I know things are rough right now - COVID-19 has pushed us all to live a much more isolated life than the vast majority of us are used to or comfortable with. From the conversations I have with friends and coworkers, I see that my general sense of anxiety has plenty of company. This is something we’re all in together, and most of humanity is in the same boat for the first time that I know of. COVID-19 has made this a part of our shared human experience, bringing us closer together despite our physical distance.
Unfortunately, it has also meant the closure of our churches around the globe. We’ve seen parish clergy engaging with technology in new ways to continue to minister to their parishioners, but none of that is a substitute for the Mysteries we partake of in the Church. And this causes a great deal of frustration for many of the faithful. First off, let me tell you, this is frustrating for your bishops and priests as well - I haven’t talked to a single member of the clergy who welcomes the idea of holding a service without all of the faithful. But they understand, like we all must, that this is literally a matter of life and death and, out of a deep love of their flocks, they made a very difficult decision.
That being said, how are we to view these difficult times? As you’re sitting at home watching the Divine Liturgy with a consecrated Eucharist that isn’t available to you, what is there to gain?
I had a phone call with a good friend who had some questions on the implications of no universal Eucharist on Pascha. It was something I had been thinking about, and I think such a time gives us the opportunity to experience something beautiful. During Lent Christians traditionally remember a time before Christ. Our readings throughout the week are from Genesis, Isaiah, and the Psalms. A common theme through Genesis is humanity’s relationship with God in creation, through the fall, and attempts at reconciliation. St. Isaiah prophecies of the coming of the Christ, demonstrating a longing of the Israelites for their Messiah. The Psalms go through all of the human experience in relationship with oneself, with God, and with the world around us, ultimately demonstrating man’s longing to be united with God.
We are all longing for normalcy now. Instead of waiting for the Messiah, we still have hope in the glorious Resurrection of Christ, we are longing to be reunited with the Eucharist. In a way we, like the Israelites of old at the first Passover, are in exile. We, like the forefathers of the Church, are experiencing a longing.
Just look at the beautiful life of the saint we celebrate this Sunday - St. Mary of Egypt. St. Mary was nothing short of a saint on earth before she fell asleep in the Lord. She walked on water, lived with less than minimal food, and knew the Holy Scriptures by heart without having read or heard them. What a glorious saint! She wandered the desert for 47 years alone before St. Zosimos unexpectedly discovered her. God worked many great miracles in her - she still longed for the Eucharist again. She asked St. Zosimos to return a year later to commune her. Her patience was rewarded and she received the precious Body and Blood of Christ one time before she reposed. 48 years between communing she was like a flower of repentance in the desert, yet, she still longed for the Eucharist. We can remember the struggles of St. Mary of Egypt during the rest of Lent, practicing repentance and seeking God with all of our hearts, all of our minds, and all of our souls, all while longing for the Eucharist.
It’s hard to stay away, I get it. But remember, this is still an opportunity to grow. St. John of the Ladder teaches us, “Obedience is the tomb of the will and the resurrection of humility.” We learn by humbly understanding while we feel as though we are outside looking in.
I mentioned this in a previous article and it came up again as I was talking to Fr. Dn. Aaron Scott Taylor from Oklahoma City who pointed out, “this is an opportunity to cultivate our domestic and inner prayer life, where the responsibility for worship lies entirely with us.” As Archimandrite Aemilianos of Simonopetra:
Whatever happens in church at certain moments, during Vespers, or during the Liturgy at Holy Communion, is continued by means of prayer. And I cannot say that “I will go to church” if I haven’t been praying.’ Let’s be praying now, so that when we can ‘go to church’ it will really mean something.
Even in the darkest of times, remember the words of St. John of Kronstadt, “Prayer breathes hope.”
As we listen to the health experts advising us on this pandemic, they’ve made one thing very clear: things are going to get worse before they get better. The numbers are startling. We have to be realistic about what’s ahead. As we prepare ourselves, it’s important to know, to know those who suffer, don’t suffer alone. Christ suffers right next to us. The late Fr. Tom Hopko reminds us, “If someone said to me ‘God is compassionate,’ I’d remind them that the word “compassionate” means co-passionate or co-suffering. The God who is compassionate is the God who suffers with us. He’s not the God who takes our suffering away in the fallen world.” As followers of Christ, we to suffer with those who are in pain, who are ill, who suffer through compassion. St. Paisos of the Holy Mountain stresses the importance of compassion and co-suffering when he says, “Those who do not co-suffer with those who live in great pain are suffering from the most fatal of spiritual illnesses … Mercilessness.”
We give and take comfort in knowing that our brothers and sisters in Christ are with us in prayers. Christ is with us in all of our pain. More importantly, we have hope. Hope in Christ and hope in the Resurrection. We are with Christ in all that we do, all that we suffer, all that we celebrate, and all that we mourn.
Frequent communion hasn’t always been the norm for Christians. Weekly liturgies in safety haven’t either. Our forebears in the faith have had much to literally risk their lives to serve or receive the Eucharist. Others have lived in areas with only a traveling priest and wouldn’t receive communion frequently. Most of us live somewhere where liturgy is held weekly and many of us are used to that and take it for granted. How many times have we slept in, decided to skip to stay home for a football game, or go to breakfast with friends? People are comfortable with this because there’s always next week, right? Well, here we are. Next week still hasn’t come and many of the faithful have been away from the Eucharist for weeks now and long to be back. The takeaway we can all get from this is that the precious gift given to us from Christ is just that - a gift, a mercy, a grace, and we should take it and the opportunity to receive more seriously. No doubt, when the parishes open around the world to all of the faithful, we’ll see them packed with those praying and excited to return to the chalice. It’s our job to keep that perspective and excitement about partaking of the body and blood of Christ alive in the future as well.
The Church has answered to tough times before - the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was closed for Pascha in 1349 in response to the Bubonic Plague. The Church leaders understood the importance of the safety of the faithful then as well. And the Church came out victorious, just as we will now. We need patience, love, and humility as we weather these tough times - let’s keep our history, repentance, hope, joy, and gratitude in the forefront of our minds.
“Be still and know that I am God” - Psalms 46:10.