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A series of talks by Bishop Irenei of ROCOR Western Europe
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A Letter of a Parish Priest to his Flock
In a letter dated June 5, 2020 to his clergy and monastics, His Eminence Archbishop Alexander of Dallas made available to his faithful the following reflection written by a “wise priest in the diocese”.
Source: Orthodox Church of America
I have waited a long time before writing anything specifically about our current situation because I am a simple parish priest, not an epidemiologist, not a theologian, and not a bishop. Therefore, I am, for the most part, unqualified to say too much about our current situation. Unfortunately, others who are at least as unqualified have not hesitated to speak their opinions, throwing around words like “heresy”, “blasphemy”, “untraditional”, and the like.
Recently a priest whose canonical status is not easily discerned has posted videos trying to provoke schism and disobedience to the bishops’ directives in the wake of the pandemic. In one of the recent videos he interviews a so-called “Elder” who repeatedly calls the pandemic a conspiracy of the Zionists, Kabbalists, and Masons, and cites highly suspect Internet stories as evidence. Misquoting the Scriptures and the Fathers, he encourages people to disobey their bishops because, he says, the bishops are acting uncanonically (and then proceeds to quote a canon completely out of context in support of his false opinion).
It really should not even be necessary to respond to this sort of silliness, as it might appear to give it more credence than is due. However, sadly, conversations with far too many priests in the past days have revealed that some of their parishioners are watching these videos, reading these blogs, and taking as Orthodox teaching and Tradition these delusional opinions. So, out of concern for those who might fall into this snare, I share the following.
All around the world Orthodox bishops in almost all of the Orthodox Churches have taken precautions to try to prevent the spread of the COVID virus. This has involved primarily social distancing, limiting attendance at divine services, and changes in the practice of receiving Holy Communion.
The changes in practice to receiving Holy Communion are not primarily out of fear that someone will get sick from the spoon or the Eucharist, but are aimed at trying to prevent government interference in the Church. From the very beginning Christians have sought to live at peace among their fellow citizens when at all possible, i.e. when the law of the government does not conflict with the law of God. Additionally, our bishop has said that while he “doesn’t know that the grain alcohol is necessary,” he would prefer we enact a temporary measure that will console those who (out of fear) might otherwise refrain from Communion during these extraordinary times (reference Larchet on the Pandemic). Why would we protest when this request was made by our bishop for the sake of his flock?
Many people, particularly online, often anonymously, are accusing the bishops - again, we are talking about almost every Orthodox bishop around the world – of everything from simply overreacting to blasphemy and heresy. The arguments of these people are, for the most part, reactionary and emotional, intending to generate anger and fear. And sadly, for many, this is precisely the result. So, let me just say a few things very simply.
As most of you probably know by now, for the most part, Orthodox Christians do not believe that you can get sick from receiving Holy Communion, nor are the bishops indicating implicitly or explicitly that you can. I say “for the most part” because we all are aware, no doubt, of Saint Paul’s warning to the Corinthians that to receive the Body and Blood of Christ unworthily has caused some to be sick or even to die. This should tell us right away that to state categorically as some do that “you cannot get sick from Holy Communion” is wrong. Thus, our need to prepare for Holy Communion with confession, fasting, repentance, and prayers as we are taught.
Given that exception, however, we do not believe that you can get sick from Holy Communion. We have no scientific data behind this, even though some like to quote studies done in Protestant and Catholic churches over the past hundred years, but neither should we need or even want scientific data here.
However, some have taken this belief and incorrectly drawn the conclusion that you cannot get sick in church at all, from anything or anyone. Taking quotes from the fathers and saints completely out of context they have tried to argue that the church building and services are a “zone of incorruption” and that therefore someone could not get sick at all in church. The same so-called “Elder” mentioned above calls the idea that you might catch a cold from a fellow parishioner in church “blasphemy”. It does not take much, though, to demonstrate that this view is false. Let me just give a couple of examples.
The precious Body and Blood of Christ, is instructive. In Great Lent, when preparing Communion for the Presanctified Liturgy, the priest must take care that the consecrated Lamb does not get moldy. Thus, he takes precautions to make sure it gets sufficient air to dry out. The consecrated Lamb which has become the Body of Christ and intincted with the Blood of Christ remains a physical reality of our world even as it is now not of this world. Likewise, on Holy Thursday or anytime the priest prepares the reserved sacrament for the sick that will be kept on the Holy Table, the priest is warned in the strongest of terms to be careful lest it be burned (one method for removing the moisture in the Lamb is to warm it on some sort of hot plate) or become moldy.
