Being in Communion: Time to Remember the One Thing Needful

Staying positive in this crisis can be difficult. Not because there is a paucity of good in the world. No, there are many who are astounding me with their creativity and their ability to make a good thing out of a tragedy. What worries me is how many Christians seem content with quarantine-worship at home, as though it were enough. Add to that some very odd assertions about the Church being merely what you do at home in front of your icon corner.

No. Corporate worship is indispensable, if you’re a Christian. There is no way of looking at the closing of churches, or of limiting services to clergy, in any way other than with tears and a broken heart.

And merely being there, in front of a screen, watching services–that’s really not enough. It’s not accidental that this is happening during Lent. If we thought that God would never give us all a personal message that we are not doing enough to acquire the Spirit and to live an active, fruitful spiritual life–this is it. Now is the time to reorient our lives around the proper priorities.

Let’s stop watching Netflix. Let’s take advantage of this time. We have two and a half weeks left until Pascha. Can we use this time to turn aside the hand of God and to have HIM effect the miracle of a cure from the virus? Why not? If the Ninevites could do it in three days, why can’t we do it in two and a half weeks?

Jonah warning the Ninevites

I’ve been translating the works of a man who lived, and led, Russia through a cholera epidemic. These words resounded in my heart, and made me want to “get up and doing.” I hope they will do the same to you.

Excerpts from a Homily on Pentecost by Metropolitan Philaret (Drozdov) of Moscow

The peace of the world is a short nap during a terrible storm–a safety founded on ignorance, so that the joyful exclamation “Peace and safety!” is sometimes interrupted by “sudden destruction [that] comes upon them.” (1 Thessalonians 5:3) On the contrary, the peace of Christ is founded on unbreakable certitude in one’s reconciliation with God, so that the Christian, even in the midst of temptations, sorrows, and dangers is “not in despair”, but is even “delivered to death” calmly, knowing that “our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.” (2 Corinthians 4:8-17)

In such a person, the spirit of greatness abides, which is neither blind bluster, nor puffed-up pride, nor the glitter of natural virtues that are impure in their source, but a true exaltedness of thoughts that are busy with a contemplation of God, a vista limited only by eternity, a nobility of emotions that are born and cultivated by the word of God–a spirit of humility that even in the midst of the riches of the benefits of God sees only its own poverty and unworthiness, the more to glorify the Lord.

However, the person who is not reborn by the Spirit of God tries to find something exalted in his own limitations, he asks for respect based on his own humiliation, he slithers on the ground to smother others. The power of such a spirit makes a Christian as powerless as all others, a slave of his own emotions, surrounded on all sides by the attacks of enemies, defeated even before the battle begins, constantly being defeated by one passion, even if only to calm down another passion.

No so the brave warrior, who “puts on the whole armor of God,” (Ephesians 6:11), who “can do all things through Christ who strengthens” him (Philippians 4:13), who “takes [heaven] by force!” (Matthew 11:12) What shall we say of the wondrous “diversities of gifts and manifestations of the Spirit” that those chosen by God receive for “the profit of all” (1 Corinthians 12:4,7), for the establishment of the entire Church?

If we have never thought seriously that we must, as Christians, acquire tangible spiritual gifts, then we are not truly living. St Philaret makes that very, very clear:

There are even among us Christians people who consider the gifts of the Holy Spirit so strange that if they do not completely reject them, at the very least they ascribe them only to other people and other ages. They themselves, thinking nothing of rebirth, are content either in a vain hope in the merits of the Intercessor, or even in their own honor.

Let us not fool ourselves with the attractive external appearance of typical earthly goodness. To not be an enemy of the faith, to not perform egregious acts of unfairness, to occasionally give alms, to avoid harmful excesses–in short, to only do the absolutely necessary, to fulfill the external responsibilities demanded of a human being as a member of society–this is nothing but whitewashing your own tomb (Matthew 23:27), which all the while remains “full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.”

Such a life is nothing other than tearing off the branches of the Tree of Life, given “for the healing of the nations,” but never eating the fruits that give life (Revelation 22:2). Such a life is filled with the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, which does not lead to the Kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:20).

Forgive me, but I see so many people focusing only on the “attractive external appearance of typical earthly goodness.” This is not Christian. Christians don’t pat themselves on the back for staying at home during a quarantine. Or at least they didn’t in the past. They were the first ones to take care of the sick. The first ones to run to help their neighbors, even if that meant putting themselves at risk. They certainly didn’t post nasty messages about social distancing, or get angry at others for not following the state’s recommendations.

