National disasters and times of war seem to bring out the crazy in all of us, and the present Covid crisis is proving to be no exception. One finds some people suggesting that it is all a conspiracy and that no such virus actually exists, while others tell us that the pharmaceutical manufacturers secretly created it to sell more vaccines. One (of course) finds people declaring that it is a sign of The End Times—including one individual who phoned me across two time zones from Saskatchewan to inform me of this. The fact that he also said that he was one of the Two Witnesses predicted in the Book of Revelation chapter 11 and that as proof of this the sun would arise in the west in a month’s time did nothing to add to his credibility. In the wide tradition of such hysteria, one also finds some Orthodox clergy warning us that keeping Pascha at home rather than going to church will be “the end of Christianity”. All that is lacking in all this is someone standing on the street corner holding a sign announcing in big block letters THE END IS AT HAND.
Now is not the time for such over-heated eschatological hysteria. Now is time for calm historical theology. Let us apply such theology to a question often asked these days, “Why can’t a priest serve Liturgy with a couple of other people in an empty church and then distribute Communion to the faithful afterward?—perhaps in individually-wrapped plastic containers”. Here in Canada the short answer is: “Because our bishop instructed his priests to close the churches”, but the question deserves a theological answer as well as this pastoral one.
From the strictly pastoral point of view, obviously if one’s bishop instructed his clergy to serve the Liturgy with a couple of people in an empty church and then distribute Communion to the faithful afterward, then the priest would simply salute and do so. It’s the bishop job to know theology and give orders based on it. It’s the priest’s job to obey his bishop. A traditionalism which rebels against hierarchical authority is not very traditional. Such a rebellion is not traditionalism, but simple fundamentalism—a very different and dangerous thing. We are told to obey our fathers—how much more should we obey our fathers-in-God? Here, however, I would like to examine the issue solely on the basis of Orthodox theology.
We begin by looking at the nature of priesthood in the Church, and the function of those in Holy Orders. Unlike some medieval western views of priesthood, the priest has no function at all apart from the Church. If he is deposed, for example, he cannot serve the Eucharist. Note: it is not the case that the deposed priest should not serve, but that if he did serve that Eucharist would still be valid, though irregular. It is rather the case in Orthodoxy that he cannot serve, and if he served the Eucharist the bread and wine over which he prayed would not be transformed, for deposition separated him from his priesthood, so that his priestly prayers would not be effective. The medieval west seems to have viewed the priesthood as the cleric’s personal possession, something he could use at will, like a kind of heavenly credit card kept in his back pocket. It is not so. This understanding of priesthood, a kind of clericalism on steroids, divorces priesthood from the Church which alone gives it meaning, context, and power.
What is the function of the priest? It is to give voice to the assembled church, and to offer their prayers. That is why the “Amen” offered by the assembled laity is so crucial—this assent turns the priest’s words into the prayer of the assembled church. Without this Amen, the priest’s prayer remains simply his devout personal wish. It is the assent of the assembly that makes it the prayer of the Church. That is why, unlike in the medieval west, an Orthodox priest cannot serve Mass alone.
When we say “the church gives meaning, context, and power to the ministry of the priest”, we must also understand what is meant by “the church”. The word in Greek is ekklesia, which means “assembly, gathering”. In New Testament usage, it means not only a gathering of Christians, but any gathering. In fact, in Acts 19:41 St. Luke uses it to describe the emphatically unchristian gathering of pagans objecting to the ministry of St. Paul. So the church which gives meaning to the work of the priest is the assembly of gathered Christians. When the baptized faithful of a certain area gathered together, the result was a gathering, an ekklesia, a church. The priest’s function within this gathering was to do certain things, just as the deacon had certain functions within the gathering (e.g. offering the litanies, censing, etc.), along with the reader and the singers, who also have their functions. As St. Paul taught in 1 Corinthians 12, the assembled Christians functioned as a body in which people had different gifts and functions. The main task of the priest within this gathering or church was to offer the prayers of the gathered Christians, the royal priesthood.
The Eucharist, therefore, is what all the gathered Christians do after they gather together. And none of the things they do while gathered are superfluous. The prayers and hymns and Scripture readings in the first part of the service are not mere “filler”, or something done to kill time before the priest says the anaphoral prayer over the bread and wine. These things also contribute to the sacrament of assembly which brings us to Christ. They find their consummation in the anaphoral prayer over the bread and wine and our joint receiving of Christ’s Body and Blood. But they are not simply a prelude, like the overture in a movie theatre before the movie begins. They are the indispensable steps by which we arrive at the Eucharistic consummation. The reception of Holy Communion should not be separated from the rest of the worship that takes place when the faithful assemble.
That is why it is—shall we say—not ideal for the priest to serve the Eucharist apart from the gathered community—because the Eucharist is what the gathered community does after it gathers, and priest functions as part of that gathering. It is theologically inept to suggest that the priest can serve apart from the community, as if the purpose of the Eucharist is fulfilled when the priest says the anaphora. The goal of the Liturgy is not the recitation of the anaphora, but the joint reception of the Eucharistic Gifts by the assembled faithful. The recitation of the anaphora finds its purpose in this joint reception of the Eucharist.
The notion that the community has in fact gathered if the priest can find a couple of people to serve with him is legalistic fiction. If the gathered community in fact consisted of only three people, that would be fine. The point is not the number of heads present, but the fact of the gathered community—and three people chosen from out of the parish list is not the gathered community. The enterprise savours of a kind of liturgical magic, as if the priest possessed magical Eucharistic power as his personal ability which he could use at will apart from the gathered community as long as he could find two others to stand nearby while he prays. The medieval west seems to have entertained such a magical view of priesthood with its institution of the priest serving a private Mass at home as part of his personal piety, but the medieval west was wrong. The priest was meant to function as part of the Church—i.e. as the voice of the assembly.
This does not mean that if a priest serves such a reduced Liturgy it is not the Eucharist, or that it has no value. God is merciful, even when we are inept. In the present crisis, everyone is scrambling to do the best they can in these turbulent and uncharted waters, and it behoves everyone to cut everyone else a little slack. But I do see the logic behind my bishop closing his churches. For closing the churches—i.e. locking the doors of the church building—does not mean the end of Christianity, as some hysterical voices have suggested. It just means that he recognizes that the church is not the building, but the assembly and gathering of Christians within it. And when the Christians of a given locale cannot safely gather, by definition “church” cannot happen. And the Eucharist presupposes the Church. That is our theology.