These examples alone should suffice to purge our thinking of superstitious or magical notions about the Holy Mysteries. From the very beginning the Church has emphasized the very physical nature of the Mysteries. Think just for a moment of Saint Symeon Metaphrastes’ prayer before Communion which we read in our prayers of preparation in which he asks the Lord by Holy Communion to “enter into my members, my veins, my heart.” In fact, read any of those prayers before Communion (as we should always do before receiving) and you will notice the utter physicality of them. We are praying for this bread which is now the Body of Christ to enter our mouth, our throat, our belly - to be, that is, digested as food always is - and through the digestive process to strengthen us and save us.
This is, in fact, the great marvel of Holy Communion, that the risen Son of God seated at the right hand of the Father in Heaven deigns to become food! As we sing on Holy Saturday, He comes “to give himself as food to the faithful.” Brothers and sisters, superstitious thinking leading to condemnation and charges of heresy needs to stop. Taken to extremes, as is happening with some, it leads to dangerous false teachings.
Are we not aware that many for whom we pray for healing and anoint with the Holy Unction die soon thereafter? Does this mean we did not pray with enough faith? Does it mean that their faith was weak? Does it mean - God forbid! – that the mystery was somehow ineffective? Of course not. But this is where this sort of thinking leads.
All of the saints died. Even the Mother of God, who we believe was without personal sin, fell asleep in the Lord and, in imitation of her Son, commended her soul to God. Lazarus, who was raised from the Lord after four days, died again.
Finally, a word about the Communion spoon. Many people, particularly online, are now in a huff about practices concerning cleaning or even replacing the spoon. The use of a spoon for Holy Communion is approximately 1000 years old. That means, prior to that, there was no Communion spoon. I will not take time to go into the more ancient practices for receiving Holy Communion, I will only say that to make a dogma out of the spoon is wrong.One critic online insisted on the use of only one spoon (as opposed to multiple spoons) because there is only one Eucharist, one Christ, etc. But is she not aware that almost all of us have communed in a Liturgy at which there were multiple chalices (and, therefore, multiple spoons)? When I visited Moscow last year there were multiple chalices on the Holy Table even at the consecration of the Gifts. When there are hundreds of communicants practical necessity requires the use of several chalices and spoons, along with several priests to administer Communion.
Brothers and sisters, there is real danger of another sort of Old Believer schism affecting the Church today as it did in Russia a few hundred years ago when people refused to accept changes to the service books and some of the practices of the faithful even when it became clear that the old ways were mistaken. At that time the corrections were often introduced heavy-handedly, but that is not the case in our situation, where the bishops have considerately and in the face of a serious health crisis introduced temporary changes, changes which in no way affect the dogmas or teachings of our Faith.
If you read just a little bit about what happened to the Old Believers after the schism you will find a history marked by fear, condemnation, unorthodox apocalyptic speculations, and in extreme cases mass suicide. Schism is always a grave sin and false teachings are always destructive. Saint John Chrysostom warns us in Homily 11 on Ephesians that to create a schism is as bad as heresy.
Finally, and in closing, I implore you: stay away from so-called Orthodox blogs, videos and social media posts that trade in conspiracies, fear, hatred and anger, ultimately leading to schism and the loss of faith.In so many instances people who have been Orthodox a matter of months or a few years set themselves up as experts in canon law, church history and theology and seek to teach and lead others. “Armchair bishops” without the grace of the episcopacy are leading people to their spiritual ruin.
I do not ask you to have faith in me, but I do ask you to have faith in the Church which Christ established and has kept these 2000 years through epidemics, schisms, and heresies.
PATRIARCH JOHN OF ANTIOCH ISSUES STATEMENT ON 7TH ANNIVERSARY OF KIDNAPPING OF SYRIAN BISHOPS
Damascus, April 23, 2020
We pray for our bishop brothers and for every kidnapped person.
Yesterday, April 22, marked the 7th anniversary of the kidnapping of Boulos Yazigi, Antiochian Orthodox Metropolitan of Aleppo and Alexandretta and brother of Orthodox Patriarch John X, and Gregorios Youhanna Ibrahim, Syriac Metropolitan of Aleppo.
Both men were kidnapped by Muslim rebels in the vicinity of Aleppo on April 22, 2013. Their fates and whereabouts remain unknown.
On the occasion of the mournful anniversary, His Beatitude Patriarch John of Antioch and Patriarch Mor Ignatius Aphrem II of the Syriac Church issued a joint statement, calling on all believers to increase their prayers for the missing bishops, especially this week, and for politicians to act with the understanding that all people, regardless of nationality or citizenship, are of the same nature and dignity.
The statement, published by the Antiochian Patriarchate, reads in full:
Beloved Brethren and Spiritual Children
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
Brothers, we address you with the Pascha greeting, sharing your prayers in your home corners and bending with you the knees of the heart before Christ, who was crucified for our sake, who resurrected from the dead and made us resurrect by His divine Light, wiping away from souls the dust of bitter times and the ashes of desolation and despair.
