St Mary of Egypt, it is said, received Holy Communion exactly once after she fled to the desert to repent: on the day of her death. 17 years of life in the wilderness were spent deprived of Body and Blood of Christ in the eucharist. This was not normal practice at the time for nuns, monks, and ascetics. Early monastic rules required even anchorites—those living in caves or huts apart from the monastic community—to come together with the others for Sunday liturgy to commune with God and unite with their fellow monastics in the Cup of the Lord. Yet St Mary was nourished only, as she told the elder Zosimas, by “the word of God which is alive and active.”
The spread of COVID-19 has forced Orthodox leaders to make difficult decisions about how and whether to hold church services. Some have advised that most people simply stay home from Sunday liturgy for the foreseeable future, especially the older and immune-compromised, as well as those who are sick. For most, this will mean obligatory fasting from Holy Communion.
Fasting from Holy Communion, especially during Great Lent, is nothing new. The Armenian Apostolic Church has long kept this practice. In most Eastern Orthodox Churches, until quite recently, many of the faithful did not commune throughout Great Lent until the liturgy of Holy Thursday, the commemoration of the Last Supper.
But these are religious customs. Under the current circumstance of the coronavirus pandemic, obligatory deprivation from communion seems different. Is it not cruel and unnecessary? After all, don’t we have the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts on weekdays in Lent so that we can be nourished by Christ amidst our efforts in fasting and prayer? The Body and Blood of Christ, as we hear in the hymns, is the “fountain of immortality,” a medicine for spiritual and physical ailments.
And yet receiving this medicine at Sunday liturgy could entail unnecessary harm to the Body of Christ, the Church. Given the indeterminate incubation period for COVID-19, those standing in church may be carriers who could possibly expose fellow worshippers to the virus. Staying home from church and abstaining from Communion may be a necessary sacrifice for the good of the other. We are all responsible for all; as St Silouan of Athos said, “My brother is my life.”
Could there be positive side to obligatory deprivation of Holy Communion? Those who strictly observe the Orthodox lenten fast from meat, dairy, and animal products know the delight of that first cut of the lamb roast at the Paschal feast, the first bite of aged gouda after the vigil, or the first sip of vodka. These pleasures are sweeter after weeks (and weeks!) of deprivation. Abstaining from the comforts of food and drink creates a yearning and enhances the sweetness of tasting them once again.
Abstaining from the Body and Blood of Christ can also create such a yearning—for the sweetness of God. While the increase in frequency of Communion among Orthodox Christians in the recent decades is a certainly a positive development in our Church, there has also been the risk of routinization. Holy Communion can simply become another appointment to keep in one’s weekly schedule. Obligatory deprivation of Communion presents an opportunity to bring back into focus the stark and bracing reality of the eucharistic sacrifice.
At this time of pandemic, when we are confronted with our own bodily frailty, weakness and pain, deprivation from Christ’s Body and Blood can help us remember how God has joined in solidarity with us in our human condition. Jesus knew divine absence. On the Cross, He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” the first line of Psalm 21/22. This affliction, this sacrifice, the lowermost moment of Christ’s kenosis or self-emptying, is an important aspect of the eucharistic memorial that is sometimes forgotten in Orthodoxy, with its emphasis on the glory of the resurrection.
In meditating on Christ’s affliction while fasting from the eucharist we can enter into his Holy Saturday, the time of waiting and resting between crucifixion and resurrection. We hear in the hymns for Holy Saturday:
What is this sight we behold?
What is this present rest?
The King of the ages, Who through His passion
fulfilled the plan of salvation,
keeps Sabbath in the tomb, granting us a new Sabbath!
The Son of God knew what it was like to be deprived of divine presence in his affliction and his “Sabbath rest” in the tomb. And yet, if we read to the end of Psalm 21/22, we find the sweetness that he knew awaited him, and was in fact ever-present. The Psalm affirms that God the Father “did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.”
The Christ who sustained St Mary of Egypt throughout her years in the desert, who is “alive and active,” is never absent from us. But if we must abstain from the eucharist for the good of the Body of Christ, and wait for its sweetness, we can meditate on Christ’s sacrificial solidarity with us in our bodily frailty and affliction and wait patiently for the promise of healing and new life. When we are finally reunited with Christ in his Body and Blood, perhaps we will more deeply understand the hymn we sing at the Presanctified Liturgy this time of year, “O taste and see that the Lord is good.”
Mark Roosien holds a PhD in Theology from the University of Notre Dame, and is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Lecturer at Yale Divinity School. He is a deacon of the Orthodox Church in America.
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