Grant, we pray, Almighty God, that we who celebrate with awe the Paschal feast may be found worthy to attain to everlasting joys; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
I think there needs to be a retelling of this story for the 21st century. Somewhat early on the first day of the week, all the parishioners found that the church was empty. But Jesus came to them in their locked houses and said to them, “peace, whether you are gathered in a church building or locked inside your homes to help flatten the curve, I have risen from the dead just as I said I would.” You see, no matter where we are, and no matter when you might be watching this, Jesus is alive, he has risen from the dead.
I know it may not seem like Easter. There are no lilies to adorn our church, and we are not together physically, but we are together spiritually. We are very much like those first disciples that were gathered in that upper room. They were locked in, just as we are, because of real fear and a real threat to their lives. They were sad, and they were in mourning because they had just lost their friend, and they were not sure what was going to happen to them. Some of them, as we heard in the Scripture lesson, went to the Tomb and found that it was empty just as our church is empty this morning. But their sadness soon turned to joy as will ours.
It has been a long, dark Lent this year. We have traveled the road with Jesus as he walked closer to today. We sat with him Thursday night and watched as he washed the feet of his disciples to remind us that we are to be servants to all. I am reminded of the servants in our world who, at this very moment, are caring for those suffering in hospitals and nursing homes. At considerable risk to their own lives, they are washing not only the feet of those they are serving but their entire bodies. They are sitting with their patients because their families cannot and holding their hands.
We watched as Jesus took bread and wine and presented it to those gathered with him and told them that this bread and cup were his body and blood that has been shed for the world. He reminded them and us that each time we partake in the Sacrament of Communion, we are doing so in remembrance of him and for all that he did for us. But it does not end there for we are now the body of Christ, and we are called to be broken and shared in this world as the light in the darkness. We are to show the world that God loves them and cares deeply for them, and we show that by loving and caring for those around us, especially the least of these.
We walked with Jesus to the Garden of Gethsemane, where he went alone to pray. We witnessed Jesus scared and uncertain and bargaining with God to let him find another way. We sat next to him as he prayed so hard that drops of blood formed on his brow and fell to the rock he was using as his altar. We watched as a feeling of peace came upon him as he began to understanding that what he was called to and what we are called to is to obey the will of the Father. “Not my will but yours,” he said. This is not an easy thing to grasp, but to be authentic followers of Jesus Christ, we must surrender our will to that of God’s.
We were there when Judas came, one of his closest friends, and handed him over to the authorities. This must have been difficult for Jesus. Yes, Jesus knew what was about to happen, but he still must have felt that deep betrayal that comes when someone we love lets us down. Jesus went willingly with the authorities, and those that were with him, had walked with him and spent the last three years with him, scattered and left him alone because they were afraid, they might be next.
We were there, although, like those who abandoned him, we were at a distance so as not to attract any attention because if anyone finds out, we are a Christian, we might have to change the way we act towards others. But we saw him, hanging on that cross, an innocent killed by the system to protect the system. Killed for preaching that everyone is the same and loved equally by God no matter where you are from, what color your skin is, what language you speak, what your immigration status might be, or who you chose to fall in love with. He was killed because he preached that the two greatest commandments are to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself. He taught that if we have an abundance and our neighbor has less, we are to give from what we have been blessed with without condition. He was killed because people could not accept that their privileged position required them to help those less fortunate and that they were not there to be used for political purposes. Jesus was killed because he loved. Everyone. Without condition. And he did this to show us that this is how we are to live our lives.
But the story does not end there because after the darkness of the night after the doors have been locked after the virus has caused us to stay away from each other morning will come, and the Tomb is empty, and love has won and has beat death. Jesus has risen from the dead despite what they did to him. Jesus rose from the dead for the same reason that he died on that cross because he loved. Everyone. Without condition.
During these weeks of isolation, I have been involved in some pretty deep conversations with people about all of this and what is going to happen, and I was reminded that after Jesus came, the Holy Spirit came, and she breathed new life into the church. Just as God blew his very breath into the lifeless body of humanity at creation, the Holy Spirit came and blew her breath into the church that had gone stale. A Church that had lost her way. A church that forgot what it means to be church. A church that built large, beautiful buildings and amassed large endowment funds but forgot that the church exists for the least of these. The Holy Spirit came on that first Pentecost and woke them up and called them out and Church I believe that is precisely what she is going to do when this is all over.
We are locked in behind the doors of rules, regulations, traditions, and laws, and the Holy Spirit is coming to tell us that it is time we get back to what we are called to do, and that is to proclaim the love of God all the world. We are to go out into the whole of creation and celebrate what God has done, what God is doing, and what God is going to do.
I want you to turn to the person next to you, no matter where you are, and say, I am ready. Go on; I am ready. God, I am ready for whatever you ask, Not my will God, but yours.
In this world of uncertainty, there is one certain thing, we can never go back to the way it was our voice is a voice that can no longer just be whispered for fear of offending people. Our voice can longer only be heard inside the walls of the Church; what Coronoavirus as taught us is that the world is our church, and we are going to shout from the rooftops if we have too. What this Coronoavirus has shown us is that the system is fixed for the haves, and it is broken for the have nots and church; we can no longer stand by and remain silent. This is way too important for that.
