An Easter Pageant for a Pandemic Year

This year, we have done things differently. Worship has been different and there have been surprises.

There are things that have happened in worship that never would have been possible if we had not been forced into online worship for the care of every beloved child of God. Sometimes, different is good. It invites us to dream. It challenges us to imagine what else is possible.

It might even challenge us to take risks.

A pageant might not feel like that much of a risk because our first association is so often the costumes on the sweet cherubs that refuse to stay in the chancel and tell the story of Jesus’ birth. It especially might not feel risky because so many of the pageants I saw online this past Christmas were so wonderful. They had all of the wonder and all of the joy that warms our hearts every other year.

The risk, instead, is in telling the story of death and resurrection in a way that speaks to this moment. It does not feel faithful to leap into the good news of new life when so much has been lost this year. We still need to find space to lament and grieve. We need to honor the liminal space we still find ourselves in waiting for the world to change again.

The risk is inviting households within your church family to tell this story in a way that is meaningful to them.

This Year is a pageant for this pandemic year that encourages creativity and honest storytelling for asynchronous worship. It offers scripted narration that might be shared between two or more narrators and detailed explanation for each of the seven scenes including Last Supper Preparations where Peter has to make a curbside pick-up for provisions and a brief scene where we feel the heaviness of our grief in seeing Mary weep. It is a telling of how hope comes alive in that focuses on that space between death and new life so there is a scene where the disciples are Trapped in an Upper Room. It is familiar to us what their feelings may have been because we have felt that tension build in our closest relationships while in quarantine. My favorite moment might actually be where the tension breaks and the disciples try to do something normal and familiar. They go fishing but there is an invitation to share images and videos of what so-called normal feels like now.

There are other video clips, as we have chosen to call them, where the beloved community can share the wonder and glory of their garden. That was inspired by the church member in my first call that would bring photos of her garden to the church office each week. It is our hope that this isn’t a story that is just told by the youngest in the congregation but an invitation to tell the story in a meaningful way for every age.

There are music suggestions included as the story unfolds from the Gospel of Mark. We chose to include both endings in the gospel telling where there is space for both terror and amazement and space for proclamation of the good news. I love how this script evolved in collaboration with Skyler Keiter-Massefski.

Years ago when Skyler was wee, we sat at their parent’s kitchen counter for one afternoon during Christmas Break and wrote a fresh new pageant for the church I then served as their pastor. Skyler was a determined youth with strong ideas who had just confirmed their baptism the year before. I remember that it wasn’t too much later after that that I wondered aloud if Skyler might consider the ministry.

Now, Skyler is a candidate for the Masters of Divinity at Yale even though I told them to go to my alma mater. They are busy presenting brilliant ideas at the Academy of American Religion and caring for children and youth at the South Amherst Congregational Church where they have already generated enthusiasm and excitement about this script. I am so humbled they said yes to collaboration on this project and so grateful for the wisdom and creativity they shared.

As we were chatting about this project, we didn’t just want to make space for the grief of this past year. We also wanted to provide moments for each congregation to celebrate the ministry that has been done and the ministry that awaits. This Year begins and concludes with opportunities to celebrate and remember. It gives an opportunity to look forward to what hope looks like in this particular place at this particular time as resurrection becomes real again. You can purchase this full and complete script with suggestions for props, costumes and locations here.

I am so excited to share this pageant for this pandemic year and hope it is a blessing to each congregation that chooses to share in its story during Holy Week. As always, dear pastors, I offer it to you this resource for purchase with many prayers for your faithful ministry in this season and beyond.

Holy Week in Coronatide

I hadn’t yet started writing pandemic prayers when Holy Week came along last year. Like so many, I was blissfully unaware of what was ahead. We had cancelled a vacation that we will actually be venturing into next week. My husband had just redeployed from Korea. I have had a mental block about how closely related all of these events were. We weren’t really sure what was happening but I remember my friends were already tired. They were just trying to figure out this whole wild new world of online worship and were struggling with the technology so much that I’ve never heard it said that seminary never taught this.

I had to remind myself of that when I went looking for what I had offered last year because it feels like I’ve been doing this a long time, but it hasn’t been a year yet. Not for me. Not for this practice of caring for my colleagues in ministry. I didn’t start this project until after Easter came and went. We still believed that it would only be a few more months and I thought I could write weekly prayers for a few months. I love writing liturgy after all. Why not?

It wouldn’t be the same kind of experience this year though. We still find ourselves in this liminal space between what was and what could be. We are keenly aware that something is coming but it is not here yet. That is what interests me this year and how I hope to imagine these high holy days.

