For Churches, Easter Is the “Super Bowl of Sundays.” This One Will Be Rough.

Children clear an area of Easter eggs at Falmouth Congregational Church in Falmouth, Maine on April 15, 2017.
Children clear an area of Easter eggs at Falmouth Congregational Church in Falmouth, Maine, on April 15, 2017. Ben McCanna/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

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The Rev. Traci Blackmon doesn’t usually preach a sermon on Easter Sunday. Easter services at her Christ the King United Church of Christ in Florissant, Missouri, usually consist of a full reading of one of the Bible’s accounts of Jesus’ resurrection, interspersed with psalms, music, and something for the children in the congregation—no sermon, because “if the text doesn’t preach itself on Easter, what are we doing?” But this is no ordinary Easter. “People need hope,” she said, and a direct response to a bewildering historical moment. One of Blackmon’s church members has died of COVID-19, and two were in intensive care when we spoke on Tuesday. So Blackmon will be preaching this Sunday for the first time in years. “I need to remind my people that resurrection means we will rise again,” she said.

Across the country this week, pastors like Blackmon are preparing sermons for the most important and most joyful holiday on the Christian calendar. Easter is the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, and it is traditionally a day of abundance, life, and relief: “The strife is o’er,” one popular Easter hymn begins. The holiday follows the abstemious 40-day period of Lent, and it arrives in springtime in the Northern hemisphere, meaning that it’s a day of symbolic spiritual triumph that usually also feels like one. In a statement he later walked back, President Donald Trump said in March that he wanted the country “opened up” by Easter, not because of recommendations from public health experts, but because it simply felt right: “I just thought it was a beautiful time.”

Right now, about 95 percent of Americans are under lockdown orders of some kind. The vast majority of churches are not meeting in person but are cobbling together new forms of community and worship online. Meanwhile, more than 15,000 people and counting have died from COVID-19, and more than 400,000 have been confirmed infected. It is a national season of fear, sickness, and loneliness, with no definitive end in sight.

For spiritual leaders, that raises the stakes of their sermons this weekends. “These are times where people are asking the most important questions in all the world, and we need to answer them wisely,” Virginia pastor David Platt said by email. “I believe this Sunday presents an opportunity like never before in most any of our lifetimes.” At McLean Bible Church, Platt will wrap up a five-week sermon series this weekend titled “Peace in a Pandemic,” which started the first week the church went online-only. The culminating sermon will be drawn from the story of Jesus raising a girl from the dead, a reminder that for Christians, “sickness and death do not have the last word.”

For churches following a lectionary—a fixed calendar of biblical texts—the passages for this week’s service have been decided long in advance. For the online service at Englewood Christian Church in Indianapolis, pastor Katy Lines will be preaching from the resurrection story as depicted in the Gospel of Mark. Mark’s account ends on an ominous note that can be challenging for preachers in normal times. The final scene depicts several of Jesus’ female followers discovering the empty tomb; but instead of celebrating, they flee, “trembling and bewildered.” The last sentence in most versions reads: “They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” “Nobody really likes that ending,” Lines said. “But I love that this is the Gospel text for this Easter, because the reality is we are in that place of disappointment and dissatisfaction.”

For Blackmon, who is also an executive leader of her denomination, this difficult season has special resonance for her as the pastor of a black church. The virus appears to be infecting and killing black people at higher rates than average in many places. “We have this history in the African American community of being presumed dead and rising again,” she said, summarizing a history spanning from the trans-Atlantic slave trade through contemporary police brutality. “That’s the hope of Easter, too.”

Easter is usually the highest church attendance day of the year, and the scene of a lot of bells and whistles: flower arrangements, fancy hats, elaborate musical performances, special events for children. “It’s the Super Bowl of Sundays,” said Paul Baudhuin, pastor of Aldersgate United Methodist Church near Minneapolis. This year, before the pandemic arrived, his church had planned an egg hunt for children after the service, a cinnamon roll spread, and a photo booth. Now, those plans have been scrapped, and Baudhuin will be preaching solo into a simple camera. “The beauty of this, if there’s anything beautiful right now, is the church is able to just be the church, and not be bothered by the competition and the marketing,” he said. “So much of the show has been stripped away that it’s a little bit liberating.”

Still, many churchgoers this Sunday will be grieving the absence of those traditions, and struggling to feel optimistic on a day that promises hope. For Platt, an Easter in darkness is a reminder of what the holiday has always been about. “This world is not as it should be: It is filled with sickness, suffering, and death,” he said. “But Easter reminds us that God has not left us alone in this world.”