Why Should Orthodoxy Remain Public in Coronavirus Times?

by Panagiotis G. Pavlos

Greek Church

As a Greek Orthodox living in the Western world and experiencing this new “Corona era,” one feels that Orthodoxy needs to decide today, globally and locally, on the following: to what extent do we, as Orthodox Christians, truly believe that Christ is the Son of God, the Son of Man?

For what we have been seeing and experiencing the past several weeks, alongside the turbulence caused by a frightening virus the spread of which was quite early identified as pandemic, is a totally novel thing. And those among us who were lucky enough to serve as the “necessary personnel” in empty, locked churches experienced an ultimate ambiguity, at least.

On the one hand, we read and chanted Services consisting of hymnological and liturgical artifacts of a unique, terrific treasure, a treasure containing the quintessence of the Orthodox life, experience, tradition, doctrine, theology, mysticism, and art, visual and audio-visual, and all that simultaneously assumed by the unparalleled, incomparable, and irreplaceable daily Services of the Holy Week and the Easter.

In all this liturgical praxis, we encounter Christ—not merely symbolically, as a longstanding tradition misinterpreting Dionysius the Areopagite would have felt comfortable with, but essentially, ontologically, here and now. Therefore, we affirm Christ in all His Divinity and all His humanity. We see and affirm Him, whose divine Goodness acts so superabundantly that it makes His healing power seem as almost an unconscious outpouring. We affirm Him, who annihilates all possible arguments invented and set forth by the humanly rational mind of the earthly wisdom of those times, whether priestly or layman, progressive, conservative, or traditional.

We mourn, and rejoice in Him, who, being Himself the Truth, does not wish to smash and exhaust the illusory self-sufficient pseudo-power of the mundane authorities: His betrayers, blamers, judges, executioners, and finally, guards of His Tomb. Rather, mystically and unknowingly, He shares with them the Imprint of His Truth, His own divine Rationality, before returning for a while in the silence that distinguishes Him who is not urged to persuade about anything but to save everyone. And then, shortly after, as death is weak enough to afford His presence, He declares his omnipresence by means of His absence from the Tomb.

This is a poor outline of a hyper-temporal and hyper-local divine, exceedingly human, God-manly (θεανθρωπίνη) reality in which we are participating, not because we are worth of it, but as perfectly unworthy of it. Indeed, we are initiated to that mode of being where the human being is granted the aptitude and the potency, the power of walking above, and not sinking in, the water, as Peter did freed of the bonds of the natural laws by just a word of Christ.

Then, on the other hand, when the liturgically concrete, definite, encounter with “the exact imprint of the eternity of the Father”—as St. John of Damascus beautifully describes—comes to a temporal end, one moves out of the temple and encounters a paradox: a Church apparently frightened, withdrawn, “hidden” from the fear of just another instantiation of our fallen being, nature, cosmos and flesh: a new virus!

Isn’t it true that the cosmos is the creation of God then, now, and then, again, instantly and continuously? If it is, how is it possible that the Church, especially the Greek Orthodox one, which, in the gospel readings of Holy Week was twice pronounced by Christ as receiver of the Kingdom of God that will bear the fruits of it, subordinated herself to just another form of our fallen nature and cosmos?

How is it possible that the Church behaves as another scared mundane authority, withdrawing completely herself in March, April, and yet even in May, from her raison d’être? And then, after realising the detrimental mistake, acts on ”safe mode,” while at the same time hides behind the excuse of an abstract law, while no law whatsoever has forced her to act this way, and turns from public into private Orthodoxy?

If St. Maximus the Confessor is correct in that humanity is the mediator between God and the creation, how does modern Orthodox Church conceive of this mediation, especially when creation cries out again and again now, with this new coronavirus, its wounds and sufferings? How is it possible to hear the argument that ‘‘it is only for this Easter’’ that Christians had to stay locked at home? Is this an attempt to indulge the soul of the faithful, who not only are in need of, but also used to, this Life-Giving Water, and now suffer the paranoia of a post-modern culture discriminating between soul and body?

Forty years ago, on the wall of the altar in the Metropolitan church of the city of Xanthi, in Greece, there was posted a frame with the following three sentences in vertical order:

As if it were the first;
As if it were the last;
As if it were the only one.

The priest of that parish then, a simple elderly man from a village of Peloponnese, Fr. Demetrios Theodoropoulos (may his memory be eternal) explained to a young boy who could not get the meaning of this Delphic enigma: ‘‘My child, all this is to remind to the liturgist, me, and anyone else, how should we approach, celebrate, and participate in the Mystery of the Mysteries, the Divine Liturgy, the Eucharist.’’

If such is the moral of the Orthodox liturgist; if such is the faith of the Church; if this is, ontologically speaking, the very cosmos God has created, and is creating, or rather co-creating together with humanity; if the whole of time is constantly recapitulated in a single instance; if the Kingdom of God has already started here and now and is not locked in the wardrobes of an imaginary beyond-ness that is an alibi for the postponement of deification even of the remotest created being; then how is it possible to resort with passivity and a spirit of surrender to theological arguments justifying the way the Orthodox Church seems to be surrendered today to a global paralysis, caused by a created (not divine) virus?

Indeed, there will be more Easters in this life. But this cannot be an excuse, not even a reason, to deprive Christians ever again from participating in Life, now and here. The Church is not our office, where we may, or may not go depending on circumstances. At the moment we have adhered to such an understanding which, even as a resort in desperate times, results to a praxis that falsely appears as the only way, we have subordinated the Church to this cosmos. We have secularized the Church, we have deprived ourselves from a gift that only rational sheep are gifted with, and we have degraded ourselves from shepherds of rational animals to officials dealing with a scared herd.

The Church is our life. This is a fact, such that, by depriving the faithful of the reality of Eucharistic Ecclesiology (to mention Metropolitan of Pergamon, John Zizioulas), one causes a shortness of breath, a wheeziness to the human being incomparably more severe than any virus might cause, which results, eventually, in a truly disgraceful death.

If we truly listen to Him Who came, was Crucified, and Resurrected, and if we truly believe that He came so that we may have life and that we may have it to the full (John 10: 10); if we truly love this cosmos, His very cosmos, then we cannot deprive it ever again from the Divine Liturgy, the Eucharist.

Besides, Orthodoxy, as Heraclitus had sensed it long ago (Fragm. 50 and 53), remains Orthodox only when it stays public.

Christ is risen!

Panagiotis G. Pavlos is a Research Fellow at the Department of Philosophy, University of Oslo, Norway, and a Byzantine Music chanter and teacher.