The government has recognised that “Places of worship play an important rôle in providing spiritual leadership for many individuals, and in bringing communities and generations together” but in the early stages of the pandemic it recognised that their communal nature made them places that were particularly vulnerable to the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19).
On 13 June 2020 some places of worship were permitted to open merely for private prayer, but the Prime Minister has now announced that the government has agreed that from 4 July churches may re-open for public worship and for weddings with a recommended maximum of thirty people, provided that physical distancing is observed. More of the congregation can attend so long as the clergy and their assistants follow guidance on how to control the virus.
The way in which this will be done is by a thorough cleaning of the church before the resumption of services. Frequently used objects, surfaces or spaces, including for example doorways (with door-handles and door-knobs) between outside and inside spaces should be given particular attention when cleaning. Where possible, while the current weather is warm and summery, doors and windows should be opened during services to improve ventilation in the church.
At the entrance to each church there should be made available hand-sanitiser and/or water and paper towels to enable worshippers to cleanse their hands, as well as face-masks, which although not essential, may be worn during the service but will be removed before receiving Holy Communion.
Adherence to social distancing between individuals and households of 2 metres (3 steps) is recommended, although the newly introduced “one metre plus” rule is now the required minimum and also queue management is important so that when people approach to receive Holy Communion they should keep a safe distance from each other.
Suggestions have been made that hymn-singing may prove unsafe, so additional hymns during the service will be temporarily suspended, although liturgical responses may still be made even whilst wearing a face-mask; whilst singing the O Monogenes (during ‘The Little Entrance’) and The Cherubic Hymn (during ‘The Great Entrance’) as well as the recitation of The Creed should not take the form of an intense and noxious discharge, but of a modest and moderate response.
The “Guidance Notes for British Orthodox Churches on Upholding Health issues during the Current Covid-19 Pandemic” which was issued on 13 March, and dealt with topics such as ‘Touching & Kissing’, ‘Before and after the Divine Liturgy’, ‘Hand Washing’ and ‘Holy Communion’ is still available in the News & Events section of the British Orthodox Church website and are is still applicable.
Abba Seraphim sends greetings to all the faithful for today’s Feast of the Lord’s Glorious Ascension into the Heavens and reminds them of the blessings we receive from celebrating this day.
Today’s liturgical lections upon which we should meditate are: Mark XVI: 12-20; 1 Timothy III: 13-16; 1 Peter III: 15-22; Acts I: 1-14 & Luke XXIV: 36-53.
Today we commemorate the glorious ascension of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, the account of which we have in the Acts of the Apostles as well as St. Mark and St. Luke’s Gospel, all of which are read in today’s Lectionary. We must not, however, assume that these relatively brief accounts are intended to minimise its importance, because other scriptural references to the Lord’s Ascension provide us with a clearer understanding of its great significance in God’s plan of creation and redemption. The fathers of Nicaea who drew up the Creed were conscious of the testimony of St. John’s Gospel where our Lord declares, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven” (John VI: 51) and also his question to the disciples at Capernaum who found his statements about eating his flesh and drinking his blood hard sayings, “What and if ye shall see the Son of man ascend up where he was before?” These make it clear that his proper place is in the heavens and that the ascension was not a new dignity bestowed upon Him but showed Him for what he had always been, the eternal Son. He did not bring His humanity down from heaven, but took it on earth, so that it now was exalted for the first time. St. Cyril the Great makes this clear, “When we affirm that our Lord Jesus Christ is from heaven and from above, we do not mean in affirming this that his holy flesh was brought down from above or from heaven, but we rather follow the inspired Paul, who declared very clearly, ‘The first man was of the earth, earthy; the second man is from heaven.’
You will recall our Lord’s encounter with Mary Magdalene in the garden on the Resurrection morning, when He tells her, “Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but I go to my brethren and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God and your God.” (John XX: 17) St. Augustine of Hippo puzzles over this, reminding us that in St. Matthew’s account they “held him by the feet and worshipped him” (Matthew XXVIII: 9) and invited the Apostle Thomas to feel the wounds of His passion. He suggests therefore that the Lord’s rebuke of the Magdalen was because she still conceived of him simply as a man.
St. Ambrose of Milan commenting on our Lord’s statement, “I ascend to your Father, my God and your God,” emphasises the distinction here, pointing out that our nature has nothing in common with that of Christ, except as regard its humanity,
“To him he was Father by an essential act of procreation, to us by voluntary adoption; to him by nature, to us through grace; God to him in the unity of the mystery, to us in celestial power.”
St. Paul the Apostle in his epistle to the Philippians emphasises this when he writes that Christ, “being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God.” (Phil. II: 6) The Authorised version “in the form” suggests mere appearance, whereas the Greek en morphe is probably best conveyed by the New International version, “Who, being in very nature.” John Wesley’s notes here amplify this, “Who being in the essential form – The incommunicable nature.” The Dublin hymnographer, Thomas Kelly, emphasises the exaltation of Christ by contrasting his Ascension with his Passion,
“The head that once was crowned with thorns
Is crowned with glory now:
A royal diadem adorns
The mighty Victor’s brow.”
However, we must be careful here to guard against the impious heresy of the Arians which taught that His exaltation was conferred on him as a reward for virtue or sign of God’s favour, with his becoming son by adoption only. St. Athanasius the Apostolic warns us that if we speak in this way about our Saviour, “He will be shown to be neither true, nor God, nor Son like the Father, and to have God as the Father not of his essential being but only of the favour bestowed on him; thus he will resemble all the rest in having God as the creator of his essential being.”
Kelly’s hymn correctly emphasises that this is not a favour bestowed,
“The highest place that heaven affords
Is his, is his by right,
The King of kings and Lord of lords,
And heaven’s eternal Light.”