But perhaps not all of us are called to be front-line warriors. That’s ok. There are other ways we can battle this thing. St Philaret continues:

Plunge deep into the dark recesses of your own heart, from which “proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies” (Matthew 15:19), and there strive to enthrone purity and holiness, to “keep the whole law,” not being guilty even in “one point,” lest you be “guilty of all.” (James 2:10) How can any man left only to his own wits and strength ever claim that he can accomplish all this? God alone creates “a clean heart, and renew[s] a right spirit” in man (Psalm 50:12). Man must be born from Above to see the kingdom of God. (John 3:3)

There is no better time than now to do this.

Let us give ourselves up to the Spirit’s all-powerful action; let us lead our thoughts and desires to him from the pollution of the flesh and the world; let us call out from the depths of our fallenness, that He would come down on us by His grace, through the intercession of our Redeemer. And then, purify, enlighten, renew, sanctify, and save our souls, O Good one. Amen.

9 comments:

  1. Maybe I’m just living under a rock, but it seems like most at my parish (and most other Orthodox Christians I’ve spoken to) are quite distressed over not having Church services (including Holy Week and Pascha) for the next month. Even my best friend, who is Southern Baptist, is distressed that he cannot worship together with his Church during Easter. And maybe its just me, but if you see the Eucharist as being central to worship, how can you become comfortable just doing “Church at home?”

    But I can’t point any fingers. I know I’ve struggled with the opposite problem, thinking to myself “If I’m not going to receive communion or even be corporately present with my brothers and sisters, whats the point of even watching the live-streaming services?” God, have mercy on me a sinner. Despite my thoughts, I cannot deny that hearing the hymns of the Church, even stripped down to just a few people, still brought comfort to my soul. We’ve all been sent into a form of exile, and fittingly enough, not only today, but Sunday we will be remembering St. Mary of Egypt, who deliberately placed herself in exile for the sake of her soul. Through her holy prayers may the Lord have mercy on us.

    1. I think for the most part you’re right. I’m just disturbed that there hasn’t been more of a concerted effort on the part of any hierarchy to keep the churches open. In the Soviet time, you couldn’t keep people from going to church, even at the threat of death. Now… ?

  2. Let’s stop watching Netflix. Let’s take advantage of this time. We have two and a half weeks left until Pascha. Can we use this time to turn aside the hand of God and to have HIM effect the miracle of a cure from the virus? Why not? If the Ninevites could do it in three days, why can’t we do it in two and a half weeks?

    I couldn’t agree more! There has been a near irremediable shift in our conditions of belief, we’re all secularists after all, according to Charles Taylor. I think many modern people are unable to see a way out of this current crises, and since many are trapped within secularism, the only way out of this is to submit to governing authorities and trust in science to find a cure. Just a couple of weeks ago I told my priest that this is going to be a time when the wheat will be separated from the chaff. It is a time of trial for the Church, it’s just unprecedented considering our history because it is the same Church that suffered persecution at the hands of the Romans, Ottomans, and Bolsheviks. Who would have thought that a pandemic would cause such a shake -up? Despite church doors being closed and services streamed, many people are clamoring for communal worship. At the church I serve at, parishioners who wanted the Eucharist so much are just showing up regardless of restrictions and lining up outside waiting for communion while someone live-streamed it on their phone. I helped serve them last Sunday outside on the front porch, that level of dedication was so humbling to see. But it was a surreal moment that will leave its indelible imprint on my mind.

    By the way, I hope you don’t mind, but I gave a sort of shout out to your books on my blog…so maybe like 5 people will read it haha.

  3. Thank you for posting this. As we’ve very briefly dialogued elsewhere the…..hmmm… self-satisfied, smug acquiesce to the State’s not-quite-martially-enforced-yet ‘recommendations’ is really astounding to me. In Ohio, most all churches are closed but golf course remain open! And NO ONE seems to notice! Probably because they are too busy watching NetFlix.

    If they do notice, they certainly don’t care and would rather create hashtags and memes instead of neighborly culture or try to sing a healing song into reality. I actually have had people get angry with me when I say a certain trending show on Netflix is rubbish and I refuse to waste my time on it.

    They argue ‘well we need a distraction for all this’. Duuuude. This IS the distraction. Open. Your. Eyes.

    Needless to say. If ever there was a time to try out St Patrick’s Breastplate as a part of daily prayer, this is it heheh. Some of the finest armor one can don.

    God bless you.

    1. What really gets me is cases where not clergy, but “simple” laypeople have reached out to their local authorities to find out the exact language concerning church assemblies. One time the layperson actually got his church to open its doors again! Another time the threat of a lawsuit caused an entire state (Florida) to reconsider its position regarding closure of churches. But not one of these people was an Orthodox clergyman!!

      1. Legal rulings on spirituality being ‘essential’. I’m happy for that community. It’s just…nuts it’s gotten to this point this fast. I feel like the State now has an ion cannon they can point at populations for social control. Say the word ‘disease’ and will fall in line without question. Anytime they want to enact policy change, augment civil liberty or restrict/erode faith communities it’s now there in their back pocket.

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