The Fan and the Fire

Recently I was talking with a dear Christian friend of mine about the challenges presented by the Covid pandemic and he opined that the pandemic is winnowing all the churches. I couldn’t help but agree.

For city-slickers like myself who might not know about the process of “winnowing”: in the agricultural world of past centuries, wheat needed to be winnowed after it was harvested before it was of any use. In those days (such as the days of the Old and New Testament) wheat was harvested by cutting down the stalks. Those stalks lay in the field and were gathered up by hand. Within the heads of those stalks, the wheat which could be used for making bread was mixed with the chaff which was useless for making bread, and so the wheat need to be separated from the chaff.

This was accomplished by a process known as “threshing”. In Biblical days, this meant dragging a large weight over the stalks (usually with the help of a large animal, such as an ox), crushing the heads of the grain and thereby separating the wheat from the chaff. Then the farmer completed the process by winnowing. That is, he took a large fan-like shovel or fork, gathered up large shovel-fulls of the mixed wheat and chaff, and threw it into the air from the threshing floor. The chaff, being lighter, would be carried away by the wind, while the wheat, being heavier, would fall back to the ground. At the end of the process of winnowing, the threshing floor would contain only the wheat, the chaff having been blown away. Everyone in the old days was intimately acquainted with this process, which is why St. John the Baptizer could use it in describing the work of the Messiah. John said that the Messiah’s winnowing fan was in His hand, so that the process of winnowing—i.e. separating the wheat from the chaff in Israel, the good from the bad, the penitent from the proud—was about to begin (Matthew 4:12). One should therefore repent, he implied, lest one be blown away by the wind and miss the restoration that the Messiah would bring.

Our current pandemic, like all crises ancient and modern, winnows all that it touches, revealing what is within our hearts. A crisis of persecution does this equally well: in the mid-third century, for example, the Church had experienced a period of peace and tranquility for many years. It became prosperous and lax. All of its members said, of course, that they were totally committed to Christ and were willing to die for Him. Then in 250 the Emperor Decius began a savage persecution of the Church empire-wide, and those confessions of loyalty were put to the test. At the end of the day, about half the people in the Church lapsed and apostasized, offering sacrifice to the gods in order to save their lives. They were, as it turned out, not ready to die for Christ after all. The Decian persecution winnowed the Church, separating the committed wheat from the nominal chaff.

Our current pandemic is doing the same sort of thing. It is easy to loudly declare one’s loyalty to the local parish family, and one’s humble submission to the Church’s hierarchy. A sudden crisis reveals exactly what those protestations of loyalty, humility, and perseverance are worth. I remember one person sharing with me that as the Covid pandemic progressed, about a quarter of his parish seem to vanish and was nowhere to be seen. Another priest shared the story of a parishioner leaving the Communion line and screaming in protest over the way that Holy Communion was being administered by the priest. What does this mean? It means that the Church is being winnowed.

More importantly, what does all this mean for those who are left? It means that the current pandemic is a refining fire as well as a winnowing fan.

In Biblical days, all precious metals were subject to the refiner’s fire. Gold, for example, was placed in the hot fire of the refiner’s furnace to melt away all the impurities, removing the dross and leaving only pure, refined gold. That, I suggest, is what the current pandemic is accomplishing in those of us who remain.

It is horrible, of course. No one enjoys the heat of a refiner’s fire. To be hot enough to melt away impurities, a fire needs to be hot enough to make the gold truly uncomfortable. A furnace rather less heated might be more comfortable and easier to endure, but it would be useless for the purpose of smelting away impurities. There is nothing for it: if we are to be refined gold at the end, we need to endure the fire of the furnace. St. Peter knew this, and he compared the persecution that his new converts were experiencing to the refiner’s fire: “In this [hope of final reward] you rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold which though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise and glory and honour at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:6-7). Persecution acts as a refiner’s fire. So does the current pandemic.

Much of the heat comes from the fact that we do not know when the pandemic will end and when we can return to ecclesiastical normal. If only we had a date, and knew when the light at the end of the tunnel would arrive! That would make it so much easier. But in fact we don’t know the date. All we know is that each wretched and fiery weekend brings us closer to the end, and is one less Liturgy we will have to serve under these wartime conditions. Or, to paraphrase St. Paul, “Salvation [or the end of the crisis] is nearer to us now than when we first believed [or when the pandemic began]” (Romans 13:11).

