Orthodoxy, Great Lent and Coronavirus

Things can be very difficult in Church life. The Coronavirus epidemy-pandemic disease (at this point it is a pandemic threat and reality) is really going viral. The Hong-Kong Catholic Church and now some Catholic Churches throughout the world, in particular in Italy, Germany… maybe France in the near future required to stop to celebrate the Mass and distribute the Holy Communion inside of the parishes and cathedral where huge crowds use to gather. Individuals may catch the Covid 19 virus that spread very quickly right now though it decreases in China where it started in Wuhan.

On February 23rd, 2020, metropolitan Sergey who heads the Moscow Exarchate in South-Asia based in Singapore asked that molebens (thanksgiving services) be served for the victims of the epidemy in Asia. I had written a long note on this on February 12 last, urging the Orthodox Churches to pray for those who caught the virus, suffer and have to stay at home, isolated. There are places where this becomes a real economic problem. China is going through hell, but also the passengers of some cruiser ships.

We see that the virus attacks all the continents (Australia, New Zealand, Africa where figures are not given for the moment).

The virus entered Northern Makedonia, Greece, Slovenia, Italy, Switzerland, France, Belgium, Netherlands, Spain, Portugal. This means that it threatens wide segments of different national societies in these countries.

In this period of Great Lent and the upcoming of the Sunday of Atonement (Forgiveness) in the Orthodox Churches, the threat should be handled with much care.

I post here the first announcement made by an Orthodox rector, Fr. Johannes Johansen, who serves in Norway. He is pragmatic and definitely reacts as a Scandinavian? Here is his text in English (footnote in Norwegian [1]) :

“The Coronavirus concerns all of us.

We need to reduce to the minimum the possibilities of being infected and to protect us by ability.

In Church, we shall avoid the contact (Hand-shaking, Kissing the hands, clamp, etc) also refrain from kissing icons and holy objects, but just bow us in the church. We take the opportunity now, as Great Lent starts, to abstain from “Church coffee” after the liturgies. As regards the Holy Communion: we will use a spoon for each person who will communicate, so that it will not be possible to get contaminated by receiving the Holy Gifts.

Along with these practical measures, we will strengthen our spiritual life by making the sign of the cross over ourselves and the children, daily drink holy water and possibly eat a piece of the prosphora (antidoron) that we have received in church, and ask for God’s protection and the saints.”

Note that archimandrite Johannes asked to use a personal spoon (Lzhytsa/Лжица – Lavis – λαβις) which has been in the case in past times of epidemics both in the Orthodox communities and also, for example, in the Vaudois Italian congregations.
There might be different reactions among the Eastern Orthodox. Some may consider that the Holy Gifts cannot harm anybody and that their holiness preserves from any danger of catching the virus. It is evident that the Body and Blood of the Resurrected are the true ailments of our Redemption. On the other hand, all have to act with much insight and be very prudent.
This will also be the task of the heads of the Churches, the Bishops, the priests, the deacons, acolytes who use to participate in the distribution of the Holy Gifts.
The same with regards to kissing the hands of the clergy and kissing the icons. Sanctification is one thing, but, just remember that in many parishes, icons and their “glass” cover or other materials are often cleaned, at times immediately after one person venerated the icon.
Indeed, it can be helpful to drink Holy Water and to eat some pieces of antidoron/a distributed at the Divine Liturgies. This could be managed in a prudent way so that only very few persons could touch the bread.
May we all act with patience and wisdom, true faith and insight and pray for all as Great Lent calls to penance, forgiveness, fraternity, dialogue, and unity.
Prot. Alexander A. Winogradsky-Frenkel
(Patriarchate of Jerusalem, [from Paris] February 28, 2020)
(1) Original on Facebook, on Feb. 28, 2020:

Vi må gjøre smittemulighetene så få og små som mulig og samtidig beskytte oss etter evne.

I kirken skal vi unngå kroppskontakt (håndhilse, kyssehånden, klemme etc) også avstå fra å kysse ikoner og hellige gjenstander, men bare bøye oss i ærbødighet. Vi benytter anledningen nå i den oppstartende fastetiden til å avstå fra “kirkekaffe” etter liturgien. Og angående den hellige nattverden: Vi vil benytte en skje til hver kommunikant, slik at det ikke blir mulig med smitte gjennom dette.

Paralellt med disse praktiske tiltakene skal vi styrke oss åndelig ved å gjøre korsets tegn over oss selv og barna, daglig drikke hellig vann og eventuelt spise en bit av prosforen vi har mottatt i kirken, og be om Guds beskyttelse og de helliges forbønner.

F. Johannes

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