Both St. Athanasius and St. Cyril the Great draw our attention to the Kenosis, where – as the Apostle Paul explains, our Lord Jesus Christ, God the Word “emptied himself”, taking the form of a slave and playing his part as Son of man while remaining God as he was, since he is by nature unchangeable and immutable. In doing so he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. II: 7-8). What was the purpose of this “emptying” ? St. Athanasius makes it clear,
“For just as Christ, as man, dies and was exalted, so as man he is said to receive what he always possessed as God, so that such a favour might also come as a gift to us. For the Word was not diminished by taking a body …. But rather imparted divinity to that which he put on and made this all the more a favour to the human race.”
Although there are scriptural examples of bodily assumption, the Prophet Elijah being taken up to heaven riding on a fiery chariot (2 Kings II: 11-13) and references to the Archangel Michael disputing with the devil about the body of Moses (Jude 9) and Enoch’s translation (Genesis V: 24 and Hebrews XI: 5); there are important difference between these and our Lord’s ascension. Enoch, Moses Elijah, and the Virgin St. Mary were creatures, and could not ascend in their own power, whereas the Lord Jesus is God and omnipotent in His Divine Nature. The manner of His ascension was a real motion of His human nature and was by change of place, from earth to heaven. It was sudden, swift, and glorious, in a triumphant manner and accompanied by a bright cloud – the symbol of the Divine presence – while the angels announced that He will come again “in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven.”
At the incarnation, God – by whom all things were made – became one with us through taking flesh and dwelling among us; uniting Himself for ever to His creation. As the humanity of Christ is inseparable from His divinity so, at His ascension, He carried our humanity into the heavens. Even as the baby Who was born in that stable was God and the man Who died on the cross was God, so is the God Who is enthroned in highest heaven a man. God redeems us in our entirety, not just our souls. In His divine Person, the Son was always seated on the right hand of the Father, being consubstantial with Him, but the lifting up of our humanity at His ascension is man’s first entry into that divine glorification for which he was originally created. Bishop Christopher Wordsworth’s hymn captures this truth,
“Thou hast raised our human nature
In the clouds to God’s right hand;
There we sit in heavenly places,
There with thee in glory stand,
Jesus reigns, adored by Angels;
Man with God is on the throne;
Mighty Lord, in thine Ascension
We by faith behold our own.”
The current UK lockdown intended to protect us from the coronavirus pandemic is now entering into its eighth week and alongside the tragedy of not having the opportunity to meet often with one’s close relatives, friends and neighbours, there is the requirement that churches also should be closed for public services; that mourners at funerals should be severely restricted and also that baptisms must be postponed in line with the clear requirement from the government that places of worship remain closed.
Sadly, we have recently read reports of the spread of the virus following the fact that many Orthodox churches abroad have resisted such rules, especially during the traditional Paschal celebration which recently took place. We learn that several monks and theological students of the Russian Holy Trinity St. Sergius Lavra have been infected with the virus, whilst at the celebrated Diveyevo Convent near the city of Nizhny-Novgorod two of the nuns have now died from the virus, whilst 76 have been tested positive.
Prior to the lockdown in the UK, the British Orthodox Church introduced a number of measures intended to limit the possibility of the spread of contagion, although these were swiftly followed by a total lockdown for all public services.
However, the pastoral responsibility of our clergy means that not only are the needs of our society at this time, as well as those suffering from the virus, strongly sustained in prayer, but that the Divine Liturgy as the prototype of intercession is still regularly celebrated, although just for the present in private rather than in public. Although to date none of our British Orthodox faithful have succumbed to the virus, their physical, mental and general well-being continues to be upheld in prayer. We also continue to commemorate the faithful departed on their regular anniversaries as well as those who have recently died.
Among many requests being received are those for the baptism of infants, some of which were scheduled before the outbreak of the pandemic. In the light of our Lord’s words to Nicodemus that “Unless one is born of water and the spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John III:3) we are clearly reluctant to delay these baptisms longer than necessary. In the case of young children suffering from serious illness, churches have always accepted the need for emergency baptisms to be performed. Although traditionally the ministers of baptism have always been in holy orders, it is recognised that someone who is a properly baptised person – although not themselves in holy orders – possesses the right to confer the sacrament as the “laver of regeneration” during times of crisis, so that those baptised are joined to Christ thereby acquiring the status of adopted children of God. Those performing the baptism must either pour on or immerse the child in water and use the correct Trinitarian formula, “I baptise thee in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen”. Also among the prayers recommended to be used at such a ceremony should be the Lord’s Prayer as well as the Nicene Creed. Unless they are following the strictest social distancing, either the child’s father or mother, should be the officiant.
As soon as the UK lockdown terminates and the churches resume public services, the parents should then bring the child whom they have baptised themselves, to the church in order to receive conditional re-baptism at the hands of a priest or bishop, who will then also administer the holy chrismation whereby our spirit is renewed through receiving the Holy Spirit, which is always done at an Orthodox baptism.
Christ is Risen ! Although we deeply regret the necessity not to maintain public worship in British Orthodox churches during the current pandemic, our clergy are now privately celebrating the Divine Liturgy in their homes in order to still maintain the faithful in prayer during Eucharistic celebrations. The attached homily on our Lord’s Resurrection, delivered by Abba Seraphim at our Chatham Church two years ago,is still highly relevant to our spirituality, not only for today’s Feast of Holy Pascha, but also for each Lord’s Day which also commemorates the Resurrection and also at this international time of trial when so many people have died as a result of being infected by the coronavirus. In addition to praising God for our Lord’s resurrection from the dead, we are deeply thankful for the promise of resurrection for the faithful departed and of the eternal life, which is given to all the faithful in Christ.