A year later, Easter in Eagle County has a familiar look
Congregations big and small welcome the return of in-person worship after the pandemic kept them at a distance last year
The Easter message is enduring. This year, however, there’s an addendum — at least according to the Rev. Brooks Keith of the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration in Vail.
“The Easter acclimation is, ‘Christ is risen. The Lord is risen, indeed,’” Keith said. “To which I’m adding a third line: ‘So are we.’”
A year after the governor’s statewide stay-at-home order knocked local congregations flat, leaving clergy to deliver services through prerecorded broadcasts or livestreams, traditional Holy Week services across the valley this weekend will look a lot like they did pre-pandemic.
Congregations will be gathering indoors and outside to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ — and a return to normalcy, or at least something close to it, after a challenging year.
Still missing: the large ecumenical sunrise services held mid-mountain at Vail and Beaver Creek that have drawn crowds in the hundreds over the years. With Eagle County in Level Yellow on the state’s COVID-19 dial, the county’s current public health order prohibits gatherings of such sizes.
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Mountain Life Calvary Chapel, one of the valley’s larger congregations, will hold two services at the events center at 4 Eagle Ranch near Wolcott to accommodate bigger crowds. Some congregations are requiring registrations for attendees to limit crowds while smaller churches are capable of not doing so and still keeping worshipers at a safe distance together.
“As we navigate these awkward in-between times, celebrating the Resurrection of Jesus is all the more significant,” said Nate Morris, the lead pastor for Mountain Life. “As we are witnessing the arrival of spring, I’m reminded not only of the hope we have of emerging from the pandemic, but also the new life that we receive in Jesus.”
Mountain Life’s two services at 4 Eagle Ranch, at 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. Sunday, will each followed by an outdoor Easter egg hunt where participants will be required to wear masks. The services will be in the events center, which allows open air to travel through the enclosed space by opening its large rolling windows. Worshipers will still be required to wear masks. Mountain Life will also hold additional services at its Glenwood Springs and Edwards locations, and will also have an online-only option for those who prefer to stay home. Morris described the online-only Easter service to be a unique event that resembles an “Easter TV special.”
“For Christians, it’s more important and more symbolic this year than ever to celebrate and share Jesus’ love through our Easter services,” Morris said. “This means we have to get creative in the methods and tools we use to celebrate safely and responsibly. Last year, our Easter services were online-only, so we feel very blessed to be able to gather, even though things are a little different than normal. There is no time like now to celebrate hope, and what better hope than the hope we celebrate in Jesus at Easter.”
Staying together at a distance
Ethan Moore, the lead pastor at Trinity Church in Edwards, said his congregation has been worshiping in-person for months with masks and social distancing protocols in place. But he said he’s thrilled to return to a more traditional format for Holy Week services after the tumult of last year, when he and his staff had to figure out how to go virtual almost overnight.
“Last Easter, this was all brand new, unless you were a big church that already did video production,” he said. “We were learning this on the fly.”
Moore and his staff put together a prerecorded Easter service last April that tried to give congregants a sense of being together at a time when they were disconnected. It was a production that took a lot of work, from recording music at the church to meeting up with different congregants to record them reading scripture and then editing all the different parts together into one seamless program. Over the past 12 months, Moore said his church has gotten more tech-savvy, even building a little studio where he records his sermons to share online with congregants who can’t attend services.
But he said there’s nothing that compares to delivering those sermons to a crowd of worshipers — especially on Easter Sunday.
“We’re encouraging people to come and celebrate the beautiful weather and the Resurrection,” Moore said. “We desire for all the hardship and the awkwardness to be in the rear-view. Our focus is on Jesus, and good, and celebration and joy. Everything we’re doing, that’s where our focus is.”
The Rev. Scott Beebe of Mount of the Holy Cross Lutheran Church, which worships at both the Vail and Beaver Creek chapels, said he was amazed by the engagement he saw last spring when, like other congregations, worship went online.
For a small congregation, he said he was blown away that the livestream broadcast that Mount of the Holy Cross did for its Easter service got some 900 engagements, whether it was people watching it live or watching a recording of the service later that week.
Mount of the Holy Cross has continued to broadcast services over Zoom and Facebook Live, even as some congregants returned to in-person services starting in the summer. With an older congregation, being able to connect with church members who are still reluctant to return on Sunday has been a blessing, Beebe said.
“When we Zoom, when I set my laptop up there on the altar, I can see folks and it’s kind of fun, because they’re a lot closer,” Beebe said. “It feels more immediate.”
He also mentioned that a Zoom chat after the service, just like traditional post-service fellowship on Sundays, has been enlightening.
“At the end of church, a regular service, someone comes out and shakes your hand and says, ‘Nice sermon, pastor,’” he said. “And out they go. Now, with these Zoom chats, they’re really engaging and that’s where the conversation really gets going. For me, it has been a real rich experience.”
Beebe, like Moore, however, said nothing compares to delivering the gospel to a live audience.
“I will never take for granted being able to be in the presence of one another again,” he said. “Zoom is nice, but there’s just something about being physically present to one another that we’ve really missed, at least I have.”
Deeper roots from scattered seeds
For Keith, the challenges over the past year have only reinforced the mission for religious leaders and the churches they lead.
Pastors and churches, Keith said, have been on the front lines to assist with the second-order consequences brought on by the pandemic, from financial anxiety or food insecurity to behavioral health crises brought on by isolation, stress and COVID fatigue.
“Our theme this entire year has been deeper roots from scattered seeds,” he said. “If we can’t go out, we go down. I will tell you, I didn’t keep anybody together this year. We will be recovering an Episcopal church for the next year to year and a half. Our core is strong and durable. The edges are frayed and quiet. We have to go get them.”
One important step in that recovery comes this weekend as his congregation celebrates the Easter story.
“For Christians, it starts with the Resurrection of Jesus,” he said. “We don’t always say this clearly: Jesus brings us with him to new life. So there’s a great icon of Easter, and it’s Jesus rising from the grave, and he’s pulling Adam and Eve out of their tomb. And it’s like we’re getting yanked right up and out, too.”
Keith said he’s already looking forward to next year, with the hope that the popular sunrise services on both mountains will return. He expects them to be bigger and better than ever.
“Next year,” he said, “there won’t be enough mountain to hold us.”