The recent reappearance of the ancient terror of a pandemic has prompted fertile conversation among theologians and literary people across the world. Various opinions have been articulated, such as that disease can be transmitted through the current way of distributing holy communion, or that the Eucharistic Gifts themselves can be bearers and transmitters of pathogenic germs. It is said that since the bread and the wine do not alter their essence and essential properties, it follows that they are subject to decay and can also spread toxic viruses. This idea has supposedly found Christological grounds as well in that the human body of Christ is a carrier of germs which can be harmful to us, though not to Him; after all, germs themselves are not bad, since there is nothing bad in creation.
Within this framework, the following evidence drawn from the writings of the Fathers might be relevant and useful.
Undoubtedly, there is nothing bad in creation. No form of life, nor even natural destruction can be considered as bad, because evil is only that which alienates us from God. However, one should also consider the products of personal sin, such as, for example, a dangerous laboratory hybrid, as well as the effects of the ancestral Fall, namely decay and death, to which the human being has been submitted. Now, God’s incarnation manifests something entirely new in the world.
As everyone ponders their particular and usual roles, during the pandemic, ministers of Church rites strive to creatively answer their specific charge to assemble the faithful and execute time-worn rituals, so that communion, as we understand it, remains uninterrupted. In light of this new normal, however short-lived, perhaps now is the time to reflect on the fact that the rhythm of celebrations has long ceased to nurture society’s Nones. Rarely do we ask how we are to feed them as they move away from the liturgical life; rather, we sense a kind of fear that if the rhythm stopped, communion would cease altogether. But is communion limited to the Eucharist? And is not the purpose of the Eucharist itself to reveal the very essence and goal of all of life as communion?
It is striking just how many verses of the central hymn of the most widely attended service in the Orthodox Church assert that Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection provide salvation to everyone—yes, everyone. If hymnography reflects the prayer and thinking of the community, what might this contribute to the millennia-long debate about Universal salvation?
Technically, the Good Friday service that contains the Lamentation is a Saturday morning (Matins) service that was moved to Friday evening for practical reasons. The Lamentation, as appears in the Triodion service book, consists of 185 short independent hymns, the Praises, which are interspersed with verses from Psalm 118 (119), the longest of the Psalms. The Lamentation is divided into three sections, or Stases. Usually, only a part of the 185 hymns are performed in parishes, chosen by the chanters at will. While the Lamentation likely reflects much older theological ideas, it is noteworthy that the service, like all of the Holy Week services, was developed after the fall of Byzantium.
Many Christians around the world have come to realise over the last few weeks that this year’s Holy Week and Pascha will be somewhat unlike any that they have previously experienced, on account of the current viral pandemic. Very many churches are now closed, with services cancelled or in-person participation restricted to a select “skeleton crew.” Orthodox Christians are obviously not exempt from the consequences of the pandemic and many are already mourning the loss of public worship at the high point of the liturgical year, even as they understand and respect the regulations imposed by civil authorities.
Although it may be possible during the coming weeks to view or listen to liturgical services online, many churchgoers will rightly acknowledge that this is no substitute for prayer and worship in person. Screens and speakers necessarily render us the passive audience of a performance. Clergy can quickly become like stars of stage and screen, existing in a glittering world somewhere “out there,” apart from our own mundane experience of isolation and enclosure. The edges of our electronic devices frame liturgical action like the proscenium arch in a theatre, with the same effect of separating drama from life. Even if we successfully minimise distractions, disable pop-up notifications, and discipline ourselves to remain quiet and present to the broadcast, many of us will still desire something more immediate and active than online liturgy—something truly in the here-and-now of our reality of social distancing and quarantine.
Various possibilities present themselves as alternatives (or, complements) to watching liturgy online, including the observation (or revival!) of our prayer rule with renewed energy and attentiveness, and the disciplined reading of scripture, especially the Psalms and Gospels. But it is also possible to bring the services themselves into our homes, and some may be inclined to do this during a period that would ordinarily be saturated by liturgy.