Church, I hope all y’all are ready because the Holy Spirit is warming up and is fixin to set this place on fire and that fire is either going to burn us up or clear the path, and we need to be ready. We can use this time of quiet to prepare ourselves for the future, prayer, study, and all the rest. We have no time to lose, the time to start is now!
My prayer as we continue this Easter season locked in the Upper Room is that we will hold fast and not lose hope. God is with us just as God was with Jesus in the Garden and on the Cross, God is with us now, as then because God loves us more than we will ever know or imagine.
O God, Creator of heaven and earth: Grant that, as the crucified body of thy dear Son was laid in the tomb and tested on this holy Sabbath, so we may await with him the coming of the third day, and rise with him to newness of life who now liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
It has been said before, but it needs to be said again, we are living in unprecedented times. Not since the flu epidemic of 1918 have, we witnessed the worldwide closing of Church buildings and the suspension of in-person worship. All of this has led to questions surrounding themes of pastoral care, worship, and the Sacraments.
For some Churches, moving to an online style of worship does not really pose a Sacramental problem but for others there are many unanswered questions. Churches are grappling with the idea of Virtual or Spiritual Communion as a limited substitute for in-person worship.
There have also been some extraordinary developments:
The Bishop of the Diocese of Chichester in the United Kingdom, has suspended English Canon Law to allow for the solo celebration of the Eucharist in his Diocese. See Letter.
Metropolitan of Pergamon John Zizioulas implies that under these circumstances it is permissible for an Orthodox Christian Priest to celebrate the Divine Liturgy with a Congregation present. Read the Interview.
The Presbyterian Church USA has updated its previous guidance given in early March to now allow Elders and Sessions to celebrate Holy Communion. Read the Guidance here.
Although there is a division between some United Methodist Clergy and Bishops there was a study launched in 2013 on this very subject. More information here.
With all of this in mind, I have asked several pastors and theologians to weigh in on this idea of Spiritual Communion and the issue of Online or Virtual Communion. They come from very diverse backgrounds, Church of Scotland, Greek Orthodox, and United Church of Christ.
Guest Blogger: The Rev. Fr. Gregory Nicholas Christakos
Today the grace of the Holy Spirit has brought us together. And all of us take up Your Cross and say to You: “Blessed are You, the One, who is coming in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!”
The above is a hymn from the vesper service for Palm Sunday in the Orthodox Church (this year we celebrate Palm Sunday a week after our western brothers and sisters). The phrase “has brought us together” is not just a reference to people being in church. Rather, it refers to a monastic practice where, during Lent, the brother monks would go their own way and return to church for Holy Week. This voluntary fasting from communion is of course very different than our involuntary fast that we are now going through, but it does show there is precedence. The Orthodox Church recently celebrated St. Mary of Egypt, a desert recluse who received communion on the day she became a Christian and then lived by herself in the desert, not receiving until 47 years later on the day she reposed. And Orthodox churches have closed in past years during pandemics for the safety of all.
I maintain that there are really two types of communion in a Christian context. There is of course the receiving of the body and blood of Christ during the service. But there is also the communing with each other – praying together during service and then the socializing during coffee hour. We are currently missing both of these things in our lives. We can’t do anything about receiving communion at the moment, but there are benefits. As with anything we do on a regular basis, it can be easy to take communion for granted. This fast from communion gives us a chance to reflect on the sacrament and how if fits into our lives.
The social aspect of communion – praying together and socializing together – is something that we can actually take on. Technologically, we are in a place where we can have meetings online and virtual get togethers. But we don’t even need to use the latest technology to communicate with friends. An actual phone call allows us to communicate in a way that texting or email doesn’t. In this uncertain time where everyone is to some extent on the edge there is a great opportunity to reach out to family and friends that, due to the usual hectic pace of our lives, we may normally neglect.
By the time Jesus got to the cross, many had abandoned him. In the Gospels he goes from speaking to large crowds to having a very small number of companions by the very end. As bleak as this was, there was hope in the Resurrection. Our own hope in the Resurrection, the most important event in history, is the same hope that leads us to know we will one day be together in church with our friends and family.
The Rev. Fr. Gregory Nicholas Christakos is Priest at Sts. Anargyroi Greek Orthodox Church in Marlborough, Massachusetts
Some of us have long ago settled the question of whether on-line Holy Communion is legitimate. Over a decade ago, some of us answered the question of virtual communion at Koinonia Congregational Church of Second Life. Second Life is similar to massive multi-player online games, where the user creates an avatar and enters a virtual world. Except that Second Life is a vast sandbox where the users create the world. Koinonia Church was created as an intentionally inclusive space. We were clear that the only thing that would get you removed from that space was bad behavior, and we tried to be lenient. Since one’s “second life” could be anything one wanted to represent from a reflection of one’s “first life” to anything imaginable (we had a dragon and a hobbit among our consistent worshippers), we concluded that all avatars were as worthy as the person who created that collection of pixels. Since we believed that this is not our table but God’s, where Jesus invites all to come and be filled, we decided we were not gatekeepers, but rather beacons beckoning the spiritually hungry to nourishment for their souls. And so we maintained the solemnity of the sacrament by emphasizing the common unity that we all share as guests at God’s table and allowed the practical concerns of what to use for elements or who did the consecrating to take a back seat.