Palm Sunday

I still want there to be a parade this year. I want there to be the pageantry and the sense that things are going to change. The world can and will turn upside down when hope parades through our streets. Maybe it would look something like this with strikers and spirit signs. Or maybe it could be adapted from this interactive liturgy. I wanted to write one of my own but I haven’t had the inspiration yet. I’m still thinking about it.

I also wanted to offer something that might tell the whole story of these high holy days that might be something special but totally different from what we usually do at Easter.

I found that I was not the only one with this brilliant idea and most of these good souls got these materials out way faster than I did. Glenys Nellist offers a lovely adaptation of her new children’s book as an Easter Pageant. There is a super brief version offered by Carolyn Brown on Worshipping with Children. Church Publishing offers both a Passion Play and an Easter Walk. Illustrated Ministry recently released their Easter Pageant and I think any one of these would be a wonderful way to begin the week in worship.

I recruited one of my former youth who has now become a colleague as a brilliant third year seminarian to write a version of my own. We had written one together when they were wee in one afternoon — and I could think of no one better to create something meaningful for this season. Ours is a little different from those that I’ve previewed (and I haven’t gotten my hands on all of these wonders to review them) because we really wanted this telling of the good news to reflect what good news feels like right now in another pandemic Holy Week. It includes lots of opportunities for people of all ages to act, sing, film and share photographs that help to tell the story in a meaningful way within that community. We also really wanted something that would not be exhausting to edit into a seamless video to launch on Sunday morning and pray that we were able to accomplish just that. You can purchase This Year: An Eager Pageant for a Pandemic Year here.

If neither of these possibilities interest you, you might be interested in this complete liturgy for Palm and Passion Sunday or these other prayers for the drama of the whole week that I wrote a few years ago. I also really love this poem for this year especially. I found it last year but I really love it for this year.

Maundy Thursday

I recently got lost in gorgeous collection of illustrated poetry within the OnBeing YouTube channel. I’m imagining a service particular to this day centered around this favorite pandemic poem that I will soon share but I also can’t quite escape the questions about what it means to gather at table when we cannot be in the same place.

I wonder about the number of businesses that have struggled to survive as the pandemic has raged on and the amazing kindness of people who feel called to feed the hungry in all kinds of different ways. After all, the table is a metaphor for the world we imagine. It is always an invitation to possibility. I wonder about how we care for each other and how we talk about the kind of love that we are called to be in the Gospel Lesson for this holy day. I might use this song to explore this possibility.

Though this is available on YouTube, please support artists for their creativity. The Many offer this video for congregational use through the Convergence Worship Project.

Maybe this is a day where worship doesn’t happen online in any form but it is a day of service like this church did.

Maybe what is offered instead is a project to care for neighbors in this pandemic with a soundtrack to sustain the work and a big pot of vegetarian chili waiting in the church parking lot for people to nourish their bodies and souls after doing things with great love. That meal could be blessed with this Blessing of the Meal from enfleshed or you might opt for one of these Communion Liturgies. I’d be enclined to opt for the one entitled In the Uncertainty. That seems to name it all right now. I don’t think I need to say this but just in case: please don’t do a seder of any kind. If you are even a tiny bit tempted, read this.

Good Friday

I have never liked the violence that comes with the traditional observances of this day. I don’t know if this would be the year that I would tackle atonement theory but I’m glad to know that there is something out there for understanding the cross — and the good people at the SALT Project even though to make it a take home resource.

I wonder if there is another way to speak to the grief of lost life especially after so much has been lost this year. Maybe you wouldn’t do this in other years but what if this year, there was just lament on Good Friday. It was a space to grieve all that has been lost. You might opt for a using this pay-and-play service from The Many or these prayers collected by Sojourners that particularly speak to the loss that has become way too familiar in this pandemic. Another option would be this poem entitled simply God’s Grief.

Or you might allow the liturgy for the dying from your tradition structure how this holy observance feels. There is something about these familiar words that will care for the most broken parts of our hope. Somehow it feels like this could fit into that worship experience.

Jan Richardson shares the particulars on permissions for her work here.

I might also include this poem on The Seven Last Words. I would also be inclined to add to this worship experience any number of these prayer poems for grief and loss from enfleshed. They also offer this contemplative service of story and song among their free resources for Good Friday. This lovely prayer for healing might be a good fit too.

If you don’t opt for an Easter Pageant at some other point this week, or even if you do, you could host an Online Stations of the Cross including the gifts of these Illustrated Ministry Coloring Posters and a separate devotional, Virtual Stations from Busted Halo or possibly the Easter Story Walk in the packet of goodies from ‘Twas the Morning of Easter. Weather permitting, this could also be done as an outside event with large posters made at a local printer posted along the edge of the church parking lot or another smooth open space. Building Faith also offers this Way of the Cross with a video meditation and reflection guide that could also fit into this realm of possibility.

