Aleta Payne: Easter at the altar of my kitchen table

Photo illustration by Jessamyn Rubio

Worshipping online Easter Sunday was an extraordinary experience filled with joy and grief, writes the associate editor of Faith & Leadership.

The tears surprised me. On Easter Sunday, I cried in a way I haven’t since all of this started two weeks into Lent. It wasn’t just a delicate drop slipping down my cheek but big messy tears, a mix of joy and grief, anxiety and peace.

Alleluia. Christ is risen.
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia.

For the fifth Sunday in a row, I sat through church service dressed in yoga pants, coffee cup nearby. I wept before the computer screen on our kitchen table, now my altar and my office. It is by far the longest I have gone without setting foot inside our church building in more than 20 years.

For the first Easter morning in my memory, I was not physically present in a sanctuary. Instead, apart and together, I worshipped with people who are precious to me, watching on Facebook as our rector led us through the Book of Common Prayer’s Holy Eucharist for Easter Day.

From an altar ringed with lilies, in front of pews that would ordinarily have been full, the priest, our deacon and three musicians offered a beautiful service that meant more to me than any other Easter has.

It was all that it could be in this time -- and more than I had expected.

In the Episcopal tradition, we begin anticipating Easter on Ash Wednesday. The days between them are a marathon of introspection; Holy Week marks the final, painful miles. You know that joy and celebration are coming, but you must first endure the heart-wrenching stretch at the end. All of that has felt far closer this year.

Our clergy and lay leaders, like so many others, quickly pivoted in how to attend to this unprecedented season, helping keep us connected.

As a result, instead of making the now-instinctive three right turns and two lefts from our driveway to the church, I took part remotely in a Lenten book study on Zoom. Discussion of Howard Thurman’s “Jesus and the Disinherited” was interrupted by an occasional request to mute a microphone or a random pause to allow someone’s internet to finish buffering so we could hear them.

The same for committee meetings, where more people were wearing baseball caps than I’d ever seen -- even in our casual congregation.

I watched the celebration of Sunday Eucharist online, grateful for the eternal nature of the liturgy.

Through these days, we have been challenged and strengthened, forced to surrender some old ways and to poke at some tender places we’d been avoiding. We have gained from that.

Yet I still grieve.

I am mindful that my losses are small in comparison to what many people have experienced, and that puts my sadness in perspective. Others have endured trauma in ways that I have not.

But I feel the loss of the Eucharist and the music that anchored my week. I miss the human contact of exchanging the peace or extending a hard hug to a young person home for break. I miss the retired clergywoman who shared the pew with me, as well as what she’d been reading lately. I miss the time before and after service -- wee ones skittering to church school, quick conversations to check on elderly parents in another state. I miss in-person church committee meetings with the conversation veering wildly off topic and everyone ending up laughing.

Church is liturgy and proclamation, yes. But it is also those small, unscripted moments that I have mourned mightily. There is something unique each Sunday that the congregation collectively creates.

I grieve that we have been missing that -- but I don’t regret its absence. I fully recognize that our time apart lives into Jesus’ commandment to his disciples on Maundy Thursday that we love one another. As much as we have missed each other’s physical presence, it has been necessary.

Church extends far beyond an individual building or a single holy day. Church happens in youth-led evening prayer on summer mission trips. It happens when we confront our privilege in the face of injustice toward our siblings.

It happens in quiet conversations with our elders as they draw us into God’s overwhelming presence with stories of their lessons, losses and loves. In those ways, I recognize that church cannot be contained within structures. It is people and shared philosophy and action out of a moral call.

This extraordinary Easter Sunday, the days that preceded it and the days yet to come have given me respect for church services offered remotely as a way to worship in community when we cannot be gathered together. This time has reinforced for me, however, that the gathered community matters as well.

The end of isolation and return to presence will mark a new season in the church. I look forward to its celebration.