Will some traditions have a problem with this? Of course. There will always be purists who are afraid that that giving up control will lead to disaster. Some of those voices are being raised today, even in the midst of extraordinary times demanding innovative responses. But that is a top-down approach in a world that has become increasingly bottom-up. One undeniable result of the Internet revolution is that power has shifted toward the user. Individual choice and access are ever expanding. The more any institution chooses to limit practices to single choices, the more irrelevant it becomes today. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating the elimination of tradition or ritual. In fact, I’m very concerned about how to make ancient stories relevant to contemporary audiences. In this moment, that most assuredly involves on-line Holy Communion.
If you believe that the sacrament is only valid if done “correctly” and are struggling to figure out how to practice communion in virtual space, that is a good problem. It is good to examine the implications of our beliefs. Some years ago I came to the realization that since, as a Protestant, I did not believe that a priest has special ability through apostolic succession (sorry for the jargon, you can Google it if you care to know) then even the laying on of hands at my ordination did not set me apart in some way that meant that only I, and other ordained ministers, could make bread and juice holy. It occurred to me that according to my theology, Christ was already present at every worship service, not in me, but in the congregation, that is, the Body of Christ. So I decided that the liturgical prayer of consecration belonged in the voice of the congregation. Together, we call on God to make the common elements sacred for us in their use in communion. By extension, it doesn’t matter whether we gather in one physical space or, perhaps, even in one specific time. What matters is that we acknowledge that God is not only present in all times and all places, but is also very eager to break bread with us.
Protestants also took confession out of the hands of the priests, believing that individuals can seek God’s forgiveness directly. We took this stand without taking away the need for confession before coming to the table. Unfortunately, some of us also put up barriers like requiring baptism, confirmation, or even church membership. Those are conversations for another time. Suffice to say that in my tradition, we invite all persons to the table without vetting. But there is an added question presented by virtual spaces, do we need to know who the person is? That might seem like an unnecessary concern, until you consider bots, the threat of “zoombombing”, or other ways people might show up with bad intent. Do we limit access to the unrestricted grace of God because someone may show up and cause problems? I hope that you agree that the answer is obvious. In Second Life, we had to deal with what we called griefers. I officiated a same sex wedding in Second Life, where the reception was attacked by a griefer making it rain some strange object on all of us. We knew that something like that might happen, but we took the risk, rather than put our light under a bushel. Likewise, I think we need to risk inviting everyone to the table, because that is what God does. Remember that Jesus, knowing what Judas was about to do, still invited him to dip his hand in the same cup.
One final word about anonymity. One of the high points of my time in ministry in Second Life was telling a transgender person that I believed they were loved by God. The avatar was female and the person in First Life was assigned male at birth, living in Spain, where they could not find a priest to affirm them. Sometimes anonymity provides an opportunity to risk being the person we wish we could be in our physical existence. Maybe one gift we can find in the horror of this pandemic is that our on-line selves can represent our better selves. And if we accept the gifts of God at the table of grace, then we can find hope that our better selves are our full-time selves. In this time of isolation, let us celebrate every means that brings us together celebrating our common union as the beloved community of children of God.
Ian Lynch is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, serving Old South Church in Kirtland, Ohio. He has long enjoyed using technology to connect and share. He has six years of two minute Bible commentary on his You Tube channel, called Bible Bytes He is Pandion Halasy in Second Life and in his first life he is a husband, father, and avid (even competitive)birdwatcher.
Guest Blogger: The Most Reverend Dr. Derek Browning
In his famous Sermons on the Sacraments, delivered at St Giles’ High Kirk, Edinburgh in 1589, Robert Bruce, a successor to John Knox was one of the most deeply spiritual and power ministers the Church of Scotland ever produced. He wrote:
“There is nothing in this world, or out of this world, more to be wished by everyone of you than to be conjoined with Jesus Christ…This heavenly and celestial conjunction is procured and brought about by two special means. It is brought about by means of the Word and preaching of the Gospel, and it is brought about by means of the Sacraments…The Word leads us to Christ by the ear; the Sacraments lead us to Christ by the eye…
In our current climate where gatherings of all sorts are prohibited how, from a Reformed perspective, is ‘communion’ to be experienced? Is the action entirely dependent on a gathering of the faithful ‘around the table’, the ultimate prerequisite? Might it be possible for us to take Jesus’ comment, “…where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them”, and apply this to communion practices? Many Reformed ministers will already practise something like this when they share home communion with the hospitalised or housebound. For some it might even be the case that at a home communion the sense of the spiritual is even greater without the drama and choreography of most of our church-based communion services. Are we going to take seriously the statement of the Apostles’ Creed that we do believe in the ‘communion of saints’, spiritually and eternally present? Or even more fundamentally the unshakeable hope spoken at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, “…and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.” The essential doctrine of Christian faith is incarnation, God with us. We are not alone; we are never alone. The most important word in the Bible is ‘with’.
For Christians of all persuasions, in these short but profound claims within our faith, the practicality and spirituality of Jesus shines out. Communion may be incarnational, caught up as it is in the continuous and continuing presence of Jesus, as well as representational in the spiritual reality of that presence.