Or you could tell the story in worship using one of the many scripts that Joanna Harader faithfully provides on her blog Spacious Faith. I think this one might be most friendly to an online format. Living Liturgies also offers a contemplative Tenebrae-like service for Good Friday full of light and bravely naming the hardest parts of this story. Praying Light into the Shadows is available for download for a $20 fee for congregational use.

Holy Saturday

This is the day where nothing happens. We gather on Good Friday and then again to wonder about what has happened when most of us went about our ordinary lives. In this time that is far from ordinary, invite your people into the tomb. It doesn’t need to be somber or depressing. It can be expectant. There should be a sense that something is happening but it hasn’t come yet and we are going to do our thing by singing that hope into being after gathering songs of struggle and hope that are beloved by your members and share that playlist on Spotify to accompany the waiting between what is and what will be. (Roll Away the Stone by the Mumford Sons would be my addition to such a list.) Or instead encourage your people to go on Resurrection Awe Walks to hunt for signs of hope in their neighborhoods.

The church I served in South Portland, Maine held a vigil from after the Good Friday service through the Sunrise Service on Easter. The Christ Candle was carried from the Sanctuary to the Chapel where two or three would keep watch in two hours shifts all night. Prayer books were provided in this time of silent meditation. This seems possible online with hourly prayers led by deacons, elders or someone capable and generous that is also not you, dear pastor. These hourly invitations to prayer could be streamed to Facebook or another chosen platform and an eternal flame thing could stand vigil on the church building steps or a candle in an online chat room. I’m less certain of that part but I think that the hourly calls to prayer would be lovely.

Resurrection Sunday

Just as I shared a bonfire experience for Ash Wednesday, I am offering a free liturgy for an Easter Watch Service. It’s not really a sunrise service and not even close to the full drama of the Easter Vigil but if your people are looking to gather at a safe distance and share in some spark of hope, this Easter Watch Service might be what you need. You can read more about this special service here.

There is this gorgeous Communion Liturgy for this day by Joanna Harader and this invitation to possibility might be a wonderful way to begin this service of exploring the resurrection this year. I could link all day to Maren Tirabassi’s gorgeous poems for these high holy days. I have them saved in my files and use them year after year but I am particularly curious about this Latvian tradition of hanging swings. What a fun way for a church to celebrate Easter that is socially distant and playful. I can’t resist linking to this poem she offers inspired by another favorite by Howard Thurman. Easter Sunday might also be when you encourage your people to find words to speak to this wondrous power of resurrection in their own words. I offer Pandemic Easter Affirmations for just this reason and hope that it gives you a break to find hope again in fresh words of brave faith.

I don’t tend to include ideas for the blessings bags that I know many of you send home but you might want to include this Easter Scavenger Hunt to encourage the searching that we all do in the unknown. If you frame it this way for parents, it will add depth to their participation though this framing will make little sense to young children. I also shared a Pandemic Neighborhood Easter Egg Hunt with coloring sheets suggestions that could be mailed out and posted in windows for a socially distanced hunt in the neighborhoods among your church community.

I would also keep an eye on the Brim Worship Project as they will soon release materials for Holy Week. I hope that this offers inspiration to your worship planning. Though it has become my custom to offer these seasonal roundups in my newsletter, I decided to mix it up and offer it instead in the pages of my blog and I pray it wasn’t posted too late. I am also working on a similar roundup of Eastertide resources in my newsletter.

I pray blessings upon you dear pastors for all of the wonder and hope you are busy creating for this holy and tender time. I pray that you are taking extra good care of your sweet soul in this season by calling your spiritual director and coach for the support you need along with that particular cohort of clergy that you can be most yourself even if it is over Zoom. It’s not like all the other Zoom you’re doing right now. I’m praying for you to find joy and hope this Easter. May the resurrection work its wonder through your entire being.

Waiting for Resurrection in Coronatide

Easter will come just as it has every year before because resurrection is promised. It happens even when we cannot fully comprehend its possibility. Resurrection still happens.

I have been thinking a lot about hope this Lent. I’ve been thinking about its texture and its sensation. It can come to live inside us and it can feel as distant as the setting sun. Glorious but incomprehensible to the ordinariness of our lives — and our lives have been so ordinary in this pandemic. We have not traveled. We haven’t visited with those that we love most for fear of infection. Death has been so close.

Death is still too close but hope does not give up. It doesn’t sound like there will be widespread of the vaccines for COVID-19 until later this summer. There are other concerns in our world. Or there should be as we struggle against the powers of white supremacy and Christian nationalism and maybe Easter can be that grand celebration where we have overcome all of these terrors. Maybe. To me, it feels like we need to remember this year — and maybe every year — that hope is not always triumphant.

