[Episcopal News Service] Although Washington National Cathedral’s seats were empty on March 15, thousands of people attended its 11:15 Sunday service via livestream to virtually celebrate the Eucharist and hear a sermon from Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, who preached on the power of love in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic that has led to the suspension of in-person worship across The Episcopal Church.
“We will fight this particular contagion, and all other preexisting social contagions, by the disciplined labor of love,” Curry said. “Love working through medical folk, love working through leaders, love working through each one of us who can help and heal – maybe in small ways, but add them up and they make a profound difference.”
Avoiding large gatherings like church services is one way people can prevent the spread of the new coronavirus, which is increasingly wreaking havoc on economies and health care systems around the world. As of the morning of March 15, at least 2,815 people in 49 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico have tested positive for the coronavirus in the United States, according to a New York Times database, and at least 59 patients with the virus have died.
The livestreamed service opened with a shot of the veiled cross on the cathedral’s high altar – a reminder that this was the third Sunday in the penitential season of Lent – followed by a view of the strangely quiet and empty main altar. The sound of an organ prelude broke the silence, and from then on, the service – with the Very Rev. Randy Hollerith, dean of the cathedral, presiding – was almost like any other, with some notable exceptions. Classic hymns like “Come, thou fount of every blessing” and “Amazing grace” (though still marked in the program as “Sung by all”) were led by four singers instead of a full choir, and the altar party’s seats were much farther apart than usual, reflecting the practice of “social distancing” recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the Eucharistic prayers were altered to reflect the reality that those watching could not receive the sacrament.
Washington Bishop Mariann Budde, who was self-quarantined at home after a possible exposure to the virus, recorded a video for the service welcoming those watching from home and dedicating it to the memory of Bishop Barbara Harris, the first female bishop in the Anglican Communion, who died on March 13 at age 89.
Though the readings were pre-selected through the church’s lectionary cycle, they seemed to fit the occasion. The Old Testament reading from Exodus told of the Israelites suffering in the wilderness and feeling abandoned by God, while the passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans said that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.”
Though Curry did not preach on the Gospel reading appointed for the day, he noted that it, too, seemed appropriate for a day when the centuries-old ritual of communal worship was upended. In the passage from John 4, a Samaritan woman asks Jesus whether it is holier to worship God on a mountain or in a temple and he replies, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
“Those ancient words speak to us who have to worship online or at a distance,” Curry said in a statement sent to Episcopal News Service. “On the mountain top or in the church building isn’t important. In spirit and in truth is what matters. So on livestreams or in a church building, all that matters is to worship God in spirit and truth.”
Curry’s sermon, recorded from his home in North Carolina, blended practical guidance for living through the pandemic with spiritual insight. He spoke of soap as a metaphor for love: a deceptively simple, age-old substance with great power that is still the best tool for fighting off something harmful.
“I’ve taken to washing my hands with soap and water more frequently and for longer periods of time than I had before,” Curry said. “While vaccines and effective treatment and various social changes are all part of the equation, soap really helps.
“It may well be when we hear the word ‘love,’ it sounds simplistic or just sentimental,” Curry continued, but it is more relevant and necessary than ever. He urged Christians to be “contagious with love” and shared a story of his own experience of love in the face of illness. When Curry’s father was in the hospital after a stroke, Curry’s aunt rubbed his father’s leg and sang to him, just as Curry’s grandmother had done when his father suffered from polio as a boy. That gesture of love transcended time and reached through to Curry’s father, if only for a moment.
Curry closed as he opened, with the familiar Sunday school song “Jesus loves me,” the same simple tune that his aunt and grandmother sang to comfort his father.
– Egan Millard is an assistant editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.