As public services in British Orthodox Churches are temporarily suspended because of the current pandemic, we would encourage people to add the above Gospel reading to their private prayers and to listen to the attached homily by His Beatitude Abba Seraphim on today’s Gospel.
“To ensure compliance with the Government’s instruction to stay at home, we will immediately …. stop all social events, including weddings, baptisms and other ceremonies, but excluding funerals.” (Prime Minister’s address to the nation on coronavirus: 23 March 2020.
The latest recommendations by the Prime Minister to ensure the containment of the current pandemic have now included the closure of churches for all public services other than funerals, which would even be restricted to the immediate family of the deceased. He has specified that baptisms and weddings should no longer take place until the pandemic has begun to clear. Whilst these measures are of a grievous nature in restricting the sacramental life of the Church they are intended to protect the life and well-being of worshippers, so they are definitely not anti-Christian.
Although it is the privilege and duty of all Christian men and women to engage and participate in the offering of divine worship to the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity, this consists of both public and private worship. As Christians, constituting the ‘Body of Christ’, daily prayer and intercession is an essential part of our spiritual life so when we are unable to worship corporately with our brethren we should still, as belonging to the Communion of Saints, invoke the prayers and participation of the angels and saints and the Mother of God, through Sacrifice, Adoration, Petition and Thanksgiving. As Orthodox Christians we enjoy the additional blessing of the Holy Ikons as the presence and manifestation of the Divine to express the meeting of God with humanity.
The ‘Prayer of Thanksgiving’, which is a regular component of our liturgical worship, is one of the most profound prayers, because it reflects our heartfelt devotion towards our beneficent and merciful God, the Father of our Lord God and Saviour, Jesus Christ. It is of great importance to begin our prayers with praise and thanksgiving because it gratifies God and supplicates Him to come among us to accept our prayers. We also proclaim all the great and wonderful things that God has done for mankind and also does for each of us all day and at each moment, for He has “protected us, succoured us, preserved us, purchased us unto Himself, had compassion upon us, sustained us and brought us unto this hour.”
As Christians with a humble and thankful spirit we can see all these sublime things that God, the Lover of mankind, does for us and to thank Him for watching over us in every way, asking Him and entreating His goodness to have mercy and compassion upon us, that He will hear us, sustain us and accept the prayers and supplications of His saints on our behalf, for our good at all times, and that He will forgive us our sins. Faced with the current crisis we pray that all envy, all temptation, all the work of Satan, the counsel of wicked men, the rising up of enemies, hidden or manifest, will be cast away from us and from all His people, and that such things as are good and beneficial for us, will be bestowed upon us, because He is the one Who has given to us the power to trample underfoot serpents and scorpions and all the power of the Enemy. However, by contrast the ungodly, who are full of pride, will attribute everything good to their own works and ability and will not offer thanks to God but rather merely groan and complain.
The fact that these restrictions will extend during Holy Week and the Feast of Holy Pascha, when we traditionally commemorate the Passion and Glorious Resurrection of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ with extensive liturgical worship, is a tragedy, but we need to remind ourselves that each Sunday or Lord’s day is in itself a commemoration of His Resurrection, so that the temporary loss of public worship at this time will not prevent us from proclaiming and celebrating it at other times throughout the year. Equally, the temporary suspension of the celebration of the Divine Liturgy on earth will not diminish the paradisaical banquet which is the celebration of the Celestial Liturgy at the holy and mystical altar in the heavenly Jerusalem, in which Christ glorified as the great High-Priest and the Lamb of God, surrounded by the Cherubim and Seraphim and the Church triumphant, is seated on the throne, as minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle.
Despite the restrictions imposed on the Church by the pandemic, the gates of hell shall not prevail against it and we shall continue steadfastly in the Apostles’ doctrine and fellowship. As God declares to His people, “I will restore health unto thee, and I will heal thee of thy wounds” (Jeremiah XXXI 17) we shall “wait upon the Lord Who will renew our strength” (Isaiah XL: 31).
Metropolitan of Glastonbury
The current coronavirus pandemic which began in China a few months back has now spread to most parts of the world and is causing deep disruption in society and much pain and grief among those who are afflicted by it, either through its contagion or by the illness and loss of our loved ones suffering from it.
