The first question we must consider at length is whether the government “shutdown” of churches is legitimate. To this I’d say yes… to an extent. First off, St. Paul directly commands us to be obedient to the decrees of the civil authorities:
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” (Romans 13:1-2)
Keep in mind here that the government that St. Paul says is “instituted by God” is not a Christian government, rather here he’s referring to the pagan Roman Empire, the very same Empire that was persecuting Christians: these are the people Paul says to obey. Not only does he teach this, but he lives it out in practice as well. In Acts 25, we read about Paul standing trial for causing disturbance among the Jews. Rather than resisting this trial, Paul instead appeals to stand trial before the emperor himself, and he says “If, however, I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die.” So Paul was willing to go to his own death in order to obey the rulings of the civil authorities. Likewise with all of the Apostles and early Martyrs who were sentenced to die at the hands of the Roman Government, they did not refuse, they did not protest, rather they humbly accepted their fate as appointed by God.
So obviously from this we can gather that the government has legitimate authority from God, to which our obedience (even, partly, unto death) is due. Furthermore, the Old Testament makes it clear that the civil authorities do have a role to play in the cultic life of God’s people:
“The man who acts presumptuously, by not obeying the priest who stands to minister there before the Lord your God, or the judge, that man shall die; so you shall purge the evil from Israel.” (Deuteronomy 17:12)
Here we see that both the priests and the judges (government) have a role to play in protecting both God’s sanctuary and the society at large; in this specific case, this is done by purging both from idolatry. Obviously the Bible has no specific instruction for what to do with liturgical gatherings during times of plague, rather we must (like king Solomon) mediate on the scriptures and discern wisdom from them, which we can then apply to our changing situations.
Given what was stated above, I think we can understand what our response should be to the current pandemic. The civil authorities have not asked us to stop our liturgical services. The Eucharist is still consecrated and consumed by faithful every Sunday, and it has been since the beginning of the pandemic. They have not even asked us to stop the sacraments from coming to the faithful; many churches have been finding creative ways to ensure that those who are in need of the sacraments can get them in a way that complies both with the government’s rules, and our Tradition. What we have been asked to do is to limit the number of people who can gather for our liturgical celebrations in order to protect the society at large from the spread of disease. Whether or not you personally believe disease can spread in liturgical gatherings is irrelevant, the simple fact is that protecting the society at large is something that falls within the prerogatives of the civil authorities, and we are under divine obligation to obey.
This is further solidified by the fact that it’s not just the civil authorities commanding this, but our ecclesiastical authorities as well. It is they who are the successors to the Apostles and possess the keys to the kingdom to bind and loose on heaven and earth (Matthew 16, 18), which is a direct reference to the management of liturgical celebrations. So once again, this is not a matter of personal opinion, but rather obedience to divinely instituted authority.
Some may object that restricting access to the sacraments is immoral, and thus we are not under an obligation to obey moral error. To this I’d say: access to the sacraments has not been restricted in the fullest sense. Access may have been practically restricted for some people based on any number of contingent factors, however, as stated above, anyone can still receive the sacraments. What has changed is the manner in which we are allowed to receive the sacraments, so this is what we should investigate for error: is it immoral to temporarily change the manner in which the sacraments are distributed in order to protect the society at large from disease?
Firstly, the Church has no definitive teaching about whether or not disease can spread in liturgical gatherings, and so to impose your own theological opinion about the matter on others who may be weak in faith, is to fall into the same sin that St. Paul describes about food sacrificed to idols:
“Thus, sinning against your brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of my brother’s falling, I will never eat meat, lest I cause my brother to fall.” (1 Corinthians 8:12-13)
What we see here is that St. Paul calls it a sin to impose unnecessary burdens on those who may be weak in faith. This can be applied to our current pandemic by considering the commentary of St. Nikodemos on canon 28 of the Penthekti Synod, which dealt with administering communion to those suffering with the plague:
“Hence both Priests and Bishops must manage a way in time of a plague to enable them to administer communion to the sick without violating this Canon; not, however, by placing the Holy Bread in grapes, but in some sacred vessel, so that the dying and the sick may receive it with a tong. The vessel and the tong are to be placed in vinegar, and the vinegar is to be poured into a furnace, or in any other manner that they can that is safer and canonical.”
What we see here is that those who are known to have an infectious disease such as the plague are to administered communion from a separate chalice, and the tongs with which they are given communion are to be purified with vinegar and flames. It should be emphasized that this does NOT mean that disease can be transmitted through the Eucharist the same way it could be transmitted through ordinary bread and wine. Rather, this is an example of ekonomia being applied so that people aren’t afraid to receive the Eucharist during times of plague, exactly in conformity with the above interpretation of St. Paul’s words. [It should also be noted that disease can only spread through the Eucharist if it is approached without faith, see 1 Corinthians 11].
This is further confirmed simply by the common practice of the Church in dealing with those who are sick. Before this pandemic started, I can guarantee you that if you were to ask any priest or bishop if someone who has a highly contagious and potentially deadly disease should be in attendance at church, most if not all would have said no! They would have said that such a person should stay home so they’re not putting others at risk. This is indeed why we pray for such sick people who cannot be in attendance during the liturgy! Even the most vocal opponents of the “closing” of churches agree that the sick and elderly should stay home from the liturgy. Why is this the case unless, as has been implied above, it is indeed possible for disease to spread in churches?