Sometimes hope is quiet and gentle. Hope is a flicker of creativity or.a hint of possibility.

It may not be apparent. It might not be something we all see or feel but something we have to believe into our own reality.

It might be something that actually requires witnesses where we need other people to be there to see and hear this thing. We don’t want to be alone in this moment. We need others to be there with us.

It is everything that I’ve ever felt in those early morning experiences of waiting for the sun to rise on Easter morning. I am not a morning person and this is a feat of God for me to even be at this service. It is even more miraculous if I am the one leading this service but there is something quiet and powerful about the hope that is felt in those services. It’s not the loudness of the festival worship that happens in the sanctuary later that morning.

It is an expectant kind of hope.

I wanted to create something like that for this year. Something that was full of expectation of what could be when we overcome the terrors of the present. Something that would invite us to watch and wait together. Easter Watch is that something. It is available to you here for free.

Unlike the bonfire experience I created for Ash Wednesday, I wanted something that could happen as a worship event outside. It would be masked. It would be possible to maintain six feet so that even those that are not vaccinated could watch and wait in community.

It is adapted from a service I created years ago while I was an interim pastor for a tiny church in rural Pennsylvania. They were used to a sunrise service in the graveyard behind their church but they knew that it couldn’t be that this year. The forecast wouldn’t make it safe for any of us to traverse that uneven ground. So much had already changed there anyway. This could change too so that there was an opportunity to gather and wait for the good news to come. It needed to be different because they were different than they were the year before.

That service had more of the familiar notes of an Easter Vigil but this one is really focused around quiet contemplation around a bonfire as the sun begins to rise. It’s a service to welcome the possibility without knowing really what will come next and I pray a worshipful experience that invites each participant to make hope come alive. As with Fire & Ashes, it is a simple pamphlet that can be shared among the worshipping community. It doesn’t require an ordained leader but invites a few voices to speak between the silences of personal meditation.

The one thing that it doesn’t include is music and I think there could be music. I just don’t think it should be music that requires lugging a laptop or a portable speaker to make it beautiful. It feels like the kinds of experience where a talented musician or soloist (or both) could offer some familiar Easter hymns to make this worshipful experience even more wonderful.

It does, however, require a few worship elements for this worship experience to happen including:

  • Firewood
  • Twigs and sticks
  • Matches, lighter or other tool to start fire
  • Large pitcher full of water
  • Large vessel like a bowl
  • Shovels

As with other things I offer, it is yours to adapt and imagine into new life. I hope it’s a blessing to you this Holy Week as you wait for the power of resurrection to become real.

May it be so.

Recipe for a Pandemic Neighborhood Easter Egg Hunt

Worship is not the only thing that adds flavor to congregational life. We are nourished by times of fellowship and times of service. As we approach the season of Lent again, I’ll be sharing more recipes for ministry. If you read my newsletter, you might have caught on to the fact that I have had grand intentions of making this happen since Advent.

I’m hoping that these are recipes that can be shared with the talented people within your congregation so that this year you, dear pastor, are able to encourage others to get cooking. I hope that the steps are all there and it’s just as easy as saying, “Hey! Look at this! Wouldn’t this be fun?”

When the pandemic first began, there were rainbows in many windows. There were hunts of different kinds for stir-crazy kids to get out of the house and share in an adventure. We didn’t live in a place where this happened but I loved seeing the posts others shared. I hope that this Easter Egg Hunt fills the void for all of those who were a little jealous like me.

Here is the recipe to share with your people to cook up some fun.

There are a whole lot of Easter Egg coloring sheets online and I picked one that had a lot of options. You can find those options at Paint the World here or you can Google and find the many other free options. I chose eggs that were a bit more simple. If you have an older congregation with not so many kids, you might opt for fancier eggs that are more complex to color. I do not believe that this activity for congregational fun has to be limited to children. We all need a dose of fresh air and hunting for eggs transforms the neighborhood path we have trod so often with a little more fun.

If you have a congregation that is geographically disperse, this might be more complicated. It might take more than 20 minutes but it may also be worth the extra time to focus your egg hunt in one neighborhood where there are the most church members. If you opt for this, you will need to encourage masks and social distancing especially if the entire congregation will drive to that neighborhood after church. Even with the vaccine slowly rolling out, there isn’t a place in our country where it is possible to skip these precautions. You’d have to insure there’s ample parking too which sounds frustrating but maybe there are businesses downtown that would be willing to display eggs. Or maybe there is another possibility I’m not imagining.

Please comment with your brilliant ideas to share the creative hope of this season. I look forward to sharing some more recipes with you soon. Until then, please know that you are in my prayers dear pastor. You are in so many of my prayers.