*Note: This essay was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette print edition on April 11, 2021. An image of the column is included below, as well as the text of the essay.

My first in-person church service in a year was this past Easter Sunday, a shaky blend of awkward joy that seemed to mark the next stage of society’s recovery from COVID-19.

That it was Easter seems spot-on. The Easter story in the Christian faith is about a miraculous rise from the dead, and the others that roll away an enormous boulder to reveal an empty tomb. Similarly, we’re just starting to push our own boulder aside, and hope to return to the miracle of pre-COVID life.

That’s why it felt so good to see the people that were once part of my family’s weekly routine. Of course it was just half their faces, but you could tell beneath the mask was a genuine smile. It was good to look up at that high ceiling, sit, and think. To feel as though you were in a special place. A place with heft. The beautiful wood, the stained glass, the marble and brass—the building feels important. It was good to be back.

But not all back. For years, our family’s entered from the east side of the building. COVID-19 protocol dictated entry from the west. Normal small-talk kept looping to our abnormal reality (i.e., the virus). There were uncomfortable moments too, like the guy who told a story about visiting a small town where nobody cared about wearing masks. His body language indicated the tale was a suggestion that masks are no longer necessary in our area, too. (While everybody wished it were true, nobody bought into this suggestion.)

Two ladies handed me a worship guide and a little bell to ring every time I heard the word “hallelujah.” This was when everything felt the most off. I was alone at the service, my two daughters at home with my wife. The girls would have loved the bells.

After I took the bell, the ladies said they were glad to see me, and that they’d wondered if I would bring the girls.

I told them that I’d been vaccinated, but kids aren’t likely to be eligible until the end of the year.

This first time back I wanted to scout things out to see how they would go. They nodded in agreement, I think.

I walked over to my target seat, a yellow pie-plate sign with “Saint Nicolas of Myra” written in black marker. I later learned he was a fourth-century Christian saint, from modern Turkey, whose legend of giving secret gifts provided the idea for Santa Claus (“Saint Nick”). He’s also known as the “Wonderworker,” the patron saint of sailors, brewers, pawnbrokers and prostitutes, and, of course, children.

I glanced across the aisle at Jamie, the forty-something man with cognitive challenges who’s cared for by his mother, Rita. Every week, Jamie wanders over and asks my daughters the same set of questions: What were you for Halloween? When is your birthday? What grade are you in? What school do you go to? Over time, they’ve grown into an endearing routine.

A welcome ritual.

This Easter, Jamie couldn’t come over.

“When incredible things happen to us,” Pastor Susie began her sermon, “we get scared, and we don’t know how to act.”

Her voice was sharper, clearer, louder than I remember. It was as if all those missed in-person sermons stocked up to spring-load every syllable. And so she let rip.

It was equal parts inspirational and aspirational.

She focused on the survival of so many elder congregants—“you’re here today, hallelujah!”—and excitedly spoke about the future—“when we can sing again, the ceiling will fly off this building!”

But moments like this also reinforced the facts.

So many Americans of all ages have died of COVID-19 this past year—over 550,000 in the U.S., over 6,000 in Colorado—and we still cannot sing songs and hymns as we did pre-pandemic. Because the faithful are called to “love your neighbor,” that “there is no other commandment greater,” the preservation of life continues as the highest priority.

It will be awkward to reconcile some of this past year’s differences. Faith, medicine, and science have been politicized. Some have exploited these differences and polluted our common life. We’ll have to find a way forward.

But Sunday was a first step toward escaping COVID’s tomb. The rock’s still there, still in the way, but we’re starting to push that enormous boulder aside, to come back together. And then we’ll sing again.

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