However, the radiance of Pascha stands incomplete due to the sorrowful case of our two brothers, the Bishops of Aleppo, Metropolitans Paul Yazigi and Youhanna Ibrahim, kidnapped since April 22, 2013. Today, we address you heart to heart and we address the whole world as well, to say that the Christians of this East, along with its other groups, are still paying with their lives and their fate the taxes to terrorism and violence: displacement, kidnapping, murder, and many a tribulation. Despite all this, they remain faithful to their pledge of love for Jesus Christ, as the Lord Who redeemed them on the Cross and implanted them in this East two thousand years ago, to carry out the joy of his Gospel.
From the moment of the kidnapping to this day, the thousands of attempts and tons of efforts to obtain any information on the fate of the two bishops have remained fruitless. All this amid stacks of data, clues, analyses and inquiries that often complicate and entangle perspectives.
2557 days have passed since, and we have never spared the least effort to bring this cause to a happy ending, and ultimately to the most desired release of the two bishops, when we shall have them among us once more. We have not spared any local, regional, or even international doors to knock, asking governments, organizations, political influences and powerful personalities to enlist this case on the multiple global platforms. This, among so many other efforts. We extend our heartfelt thanks to everyone who provided help and promises, offering their efforts and contributions on the humanitarian, media, diplomatic, security or political levels, whether on the official or personal levels. The role of these people shed a light of hope in the black sorrowful night, while the negligence and silence of the international community had overwhelmed this significant humanitarian and crucial cause, undermining any attempt to find solutions.
Today, having set before our eyes the image of the two bishops, our brothers who are in constant prayer for all of us, we ask all the faithful, wherever they are, to pray for them this particular week. We ask them to prayer for the two bishops and for every kidnapped, missing, and displaced person, for any person who was trapped in dire situation, but then found in the Cross of Christ hope and consolation, and was strengthened by His glorious and victorious Resurrection.
The human being in this East is of no lesser value than other humans. This present pandemic that has been ravaging the globe- may God relive us from it-, is a clear proof that, in all circumstances, above any considerations of race, religion, or nation, we are all brothers in humanity, all on the same boat in this East and the whole world.
If only humans could be aware of this. If only the politicians and those who deal with world affairs could realize that human beings are made of the same nature and share the same dignity, regardless of their differences in country, homeland, language, civilization and religion. Despite its bitterness, the epidemic came to say that we share a common existence and one human brotherhood in this wide world. If only this was crystal clear to the eyes of the heart and the perception of those who violate their brother’s dignity, unaware that this derision will be turned against them and that their own dignity will be demeaned in the end. First and foremost, we all ought to stand for the true human dignity; we must be aware that our fellow human being’s dignity, life and existence, are part of our own heart, existence and being.
As Christians of the Levant, we are deeply rooted since the times of old. Our roots will never wither. Out of these roots stems the great oasis that is the Christian Antiochian presence in the East and in all the world, an oasis flourishing and fragrant with the Christian witness to the Most Glorified Lord Jesus Christ and with love for the neighbor from all walks of life. History has been teaching us all the way that we do not need protection from anyone, neither do we seek anyone’s protection. We are an original component of this East with all its meanders and irradiations. Considering our role, the logic of minority versus majority falls apart and is replaced by the logic of meeting and dialogue as well as the pioneer role lead by Christians and others. We are not and will never be a card to be played by anyone. We are rather a message of existence and authenticity, a bridge of communication and encounter between the East and the West, between Christianity and other religions.
We pray today for our two bishop brothers and for every kidnapped person, bearing in mind that we will spare no effort to advocate for this cause and bring it to the desired outcome, much awaited by every Christian heart, every descendant of the Levant, and every well-intentioned person. Saying this, we confirm that the path of the Cross ended by a dawn of Resurrection.
Today we pray to Jesus Christ, the Lord of the Resurrection and the Master of Life, may He roll the tombstone by His Cross and delight our eyes with the Light of the Resurrection. We pray for the peace of the world suffering from the epidemic. We pray for this East in all its countries, which seeks the dawn of Resurrection from the Golgotha of the Cross. We pray for our children in Aleppo, to whom we particularly extend the peace of Pascha, asking the Lord of the Resurrection to revive hope in their hearts and ours.
With you, brothers, our souls bow in prayer, our hearts are lit as oil lamps in the corners of our homes before the Lord Christ Who is risen from the tomb. We pray for world peace and for the return of all the kidnapped, while we illuminate our hearts and souls with Paschal hope, singing:
“Christ is risen from the dead trampling down death by death and to those in the tomb He gave life”.