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Faith traditions look for hope in face of pandemic

While April traditionally is a month filled with varied religious observances, the reality of life during a pandemic means that many of the traditions that normally are observed by large groups have been unexpectedly sidelined.

From the Jewish celebration of Passover and the Christian observance of Easter to Theravada Buddhists celebrating the New Year; Vaisakhi, the Sikh New Year festival; and Ramadan, a month of fasting, prayer, reflection and community for Muslims, many faith traditions have found or are looking for creative ways to celebrate.

“They are all looking for something in the midst of this pandemic — either the Divine or the human being,” says David Carnish, manager for clinical pastoral education at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. “Most of our religious practices are tied to a vow to life at the center. There is awe and the highest commitment to life. Judaism’s focus on liberation from oppression and finding a community identity can invite us to join together as human beings and act in a way that liberates all of us through this pandemic. Christianity’s Holy Week is a week of grief. Perhaps, grieving what we are losing by not being together may actually grant us some measure of solidarity in this pandemic.”

Islamic prayer and fasting during Ramadan are also a way to focus on the divine in life and to realize our physical vulnerability and how a spiritual life holds humanity together, according to Carnish.

“Many people may be struggling with either where the divine is in the middle of the pandemic or where is another human being,” he says. “These traditions are reflecting a practice now of where my vow to life is. My vow to the human being is my vow of not being present with you but thinking and acting on behalf of you. To meditate on how being separated from you physically is my way to keep us safe and valued.”

For Christians who normally would gather to celebrate Holy Week and Easter, Penn State Health St. Joseph’s Vice President of Mission and Ministry Susan Sullivan suggests they use their core understanding of the holiday to make sense of the unprecedented illness, tragedy and protective distancing that is happening now.

“The belief that Jesus suffers for us and with us and that there is new life after loss and death are core understandings of Holy Week. But God is not distant. God is with us in our stress and struggles, our losses and uncertainties,” she says. “Family or individual prayer and reflection can help us creatively observe the upcoming Triduum and prayer for others seems particularly appropriate as well.”

Passover, which began April 8, is an eight-day Jewish festival that commemorates the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery. Families usually gather for Seder, a ritual feast that marks the start of the celebration.

“A family traditionally shares a meal together and the oldest and youngest member of the household are very important in passing on the story, which is their identity and heritage,” explains Carnish. “Unless they live together, many families will have to use technology as a way to come together.”

Tom Devaney, St. Joseph’s director of spiritual care, acknowledged that while many people will find it hard to celebrate the holidays without the physical presence of their loved ones, they should look to their faith tradition’s deeper meaning as a way to cope.

“If we get lost in who is not at the table or not in church, then we aren’t focusing on the real reason of the holidays,” he says. “The best way to cope is to focus on the meaning of the holiday, which is the promise of hope for tomorrow.”

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