When I first set out to write something for Great Lent about humility and vulnerability, I had something entirely different in mind as an example. It had to do with things I learned while preparing to write a book.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and all the remarks I made about what I’d learned seemed to become rather pointless in the face of this crisis that is thrusting us all into the realm of vulnerability. It makes for a different Lent than we’re used to, because we usually draw together during this time in preparation for the Feast to follow. Even if this forced isolation also offers opportunities for the reflection and prayer that are a part of every Lent, we Orthodox are very much community-minded people when it comes down to it.
I’m not going to comment on the danger the virus poses or anything like that. I’m not a doctor, and not qualified to comment on that. I work in local government, and my close colleagues are the ones spending long days trying to deal with this current crisis. So I’m well aware that whatever else, in my country of the Netherlands most of the government, from local and semi-local to the ministers, are genuinely trying to do the best they can with the information they have.
However, that doesn’t mean any of this is easy. Our government has just announced a not-quite-lockdown: all events are cancelled until June 1st and no groups are allowed, anywhere. People are asked, stringently, to stay home as much as possible. A quick grocery run, a short walk while keeping a safe distance from others, fine, but otherwise the message is to Stay. Home.
That means it’s now certain that we cannot celebrate Pascha, but quite possibly also Ascension and Pentecost, in the usual manner.
Of course that’s going to provoke a reaction in all of us. Even when fully supporting these measures, to us Orthodox Christians, this is like Christmas being cancelled times three.
Over the past days I’ve seen many different reactions. Various bishops and metropolitans issuing different instructions and making different decisions.
What about the sacraments, many wonder, since for us Orthodox, not being able to receive the Blood and Body of Christ for an extended time is a very serious thing indeed.
As one person posted in response to me on Facebook, by closing for services and simply livestreaming, by not putting the sacraments above all else, we have given in to Death’s dominion.
Is that so?
Personally, I think not. First of all, death has no dominion. Pascha has already taken that away.
Second, the one Law, the one above all and everything, is the Law of Love.
We receive the Blood and Body of Christ because of that Law of Love. That is what allows us to approach the Chalice. That law is why the Chalice exists for us at all—because God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son.
And now, during this unusual Lent, in all humility, we obey that Law of Love by stepping back from the Chalice.
It is natural that this feels unnatural. The two are intertwined, and to separate them has a feeling of wrongness. It happens in excommunication, where Love requires a temporary separation from the Chalice.
In this situation it is not excommunication—which happens because of a transgression on our part that needs to be healed—that separates us from the Chalice, but it is that same Law that requires it for that same goal. For the sake of our communities, we must step back while we heal.
We do not step back from Christ. We do not step back from the Gospel. We do not step back from the Church.
Instead, we step back towards Christ. We step back towards the Gospel. Because, as precious and beautiful and indescribably important the Liturgy is, every person that is spared in this pandemic because we stepped back is a precious and beautiful and indescribably important image of Christ. Our liturgies can be postponed or celebrated in a different form, communion can be postponed for a little while without sin. All of what is now temporarily halted can be restored. The person who is the image of Christ, however, and dies in this pandemic, cannot in this life be restored to our community.
There is no greater love than to lay down our lives for our friends. We are not even being asked to lay down our lives for our friends, merely a little of our time.
In all this confusion, in all this uncertainty of whether it is right to give up on the sacraments so easily, humility is to err on the side of Love.
See the Lenten Reflections and Coronavirus sections in our Archives 2020. See also Lenten Reflections: An Invitation to Write if you would like to write for this series and Keeping Lent During a Pandemic in the Electronic Era if you would like to help Orthodoxy in Dialogue feed the homeless for the remainder of Great Lent.
Monica Spoor is an Orthodox Christian and the author of Spirituality on the Spectrum: Having Autism in the Orthodox Church. She holds a Bachelor’s of Theology from the Evangelische Theologische Hogeschool in Ede. She also volunteers with special needs children, does translations, and serves as secretary of the regional advisory board for the department of welfare. She has written previously for Orthodoxy in Dialogue, blogs at Dark Side Monologues, and tweets @MonicaSpoor. She resides in Veenendaal, the Netherlands.