Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Orthodox Church has found itself in an existential crisis. The situation has challenged our traditions and even the way that we receive Holy Communion. One of the points of disagreement that has arisen concerns the manner in which Holy Communion is distributed to the faithful from the common cup by means of a common spoon.
The experience of the church tells us that Holy Communion by the common spoon never became a vector to transmit disease. Many priests have consumed a Consecrated Lamb that had molded due to natural conditions. In addition, every priest, after distributing communion with the spoon to the people, has consumed the remaining Gifts with that same spoon at the conclusion of the Liturgy; yet priests who have served in hospitals specialized in infectious diseases can tell you that no one ever got sick- from tuberculosis, AIDS, herpes, influenza, and even Ebola (as we hear from our brothers who serve in Africa).
Nevertheless, many of the faithful have always been fearful or disgusted by the common spoon. We can spend countless hours explaining sociologically the reasons behind it, but that is not our purpose today. We just need to accept this reality. So, the question is how do we continue to minister to people who struggle with this fear? Do we throw them out of the Church, admonishing them for their lack of faith? Or, do we follow the path of the Lord and embrace them? Are we not called to follow the example of the Good Shepherd, who leaves his flock of ninety-nine sheep in order to find the one which is lost and who tells us “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:13) and that “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27)”?
This essay is published here on the occasion of the first prayers following Hagia Sophia’s reversion to a mosque, July 24, 2020.
It was spring 1964—a difficult year for the Orthodox Greek brothers of Constantinople, because of the well-known anti-Greek acts of the Turks, due to Cyprus. I was in the Theological Academy of Chalke (whose operation unfortunately has since been forbidden by the Turks). Great Lent had just started. In the Holy Trinity Monastery of Chalke, cantor Stanitsas chanted with his students: “Open for me the gates of repentance, O Life-Giver.” It was then that I experienced and understood Orthodox Byzantium: with all its grandeur it humbly repents in front of the Living and True God, as simply as washing in the morning or eating our daily bread.
I set out with a colleague and friend, a student of Theology in Chalke, to visit and worship at the “Aya Sophia,” as people called it in my country without knowing what it meant. For me it was the Great Church then. I used to hear about it, and it was something like a dream. When we entered the Hagia Sophia, I remembered St. Symeon the New Theologian: “If you have heard from someone about a city, its squares and its streets, the buildings and the rest of its beauty, and if you ever find yourself in this city, even if you recognize from what you have heard the streets and the city plan, you are still not sure it is the one you have heard so much about, until he himself tells you that this is the city he was talking about.” Of course, St. Symeon used this example to discuss the revelation of the Lord Himself to him and the confirmation of a true epiphany to him by his spiritual father, Symeon the Pious. When I entered the Hagia Sophia, I saw and realized that this is God’s Holy Wisdom. I was a hieromonk, but forced to be without a cassock, because it is forbidden in the city.
Recently I made up my mind to visit Eastern Catholic parishes. Though canonically Roman Catholic, I have long known my theological portion to fall with Origen and his heirs. But for reasons now dark to my gaze my theological predilections did not translate to liturgical ones. Until anyhow they did—not least due to the compelling (if inadvertent) advertising campaign for the Eastern Catholic Churches pitched by Adam A.J. DeVille’s Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed (Angelico Press, 2019). Resolved, I flick through some Robert Taft books on the history of the Divine Liturgy and tell my children (7, 5, 1) to steel themselves for “a long Church.”
I visit the Melkite parish first. Its white brick climbs skyward, its motion stymied only by a golden dome outfitted with a Greek cross. No Latin parish, this. Perfect.
Like churches in other parts of the world, the Orthodox Church in Russia has struggled to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. The question became particularly intense at the end of the Great Fast. Even though Church and state authorities had called on people to remain home, many devout believers, even some who recognized the dangers of the virus, openly or quietly resisted. Tragically, Passion Week led to the widespread infection of priests and monastics. The Church now faces a theological crisis. How is it to respond to traditional notions, sometimes promoted by hierarchs themselves, that holy things and places protect and even heal believers from disease?
When we lived in Russia several years ago, my wife called Orthodox worship a “contact sport.” She meant not only that Orthodox fully engage their bodies as they venerate holy things and receive the eucharist, but also that parishes in large cities can be so crowded on a Sunday or feast day that one literally has to push one’s way inside. Often she or I had no room to cross ourselves or bow without hitting the person in front of us. But inevitably a determined babushka would elbow her way between us to reach an icon and light a candle to the one and only saint who could reliably answer her prayers.