The Covid-19 crisis caught many Orthodox Christians by surprise. In cooperation with civil authorities, bishops all over America closed their churches. Some hierarchs even kept them closed longer than the civil governments required. During the lock downs, which are continuing in some states, the Faithful were deprived of all the sacraments. Elderly and infirm died without being attended to by priests. Funerals were constrained or not performed. Couples cancelled their weddings. When the churches re-opened, masks, social distancing, and other changes made liturgy a very different experience. Some hierarchs even used the crisis as an opportunity to try and change the method of distributing communion. Practices such as multiple spoons have made their appearance.
Many Orthodox Christian Faithful pushed back against some or all of these things. In response, some bishops and priests labeled the resisters as “fanatics” or “fundamentalists” and maligned them as having an “unreasonable” faith. The clergy said we were fools to believe that going to Church was “safe” and that we could get sick and die from gathering together. Additional accusations were leveled such as wanting to “tempt God” and not “loving” fellow Orthodox Christians.
The walls of our Orthodox Churches are covered in the icons of martyrs whose sacrifices we hold up as examples to all generations. Their stories are told in hymns and recited by priests as part of homilies. Their deaths were often gruesome. Frequently we find ourselves, with our children by our sides, listening to how martyrs were skinned alive, cooked to death on hot grates, crucified, beheaded, boiled in oil, frozen to death in a lake, burned alive, and even worse. Most of the time, the torture accompanying death was intended to force the martyrs to renounce Christ. They didn’t, obviously, which is why they are remembered by the Church.
Nor is that just ancient history. We remember the video of 21 young Christian men beheaded on a beach in orange jumpsuits for refusing to renounce their faith in Jesus Christ. The video of the mass murder showed that the young men did not struggle or plead. The martyrs fully accepted death and gave their last moments to Jesus as you can see them praying: Ya Rabbi Yassou, “O Lord Jesus”.
The Coptic Church* now recognizes them as martyrs. These men were just a few out of the tens of thousands of Christians who die each year for Christ. Some of them are remembered like the 21. Most are known but to God and their immediate family.
Christianity is not safe. In fact, if done properly, Christianity is absolutely one of the most dangerous things imaginable. A true faith in Christ drastically increases the chances you will end up on a collision course with some worldly power or another. If Christians were willing to die rather than offer a pinch of incense to an emperor, it is obvious there is wide, wide latitude to get into trouble with authority.
From the perspective of the world, fanaticism could be characterized as the default state for true Christians.
Which is why the behavior of the bishops shocked so many of us. We understood there was a danger from this virus. We did not believe that the Faithful gathered in Church were somehow magically immune from the possibility of infection, either in this epidemic or the next one to come. The Holy Eucharist is completely free from infection, of course, but any gathering of people brings with it the possibility of contagion. That is equally true of colds, flu, and Covid-19.
Gathering as a body to worship God was a risk many Orthodox Christians were willing to take, in America, Canada, and around the world. Our bishops denied us that opportunity. They used conformity to the world’s hysteria as a reason to close the churches, while box stores, liquor stores, marijuana dispensaries, and even abortion clinics remained open. Baby killing is essential, but salvation is evidently not.
We are still not fully back. Churches in some states are still closed. Where open, most bishops have their parishes operating under strict rules that limit attendance and change many liturgical practices. The Greek Archbishop of Canada and the Greek Archbishop of America both seem intent on instituting multiple spoons for “safety.”
Orthodox Christians follow a man who was crucified by government authority after being savagely beaten. We don’t expect the world to be “safe” for us. It certainly wasn’t for Him. That doesn’t mean we are lining up for beheading. But it does mean that we are in a good position to keep risks in proper perspective. Going to church during a virus, and resuming normal liturgical practices in the aftermath, are not particularly risky compared to what else we are willing to do for the Faith.
Joe Biden is running for president and is talking about a potential nation-wide lock down if he wins. Even in areas where there are almost no cases of Covid-19, local and state authorities continue to extend emergency orders far into the future, sometimes indefinitely. In California, our most populous state, churches are still closed.
There is no way to know when, or even if, this “crisis” will be allowed to fully abate. Nor is there any guarantee that another one won’t be right behind it. We may soon again find ourselves with padlocked churches everywhere or suffering through other governmental interference in our religious affairs. Orthodox Bishops in North America must realize that we, the Faithful, are not pining for death and sickness. Quite the contrary. But if given a choice between the exercise of our faith, and our personal “safety,” real Christians will choose the Faith.
-Nicholas, member of the Greek Archdiocese