Christians in Times of Epidemic, Then and Now

"In the past Christians risked everything to attend Church. Throughout the ages there have been times when attending Church could mean imprisonment, torture, or death. To this I have received the retort, “Yes but that is not an infectious disease!”

Originally appeared at: The Inkless Pen

At current, even within Orthodox circles, the idea is being put forth that if I, as a person, truly cared about others I would stay at home. This staying at home includes forgoing attending church.

Some are saying things like “don’t try to be a hero.” Others are proposing that staying at home is a true reflection of Christian concern and love for others.

In this post I will be addressing this issue and I will be giving an opposing view to those reflected above.

Of late, I have pointed out that in the past Christians risked everything to attend Church. Throughout the ages there have been times when attending Church could mean imprisonment, torture, or death. To this I have received the retort, “Yes but that is not an infectious disease!”

The rationale for not attending Church at current is base on the proposition that I could contract the virus and spread it to someone else. That is I could put others at risk. This risk could include them becoming sick and dying. So the underlying reason for not attending is to not put others at risk. If I do, the impression is, that somehow I’m failing in love.

Now taking the underlying rationale of “not causing risk” is a manifestation of love; now let’s consider my former argument.

In recent times, for example in Communist countries, if a priest held a service, which was many time against the law, by that very actions he put everyone who came to that service at risk. Were those priests wrong to hold services? After all, if they did not offer services people would not come and would avoid the very real possibility of arrest and even death. Thus, the priest in this example is putting lives at risk!

In the same scenario, if even a Bible study were held the attendees could be at risk; thus, according to the “bringing risk” is mean rational, would it be better in times of persecution to not have services and meetings because of the potential risk they would bring everyone attending? After all, as I stated, not having the services “keeps people safe” from arrest, persecution, and death. If “not causing risk” is a manifestation of love, then in times of persecution – which risks physical harm and death – no Church services should ever be held.

There have also been many times when simply spreading the Gospel puts lives at risk. Preaching has been against the law of various local country at various times in history. There have been many times that if a person even converted to Christianity they were putting their life, and those around them, at risk; moreover the person actively converting them was knowingly putting lives at risk. So the kind thing to do would be not to preach the Gospel so as not to put lives at risk? Thus, those who knowingly converted people in times of persecution were putting other people’s lives at risk and were not showing love or concern for their neighbors? Thus, true concern would be not to preach the Gospel so that people’s bodies would not be threatened (if we follow the aforementioned logic to the end)?

In this context, the spread of Christianity itself is a potential risk to human life everywhere. For, to confess the Orthodox Christian faith could very well mean bodily death. Therefore, Christians could be accused, by this logic, at times of spreading the very real possibility of physical harm and death and thus showing no concern for humanity’s well-being.

Did true Christians stop because bodily death was possible? No, they preached the Gospel and went to Church. They even brought their children, risking their lives to be at Chruch to worship the Living God. So much did they value Ecclesial Worship that for but one chance to worship and receive the Holy Mysteries they were willing to risk the rest of their earthly existence.

Although, clearly, the above is not an identical parallel, the principle reasoning which I have propounded upon holds water and is sound. If putting people at risk shows a lack of charity and love, as is being implied and even argued at current, then, following this logic, Christians have been most uncharitable in the past and even present. Christianity itself is an extreme physical “health risk” many times (how many Christians are being persecuted, for example, in the Middle East and N. Africa?).

Sometimes I wonder if we do not just cloak our current lukewarmness in pietistic clothing to further placate our modern lack of zeal. Our pathetic willingness to quickly abandon our posts under a potential threat is painted over with conscience numbing justifications. At least we can feel good about ourselves.

(Please do not overreact, I’m not saying throw everything to the wind and take no precautions. Be sober, take precautions within reason.)

How easily some of us as Orthodox have abandoned worship in Body of Christ is disturbing to me. I’m not surprised that Protestants shut things down, they have but a rudimentary ecclesiology if any at all. They are more akin to a club, a gathering of like-minded people. But not so for Orthodox. We gather together into the heavnlies, into the very Mystical Body of Christ. Have we forgotten the significance of the Divine Liturgy and how our forefathers and mother sacrificed everything to be at the Divine Services? Sure, we pray at home but there is a profound mystical reality to the gathering of the faithful that is more potent than any single person. At this moment the world needs this very thing and many, even hierarchs, are reducing services or even closing the church.

Are all those people so concerned with the well-being of others no longer going out altogether? Did you stop shopping for physical food and necessities? When you go to a store you are not posing a risk to others? Possibly worse than gathering in Church? Has your “love” kept you from fulfilling your physical needs so as not to “risk harm to others”? Or are we more than ready to lay down the Heavenly Bread under the guise of “keeping others safe” while we then go and buy for ourselves physical bread which will perish? At least we have toilet paper!

Do we not trust in God? Are our lives not in His Hands? Again, I do not mean this in a cavalier manner. I am saying, in the face of terrible circumstances our forefathers and mothers, risking lives, their own and others, went to Church and prayed, and we take the scare of a virus and flee to our homes.

Now, in closing, I invite you to read this account of the true Christian response to a time of great crises and epidemic and consider which mentality it supports, the “staying home shows true care,” or the “going to Chruch and praying is the highest form of care and love.” The excerpt is from the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius, Book 7, Chap. 22. Most of the excerpt is from a letter by St. Dionysius of Alexandria. The excerpt will be in italics any comments I have will not.