In July 1969, during the first manned moon landing, Buzz Aldrin wanted the first meal on the Moon to be a communion meal. Tucked away in his personal belongings was a pouch for the historic voyage, with a Bible verse written on a slip of paper, a bread wafer, a small amount of wine and a tiny silver chalice. The Bible verse was John 15:5: “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”
Aldrin alone ate and drank, but few would deny that this was as ‘real’ a communion as any other. From our reformed tradition, Word and Sacrament were brought together, and therefore communion took place.
In the ideal world, of course, it is better that the sacramental meal is shared with sisters and brothers. But our world is often far from ideal. The spiritual communion is unaffected by the physical numbers present. Whether we are on our own, whether we witness communion over the internet and at the time of the meal, share together bread and wine we have brought ourselves, whether we are even on the Moon, surrounded by the communion of saints, in the continuous and continuing presence of Jesus Christ, when Word and Sacrament are brought together, there communion takes place.
The Very Rev. Dr. Derek Browning is the Minister of Morningside Parish Church in Edinburgh Scotland and former Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.
The pilgrimage of faith is taking us into challenging territory: let us walk together in hope and in the certainty of the presence of Jesus Christ as our companion and guide.
Government regulations on how we now live must be observed. I believe that as Christians we have a moral duty to do play our part in the disciplines needed to contain the coronavirus. This means that our church buildings must be closed and not used for any gathering. Baptisms and weddings in church are also suspended.
The Archbishops have written to clergy, and the Church of England website notes the following specific guidance from that letter:
Emergency baptisms can take place in hospital or at home, though subject to strict hygienic precautions and physical distancing as far as possible.
Funerals can only happen at the crematorium or at the graveside.
Only immediate family members can attend.
That is defined as a spouse or partner, parents and children – all maintaining a physical distance.
Clergy are encouraged to be as creative as possible with streaming services, teaching, and other resources.
NB If you are streaming from home, this must also take into account demonstrating attention to both hygiene and safeguarding regulations.
Foodbanks should continue where possible under strict guidelines and may have to move to be delivery points not places where people gather.
In this diocese I would also encourage clergy to use the Government’s allowance of daily exercise as an opportunity to check that church buildings and their contents, for which you are responsible, are safe. We will be providing further guidance from the DAC on this duty of care.
Many clergy have asked about whether they are forbidden to enter their churches. It is vital that we model best practice in terms of public safety, protecting the limited resources of the NHS, and attention to the care of the most vulnerable to infection. Nothing we do should compromise these concerns or the regulation of them by Government instruction.
If you can ensure that these requirements are met, and you still decide to go into church to pray and celebrate the Eucharist, I would respect your decision on the basis that it is made in conscience and informed by legitimate pastoral, spiritual, missional and legal considerations. Thank you to all who streamed services and messages last Sunday. Any service must clearly be solo-streamed or you should explain that it is being done with the aid of a person who lives in your home.
Many of you have also asked about celebrating the Eucharist alone, without a congregation. In some cases clergy will wish to do this at home. I repeat the permission of the Ad clerum on 19 March that gives an exceptional dispensation to a priest (licensed or with PTO in this diocese) to celebrate the Eucharist without a congregation, during the course of the present restrictions.
If it is your practice to reserve the consecrated elements in your church, then please ensure that they are replenished. If you are celebrating the Eucharist at home, then you should take a supply to church for this to be done.
If you are not celebrating the Eucharist at all, please consume the supply of consecrated elements that have been reserved and leave the place of reservation open and unlocked.
You should not reserve the sacrament at home. I have asked for legal advice on this and that is the advice I have been given. The purpose of reservation in the Church of England is the giving of communion; any devotional practice is recognised as a consequence of this.
The continuation of reservation in church would be as a confident and symbolic statement that it is the place of holy communion for the gathered people of God, and the potential for that gift to be recovered is not being intercepted.
The dispensation to celebrate the Eucharist without a congregation can seem generally foreign to the Church of England’s tradition. What are we to make of it? How are we to do it?
There is perhaps some guidance from the book of Exodus, when the children of Israel are going through their desert experience.
This resonates with this season of Lent. It is also a model for our life as a pilgrim people, journeying together in “darkness and in the shadow of death” (Luke 1.79), with our sights fixed on Jesus Christ, the source of light and peace.
In the provisional dispensation of this pilgrimage, we read that “Whenever Moses went out to the tent [of meeting], all the people would rise and stand, each of them, at the entrance of their tents and watch Moses until he had gone into the tent” (Exodus 33.8).
There are further details of the rituals of this meeting and the role that both Moses and Aaron are given. These two Old Testament figures were foundational for the Church of England self- understanding of itself in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. They feature in the title page of prayer books and the King James Version of the Bible; they are prominent in the decoration of many churches in this period.
The focus of the ordained minister interceding for the people in ritual is well-established in the Church of England’s imagination, though it is now overlaid by other important considerations of the nature of the Church and the active participation of the whole people in worship.
