When the Rev. Timothy Cole learned he had COVID-19 in early March, it was the first known case of the virus in Washington, D.C. Cole, rector of Christ Church Georgetown, was hospitalized for three weeks.
Now fully recovered, the Episcopal priest is leading his church through what is typically one of the busiest and most festive seasons of the Christian calendar. In a normal year, up to 800 people might attend just one of the church’s Christmas Eve services. There would be a children’s pageant and carols and pews packed with worshippers.
This year, pandemic restrictions cap attendance in the sanctuary at 100. Singing is now known to be one of the most dangerous activities for virus transmission, so the annual carol service moved online. Children took photos in their pageant costumes at home.
“The darkness seems pretty dark at the moment,” Cole reflected a few days before Christmas.
But he finds hope in the spiritual significance of the Christmas story: a small event, the birth of a child, that proved to be a turning point in human history.
On Christmas Eve he will preach about hope in the face of fear and sadness, drawing on his experience as a chaplain in the British army.
“Just as wars come to end, so do pandemics,” his sermon reads. “Until then we are sustained and made strong by what we celebrate this day.”
When Easter arrived in April, the United States was about a month into widespread shutdowns. Then, many pastors were still adjusting to pandemic restrictions and working out the technological kinks of services streamed on Zoom or Facebook. But relatively few had been touched personally by the virus.
Eight months later, the virus is more than a mere symbol of fear. At least 18 million Americans have been infected, and more than 325,000 have died, equivalent to nearly 1 out of every 1,000 people in the country. Almost everyone knows someone who has had the virus.
“What was formerly an abstraction is now very real,” said the Rev. George Williams, who will preside over Christmas Eve Mass at St. Agnes Catholic Church in San Francisco.
The priest got the virus in June while he was serving as a chaplain at San Quentin State Prison, where more than 25 inmates have died of the virus. Watching it spread through the prison was an experience of “real terror,” he said.
And now comes Christmas. Culturally, it is a time for family gatherings, cross-country travel, intergenerational gift exchanges and sprawling group meals — rituals made challenging or impossible by the pandemic. Spiritually, it is a moment to celebrate the arrival of God in human form on Earth.
“How do we reconcile the hopeful theme of Christmas with the desolate year we just experienced?” Williams wondered. His homily at his new parish Thursday night will focus on “the heart of the Christmas message: the incarnation,” where God enters into the mortal experience of pain, grief and death.
Across the country, other Christian leaders were making similar attempts to reconcile spiritual hope and situational despair.
“In my heart it really doesn’t feel like Christmas because it didn’t feel like Thanksgiving, and it didn’t feel like Labor Day or the Fourth of July,” said the Rev. James Riley, senior pastor at House of Prayer Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. “It’s hard to muster up that joy.”
Still, he plans to preach on God’s faithfulness even in bleak times at a brief Christmas service Friday.
Attendees will wear masks and be spaced out in the small sanctuary as they sing “Joy to the World.” Large white cardboard letters at the front of the pulpit, visible to those watching from home on Facebook, spell out “HOPE.”
The pandemic has prevented pastors from preaching to crowded pews, but it has also kept them from other duties: sitting with the sick and comforting mourners.
“This loss is just huge and cavernous because you have not only the death but the inability to connect,” said the Rev. Carol Howard Merritt, pastor at Bedford Presbyterian Church in Bedford, New York. “You’re not able to hold those hands or give those hugs or cry with people in the same way.”
Merritt became pastor at the church in September and has still not met all of her congregants in person.
On Thursday afternoon, Merritt’s church will put on a Christmas Eve “pop-up pageant,” where children will receive costume masks on the spot and join a small procession outside. The church windows will be open, and organ music will waft through the air. In the evening, Merritt will preach outside, with a small group of parishioners gathered in front of the church.
The holiday centered on childbirth reminds her of being a new mother, gazing down at her infant daughter and feeling overwhelmed by the potential of new life — hopefully 90 years of life in one 6-pound infant.
This year, “there’s so much death and horror all around us, yet somehow we have the audacity to come together and remember life and hope and the beauty of potential,” she reflected. “We see glimmers of that with the vaccine coming. We can see enough around the corner to know that there will be life.”
Across the country, in California, First Presbyterian Church of Palo Alto has not met in person since March and does not expect to reconvene in person before the end of next summer.
In the Advent season leading up to Christmas, the Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow, the senior pastor, found himself returning to the word “Immanuel,” a name for Jesus that means “God with us.”
“‘God with us’ this year takes on a whole new meaning,” he said. “He’s with us experiencing the grief and lament, but also the joy and hope and the peace.”
Reyes-Chow’s grandmother died of the virus Dec. 11. She was buried Wednesday, the day before Christmas Eve.
In preparation for the livestreamed Christmas Eve service this week, the church mailed candles and the words to the carol “Silent Night” to congregants, some now in far-flung locations.
At 5 p.m. and again at 11:30 p.m. Thursday, members will gather on Zoom, dim the lights in their homes, and sing “Silent night, holy night / All is calm, all is bright.” On the screens in front of them, a grid of rectangles will glow with candlelight, a glimpse of warmth in the long, dark night before Christmas morning.