the church that is particularly known for its annual “Singing Christmas Tree Spectacular” presentations, will still be part of the services though in a more limited way.
“Our plan for our Easter services is to have them online only, as have been all of our services since Governor Baker declared a state of emergency,” Thee said.
“We do typically have a special service that is well attended, and this year obviously poses unique challenges. So, we will be doing an Easter online service and attempting to incorporate special elements into that service specifically for Easter, but we will obviously be limited in what we can do under the current circumstances as we seek to do our part not to further the spread of the virus.”
He added that on April 12, Easter Sunday, “We will have online services at 9 and 11 a.m. with music and a message of hope.”
Thee said there will also be an “online Good Friday Communion service” April 10 at 7 p.m.
“We will encourage congregants to have the necessary elements on hand and I will lead them through the Lord’s Supper via video as I share it with my family,” Thee said.
Thee said there has been a “very positive response” to the online services it live streams Wednesday at 7 p.m. and Sundays at 9 and 11 a.m.
“While tracking numbers has proven more difficult now than when people are physically present, we have had a good numbers both through our website and through Facebook. We run the stream through there as well,” Thee said.
“During the service, some of our staff pastors have been interacting with guests and congregants through the comments on the Facebook Live Video of the sermon. We have received numerous messages of appreciation from the congregation for our continued efforts during this season.”
Besides the online services, Thee said, “We have also been trying to connect with people through daily video devotionals, Facebook live interactions, video conferencing bible study and prayer groups, and just by calling individuals to check in on them.
“During this period, I have focused my preaching on faith in Jesus and how that helps us to endure and overcome fear,” he said.
“We do plan to celebrate Christ’s resurrection with a special service once we are allowed to meet together again,” said Thee of a plan that seems to fit the church’s history.
The congregation’s roots date back to 1905 in Springfield, but services on its 51-acre campus here were first held on Easter Sunday, April 3, 1883.
Many churches state on their website how they are utilizing Facebook and platforms like Zoom to help worshipers stay connected.
The website of East Longmeadow United Methodist Church, which has live-stream worship Sundays at 10 a.m., notes, “The church has left the building but we’re still church.” and is offering a way worshipers can celebrate Palm Sunday, April 5, traditionally Communion Sunday for the Church, around the table at home.
Christ Church Cathedral, the headquarters of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, plans a number of services live streamed on Facebook starting on Palm Sunday at 10 a.m. in English and 12:15 p.m. in Spanish, and leading up to and including Easter.
“We have had a few weeks to practice worshiping online now, and so we have gotten down a rhythm of Sunday services with music and preaching and praying,” said the Very Rev. Tom Callard, cathedral dean.
“That’s what we are planning for Holy Week, something live at 6 every night on Facebook except on Good Friday. Monday and Tuesday are evening prayer with prayers for healing., Wednesday is the Stations of the Cross, the Via Crucis, in English and Spanish. On Maundy Thursday we will have a bilingual worship in English and Spanish.”
He added, “Maundy Thursday is traditionally a day when we do feet washing in memory of Jesus’ command to love one another.
“We will encourage people who watch to each have a receptacle with water and join us in ritually washing ourselves,” he said.
“It’s good to remind people that Jesus is still present. And we will strip the altar on Facebook live and then set the camera up in the empty sanctuary so people can tune in for some part of the night as part of the Maundy Thursday vigil.”
He said on Good Friday “we will have an English service at 12 p.m., the hour when Jesus hung on the cross, and keep vigil until 3 p.m., when we have the Good Friday Spanish service.”
“On Easter there will be a live 6 a.m. service broadcast from just outside the cathedral, as the sun is coming up, and then a more traditional 10 a.m. service with the organ, sermon, and a celebration of the Holy Communion which brings people comfort. And we will do that in Spanish at 12:15 p.m.”
He added,”We would love to have people join us online and give us names of people we can add to our intentions. People can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or can comment on the cathedral’s Facebook page.”
Toward the beginning of Holy Week, Callard said he and the Rev. Linda Taupier, deacon, will offer an open-air blessing privately at several sites in Springfield, such as the parking lot at hospitals, to add further spiritual support to those whose work is involved with coronavirus disease 2019.
“Traditionally on Good Friday we go outside to do the Stations of the Cross in the streets,” Callard said.
“This will be our Stations in the Streets COVID-19 version.”
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield has a resource page that includes a listing of Masses, available on television, radio and streaming.
It has arranged for its Sunday televised Mass, “Chalice of Salvation,” to have additional broadcasts on WWLP-22News for Holy Thursday, April 9, at 11 a.m., Good Friday, April 10, 11 a.m., and the Easter Sunday Mass, April 12, 10 a.m.