When an incumbent is inducted, the ritual of going to the church door, tolling the bell and being placed in a stall all have meaning. The priest is the doorkeeper (just as Jesus describes himself as the Door of the sheepfold). The bell is the indication of proclamation, witness to the Church’s activity of prayer, and the stall is the study desk of scripture, liturgy and meditation. These distinctively Church of England rituals are indicative of a profound sense of the church as temple, a building that expresses in its sacred geometry a material delineation of the body of Christ.
It is important, however, that we draw from our scriptural and ecclesial tradition in order to make arrangements that will meet the provisional limitations which are likely to be with us for some time.
Moses, and on other occasions, Aaron, go into the tent alone, in order to pray for the people. But the people are not passive. They go to the door of their dwellings as witnesses to this work. They stand in the presence of God with them: they watch, and they pray.
This dispersed work of prayer is also the work of Christian laity. It is what we are now being asked to nurture in their lives, as well as our own, of as we emphasise and celebrate the link between the corporate worship of Church and the domestic worship of home. In each home, for example:-
the chair in which you sit to read the Bible is the domestic lectern where together we hear read what the daily scriptures are saying to us.
your front window is the pulpit where the mystery of Christ in your life can be articulated. In the diocese of Chichester we have offered an A4 Passiontide poster that proclaims, Praying for you. Here
your meal table is the place where you give thanks for creation, for the food by which God sustains your life, and for the mystery of Christ who is present to us in this same manner as the food of the Eucharist. (Grace at times of meals could reference this more carefully.)
The role of the priest in the celebration of the Eucharist is to bear all this to the altar in church through the rites of word and sacrament that unite earth with heaven and thereby give glory to God the Father.
The celebration of the Eucharist without a congregation should heighten our awareness that this act does not belong to the priest.
The celebrant of every Eucharist is Jesus Christ, the new Moses. The gifts on the altar are the manifestation of the life of the people of the new Israel, the Church, in their daily working life, and in prayer and worship in their homes. Jesus unites these gifts with the offering of himself to God for the salvation of the world.
How do you celebrate this without the people of God being present? (This would also apply to celebrating the Eucharist in your own home.)
As a priest, remember you also belong to the people of God. You are a sinner like any other Christian. In offering the gifts at the altar, you also come in search of mercy and forgiveness.
Extra special preparation is needed for this distinctive celebration. Liturgical texts, vessels and bread and wine must all be in place and easily accessible. Work out carefully how you will place a lectern, altar and chair or stool and move easily between them.
Speak at a volume that you would use in conversation with a person who is in need of reassurance. Imagine you are speaking to any one of the people who are saddened by not being able to get to church.
Prepare carefully what you intend to bring to God in the offering you are about to make, i.e. the names of people, places, etc.
Light the candles, vest and go to the altar as you normally would.
Remember that the Eucharist is a conversation: with the members of the Church on earth, and with the angels and saints in heaven, and with the persons of the Holy Trinity. The text of the rite should be essentially the same as you would use if a congregation were present. You should say only the words of the priest or reader, and the words that priest and people say together. Do not say the responses of the people who are not present.
Do say, “The Lord be with you.” Do not say, “And also with you.”
Do say, “Let us pray.”
Do not say the responses in a responsorial psalm
Do not say, “Thanks be to God” after the OT and/or NT reading
Do not say the responses to the announcement and conclusion of the gospel
Do not invite an exchange of peace
Do not say the people’s response in the Sursum Corda
Do say the Sanctus and Benedictus
You may say the Mystery of faith and you may say the Agnus Dei
Do say the invitation to communion and its response
Communicate yourself in both kinds
Do say the blessing and dismissal
Think carefully about where you focus your attention, given that no one else is present. Read the texts carefully; look at the gifts you place on the altar.
Allow time for silence. This is especially important after the gospel and after holy communion. Ensure that there is a chair or stool conveniently nearby.
Enter the celebration in the services register, noting that there was no congregation, under the terms of permission from the bishop, to meet Covid-19 restrictions. This will be a significant record for history.
Make sure that after the liturgy you set aside time for thanksgiving.
Finally, please ensure that you take good are of yourselves, spiritually, emotionally, medically. There is much that will cause anxiety and grief in the weeks to come. I hope that you will also carve out time for spiritual refreshment, reconnection (safely!) with friends and people who encourage your in your ministry and faith. Look, too, at what will enliven your hope and imagination. Even now, we might begin to think about what we will be wanting to do and to be, when this dark episode draws to its close. What will we have learnt?
I leave you with some words from a Bible commentary by St Bede (spoken of so brilliantly by Karen Kilby at our last Clergy Conference):
Christ is the morning star who, when the night of this world is past brings to his saints the promise of the life and opens everlasting day.
With thanks and with joy in sharing with you our apostolic calling,
Interview: Metropolitan of Pergamon John Zizioulas with Public Orthodoxy (23 March 2020)
We wish to hear your views on the current situation, since your theology plays a great role in the present circumstances.
Metropolitan John: My theology, unfortunately, cannot be applied. In Greece, they have already closed the churches, and the Divine Liturgy is not being served. Is it served in Serbia?
Taking into consideration the decision of the government that the number of people in one place be limited, as well as the issue of getting around and social distancing, the Patriarch Irinej’s newest decision is that services be held in churches but without more than five people.
