When COVID-19 first arrived on the scene as a nuisance, and not a pandemic, the Churches responded by making slight alterations to the rite of receiving communion. Catholic and Protestant Churches instructed people to refrain from partaking of the cup, and the people exchanged the sign of peace without handshakes. Eastern Church leaders instructed people that it was not necessary to kiss the icons, the cup, or the priest’s hand, and the people took the antidoron (unconsecrated bread) themselves, while refraining from drinking the zapivka (post-communion wine) from a common cup.
As COVID-19 evolved from nuisance to perilous threat, the Churches have continued to respond by altering their liturgies. Catholics and Protestants limited the number of people who could attend services before some cancelled them altogether. The Orthodox adopted the skeleton crew approach until more recently, when many bishops directed parishes to suspend services indefinitely.
The Churches have attempted to maintain some semblance of normalcy in their liturgical rhythms. Catholic priests celebrate private Mass on behalf of their people. All of the Churches use technology so that the people can participate online. Several communities livestream their services while smaller groups gather for virtual Liturgy on Zoom.
The tendency of the Churches to make incremental adjustments to their liturgies to maintain a sense of normalcy is understandable. All Christians have passed the midpoint of Lent and are preparing for Holy Week and Pascha, so this is the most solemn season of the liturgical year. Essentially, Church leaders are turning to their playbooks to respond to each phase of the crisis. The instructions began by removing non-essential liturgical components. Then, Church leaders confronted the insurmountable task of authorizing community liturgies that could not honor the requirements of social distancing.
At this point, the threat of COVID-19 has become so perilous that there is no response remaining in the Church’s liturgical playbook. A Holy Week and Pascha with suspended liturgies is almost inevitable for the Churches. Certainly, leaders will attempt to bring the Church into the people’s homes by either livestreaming solemn liturgies celebrated by two or three people, or by posting liturgical offices people can pray on their own from home. While this is a good gesture, the attempt to bring the Church into people’s homes permits us an opportunity to rediscover ways of being Church when it is impossible to participate in the Church’s ordinary liturgical rhythm.
Christ’s Presence in Baptism and Chrismation
The desire of Church leaders to retain some semblance of the integrity of the Sunday assembly discloses what is at stake for Christians. Christians understand the Eucharist as the community’s response to God’s invitation to assemble. The Eucharist is a liturgical act, or event – the assembled community hears God speak in the word, responds to God’s word with praise and prayer, and participates in what Louis Chauvet called a gift-exchange—offering God thanksgiving in the form of bread and wine, gifts cultivated from the earth—and receiving his only-begotten son, Jesus Christ, in return.
In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, regular participation in this assembly, including the reception of the gift of God’s son in communion, became normative again. Refraining from the weekly gathering to offer this liturgy and receive this gift is antithetical to Christian conscience, which is why leaders have steadfastly attempted to maintain it, even in its most reduced form. The Eucharistic revival was a rediscovery of the fullness of Christ’s presence among us, along with the unity we enjoy with those who partake of these gifts with us, strengthening the bonds with heaven and earth.
The temporary inability to convene as a Eucharistic assembly does not mean that Christ is not among us. Christians continue to share unity with both God and the communion of saints through Baptism and anointing. Each person receives Baptism by name—in the Byzantine rite, “the servant of God., N., is baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The ritual inclusion of each person’s name is significant. For example, in fourth-century a baptismal homily delivered in Antioch, John Chrysostom tells the photizomenoi that they and their acts will be “inscribed in the books of heaven.” Chrysostom also speaks of Baptism as an act of union, as those to be baptized “are about to receive the heavenly king into your house.”
In his liturgical mystagogy of the fourteenth century, St. Nicholas Cabasilas also refers to the rites of Baptism and anointing as covenantal. Cabasilas states that the anointing with Chrism brings in “the Lord Jesus himself,” a statement that amount to describing the new union shared by the neophyte and Christ.
These accounts depict Baptism and anointing as the creation of a permanent covenant between God and his people, and use metaphors of union to describe what happens in Baptism and anointing. Similar metaphors are present in the Byzantine prayer for the consecration of chrism. More than any other primary liturgical source, this prayer, along with its siblings in the various liturgical families, describes the meaning of the anointing with Chrism.
The prayer refers to God’s previous anointing of priests, high priests, prophets, kings, and holy apostles, placing those who will be anointed presently in the company of God’s people through the Old and New testaments. The prayer also asks God to imprint his divine name, along with that of the Son and the Spirit, upon the anointed, so that they would become God’s citizens, children, and servants, “having your Christ in their hearts for your dwelling, God and Father in the Holy Spirit.”
Through Baptism and anointing with Chrism, then, Christians receive the most precious gift of all—the sharing of life with God, and the promise of abiding in God’s presence for eternity. To be sure, the liturgical texts do not exclude the Eucharist from the rites of initiation. The prayer of Chrismation recited in the rite of Baptism refers to the neophyte’s future participation in the Eucharist. Furthermore, the consecration of chrism is celebrated during the Eucharistic liturgy of Holy Thursday, with the oils for chrism placed on the altar near the diskos. It is the Eucharistic assembly that asks God to send his Spirit on the oil, so that those who are anointed can become God’s holy nation and royal priesthood.
The point that should provide both comfort and some direction for the Church during this unprecedented COVID-19 crisis is that baptized and anointed Christians have received the gift of Christ and the Holy Spirit in Baptism and anointing. Christ is always present with them because they are baptized and anointed, and he does not withdraw from them. The liturgical and mystagogical texts state that the Christian life can be sustained even in the most dire circumstances that prevent Christians from assembling for the Eucharist.
What, then, are the implications for Christians searching for meaning when they cannot assemble, especially during the most solemn season of the liturgical year? First, there is no need to be anxious about bringing Christ into the homes of Christians this Holy Week and Pascha because Christ is already united with them in Baptism and Chrismation. Church leaders do not need to defend the liturgical services from violation because the liturgy belongs to the whole Church, and the laity already has the authority to offer its prayer of thanksgiving to God during Holy Week and Pascha, because the laity shares in Christ’s priesthood, and Christ authorizes them to pray, in accordance with tradition, and also to the best of their ability.
Second, God established a holy nation to witness in the world. Today, the world is experiencing a dreadful tumult, one generating anxiety, fear, sickness, and death. It may be that God has called upon the Church to exercise her priesthood in a new way, by placing love for one’s neighbors and friends above all else so that these acts of love would be the Church’s gift offered to God. If this is the case, as it seems, then Holy Week and Pascha are the appointed time for the Church to offer a living liturgy of love and witness to the world. If the Church exercises its priesthood in this way, at this time, may God accept it at his altar as an authentic eucharistic offering.
Rev. Nicholas Denysenko is Emil and Elfriede Jochum Chair at Valparaiso University.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.