The Holiness of Celebrating in Isolation
Over the next few weeks, the Abrahamic Religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – will observe important holy days. Jews will recall their exodus from Egypt during Passover, an 8-day observance beginning April 8. Christians will celebrate the resurrection of Jesus on April 12. And Ramadan, the Muslim month of prayer, fasting, and introspection, begins April 23.
Hospitality and open doors are typically at the heart of these observances. During these holy days, we celebrate the Divine presence with shared communal experiences involving large gatherings in houses of worship — be they synagogues, churches, or mosques — usually culminating with family gatherings and large feasts. But these are not typical times. The global pandemic and the public health measures being asked of us have disrupted our lives in tremendous ways, and this year we are forced to observe these holy days in isolation.
It is not easy to let go of familiar rituals, nor is it possible to entirely separate them from the holidays themselves. Rituals developed to preserve and protect sacred stories. For instance, the nightly iftar meal, that ends each day of fasting during Ramadan, traditionally starts with dates, which the Prophet Muhammad was said to have eaten to break his fast. Our forerunners carefully recorded the histories of holy men and women, and we do our best to imitate them, even after hundreds of years. We have a wealth of instruction for how to comport ourselves. When these instructions are interrupted, we feel unsettled.
This holiday season we are being asked to loosen our grip on some of our rituals. When our Seder dinner tables have many empty chairs, our Easter masses and lunches are interrupted, our Eid celebration isolated, we can focus on the events these holy days recall. The unfamiliar circumstances triggered by this illness call us to reexamine these stories, to look at them with fresh eyes.
In doing so, we find that the original sacred stories and events all took place with profoundly solitary encounters with the Divine. In the Passover story, Jewish families were commanded to spend the night in their homes as the Divine presence passed by, providing protection and, eventually, liberation. That first Easter Sunday, depending on the biblical account, the Divine presence, manifested in the resurrected Jesus, appeared first not to a crowd, but to a few women in an empty garden. And near the end of Ramadan, on the Laylat al-Qadr, the Prophet Muhammad received the first verses of the Quran while praying alone in a cave near Mecca. Today, these sacred stories call for communal celebration, but the individual experiences they narrate took place in virtual isolation.
By focusing on the meaning of each of these sacred observances, we can take this strange season as an opportunity for spiritual growth, a source of strength rather than disappointment. Social distancing calls on us to change our actions to protect each other. We are reminded of how our actions truly affect one another. Social distancing is, in some ways, a prayerful act, one oriented towards the same Ultimate Good around which all religions center themselves. Although it disrupts the festivals that particular faith traditions practice, it offers us a new kind of communal celebration, one which invokes our interconnectedness across differences of thought and practice.
Periods of crisis and fear, grief and struggle, are where faith becomes paramount. So while this illness interrupts the rituals by which we practice our faith, it simultaneously calls for our faith to flourish. In each of the sacred stories celebrated in the coming days, the Divine presence is revealed in surprising and unexpected ways. The Passover story is about the Divine presence offering protection and liberation, illuminating a way forward. The resurrection story of Easter celebrates that the Divine power is greater than the power that diminishes life. Ramadan reminds believers how intimately the Divine is involved in each of their lives. Each movement reassures us that the Divine is with us, even when the worst seems to be happening, or when we feel most alone or isolated. We usually come together to recognize the Divine presence through connection with one another. Perhaps this year, during quarantine, we will recognize the Divine in a more palpable way.
What we remember most about these sacred stories is that tears and struggle end with joy. This time of restriction, isolation, and anxiety is painful, and it requires intense sacrifice from all of us. This is especially difficult for religious communities who find joyous holidays disrupted. But perhaps, like the stories of our holy days, our time of suffering, sacrifice, and isolation will end in joy. By committing to the painful measures required of us now, we are acting out of communal faith and hope—that our lives will be spared, our burdens lessened, and our community restored.
-Jim Poinsett, IPSTL Executive Director
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