Yesterday, the World Health Organization announced that COVID-19 (formerly known as the novel coronavirus) is officially a global pandemic.
What does (or should) this mean for those of us in Eucharistic faith traditions like Orthodoxy, for whom receiving Communion (with our actual, microorganism-harboring mouths) is central to the lived reality of faith and fellowship? Since the Church is a hospital for sinners, shouldn’t we still go to church when sick?
More to the point: If the Eucharist is the body and blood of Christ, the healing for soul and body, shouldn’t it be impossible to transmit pathogens to communicants?
As important as these questions are–medically, spiritually, theologically, philosophically–I will leave them for the priests and the theologians and the epidemiologists to weigh in on.
Instead, what strikes me, as a layperson, is that the first news of the new coronavirus became mainstream in North America at the end of January, just days before we opened the Triodion for the first time. It grew in relation to our journey through the pre-Lenten Sundays, whose distinct themes revolved, in some way, around cultivating humility, repentance, and forgiveness.
Now that we have fully entered into Lent, we are surrounded by the prayer of St. Ephrem, which calls us forth from sloth and indifference and toward chastity (alternatively translated as sober-mindedness), humility, love. Most of all, though, the prayer bids us to see our own faults and not to judge our brothers.
COVID-19, and the precautionary changes and disruptions it is bringing to many of us, is not a diversion from our Lent and our lives. It is our Lent. It is our lives. This is, for now, the arena we have been given in which to work out our salvation alongside and in community with one another.
In other words, the ways we act toward our neighbor and the judgments we make of each other right now are not meaningless.
How are we doing on that score, as Christians? As human beings?
I’ll let those questions linger for each of us to consider.
For now, I want to talk about a tiny word that has surfaced often in these weeks of pandemonium and pandemic: FEAR.
In the Fear of God
I recently canceled a trip for a speaking engagement that required an international flight and would have been held at an Orthodox parish. It was a difficult choice, and I put it off for several days afraid that I would disappoint the event organizers, lose money on flights, appear melodramatic, etc. For various reasons, though, it was the best decision; the organizers agreed, and as sad as I was to change plans, I don’t regret it.
A short time later, I came across a few posts from other Orthodox speakers or business professionals informing people they would not be changing plans to travel to similar events, since–as one person chided–“we can’t be governed by fear.”
I don’t judge their choice to travel or keep speaking–not one bit. My own experience has taught me how complex these decisions can be.
However, what I do take issue with is–and what I think is far more damaging to Christian community–is insinuating that those who take a more precautionary path are being governed by fear.
Even worse is when people extrapolate further, branding precautious approaches as a sign of weak faith/spiritual immaturity/irrationality/susceptibility to media hype/unworthiness to receive communion (judgments I’ve now seen expressed multiple times in various Orthodox forums).
What I’m wondering is: when did “fear” became the bad guy?
If ever there is a justified place for fear, it’s in receiving the Eucharist. After all, some of the last words we hear in the Divine Liturgy before proceeding to the Chalice are: “In the fear of God, in faith and in love draw near.”
We could quibble about what exactly fear means in this context (short answer: it connotes awe and reverence rather than unbridled terror before the Lord).
But the point still remains: rather than some kind of moral/spiritual weakness that precludes us from the Chalice, fear (at least some form of it) is somehow essential to true fellowship with Christ.
In times of pandemic, as in all other times, perhaps our goal should not be to abandon fear at all costs, but to explore what it means to fear rightly. Franklin D. Roosevelt once said that we have nothing to fear but fear itself, but from a Christian perspective, a complete abandonment of fear–really, an abandonment of reverence, of humble awareness before God of our own frailty and those of others–is also something to guard against.
One might counter: but doesn’t Scripture proclaim that “God did not give us a spirit of fear but of power” (2 Timothy 1:7)? Should we not, therefore, cast off any hint of fear with regard to our earthly situation, including matters of health?
Not exactly. The “power” this Epistle speaks of–the power granted to us through Christ–does not refer to a license to act without discretion, throw caution to the wind, or assume some kind of sacral-biological immunity to twenty-first-century pathogens.
As that same verse continues, God didn’t give us only a spirit of power, but also of “love and self-discipline.” And as I understand this phrase within the general context of the Epistle, the virtue being praised here is not fearlessness at all costs–toward all things–but rather fearlessness in a specific context: bearing witness to the Gospel through acts of love and self-discipline.
With Faith and Love
Which brings my mind back to the same words I mentioned above, the words that bring us to the Eucharist every Liturgy: “In the fear of God, and with faith and love draw near.”
Sometimes I think we focus so much on the faith part–what we think it is, what we think it has to be, what we think we have to prove to others in our rugged individualism–that we lose sight of the love part.
We forget that to wash our hands is to show love. To stay home if we are sick is to show love. To convey to others the kindness and freedom so they can stay home if necessary without pressure or guilt. To avoid unnecessary travel, to ensure homes are well stocked for children and vulnerable family members, to pay attention to public health guidelines. To do all these things and more, at times risking social judgment or inconvenience or financial sacrifice, is to show love.
We forget that these are also acts of faith–faith that God is here, in our choices, in our attempts to show love to our neighbor, however feeble those attempts may seem to others.
We forget that we are called to pray for one another, and for the sick and the dying, regardless of how we may feel the media portrays their illness.
We forget that the Eucharist isn’t an entitlement we can ever earn or become worthy of, least of all by proving how “strong” our “faith” is. It is a gift we don’t deserve but receive gladly–together. And we must do what we can so that we can continue to receive it together, as a whole body, for as much time as we are granted. We are not keeping one another safe because we are afraid of death, we are keeping one another safe because to partake of God’s love is better than life.
We forget that this is Lent, that it ought to be the very pinnacle of our effort to turn away from judgments and dark imaginations and petty complexity.
And we forget, most of all, the shadow hanging over us–not COVID-19, not having to wash hands or call out the search party to find a single package of toilet paper. We forget it’s not really about any of this, what we are being asked to do or not do, but about the fact that we will one day die–really and truly. And we can change people’s minds, we can pretend our actions don’t matter, pretend we are immune to all this hype. But we will never be able to change our mortality.
May we make the most of our time with one another. And may we, in the fear of God, with faith and love draw near.