First, he notes, “Indeed, they drive us away, and solitary and in exile, and persecuted and put to death by all, we still celebrate the festival; and every place, marked by some particular affliction, was still a spot distinguished by our solemnities; the open field, the desert, the ship, the inn, the prison …”

At the very beginning, as if to set it as of the primary importance, he says they did not stop celebrating the festival, which clearly means the Divine service. That is they never canceled Church. They were facing not only pestilence but persecution also. We are only facing a potential pestilence. In the face of death, from sickness and persecution, these Christians never ceased to Worship together, wherever they were. And what about us?

How unthoughtful these Christians were! Did they not know that by gathering together they could spread the disease that was afflicting Alexandria and Egypt at that time?! How selfish of them! Why are they acting like they are some sort of “heroes”?!

Let us read more on how these Christians behaved, “The most of our brethren were unsparing in their exceeding love and brotherly kindness. They held fast to each other and visited the sick fearlessly, and ministered to them continually, serving them in Christ. They died with them most joyfully, taking the affliction of others, and drawing the sickness from their neighbors to themselves and willingly receiving their pains. And many who cared for the sick and gave strength to others died themselves having transferred to themselves their death. And the popular saying which always seems a mere expression of courtesy, they then made real in action, taking their departure as the others’ ‘offscouring.'”

What? They held fast to each other? Why did they not isolate themselves in their homes and wait for the sickness to pass, how unresponsible! I mean Jesus hears you at home too. What a bunch of stubborn people! Didn’t they know that by visiting each other they were spreading the disease? I’m glad we’re so much smarter today than these foolish early Christians! And they died joyfully and willingly? They should have used every measure to prolong their earthly existence.

And the account continues, “Truly the best of our brethren departed from life in this manner, including some presbyters and deacons and those of the people who had the highest reputation; so that this form of death, through the great piety and strong faith it exhibited, seemed to lack nothing of martyrdom. And they took the bodies of the saints in their open hands and in their bosoms, and closed their eyes and their mouths; and they bore them away on their shoulders and laid them out; and they clung to them and embraced them; and they prepared them suitably with washings and garments. And after a little they received like treatment themselves, for the survivors were continually following those who had gone before them.”

Wow, what a waste. The lives of these priests and deacons could have been saved if they only canceled services and practiced social distancing and self-isolation. They are so overzealous, and they even think that this kind of indiscretion is a type of “martyrdom”? O my, they were handling the dead and even embracing them? No wonder they got sick and died. They should have let a qualified government official deal with it.

Don’t they know you can pray just as well all by yourself at home and stay safe at the same time? Why risk going to Church? Why risk kissing icons and holy things?

And yet, these early Christians willingly embraced and kissed the bodies of their departed brothers and sisters. And we will stop receiving a blessing because it might get us sick! And we think we are so spiritual in it all. I say, rather, how far we have fallen.

He goes on to note how the non-Christians acted in this time, But with the heathen everything was quite otherwise. They deserted those who began to be sick, and fled from their dearest friends. And they cast them out into the streets when they were half dead, and left the dead like refuse, unburied. They shunned any participation or fellowship with death; which yet, with all their precautions, it was not easy for them to escape.

Well, there we go, at least the heathen had the sense to practice social distancing!

The last phrase is most telling, “They shunned any participation … with death; … with all their precautions, it was not easy for them to escape.”

Why did they shun all participation? Because they fear bodily death. Why did Christians continue to meet together and minister? Because they did not fear bodily death. Now ask yourself, who do we more reflect today?

The measures implemented by some in church authority today harmonize more with which of the above mentalities?

Hear, O reader, how the Christians of the early Church understood the situation of pestilence and disease, as the unbelievers, it is recorded, huddled in fear, the Christians understood, “To us, however, it (the epidemic) … was a school for exercise and probation. For neither did it keep aloof from us, although it assailed the heathen the most.”

I wonder, today, have we more the mindset of the early Christians or have we become soaked by the world so that now the reasoning of the heathen seems better to us?

What account will we give before the dread judgment seat of Christ if through closing Churches we deprive the faithful of possibly attending their last Divine Service? (If the virus is as bad as they say, and I’m not commenting on that either way at current.) What answer will we give if in the name of bodily health we have deprived the faithful of even the choice to attend Church and receive the spiritual life that She gives in a time of tribulation? How will we escape answering for this?

It seems to me that we are running to hide under the basket when now is the time for the Light of Christ to shine. By closing Churches and canceling services, we are depriving the world of its most needed remedy. The current virus threat, whatever its true nature, will only be healed by prayer and repentance, most of all that of the corporate gathering of the Body of Christ. This is worth dying for. Let me die in my footsteps, let me die in the worship of God.

Let those who have other concerns stay home, but please do not close Chruch for those who in complete freedom of person desire to be there.

I’m just a rigorous over zealot, I guess, so what do I know…

Fr. Zechariah Lynch & his wife Natalia

Fr. Zechariah is an Orthodox priest in Pueblo, Colorado, at the Archangel Michael Orthodox Church. He blogs at The Inkless Pen, and is a regular contributor at Russian Faith.

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