The good news is that refined gold is better than unrefined gold, and brings a greater reward from the Lord of the contest. God has evidently allowed this pandemic, so the only way out is through, and the only thing that ultimately matters is how we will respond to the fire.

While we remain in the furnace we should pray, be patient with everyone around us (especially with those we disagree with about the pandemic), go to Liturgy as we are able, and use this as an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to our parish family and the clergy that lead it. If we do this then we will emerge from the fire refined, stronger and better than we were before. It is likely that we shall need such unity and strength in the future, for the persecution and fire that the Antichrist will bring with him will be much hotter.

This pandemic, like all crises throughout history, will have an end. We must not look at the pandemic, but through it and past it, with our eyes on the horizon. For the Lord is coming, and the reward that He will give us for our perseverance will be eternal.



  1. Of course, we also have to allow the winnowing, as sad as that may be. Your previous post pointed to Hellenism as a problem in the Church. Would that would be winnowed too. That will be very painful for many I am afraid.

  2. Father you point is a good one upto a point; there is indeed a winnowing of sorts, as it is always when we are in the presence of Christ, but we must be careful not to bring forward things properly pertaining to the end of the ages and remember the judgement is not ours but God’s. Indeed this present time is not yet even finished nor the end know.

    I also feel you need to show far greater caution in who you cast as being blown as chaff and who the wheat that falls upon the floor. You are accusing here your fellow Christians, perhaps many truly faithful, of being as the chaff before winnowing of Christ do you not know this is as before the judgement seat of Christ. Should any man be thus condemned ere Judgement? And why are they to be condemned as chaff? Because they are scandalised by the situation in the Churches? Who today cannot look today at how the faith is being diluted, how secularism is entering the Church and not be scandalised? (This is without looking at the worse things the damage being done to meny false teachings that seek to introduce perversity and demonic deification of the will, and this is being allowed and even taught by bishops and priests, even their spiritual fathers who are only so called but lead them astray.) Should people leave the Church or stop attending because they are scandalised ? No they thereby put in danger their eternal soul. But should they be condemned? (Should any man be condemned ere Judgement?)

    How also do you know where those priest’s parishioners are perhaps they are not there out of fear of the virus? Perhaps they have moved to another parish? And I’m sure most adults are not screaming, being upset and challenging what is happening maybe, and perhaps that is not the time to do it but are these people really an example of unfaithfulness of the chaff which Christ wishes to winnow away. More generally are the people not right to speak out when the bishops do not speak out? When the priests do not speak out? Then who is to speak out when the Churches are closed when those who govern intrude within the holy temples , nay the very altars of God? We submit to the bishops and their priests not only as ones placed to rule over us by God but also as ones entrusted by God with the Tradition of Christ; when they discard this when they even render to Caesar what is God’s should the people not rebuke them? Obedience does not neglect correction nor does humility neglect faithfulness. Else we would preach the pseudo-humility and obedience of the world, such as the blessed Apostle warns against.

    Remember the Twelve Holy Apostles when they were commanded not to preach in the name of Christ by their rulers? And Holy Apostle Paul’ answer to those who struck him. Remember St Ambrose before St Theodosius, St John Chrysostom before the empress, or the child’s rebuke of Nestorios, the peoples defiance of the robber synods of “reunion’ with the papacy. And let us look at those holy ones who more recently shone forth amongst us, do really thing St John the Wonder-worker would have closed his Churches by government degree? Do we think St Prophyrios or St Paisos would have remained silent when the practices of the Church where altered?

    Father please let us all take care both to be in fully knowledge and understanding of where we ought to stand, and let us not to be quick to condemn anyone, to correct from temptations both on the left hand and the right, but not condemn. “Now the righteousness which is of faith speaks on this way, ‘Say not in your heart, Who shall ascend into heaven?’ that is, to bring Christ down from above. Or, ‘Who shall descend into the deep?’ that is, to bring up Christ again from the dead.”

    1. Where there is no humility or obedience, there is no spirituality. Those who have left in anger are invited to repent and return. Christ loves us all, and the door to restoration is always open.

