For centuries, Eastern Orthodox Christians have shared prayers “for the sick, the suffering, the captive and for their safety and salvation” as well as petitions that “we may be delivered from all affliction, wrath and need.”
The faithful respond: “Lord, have mercy.”
This past Sunday, some worshippers heard modern phrases woven into the ancient cadences of the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great.
During the Litany of Fervent Supplication, priests in the Orthodox Church in America added: “O Lord who lovest mankind, deliver us from the impending threat of the coronavirus. Send thine angel to watch over us and protect us. Grant health and recovery to those suffering from this virus. Guide the hands of physicians, and preserve those who are healthy. Enable us to continue to serve our suffering brothers and sisters in peace that together we may glorify thy most honorable and majestic name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages.”
Following instructions from our bishop, most members of parishes in the Diocese of the South heard these words while gathered around home computers.
This was part of America’s new normal as religious leaders — some already tech-friendly, others veering into new territory — worked to develop online forms of worship, education and fellowship. For Catholics, the Orthodox and others in liturgical traditions, all of this is happening at a highly symbolic time — the penitential season of Lent. Easter is April 12 for Western churches. For the Orthodox, Pascha is April 19.
“This is not the season of Great Lent we anticipated, but it is nonetheless a fitting Lenten effort,” explained Archbishop Alexander, OCA bishop of Dallas and the South. In his letter to priests and parishioners, he urged believers — using a monastic image — to recognize “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.’”
Across the nation, some religious congregations met, drawing smaller flocks, while many closed their doors. Things were different at my home Orthodox parish in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. We were somewhere in-between.
Bishop Alexander instructed his priests to continue celebrating the Divine Liturgy, thus providing consecrated bread and wine that can be taken to the sick and the dying. However, he gave clear instructions about who should be in sanctuaries and who should pray at home, following the service online. (In Orthodox tradition, priests cannot perform this rite alone.)
“Everyone in the parish or mission, other than the priest (and deacon), a reader, a server, and no more than two chanters or singers (all of whom are physically strong and at low risk for COVID-19), should remain at home,” he wrote.
The sacraments, he stressed, “can never be a source of disease,” but the coronavirus can “still be passed through the congregation. Out of love for our neighbor, we must do everything we can to protect the vulnerable by slowing the rate of infection not only in our parishes, but in the greater community, and thereby allowing the hospitals and medical community to more adequately care for those most at risk.”
This past Sunday’s reading from the Gospel of Mark offered the account of a paralyzed man who was healed after friends made an opening in the roof and lowered him close to Jesus.
“It took four men to carry the paralytic. They had to work together, to struggle together, to be good intercessors. This is not something we do alone,” said Deacon Raphael Shelton, in the sermon. “Especially given our current situation, we must remember that we are a community. We are one body.”
After the Divine Liturgy, the priests and chanters led a traditional service of psalms and prayers “sung in time of devastating epidemic and death-bearing pestilence.”
Believers have been here before.
Among these prayers, we asked God to save us “from the snares of death” and “deliver us from the sicknesses of Hades. ... That He will hearken unto our prayer and attend to our supplication, and not remain silent unto our tears, but will forgive us, that, lying down, we not depart and henceforth have no being. Let us pray to the Lord.”