Metropolitan John: That’s acceptable.
In America, it was decided that the priest, chanter and altar server be present, in order for the Liturgy to be served, so that they might have the holy mysteries in order to commune the people. What do you think about that?
Metropolitan John: For me, the Church without the Holy Eucharist is no longer the Church. On the other hand, the danger of transmitting this virus to others imposes on us the need of doing whatever is necessary, even if that means closing the Church. The Greek government has taken drastic measures due to the very serious matter at play.
Many have posed the question: What does John Zizioulas say? Since everyone knows that you had once said that in Orthodoxy a “private” Liturgy doesn’t exist.
The liturgy under the current conditions will be served for the life of the world. One priest will serve in order to allow the people to take communion. Let us not forget, the Liturgy is served “for those who are absent with good reason.” Those, who cannot come, are now everyone. I think it is an acceptable decision that a priest serves the liturgy in the church with two or three people. How he will forbid others from attending, I don’t know. I think the best decision, instead of completely closing the church, is to have the priest serve with up to five people. Therefore, the Liturgy should be served in churches, but the possibility of spreading the virus should be reduced to zero.
The Church of Greece will broadcast the Holy Liturgy via the Internet. Some in America will do the same. What is your opinion?
I don’t agree with the Divine Liturgy being transmitted by television. I’m confined to my home and will not be able to attend Liturgy. However, I will not turn the television on in order to watch the Liturgy. I consider that an expression of impiety. It is impious for someone to sit and watch the Liturgy.
We heard that the faithful in Greece will follow the Liturgy on television. Where will the Liturgy be served?
Metropolitan John: I think it will be televised from the Cathedral church of the Archdiocese of Athens. Personally, as I said, I don’t like the Liturgy to be broadcasted on a TV channel. In Greece, there is at least that one liturgy that will be served in the Cathedral church. In my opinion, it could have been served in more churches, but there is the fear of spreading the disease.
At the Liturgy one is either present or not present, we have already read this in your writings. What can Christians do on Sunday morning when they are prevented from attending Liturgy in a church and they have to stay at home? What would you suggest Christians under these current circumstances do?
Metropolitan John: Let a person remain at home and pray. The Church can prepare some service texts to encourage the faithful to read, for instance, the morning service in their homes, but not to read the text of the Liturgy. The Liturgy requires our presence. One cannot participate in the Liturgy from a distance. Therefore, let the faithful pray from their homes.
When you say “prayer,” what do you mean specifically? To read those prayers they know or to have the bishops and priests recommend them something?
Metropolitan John: The Dioceses can recommend a prayer rule; in my opinion, the Orthros (Sunday Matins) is sufficient. The Church should distribute the text for Orthros, for instance, in order for the faithful to read them at their homes during the time the Liturgy is being served. A televised broadcast of the Liturgy is not the right thing to do. On the other hand, a good solution is to have the Liturgy served by a priest and two or three people and, if possible, to distribute Holy Communion to the faithful. As far as I know, this is difficult now since we don’t have deacons who could deliver Communion. In the ancient Church Holy Communion was taken to those who were unable to attend. Thus, if this doesn’t exist, let the Liturgy be at least with five people.
What do you recommend to the faithful concerning individual (private) prayers of each Christian?
Metropolitan John: The faithful should continue to pray, to offer their personal petitions to the Lord.
What would you call this state and this situation, since it is now extraordinary? You said that the Church without the Eucharist is not the Church and that the Eucharist must be preserved. This type or form of the Eucharist, what would you call it, that it not be turned into a “private“ rite?
Metropolitan John: If there are five people at the Liturgy it is no longer a private Liturgy. It is important that those who attend are not in danger and cannot endanger others.
As for the danger, however, no one can say that there is no danger in the matter of transmission.
Metropolitan John: As doctors tell us, the danger is minimized if distance is maintained and hygiene measures are observed.
Therefore, it is excluded that the Eucharist can be reduced to a private matter. If the Liturgy is performed in the presence of several believers, is this danger avoided?
Metropolitan John: It is better than having fully closed Churches.
Some believe that in this case of limited participation of the faithful, the Church no longer exists as a Eucharistic community and assembly, and therefore they say that the Eucharist should not be performed. And they add: if it is not done at all (which is beyond our will and desire) then God will not leave us. So, they ask: if we do not have a church community assembled, why should we serve such a “limited” Liturgy?
Metropolitan John: A community (κοινωνία and κοινότητα) is never complete in terms of the participation of the entire community. There is always a minority present; however, it still represents and acts on behalf of all those who are absent. And of course, we pray for all those who are “absent for a reasonable cause,” i.e. who were prevented from attending. This is not a novelty in our Church. There have always been those who are absent from the Liturgy. Those who participate in it pray for those who are absent. As we know, some may be absent because they are ill or because they are on the road. However, one may also be absent because the state does not allow him or her to attend due to an emergency. There is no substantial problem here because there is a community or a congregation of those few. It is better to have a community of a few than a state where there is no one in the Eucharistic assembly.
Some believe that those who participate in this three- or four-member liturgy are “privileged” and thus more favored than others?