  3. Now there is a statement that deserves deep contemplation: “Where there is no humility or obedience, there is no spirituality. ” Neither seems to be easy. In fact I can say that in 70+ years I have been obedeient only once. Is me saying that humility or bragging?

  4. Not Necessarily True.
    Many parishioners are simply leaving and finding different Orthodox Churches that are maintaining Traditional practices inspite of the Pandemic. They are showing humility and obedience to a Spirtual Father who is not changing the traditional practices because of the pandemic.
    Even if it means driving hundreds of miles. Sadly it is a Secular age, and very little room for divine intervention it seems in many of our churches.
    Forgive me.
    Lord have mercy on me the sinner.

    1. Having a spiritual father (so called) that counsels disobedience to one’s parish priest and one’s bishop is problematic.

      1. If a parish priest stops having the liturgy altogether, because of the pandemic, the faithful have every right to attend Churches that are properly functioning, elsewhere.

  5. The one time I was obedient occured when my Bishop gave me a penance of nine months away from the Cup which I thought, and still think, should not have been necessary. However, I am blessed. I know my Bishop very well. I worship in his Cathedral. I met him. While he was a priest. I love and trust him personally. Made it easier. I

    But you have to realize, folks in the US are rebels. It is in our DNA.
    I do not like the restrictions. But I have no options so I look on them as a penance. Lord knows, there are plenty of teal reasons for a penance. It is too bad their are options. If our Bishops had taken their actions as a time of prayer, fasting and repentance for healing I suspect there would be more obedience. Instead it looks like a fear reaction in submission to government, not God, not in love.
    At some point our Bishops will have a choice : God or the government. I do not think we are there yet.
    Some do. I do not think so though, Father, I do think you draw too easy a line, too simple. In this case when we see our Bishops and Priests in fear mode and the disease itself a political football, it is much more complicated. It is not difficult at all to see the restrictions as government overreach and our deeper obedience requires not obeying them.
    Lord have mercy and give us wisdom.

    1. Like others, I sometimes think that perhaps the bishops over-reacted in some of their restrictions. But that is the point: if I only obey when I agree with the order, it is not obedience, merely a happy coincidence of the bishop’s order and my own self-will. Obedience is tested when we obey with an order that perhaps we would not have given. The line really is that simple.

  6. In most cases, Father, you are right. Indeed my prior obedience has made it much easier in this case, but our restrictions have been mild. But I am equally sure you wouod not “obey” your Bishop if he ordered you to ‘marry’ a same sex couple. Some folks that I have talked to put the prohibition against kissing icons on the same level. Especially since they view it as an order from government. When similar restrictions are not ordered for those that support the ideology of those in power are not imposed and/or ignored.

  7. I agree that we should obey those in authority in the Church. It is not a good idea to spread a virus which is called Novel because it is unknown to science and as to it’s effects on blood vessels and blood clotting. Priests should use their intelligence about congregating and obey the bishops ,too. This may involve a bit of lateral thinking but I’m sure it can be done by those who spend their lives finding relevant bits of information from the Scriptures with great ingenuity.

    I wonder if after the epidemic is over there will arise a new form of Donatism? see (orthodoxwiki)
    After all the devil makes work for idle hands, doesn’t he?

  8. I’ve read your insights Fr. Personally am not really bothered about on this pandemic and as other big problems happened in my past.. NEVER I asked God WHY.. because HE knows best. Our Loving Awesome God loves each of us as if there’s only one of us.
    I always remember what happened to Job … every time I meet problems.
    Actually this pandemic makes us more closer to God.. we’ve much time to talk and listen to Him by reading the Bible Readings/ Gospel for the day..
    Our prayer-life grows as expected.
    And indeed.. Sirach 2:1-6 helps me a lot. I always remember those verses.. Also.. James 1:2-3.
    Am very privilege that am not so affected with this pandemic even in worshipping God.. it’s good more live streaming of Masses of different religions .. which I used to join because I believe all religions are good… just have different ways in worshipping God.
    I’ve my fullest faith and trust in God all the way and I’ll do best even in my own little way to serve Him at its fullest from my heart and other people especially the sick.
    Lastly, I want to thank you!

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