One of the most popular psalms that relates to this issue is 91 (Psalm 90 in the Septuagint), traditionally known by the Latin name of its opening phrase, ‘Qui habitat’ and regarded as a “psalm of protection”, commonly invoked in times of hardship. According to the Midrash, the ancient Jewish biblical exegesis, it was composed by Moses on the day he completed the construction of the Tabernacle in the wilderness, when he was enveloped by the glory of the Divine cloud. Another Jewish text, the Talmud, calls this psalm, the “song of plagues” for “one who recites it with faith in God who will be helped in danger”. Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892), known as the ‘Prince of Preachers’ comments in his Treasury of David,
“Though it is impossible to prove that this highly beautiful ode was not written by David, the general drift of its scenery and allusions rather concur in showing that …. we are indebted for it to the muse of Moses that it was composed by him during the journey through the wilderness, shortly after the plague of the fiery serpents; when the children of Israel, having returned to a better spirit, were again received into the favour of Jehovah.”
Its opening phrase,
“He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty” (verse 1)
refers to those who constantly live their lives close to God, which is to actively live a godly life. “Secret” here means a place that is known only to a small number of people, who live their lives in the presence of God, which places them “under the shadow of the Almighty”, and connotes closeness and great proximity, so that they are those whom He protects and for whom He provides a refuge from the storms of the world so they can live in peace, serenity, and security because of His assurance that He will shield them from harm. He is their “refuge and fortress” and will safeguard them from
“the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence” (verse 3).
Other translations, however, render verse one as, “He who dwells in the shelter or under the defense of the Most High”, to emphasise divine protection.
Quoting from Psalm 124: 7,
“Our soul is escaped as a bird out of the snare of the fowler’s: the snare is broken, and we are escaped,”
St. Jerome in one of his homilies on the psalms, raised the question, “What snare is this that has been broken?” which he answered by quoting from the Apostle Paul “The Lord will speedily crush Satan under our feet” (Romans XVI:20) and “that you may recover yourself from the snares of the devil.” (2 Timothy II: 26). St. Jerome then comments,
“You see, then, that the devil is the hunter, eager to lure our souls into perdition. The devil is master of many snares, deceptions of all kinds. Avarice is one of his pitfalls, disparagement is his noose, fornication is his bait. … As long as we are in a state of grace, our soul is at peace; but once you begin to play with sin, then our soul is in trouble and is like a boat tossed about by the waves.”
‘Noisome’ means noxious and harmful, whilst ‘Pestilence’ means a deadly and overwhelming disease that affects an entire community:
“The pestilence that walketh in darkness.” (verse 6)
Historic examples of these are the ‘Black Death’ or ‘Great Plague’, diseases which killed many of Europe’s population, and were certainly pestilences. So also is the coronavirus pandemic. ‘Pestilence’, riding a pale horse, is also personified as the first of the four Horseman of the Apocalypse in the Book of Revelation.
However, for those who faithfully serve the Lord no evil can reach them, for the outstretched wings of His power and love cover them from all harm.
Spurgeon states that Christ’s wings are both for healing and for hiding, for curing and securing us; the devil and his instruments would soon devour the servants of God, if He did not set an invincible guard about them, and cover them with the golden feathers of His protection. This protection is constant – we abide under it, and it is all-sufficient, for it is the shadow of the Almighty, whose omnipotence will surely screen us from all attack. It proclaims: “
“There shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling. For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways.They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone.”(verses 10-12)
God’s ministers exist to ensure our protection. Daniel’s protection in the Lion’s den owed itself to God’s angel:
“My God sent His angel and shut the mouths of the lions. They have not hurt me, for I was found innocent in His sight” (Daniel VI: 22) whilst the Book of Hebrews (I: 14) recognises
“Are not the angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?”
The power of evil will be destroyed:
“Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder: the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet.” (verse 13)
These represent Satan and the powers of evil, as the Book of Revelation (XII:9) identifies them:
“And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.”
Sin is like the wild beasts that God’s loving position trampled underfoot. St. Augustine points out that the lion is an open danger as St. Peter says (1 Peter 5:8),
“Your adversary the devil goes about as a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour”,
whilst the adder or serpent is noted because of its concealed deception which drove Adam out of Paradise.
Because of our love of God He will deliver us from evil, protect and uphold us. He assures us that He will be with us and will guide us to follow the path of goodness in which He will be our refuge and habitation. We will enjoy a long life finally leading to salvation and everlasting life.
Psalm 91 (with additions from Exodus XIX and Matthew XIII) has been used as the basis for a popular religious song, called “On Eagle’s wings”, written by Father Michael Joncan, a Catholic priest, liturgical theologian, and composer of contemporary church music. It’s title is inspired by Isaiah XL:31 “They that wait upon the lord, shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings of eagles”.
1He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.
2 I will say of the Lord, He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in Him will I trust.
3 Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence.
4 He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust: his truth shall be thy shield and buckler.
5 Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day;
6 Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday.
