For many U.S. Christians, this weekend marks the first time since 2019 that they will gather in person on Easter Sunday, a welcome chance to celebrate one of the year's holiest days side by side with fellow congregants.
The pandemic erupted in the country in March 2020, just ahead of Easter, forcing many churches to resort to online or televised worship. Many continued to hold virtual services last spring after a deadly winter wave of the coronavirus and as vaccination campaigns were still ramping up. But this year more churches are opening their doors for Easter services with few COVID-19 restrictions, in line with broader societal trends.
Among them are Catholic parishes in the Archdiocese of Boston, which since last June has once again required most churchgoers to attend Mass in person — though those with health risks may still watch remotely, and pastors have been asked to make space for social distancing in churches.
MC Sullivan, chief health care ethicist for the archdiocese, said celebrating Mass communally is important to how Catholics profess their faith. Church attendance has been trending upward, and parishioners are excited to gather again to commemorate Christ's resurrection.
"It has been quite wonderful to see how well-attended Mass is right now. ... It seems to have brought a lot of people back to the idea of what's important to them," she said.
While most pandemic restrictions have been lifted, some area parishes are holding Easter Sunday services outside, including a 6 a.m. sunrise Mass near the waterfront in South Boston.
Hundreds of people lit candles in the vast Cathedral of St. Paul, Minnesota, after Archbishop Bernard Hebda blessed the fire and lit the Paschal Candle to open the Easter Vigil service late Saturday.
The century-old cathedral echoed with the singing of the congregation as candles flickered in the darkness. Well past 8 p.m., wide-eyed children fascinated by the little flames and the cantors far outnumbered people wearing masks – the archdiocese rescinded all COVID protocols on April 1, while allowing the faithful and individual parishes to retain precautions if they wishes
Similarly the nearby Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, which became a community hub during protests over George Floyd's killing in 2020, ended its mask requirement as of Palm Sunday and returned to shoulder-to-shoulder communion at the rail instead of in the pews. Ingrid Rasmussen, the pastor, said Easter attendance was expected to be similar to pre-pandemic levels — but split between those in pews and those joining remotely.
Christ Church Lutheran, an architectural landmark also in Minneapolis, is taking a cautious approach to loosening COVID protocols. But while masks and social distancing measures remain in place, there was an indoor Easter Vigil Saturday night, to be followed by a gospel procession to the middle of the sanctuary Sunday.
"The gift of being in the same physical space for the first time in three years is so grounding and beautiful," said Miriam Samuelson-Roberts, the pastor. "We do not take it for granted."
Peace Lutheran Church in Baldwin, Wisconsin, was holding Easter in the sanctuary again after spending 16 months hosting services, baptisms and funerals in the parking lot, surrounded by fields and dairy farms. But services continue to be broadcast via social media and local TV — that has been successful in attracting people from other communities.
"One thing I am certain is that should we have to restrict our gatherings — for any reason — we will certainly be drawing on our resources to 'meet people where they are,'" said John Hanson, pastor.
In New York City, Middle Collegiate Church was gathering for its first in-person Easter service since 2019, only not in their historic Manhattan church, which was destroyed by fire two Decembers ago.
While they rebuild, they're sharing space at East End Temple, where Rabbi Joshua Stanton will offer a prayer during the Easter celebration — at a time when the synagogue is observing its own holy days of Passover.
The Rev. Jacqui Lewis, Middle Collegiate's senior minister, said everyone will have to be "vaxxed and masked," and attendance in the 190-person temple is being capped at 150. Those leading the service, plus choir singers and musicians, took rapid COVID tests. Coffee hour will be outdoors, in the park across the street.
"We'll miss it, but we will not hug for passing the peace. We'll just bow to each other," Lewis said. "We are watching numbers and will pivot as we need to stay safe."
Just north of the city in Westchester County, Bedford Presbyterian Church also was keeping a close eye on local infection rates and following public health guidelines. The congregation will split into two in-person Easter services to allow for social distancing, the sanctuary's windows will remain open and the church will use heavy-duty air purifiers.
"Ministers juggle a lot of concerns and expectations as we head into our third Easter with COVID looming," said the Rev. Carol Howard Merritt, the senior pastor. "We know church wards off isolation and builds up community, so we try to figure out ways to worship in person and online."
Additional reporting by the Associated Press.