Special – the coronavirus and our Parish

Homily Special
Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Church, Ames, Iowa
March 15, 2020

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God.

In normal times, this would have been my 400th sermon. But these are not normal times, and I’m not counting it as such.

First, I’ve been asked to read a letter from Archbishop Alexander, outlining our response to the coronavirus outbreak.

13 March 2020 – The Second Week of Great Lent

From the Life of St. Mary of Egypt: On the Sunday which customarily gives its name to the first week of Lent, the divine liturgy was performed as usual, with each monk participating in the undefiled and life-giving sacraments; and then, according to custom, they partook of a small portion of food. Afterwards they all gathered in the chapel and, after long prayers and many genuflections, the monks kissed each other and each one embraced the father superior. Then they made obeisance and asked for his blessing, so that they would have it with them as an experienced fellow combatant in their forthcoming spiritual struggle. After these proceedings, the gate of the monastery was opened and all the monks came out singing in unison, “The Lord is my light and my Savior, whom shall I fear? The Lord is the defender of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?,” and the rest of the psalm. Often they left one or two monks behind to guard the monastery, not to guard what was stored inside (for there was nothing that could be taken away easily by thieves), but so that the chapel might not be left without ministry.

Beloved, along with diocesan leadership, I have been closely monitoring the developing status of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the past 48 hours it has become clear that we if we do not slow the rate of infection through social distancing (self-imposed quarantine) our healthcare system is likely to be overwhelmed by the number of cases. As we can see from the situation in Italy, this will result in a significantly greater number of deaths, due to lack of treatment. Further, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests COVID-19 is an airborne contagion that cannot be contained by the reasonable hygienic measures we are all familiar with (handwashing, disinfecting of surfaces, etc.).

In light of this, I am asking all parishes and missions in the Bulgarian Diocese, in addition to the directives from the Statement of the Holy Synod, to respond in the following manner:

• All parish and mission events and activities, including coffee fellowship, church school, and the rest, and all services other than Vespers on Saturday evenings (Vespers with priest, deacon, server, chanter), the Sunday Liturgy of St. Basil the Great, the Vesperal Liturgy of the Great Feast of Annunciation, and the Presanctified Liturgies, are cancelled beginning Monday, March 16 through Sunday, April 5, at which point we will adjust as the situation warrants.

• All who are at risk: the elderly, those with pre-existing conditions, any who are actively sick or exhibiting signs of illness including choir directors, singers, servers, readers, subdeacons should consider the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) and act prudently first with regard to others and then with regard to themselves.

• Clergy who are actively sick or exhibiting signs of illness should stay home and contact Very Rev. Andrew Jarmus, the chancellor.

• Priests are instructed to commemorate all of the faithful on the diskos at the proskomedia (as I presume is your practice, regardless).

• Those who do not attend the divine services are encouraged to say prayers from their prayer books at home during the time of the divine services.

• The clergy are to either:

1. Include the Orthodox Church in America’s petition or prayer in your services, or add into the Great and Augmented Litanies the special petitions from the Molieben in Times of Pestilence which are appended to the end of this letter. In our prayers we should especially remember health-care workers. They are going to bear a heavy burden during this time of trial.

2. Offer the Molieben entirely following the Divine Liturgy. (Great Book of Needs Vol. IV, pg 90 and following)

• Clergy are reminded that they have the primary responsibility of visiting the sick, but should take care not to expose the faithful and others to the virus.

This is not the season of Great Lent we anticipated, but it is nonetheless a fitting Lenten effort: focus on the greater good of our neighbors, recognizing that this initial response to this pandemic will work for the greater good of our faithful and our neighbors. Use this time of “social distancing” for prayer and to keep vigil “in one’s cell.”

Please continue to work through the chancellor and diocesan leadership to address any particular concerns not covered here, and I will let you know of further directives.
Wishing you strength for the weeks ahead, and assuring you of my prayers, I remain

With love in Christ,
Archbishop of Toledo and the Bulgarian Diocese – Orthodox Church in America

I want to add to this a bit of perspective that Vladyka alludes to in the penultimate paragraph – the idea of working for the greater good.

We have to recognize that every human born will die. My high school classmates lost their four-year-old granddaughter in a tornado a week and a half ago. My mom died during my first semester of seminary.

We don’t like to think about it. But we all die – and this is a tremendously helpful message from the fathers of the Church. We should remember that we will die, and repent, today, and every day.

Because we die in order that we might live, as our Creator intended, in communion and love with Him. The Liturgy we celebrate and the Eucharist we receive is a precursor, a sample or a downpayment, if you will, of that life.

Now, there are debates on line – we used to call them flame wars – that debate the appropriateness of continuing communion in the midst of the response to the virus.

One group says we have to give up the “magical thinking” about the things of God. The Eucharist is miraculous, to be sure, but we still live and receive Communion in a fallen world, subject to death and decay.

The other reinforces the truth that the Eucharist is the body and blood of Christ, and cannot be the means of transmission of death. Implying that the people who refrain from communion during this time must be suffering from a massive denial of faith.

I want to set aside the matter of faith for a moment, and think about the statements made.

From the first group: The sacraments are not magical, but physical and can transmit disease and viruses in our fallen world.

The second group: The sacraments are holy, and cannot spread anything incompatible with life.

In my thought, both are in essence correct. Both are true. The positions held by both are not mutually exclusive. Because the driving underlying force here isn’t the sacraments at all – rather it is fear.

The other element is indeed faith. But our faith, right here and right now, for the vast majority of us, is imperfect. The man asking that his son be relieved of a demon said “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!” (Gospel according to St. Mark 9:24)

The Lord gently chastised the faith of the apostles, telling them if their faith were strong, and not compromised, they would be able to move mountains from one place to another.

So what we are encountering is the fear, and the imperfect faith, that exists in our fallen world. That, in my view, is the essence of our current struggle.

Christ goes on, however, to remind us through St. Paul that even if our faith is strong – we can do spiritual harm to our brothers and sisters who faith is not strong.

Who are perhaps overcome by their fear.

And it is the role of the strong to bear the burden of the weak. Not to condemn or vilify or argue with them. But to love, and to pray, and to protect.

If protecting the weak means that I need to abstain, even though I have strong yet still imperfect faith and do not fear, then abstain I shall. It is my obligation – my duty.

And so, that is the spirit in which the restrictions being currently implemented are offered. To protect the fearful, to protect the weak, whether spiritually or physically weak.

My encouragement to all of us is that if you desire to approach and receive communion, and have prepared yourself with fasting, prayer and recent confession, please do so. I will take extra precautions to insure the instruments of our salvation are as clean as I can have them.

And if you should desire, for whatever reason, to refrain, you certainly have my blessing and the blessing of our bishops to refrain, knowing that we share in your fear and in your trials.

We are all in this together. We are one family. Our focus is and will continue to be on one another, and not on ourselves.

We will emerge from this crisis, as we have all others in the 2,000 year history since Christ’s incarnation, stronger and closer to theosis, if we so choose.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Glory to Jesus Christ!