7 A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee.
8 Only with thine eyes shalt thou behold and see the reward of the wicked.
9 Because thou hast made the Lord, which is my refuge, even the most High, thy habitation;
10 There shall no evil befall thee, neither shall any plague come nigh thy dwelling.
11 For he shall give his angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways.
12 They shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone.
13 Thou shalt tread upon the lion and adder: the young lion and the dragon shalt thou trample under feet.
14 Because he hath set his love upon me, therefore will I deliver him: I will set him on high, because he hath known my name.
15 He shall call upon me, and I will answer him: I will be with him in trouble; I will deliver him, and honour him.
16 With long life will I satisfy him, and shew him my salvation.
Issue No. 130 (March 2020) of the Glastonbury Review has just been published. This issue comprises 125 pages. The front cover reproduces a nineteenth century print of St. Joseph of Arimathea’s Chapel at Glastonbury, whilst the back cover includes a modern photograph of St. Michael’s Tor at Glastonbury, as this issue contains an article by Hieromonk John Ives on “St. Joseph of Arimathea in Oral Tradition” as well as the first of a series of previously unpublished articles by the late Mar Georgius, entitled “Ye Boke of Glastonbury”. As the editorial refers to “Is Christ Divided? The Scandal of Russian Disunity” following the breach in communion with the Oecumenical Patriarchate owing to it having granting autocephaly to the Ukrainian Church, it also includes two articles “The Church of the Ukraine is an Accomplished Act” and “Simple Thoughts – Answers on The Ukrainian Issue” both by Hieromonk Niketas from the Athonite Monastery of the Pantokrator. As well as general news items, and the regular “Abba Seraphim’s Question Box”, other articles include one on “Pope Shenouda and the late President Mubarek”, a report on the two kidnapped Orthodox Archbishops of Aleppo and a lengthy article on earlier “Dialogues with Historic Orthodoxy”, detailing Archbishop Mathew’s relations with the Greek Patriarchates of Antioch & Alexandria (1911-1912), Archbishop Frederic Harrington’s approach to the Coptic Church (1936); Mar Georgius’s contacts with the Russian Orthodox (1947-48) and also with the French Orthodox under Bishop Jean Kovalevsky (1969).
The ‘Book Review’ section includes George Alexander’s “Malankara Nasrani Research Papers”; a new edition of Mar Georgius’ 1960 history of the Nonjurors: “Blind Lanes and Alleys”, as well as two recent books by Abba Seraphim “Restoring British Orthodoxy” dealing with his earlier ministry. This issue concludes with obituaries of the late Archbishop Gregorios of Thyateira and Bishop Sarapamoun, Abbot of St. Bishoy’s Coptic monastery.
Copies can be obtained directly from www.Lulu.com
Touching & Kissing
As a temporary measure and duty of care to the vulnerable during the current Covid-19 epidemic, touching and kissing the Holy ikons, the Book of the Gospels and other sacred objects in the church should be avoided, but devotion and respect may best be demonstrated by reverentially bowing towards them and making the sign of the cross. Equally, the fraternal respect and greetings shown to the clergy and especially the greeting known as the ‘Kiss of Peace’ between the clergy and laity should also take the form of a deferential gesture rather than physical contact.
Before & after the Divine Liturgy
The Sacred Vessels used during the Divine Liturgy, which are traditionally wrapped in the liturgical Bundle, should be removed and individually washed with soap and water before being dried with a clean towel. This should be done before the commencement of the Liturgy and again afterwards, before wrapping them in the Bundle.
During the Divine Liturgy there are two Lavabos, the First at the beginning of the Liturgy immediately before the ‘Preparation of the Bread & Wine’, and the Second just before the ‘Great Entrance’. Instead of a merely symbolic pouring of water on the celebrant’s fingertips, a large bowl with soap should be used for hand-washing. In addition to the celebrant, any other clerical assistants who will administer the consecrated elements, should also take part in a full hand-washing. The hand towels in use during each Liturgy should be removed and laundered, so that they are clean for every celebration.
During the ‘Fraction, Consignation and Comixture’ of the consecrated elements, the celebrant intincts the Spadikon with the Holy Blood in the Holy Chalice before signing the Holy Body with the Precious Blood. As an additional health precaution the Holy Chalice & Spoon will not be used to administer the Precious Blood to the Clergy and Laity, but they will receive only the Holy Body in their hands. As this has earlier been intincted, they will in fact still be receiving Holy Communion in both kinds. Only the celebrant will consume the remaining Precious Blood from the Holy Chalice and will be responsible for the Holy Ablutions, whilst the other clergy in the sanctuary will drink the Post-Communion water each from individual glasses, which will also be thoroughly washed with the Sacred Vessels at the Liturgy’s conclusion.