While the curfew isn’t in effect for churches, some congregations are making changes on their own.
LEXINGTON – Christmas Eve brings religious services across Virginia. Just before midnight, millions of Christians worldwide will follow similar steps. They’ll attend a midnight service or, as the Catholic Church refers to it, a mass. However, this year, as with everything, COVID-19 has impacted the tradition.
In Rome at the Vatican, millions worldwide tune into Pope Francis’ midnight mass. This year, he will begin his service at 7:30 p.m., as the Italian government extends a national curfew through the Christmas season that requires residents to be home between the hours of 10 p.m. and 5 a.m.
Here in Virginia, things are a bit different. While Gov. Ralph Northam did order a curfew from midnight to 5 a.m. each day, it doesn’t actually affect church services. In fact, the document specifically says people are allowed to break the curfew when “traveling to and from one’s residence, place of worship, or work.”
But while churches aren’t affected by the curfew, Northam is asking religious leaders to voluntarily make changes.
“I strongly call on our faith leaders to lead the way and set an example for their members,” Northam said. “Worship with a mask on is still worship. Worship outside or worship online is still worship.”
How Churches Adapt
Churches across Virginia have made difficult choices because of COVID-19. In Blacksburg, Father Wade Miller adjusted his congregation’s typical gatherings at St. Phillips Anglican Church, meeting arrangements.
This year his church will have two Christmas Eve services at 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. Miller will send his homebound and high-risk congregation members recordings of the sermons and links to watch live stream service.
“The individual experience with God is not more important than the communal,” he said. “We (Anglicans) believe that God is not found in our heart but in the church. Our communion with God is solely in receiving Christ and then functioning as one body in love, which is the essence of what it means to be Christian.”
In Lexington, Manly Memorial Baptist Church is one of the last churches in the community that has not opened its doors to the public since March. With an older congregation at higher risk, Pastor Mike Wilkens opted to record a weekly “Encouraging Word” and a Sunday sermon posted to the church’s social media channels and YouTube.
This year on Christmas Eve, Wilkens will hold a virtual service.
“It would be easy to focus this Christmas on what is not happening,” Wilkens said. “The times of worship not occurring, the special services not taking places, the families and friends we won’t be able to see, in other words, all the things which we miss and we have lost. While it is true that this Christmas will lack some things, it will still have what matters most, Jesus!”
Rebecca Williams has attended a midnight eve service with her parents in Christiansburg since she was born. Now, at 27, she plans to travel home this Christmas Eve and attend a modified version.
“Masks will be required for the entirety of the service, and proper distancing of families between pews will be enforced,” she said. “Personally, midnight mass is my favorite service of the year because it is the most beautiful. The candlelight, holy incense, carols and the chanting of certain parts of the liturgy all bring the sacredness of the season to its height.”
Many churches also hold a communion service on Christmas Eve. Some churches have opted for a virtual communion and ask their members to buy crackers and juice or wine and participate from home. Miller, whose congregation usually takes communion from the same cup, has made changes.
“We do not kneel at the altar rail but socially distance in a line where each person receives the body and blood of Jesus Christ under the species of bread and not the chalice,” he said.
Miller’s church shut down from March to May when the pandemic first started, but he remains adamant that the in-person service is best.
“Receiving the Eucharist, the mystery of the body and blood of Jesus is the pinnacle of what we do,” he explained. “Hymns, sermons and prayers are a means to an end, but the end is communion with Christ. In-person worship is essential for our life together.”
Focus on the Message
Regardless of how folks choose to worship this year, many believers choose to focus on the message and not the means.
“I think COVID-19 has made us take inventory of the brevity of life so that we can prepare for the fact that life on earth has an expiration date,” said Williams. “We do not have singing and all the wonderful aspects of the service as we did prior to COVID, but Christ is surely with us and comes to dwell in us.”
What are churches in your area doing? Go through this directory, click on the church’s name and it’ll pull up their website, detailing their current status.
Erica Turman is a freelance reporter for Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected].