Hysteria or Theology

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.




  1. While I was at first not too concerned about the restrictions I am beginning to become more concerned about the declaration that religious services are “not essential” and forced closure will continue even after the crisis has abated as possible sources of contagion.

    At some point, if they continue, we will have to defy them.

    1. It all depends upon what one means by “not essential”. Here in BC the phrase means “not essential to the functioning of society in the same way that police and fire departments are essential”–which is correct.

      1. Here it means something more squishy. Roughly not essential to the economy. Used car dealers are essential. Indeed about 80% of jobs are “essential”.

        It has gotten extreme enough that US Attorney General Barr gave a strongly worded rebuke to states going overboard Andi fringing on our 1st Amendment rights in respect to freedom to practice our faith.

        My niece and her husband are at Jordonville while he is studying for the priesthood. The state of NY actually forbade the monks there from using the monastery church.
        They also forbade Jews from gathering in homes to celebrate the Seder. I have heard of no restrictions on Islam but there probably is.

        The aftermath is where we may face continuing restrictions that put us beyond the pale.

        1. Hi Michael

          I totally agree with you. This entire virus is beyond overboard and it is disheartening that people of all faiths aren’t speaking out more about these ridiculous and uncalled for restrictions. I for one will refuse these restrictions in the very near future. Blessed Palm Sunday.

  2. Blessed Palm Sunday

    I respectfully have to disagree with you. Especially when here in Va we still have golf courses, liquor stores, hardware, grocery stores and others open. Any place of worship should be deemed essential since there are still human beings who practice and believe that nothing is more important than attending their place of worship and gathering with the faithful. This on line business is simply “business “ and fails in comparison to gathering as we should. The fact that our bishops and metropolitan succumbed to fear and our failed government frustrates not only me but many others I have spoken too. There is a separation of church and state yet in doing what we just did prooves otherwise. It saddens me a great deal to hear of people dying without their priest and receiving communion , people who have to cancel baptisms , marriages etc. Families who lost a loved one not having a proper funeral or burial! It’s disgraceful and illlogical. The very fact that we can still ride on a golf cart and buy all the food and alcohol we need yet not be within the hands of our Church especially at death sends me to a whole different level! I’m sorry Father but this is not acting as Christians. If we whole heartedly believe in Christ and His saving power then nothing should come between that. Could this be the end of Christianity? No since the love of Christ is never ending. But could this be the end of humans (who have the tendency to become lazy and complacent) attending church? If we’re not smart and careful then my heart is saying yes. Peace to you Father.

      1. Dear Father.
        Thank you. Interesting article. And yes I did read it. I get what he’s stating, and agree with some, not all of his thoughts. The question needs to be do we trust what our governments are telling us? Or is there some other agenda here. Let’s go back to 2009. Remember that during H1N1 which killed more people nothing closed! Obama was in office at that time. So why now? And why is this virus whose death rate fails in comparison to others ? These are the questions I ask myself? I’m certainly not implying that this is not serious and that we should not follow rules, but when our governments decide that liquor stores and weed stores and golf courses are essential while faith institutions are not then I quiver. If this virus is as deadly and as serious as we are being told then the proper measures would be to close it all down! Period! Here’s what the author states about grocery, liquor and weed stores. “And if he doesn’t understand that people gathering in love and fellowship simply act differently, and more contagiously, than people who pop in and out of liquor stores, drug stores, supermarkets or weed dispensaries (where, at least in my county, the number of people inside at one time is now restricted), I don’t know what to tell him.” I’m sorry but I didn’t know viruses were immuned to those locations! What a failed attempt to suggest we citizens are safe there but not in churches. One thing I do agree is that this is a time for repentance a time for testing and yes, those who fail to come back to churches or synagogues or mosques what have you are wishy washy as my mom would say. Bottom
        Line is I miss my church, I miss communion and my fellowship, my priest and my Christian family. I pray that soon this will all be over. Blessed Pascha Father and thank you for all you do.
        Lisa H

  3. Lisa, you have been misled about the severity of this virus. H1N1 killed 12,500 people in the US its first year. We are currently at 26,000 dead from covid. Consider also that the H1N1 deaths took place over an entire flu season (about 6 months) while 95% of the covid deaths occurred in less than three weeks. And all these deaths happened despite everything shutting down, imagine what the death tolls would be now if everything continued as usual?

    As for your objection viruses aren’t immune to being caught at stores, remember that coronavirus is spread by close contact, which for the purpose of this virus is defined as being less than 6 ft away from a person for more than 10 minutes. It should not be necessary by that definition to have close contact with anyone in a store if proper measures are taken, but could be very hard to avoid at church.

    1. Hi Theresa, just a couple of replies to your comment but hopefully it won’t sidetrack the conversation. You say that currently there are 26,000 dead from Covid-19. A more correct way of framing this is that there are 26,000 who died and were previously diagnosed with the virus – unfortunately the medical system is automatically labeling all of these as Covid-19 deaths even if they died from other unrelated causes. Also, the testing procedure has a high rate of false positives, and if you even look at the FDA testing guidelines https://www.fda.gov/media/134922/download they say “Positive results are indicative of active infection with 2019-nCoV but do not rule out bacterial infection or co-infection with other viruses.” This means that some of the mortality is being falsely attributed to Covid-19 and is actually coming from other types of infections. Finally, if you look at a situation such as Italy, they have had a high number of influenza deaths over the last few years, estimated at almost 25,000 for last year alone. Here is one such research article from the International Journal of Infectious Disease https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1201971219303285?fbclid=IwAR0Dag5t4QDVRLAk9KMtD-nYBFK-yhB0uaK378JVqstCANaMruWr__63tBQ
      All of this isn’t meant to detract from the seriousness of the epidemic, only to say that there are other sides to the story that aren’t always being talked about especially in the mainstream news media, and that other factors besides medical such as politics, power, control, and economics are also playing a big role in this crisis. This brings us back to the topic of how the Church is handling things and why some people may be expressing disagreement and have valid concerns with some of the decisions being made.

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