Some may object to this argument and say that this only applies to people who know that they have such a contagious and infectious disease, and cannot be stretched out to the entirety of the laity, the vast majority of whom are probably healthy. The problem with this objection is simply the fact that the exact reason why we’re in a pandemic right now is because we don’t know who has this virus and who doesn’t! It takes between 5-14 days for people to start showing symptoms, during which time the virus could spread, even, as has been shown, within churches.
So the principle which was established above with regard to the sick, can validly be extended to include the majority of the laity given the unique nature of this pandemic. Thus the measures our hierarchs have imposed on us, such as using multiple communion spoons in addition to limiting the number of people who can be in attendance for liturgical celebrations at one time, are entirely within the legitimate prerogatives of the Church during these times.
Obviously no one likes this situation; however, we must recognize that God is in complete control of how this pandemic has played out, and how it will play out, and the only way we can get through this is by wholly trusting everything to God’s providence. These current times can be thought of in a very analogous way to the exiles that Israel suffered in the Old Testament. Many Christians today, especially Orthodox Christians, are quick to dismiss any speak of natural disasters as being punishments from God for specific sins. While this is true in one sense, in that the specific people suffering are not always the ones to whom judgement is directly being given, I do believe that all instances of natural disasters, most especially when they result in the disruption of the Church’s liturgical life, are in some way punishments from God for specific sins.
For example, in my article on Job’s suffering, I explained how Job was suffering (receiving a “punishment”) despite being innocent. However, this does not mean that God was not using Job’s suffering for any judgement or punishment whatsoever. Rather, as I detail in the post, these sufferings were being used by God to bring judgement on his “friends,” the ones who were trying to stage a coup by narrowly limiting God’s justice to their own perceptions of justice. It was ultimately Job’s horrid situation that caused his friends to engage in their wicked behavior in the first place, and thus the source of their judgement (and ultimately forgiveness) lay in his sufferings as well.
Keeping this in mind, let’s think about our own situation. As indicated above, given our current pandemic stretches beyond merely individual suffering with the virus, but also directly impacts the liturgical life of the Church herself, we can compare this to the times that God sent Israel into exile. When explaining why God would send His people into exile, the holy Prophet Moses explains:
“Yea, all the nations would say, ‘Why has the Lord done thus to this land? What means the heat of this great anger?’ Then men would say, ‘It is because they forsook the covenant of the Lord, the God of their fathers, which he made with them when he brought them out of the land of Egypt, and went and served other gods and worshiped them, gods whom they had not known and whom he had not allotted to them; therefore the anger of the Lord was kindled against this land, bringing upon it all the curses written in this book; and the Lord uprooted them from their land in anger and fury and great wrath, and cast them into another land, as at this day.” (Deuteronomy 29:24-28)
Moses clearly states that the reason God “uproots [His people] from their land,” or in other words, the reason that God allows for times of chaos and confusion to enter the life of the His people (which includes their worship), is because we have turned away from God. We have forsaken the Covenant that He made with us and our forefathers by worshiping false gods. The false gods we worship today may not be the pagan deities of the Egyptians; however the gods we construct out of lust, gluttony, irresponsibility, or whatever else, are just as real and just as dangerous. Likewise, the holy Prophet Jeremiah concurs:
“Because you have done worse than your fathers, for behold, every one of you follows his stubborn evil will, refusing to listen to me; therefore I will hurl you out of this land into a land which neither you nor your fathers have known, and there you shall serve other gods day and night, for I will show you no favor.” (Jeremiah 16:12-13)
In the Bible, there is always a direct link between God’s people falling into idolatry, and His people receiving exile as a punishment for this. This pandemic should thus be a wake up call for those of us who consider ourselves to be apart of God’s people. This time of “liturgical irregularity” should open our eyes to see how much we have sinned, how many false gods we have worshiped, and how much we have taken the Lord’s presence for granted. After all, as was noted above, the only way one can get sick or die from the Eucharist is by partaking unworthily (1 Corinthians 11:29-30), so how unworthy must we have become if God has determined through His ministers that the ordinary resumption of our Eucharistic celebration would result in widespread sickness and death? The only thing that will save us, and our world is repentance. And it with that in mind that we should join our prayers to those of the holy Prophet Daniel, who himself lived through a time of physical and spiritual exile:
“O Lord, the great and terrible God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, we have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from thy commandments and ordinances; we have not listened to thy servants the prophets, who spoke in thy name to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, and to all the people of the land. To thee, O Lord, belongs righteousness, but to us confusion of face, as at this day, to the men of Judah, to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to all Israel, those that are near and those that are far away, in all the lands to which thou hast driven them, because of the treachery which they have committed against thee. To us, O Lord, belongs confusion of face, to our kings, to our princes, and to our fathers, because we have sinned against thee. To the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness; because we have rebelled against him, and have not obeyed the voice of the Lord our God by following his laws, which he set before us by his servants the prophets. All Israel has transgressed thy law and turned aside, refusing to obey thy voice. And the curse and oath which are written in the law of Moses the servant of God have been poured out upon us, because we have sinned against him.” (Daniel 9:3-11)