Metropolitan John: What does “privileged” mean? Those who are present would very much like others to be present but are aware that they cannot. They do not look at it with exaltation or satisfaction that there are no others. They are aware that they represent those who are absent.
The dilemma some have is whether to deprive ourselves of the Holy Eucharist and thus help others (stopping the spread of the infection) or to serve the Eucharist in the hope that it will not harm others. Is it sufficient to comply with all measures to prevent the transmission of the infection?
Metropolitan John: We should prevent the spread of the infection because it is a huge risk of transmitting the virus. Not only to those who are in our immediate vicinity but also to those who are further away. This is spread throughout society and why should we be the cause of such a spread of the virus?
Does the image of the Liturgy we now have, where it is confined to several believers around the priest, violate liturgical iconism? Does this limited gathering continue to iconize the Kingdom of God, which is the meaning of the Liturgy?
Metropolitan John: The small community does not diminish the image (iconization) of the future Kingdom. Very often, in many countries in Europe, I went to parishes whose temples were used by very few Orthodox believers. Yet the entire Holy Eucharist is offered for all the universe. A parish represents not only the local community but also the entire Catholic Church. Therefore, the smallest temple represents the universe and summarizes the whole world.
Many fear that some elitism does not emerge from this state: those who are privileged in the Liturgy. Do you see any danger in that?
Metropolitan John: No, I see no danger.
In what sense?
Metropolitan John: It is enough for the local bishop or priest to allow an alternative presence so that the same parishioners do not always come. This week there are three or four, next week there will be another three or four faithful. The participation of others will be gradually made possible until this situation is over.
Many people put it this way: it is not a question of whether the Church exists without the Eucharist, but whether faithful can refrain from participating in the Eucharist for a month or two. There is a view that we should not serve now because it is such a situation. Liturgies were abolished in some dioceses, where state authorities ordered a ban on gathering at the Liturgy. The bishops had to completely prevent the participation of believers, as in Greece. Are you satisfied with the decision in Greece that the Liturgy cannot be served until the end of the pandemic?
Metropolitan John: I don’t think that’s good. I believe that they could find another solution where the liturgy could be celebrated with the small participation of laypeople. They chose that solution, but I do not think it was the best one. The decision not to attend the Liturgy could have been avoided.
If this happens in the whole world, what do you think, would the Church cease to exist then?
Metropolitan John: It is just a hypothesis. I do not think in reality that can happen. There will always be people who serve the Liturgy, for example, in monasteries.
Some say it only “keeps the flames going” (eucharistic flame) which is a nice, poetic image. Is that the theological and substantive answer?
Metropolitan John: That’s not the answer. Whenever something is not our choice but a necessity that comes from the outside then we do what is called an oikonomia. A lot of things are not quite right in practice, but since what is right cannot be valid, then we accept it only as oikonomia. And here we have just that today: we apply oikonomia things to deal with one serious problem. I view this as a measure of oikonomia.
You said and wrote that in ecclesiology it is not only taking Communion of the sacred gifts (communio in sacris) that is crucial, but also participation in the community of the saints (communio sanctorum). Some forget that we do not merely distribute some “thing” from the Holy Altar which is taken and absorbed in the organism, but that with communion, we participate in the community of all of the Saints. What can you say on this topic during this era of the coronavirus?
Metropolitan John: That community of Saints certainly exists, even when there is a small number of faithful and laity. It is the community of Saints, and not merely a community in a sanctuary.
Do you have any comments on the manner of receiving communion? I assume that you have heard the current arguments on this topic. While some insist on giving communion from the same spoon, others are searching for other ways, in order to respond to the challenges of the epidemic and show their social responsibility. One of the local Churches ordered mandatory spoon disinfection, while another began using disposable spoons. What do you say? What oikonomia or dispensation should be applied here?
In the Liturgy of St. James the Brother t the faithful take communion separately, the Body separate from the Blood of the Lord. As we know, according to the order of this ancient liturgy, these are not both placed in the chalice. There are, therefore, various ways. I don’t agree with having disposable spoons for each person. I don’t think this is good. Instead, it is better for the faithful to receive the Body of Christ which would have been dipped in the Blood of Christ beforehand. In this manner, the spread of the virus will be avoided. This is an ad hoc answer, of a provisional character. But I think ways can be found. Although the Church has not given much thought to other ways, I think it should do so.
Communing with a spoon dates back to the 11th or 12th century?
Metropolitan John: Yes. This is a considerably later practice and I think, at least temporarily, we should go back to the ancient solutions. I believe we will discover them. But who thinks of them today!?
Some have suggested the following solution. Priests should prepare the particles of the Body of Christ from the Lamb and then steep the particles with the Blood of Christ. Then the people approach and take that Communion. What do you think of that?
Metropolitan John: I think this is a very good solution, since there is already fear among a group of faithful. Personally, I would like and desire that the faithful have no fear (from the Holy Communion). I consider that the Body and Blood of Christ is truly the receiving of medicine immortality and I don’t think it is dangerous. Personally, it wouldn’t bother me to commune from one chalice during an epidemic or, even to use one common spoon. However, since there are those who, as the Apostle Paul says, are weak in faith, we must avoid scandalizing them. The Church must find a solution for them as well, to meet their needs, in order to avoid accusations that we Christians transmit infections or disease.
