I am going to go ahead and say yes. But stick with me here, okay?
We Christians in the early 21st century tend to be spiritual people when we’re in church or praying but secular materialists much of the rest of the time. I don’t mean that we become unbelievers, but we do tend to act like them.
How do pastors and Christian teachers respond to this problem?
As I’ve read various Orthodox bishops and other clergy give direction to churches on how to respond during this time of outbreak of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, it has been striking how much variation I’m seeing. There are some similarities, but there is not a consensus as to how to respond.
I’m seeing “cancel everything” to “cancel nothing” and everything in between (today I made the decision for my parish to be in between). I’m seeing sick people told to stay home from church, and I’m seeing healthy people told to stay home from church.
I’m seeing “the Eucharist cannot ever give you a disease,” “the Eucharist is divine of course but the saliva you leave behind is not, so you can definitely get a disease,” everything in between and even (though not yet among clergy) embracing of outright Zwinglian sacramental theology (i.e., it’s all just a “symbol,” so why even risk it?).
I’m seeing calls to change the way communion is distributed in certain ways, saying that this would just be temporary, and I’m seeing adamant refusal to do so, saying that we’ve done it this way for centuries even in times of far deadlier plague.
I’m seeing directives saying not to touch anything in the church at all, for clergy not to touch parishioners, for no one to kiss anything. I’ve even seen pictures from one parish on the Sunday of Orthodoxy where all the venerating icons were labeled “DO NOT KISS.” I’ve seen calls for people to make this call on their own.
I had it suggested to me that we conduct a local holy unction service for our whole region, and I am struggling with whether the benefit outweighs the risk — not just the risk of spreading disease but of scandalizing people who fear that risk.
Just how do I figure out who the “weaker brother” is, and how do I appropriately condescend to his weakness? And how do I decide who the “chaff” is that is separating from the “wheat,” doing what I have do to in order to be faithful, letting them fall away if that’s what they really want to do?
On the one hand, our forebears in the faith responded to pestilence by gathering for prayer and by ministering to the sick, sometimes even with thousands of people being carted out of cities daily in times of plague. And on the other hand, we do not want to put vulnerable people at risk unnecessarily.
On the one hand, social distancing is certainly necessary if we are going to slow the spread of this virus enough that our hospitals don’t get overwhelmed. And on the other hand, we have a lot of people who are going to have a hard time keeping their business open if we don’t buy from them, who are going to have a hard time paying the rent in a month or so because they’re going to be missing paychecks by staying home to avoid contact or to take care of children who have been sent home from school.
On the one hand, we have a church where in the Life of St. Mary of Egypt, we read how ascetics would go out into the desert alone for forty days to pray and eat almost nothing, how St. Mary herself communed only twice in her whole life. And on the other, we have a church where the Presanctified Liturgy was devised so that people wouldn’t have to go a whole week without communing twice during Lent.
I am grateful for being a man under authority, that I can use my own judgment in obedience to what my archbishop and bishop are telling me, but let me tell you — this isn’t easy!
And it certainly isn’t obvious. I don’t blame any bishop or clergyman for making mistakes in all this.
One thing I will say that I am grateful for seeing is that almost all directives from bishops and clergy are saying to pray, indicating a belief that prayer is indeed effective and called for in a time of pestilence.
But one thing I’m not seeing and really do want to see more of is a call for repentance.
Certainly, I’m seeing it in terms of repenting during Lent as we do. But I am not seeing any sense that the arrival of COVID-19 in the world is itself occasion for a call to repentance. Because way deep down, we tend to give purely material explanations for pestilence and put our hope in purely material solutions.
But does God not use pestilence, famine, war, storm, invasion and death all the time in the Scriptures in response to sin? Does He not let these apocalyptic horsemen roam upon the earth in order to bring justice to the wicked and inspire the world to repentance?
Whoa, now, Fr. Andrew! Are you saying that God has sent this plague to us to punish someone for something?
Really? You want to know what I think? Well, does God not ever do that?
Let me ask you this: Why do we think that we ought to be exempt from that?
I know, I know: The Interwebs and Dollar-a-Holler radio are full of people proclaiming that this is God’s apocalyptic judgment on the world. You don’t have to look very far to find someone declaring as loud as he can that God is finally letting us have it.
But here’s the thing that most of our modern doomsayers out in the world are getting wrong about this: They are correct in that God allows disaster as a response to sin. There is no question of that. But what they are getting wrong is that they are putting this response in the second or third person — this is God’s response to “your” sin or “their” sin. And they may point to homosexuals or Democrats or Republicans or Muslims or Communists, etc., and say that God is sending this to punish those people.
But that is not the example of the saints. The example of the saints is to see affliction as permitted by God in response to my sin, to our sin, not someone else’s. And if God has allowed this for His purposes as a response to my sin, then that means it is my responsibility to fast, pray and repent while begging God for mercy and relief.
So did God send COVID-19?
God does not make people suffer. He does, however, allow suffering to happen so that we might repent, so that we might return to Him and see that it is Him we need and it is He Who is our only hope.
Separating evil in this world from the demonic forces that move and shape it is something that Christians cannot do. And we know that God permits demons to run amok at times for two purposes — to bring justice to the wicked and to inspire repentance.
And the latter often works to purify us as we look to Him. Repentance in the midst of suffering does not mean that we are saying God is punishing us. Repentance is about turning more to Christ and becoming more like Christ. And suffering often is the only way we can do that.
And part of how we repent is to commit to helping those vulnerable in times like this. We have to be smart and do it well. But we have to do it. Because everything is spiritual. Nothing is a secular, material space into which the spiritual does not enter.
As Christians, we are not secular materialists. We cannot interpret what we see in the world as spiritually neutral. God is involved. Angels are involved. Demons are involved. Everything is significant. Everything is spiritual. We cannot put brackets around some things, call them “spiritual” while everything else is, well, not, and then act shocked when someone else’s brackets are positioned differently.
We also cannot be functionally gnostics, saying that matter is basically evil and so of course spirit doesn’t affect things like disease. We also cannot be functionally Nestorian, saying that the divine Christ and the human Jesus are so separate that we see the flesh of Jesus in the Eucharist as possibly transmitting a disease to us.
Of course certain adjustments of certain kinds are going to have to be made. But there are also certain things that cannot be adjusted, certain beliefs and practices that are non-negotiable.
If we are really Christians, then we are consistent with our tradition when we interpret suffering in this way, that it is permitted by God precisely because of my sins. And I cannot think of anything more Lenten than that.
Lord, grant me to see my own sins, and not to judge my brother, for Thou art blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.