This Christmas Eve, members of St. John's Anglican Church in Lunenburg, N.S., who can't attend the service in person will still be able to take part in communion.
Church volunteers have delivered about 170 Christmas bags to parishioners' homes, each with two pre-consecrated communion wafers, along with special instructions about how to treat the sacrament.
"I never thought I would be delivering communion in this way. It's very, very strange," said Rev. Laura Marie Piotrowicz. "But we also never thought we'd be celebrating Christmas in the middle of a pandemic."
In previous years, more than 350 people have packed into the historic church for the afternoon Christmas Eve service. This year with physical distancing requirements, there will be closer to 85 people and the service will also be live streamed online.
"I hope that they will feel that they are connected and that they are in the same space spiritually as if they were physically in the building," Piotrowicz said.
Anglicans have a tradition of delivering communion to people in the hospital or those who can't leave their homes, an idea that Piotrowicz has built on for the Christmas Eve service.
The communion instructions direct people to bury the wafers outside if they don't consume them or to return them to the church.
"This is not just a symbolic gesture," she said. "This is the real presence of Christ, so it invites people to maintain the respect for the sacrament and to recognize it when we are consuming the communion during the service."
Last week, the province announced that in-person faith gatherings of up to 100 people would be allowed this Christmas, but many church leaders say despite the significance of the season, they're not prepared to meet in person just yet.
There are some church rituals, like shaking your neighbour's hand and wishing them peace, that can't be done from afar.
Those are the moments Russell Daye, lead minister at St. Andrew's United Church in Halifax, misses the most.
"It's hard to, you know, be experiencing worship alone in your living room, and it's hard to film it looking into a camera instead of into the eyes of hundreds of people," he said.
St. Andrews has been only holding online worship services since the spring and won't change that for Christmas.
"We had to make a decision several weeks ago because our service involves a fair bit of music and our online services are fairly highly produced and edited," Daye said, adding that a team spent many hours planning the special Christmas Eve service that will be online Thursday afternoon.
When the church started filming online services back in the spring, Daye admits there was a steep learning curve. But months later, he said it's been a big success, with people from as far away as California and Sweden joining in.
"A lot of the people who are tuning in online and sending us feedback are in their 70s and early 80s, as well as people of younger generations, so I've been surprised at how much, you know, some senior citizens have found their way into online worship," he said.
St. Stephen's Anglican in Chester announced this week that it would not return to in-person gatherings in time for Christmas, either. There would typically be four Christmas Eve services throughout the parish, but this year there will be just one and it will be online.
It was a decision Father Ian Wissler said was difficult and painful to make.
"It was painful because we could have the option to do it, so we could have proceeded, and we very much wanted to proceed," he said. "We felt an overarching responsibility to do what we could to prevent COVID-19 from spreading in our community."
Uniacke Baptist Church in Mount Uniacke, meanwhile, will have two in-person services on Christmas Eve and is asking people to pre-register before they show up for contract tracing purposes.
Karen Peck, a member of the church's leadership team, said churchgoers will gather in person, "partially because we don't have the technology that the other churches have."
"I know other churches are doing the online services but we don't have someone in the congregation that knows how to do a YouTube presentation, so we've never done any online services," she said.
There are also many members of the congregation in Mount Uniacke who don't have computers or aren't familiar with using platforms like Zoom, she said.
Peck said Christmas Eve is usually the most well-attended service of the year, and ends with everyone holding a candle and singing Silent Night. There will be no singing this year and recorded carols will be played instead.
Still, Peck said people are eager to get back to church.
"The service will really be … quite joyful," she said. "Even if they can't sing, they'll enjoy hearing the songs, I'm sure, and the messages that we have."
A responsibility to receive rightfully
Piotrowicz said COVID-19 has forced church leaders everywhere to think of creative ways to keep people connected.
She's heard from other clergy who are holding drive-thru communions or "spiritual communions" where one person receives the wafer and wine on behalf of everyone in the congregation.
David Deane, an associate professor at the Atlantic School of Theology, said the Eucharist is at the centre of his Roman Catholic faith, especially at Christmas, "the most enchanted of times."
He said finding ways for people to take part in the ritual is important, even if it looks different than previous years.
While his parish will meet in person on Christmas Eve, members of the congregation will receive the communion wafer in their hands, rather than in their mouths, and they won't drink from a communal cup.
"When we can't gather, this is a really good way of doing it, but it requires work on our behalf if it's going to be the kind of transformative experience that the Eucharist should be," Deane said.
"There's a lot of responsibility on us to receive rightfully because we don't have those cues."
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