We notice that you consider that accusation, or testimony, which comes from outside the Church to be important. Do you think that the Church should be careful what image or impression it has on the world?
Metropolitan John: With the prevailing practice of taking Communion, I think that, in the event this disease spreads, many will accuse Christians of being guilty and many will say that the Church spread the infection.
Is there a responsibility of the Church towards society and creation?
Metropolitan John: There certainly is.
Your Eminence, we owe you much gratitude for this conversation. It is wonderful that our readers will have the opportunity to see your answers to these current issues.
Metropolitan John: I hope the one who reads this will read it correctly and not misinterpret me. I pray that the Lord helps us deal with this situation in the right way.
Translated from Serbian by Fr. Bratislav Krsic and Fr. Milovan Katanic
Our season of Lent is drawing to a close, and we move ever closer to the cross of Jesus. Today we face the entire set of emotions from extreme joy to extreme sadness and grief as we move from the triumphal entry of Jesus to Jerusalem to his final hours on the cross. Celebration and praise will converge with loss and grief. Not unlike how many of us might be feeling right now. We are happy that we are well and with our loved ones, but sad that we cannot be together in our church building on this beautiful Palm Sunday.
But this feast calls us to communal faith, and no matter where we are today, or when you might view this video, we have gathered and will continue to gather as Church.
This singular event drew people from all over the region. Jesus’ fame had reached the far ends of the Empire, and everyone wanted to see him. He was not going to be able to slip into town; they were going to welcome him as a king, or were they?
Keep in mind that those that were expecting the Messiah to come were expecting a military genius one that would free them from their bondage to the Roman Empire. Sure, the Messiah is a King and did come to free them from slavery, just not the bondage they were expecting. When a king or ruler, who just conquered a city, went into the city, they would ride in on a horse, a warhorse if you will. They were coming as a conquering hero to claim their prize.
But, and this is important, the King was coming in peace, they would arrive on a much nobler beast, the donkey. This would show submission and not triumph. Jesus came to Jerusalem to bring peace, not war. Jesus came to Jerusalem to bring love, not judgment. Jesus came to Jerusalem to bring forgiveness and freedom from the bondage of sin, not the slavery of political oppression. Jesus came as a peacemaker, not a conqueror.
All of this, as you can imagine, caused the religious and political authorities of the day to sit up and take notice. Until this point, Jesus had just been a burr under their saddles, a little painful but not much to worry about. But now, he has just raised a man from the dead, and the people have crowned him King; this was something they could not simply ignore. They were going to have to take action.
The people come, they cut down branches from the trees, they place their cloaks on the ground and sing Hosanna, Hosanna, Hosanna. They are happy and filled with anticipation of what will come next, or what they think will come next. The people who had come out were doing so at significant risk to themselves for in proclaiming Jesus King they were, in fact, committing treason.
But as we know that joy will soon turn ugly and go to a very dark place.
Some theologians will argue that this was intentional on the part of Jesus. His time had come, and he had to do something to raise his profile so he would be noticed. As I have already mentioned, they did not pay him any mind at all; he was just some backwater preacher going around doing good for folks and not getting in the way.
But if we leave the story here, all we have is the triumph, and for many, that is where they want to stay. Many want to go right from Palm Sunday to Easter without the pain and agony of Good Friday, Jesus was one of those for a bit in the garden when he was praying. But we cannot skip over the unsavory bits to get to the parts we like. We cannot ignore the difficult parts of Scripture and focus on the nice happy bits. What the story of Palm Sunday reminds us is that in the life of the Christian, there will be joy as well as pain, sorrow, and grief. And we must experience it all.
The German Theologian and Martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer often spoke of what he called Cheap Grace. Bonhoeffer was concerned that we had lost the idea of Good Friday, that we had forgiveness with repentance. That we had, or thought was had to do nothing to work at in our Christian life. This is not only wrong, but it is bad theology.
An English Orthodox Bishop tells the story of being asked about being saved. I don’t know about you, but I often get asked by some Christians if I am saved. What the bishop would say is that he is not saved, but instead he is in the process of being saved, salvation is something we continuously work toward it is not a moment in time when all things change, and we are on the right path, no it is the very opposite. We must continuously work at our faith, t is a daily struggle between the joys of Palm Sunday, the agony of Good Friday, and glorious feelings on Easter. We must go to the tomb to be resurrected.
But the other meaning behind this feast is that we must come in the same way that Jesus came. We must come with no expectation, with all humility, and with love, love for God and love for our neighbor.
This week we made the difficult decision not to stream worship live from the Church. This decision was made to provide an example to those who are advising us to stay home. The only way we will get through this is if we shut ourselves in for a while, it has worked in other places. As much as we feel we need to go out, we simply cannot. But thanks be to God we can video this message and service so we can be together during this time to support one another.
But I mention this because, for me, it comes back to this idea of love, love of neighbor. Our staying home might save someone’s life. Our staying home might be the greatest example of love that we can show to another person. Our staying home keeps them and us safe, and that is an expression of love.
There will be time to celebrate when this is all over, and we can once again gather for worship. But for now, this is what we do; for now, we must pause a little while at Good Friday, and then, our Easter will come.