How COVID-19 is changing Passover, Easter and Ramadan observances

With the world facing the coronavirus pandemic, people are turning to technology to celebrate holidays virtually

How COVID-19 is changing Passover, Easter and Ramadan observances

5 Minute Read

Many religious communities and congregations are upon a season of holy days—a time that is usually spent gathering with families and friends to participate in traditional rituals together. Passover began on April 8, Good Friday is April 10 followed by Easter on April 12 and Ramadan begins April 23. However, state and local governments have banned social gatherings and urged social distancing to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. How can people celebrate the holidays in the midst of the pandemic?

Sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund, Ph.D., the Herbert S. Autrey Chair in Social Sciences and director of the Religion and Public Life Program at Rice University who studies the intersection of science and religion, talks about how congregations are adapting to the pandemic and how rituals and their spiritual significance can be extraordinarily important during times of stress.

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Elaine Howard Ecklund, Ph.D. (Photo credit: Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)

Q | Three of the world’s major religions—Christianity, Judaism and Islam—are celebrating Easter, Passover and Ramadan, respectively, this month. How does the COVID-19 global pandemic affect how these holy days are observed?
A | Those are holidays when people would generally place an emphasis on gathering, either in congregational contexts in large groups for celebration, or in homes.

Both of those things are completely restricted right now and so an obvious impact is the restriction on gathering. From a health perspective, we need to be maintaining the sense of social distance, but … religious traditions, religious organizations and the social relationships that people have through these organizations, apart from the spiritual content, are shown to be beneficial for health.

Q | Mayor Sylvester Turner recently spoke at a news conference with the Baptist Ministers Association of Houston and Vicinity about maintaining social distance during the holidays. What are religious organizations doing to adapt to our new reality?
A | Just as people are experiencing the greatest stress that they could possibly experience, we are restricted from getting to people and organizations that could help us alleviate that stress. It’s a real Catch-22 from a mental and physical health perspective for people and I think congregational leaders know that. Some are doing a lot to try right now to go online. There’s been lots of examples of good online efforts where congregations are giving teachings and sermons online, where they’re even having small groups via Zoom, Christian traditions, Bible studies, book discussion groups—just things that give people that sense of feeling a social interaction to help them socially and spiritually.

Congregations are … using the more creative technologies to try to livestream things. I’m seeing a lot more of congregations doing stuff on Twitter and things like that, but I also wonder if there is the possibility of maybe doing more over the phone.

Those old school methods [don’t] seem super-innovative, but I think because we’re in a time period where people are just trying to be so innovative and to adapt to what’s going on, we’re perhaps forgetting some of the things that are low level, which might be helpful in this time as well.

Q | What is your advice to people who are trying to celebrate during this time?
A | Some of the religious leaders that I work with through my research studies are saying: “Try to do the best celebration you can do at home.” Religious leaders have said to me that even if something is recorded in advance, try to watch at the same time as everyone else in the congregation is watching. Try to watch it that Sunday time for Christians or try to have the Sabbath Seder. Try to do this at the same time as others are doing it to try to get that mystical sense of community that is present for some people. The other thing is to remember that these are significant times and not ignore them just because you can’t be together in person. Really keep social distance and [don’t] think, “OK, I’ll violate it just this one time,” because the thing that we can do to most care for each other in communities right now is to follow public health recommendations about keeping social distance. That’s really all we can do right now.

A lot of people have been asking me: “How can I serve during this time?” Oftentimes, our religious traditions motivate us to service towards others; that’s a recognition of a common humanity. The primary thing we can do right now is stay away from each other. If we see that as an act of service towards others, as an act of love towards others, that might help us a bit more rather than just seeing it as a public health mandate. If we also see it as an act of service, it might make it a little bit more palatable.

Q | Technology is playing a bigger role in bringing people together with physical interactions going virtual because of social distancing. Do you think people are starting to use digital options more meaningfully and intentionally in these times?
A | Technology and science are very related. Some of the religious leaders in our studies are telling us that they were maybe suspicious of social media technologies because, perhaps, youth get involved in these too much, they’re not attentive to spiritual understandings and they’re not part of their faith communities anymore. Some of our religious leaders that I’ve interviewed and surveyed say that they were afraid that social media might take youth away from their religious traditions. I think these same religious leaders now are feeling there’s the possibility—and this is a very Christian word—for redemption of these technologies. They’re seeing a collaboration between faith and science. They’re seeing the possibilities of the technologies and so that’s interesting and exciting.

Q | People are already feeling a lot of anxiety right now because of the pandemic. Can you comment on the added importance of faith?
A | Often in times of pain, you think the people who are stronger can help the people who are weaker, but this is a pandemic [in which] everyone is suffering to some extent. Still, we know that some are suffering more, so it’s not those who are not suffering helping those who are suffering. I think the situation is more one of those who are suffering less helping those who are suffering more, with the recognition, of course that we’re all suffering to some extent.

Our holidays are times to realize—and I want to be careful what I say here—that suffering can have a larger significance and purpose. People can get a lot of meaning out of participating in those holiday rituals.

Those kinds of rituals and practices can be extraordinarily helpful spiritually, but also helpful to our health and to our mental psyche. They have both a spiritual and also a functional use.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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