In the Orthodox Christian world, today marked Great and Holy Wednesday in the Passion Week, or Holy Week as many call it. It is the last day of the first half of Holy Week, which marks our Lord’s excoriation of the Pharisees and is the time when the sentiment of the crowd which hailed Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as the coming of the King, begins to erode, starting from the vitriol and envy of the Pharisees whom Christ rebukes in the most fiery language that exists in all of Scripture (excerpted from Matthew chapter 23):
27 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.
28 Even so ye also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within ye are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.
29 Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because ye build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchres of the righteous,
30 And say, If we had been in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partakers with them in the blood of the prophets.
31 Wherefore ye be witnesses unto yourselves, that ye are the children of them which killed the prophets.
32 Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers.
33 Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?
34 Wherefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes: and some of them ye shall kill and crucify; and some of them shall ye scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city:
35 That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar.
36 Verily I say unto you, All these things shall come upon this generation.
37 O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!
38 Behold, your house is left unto you desolate.
39 For I say unto you, Ye shall not see me henceforth, till ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.
Anybody who knows anything at all about people knows that when you insult those in power who enjoy that power for themselves – if you insult them, you are in big trouble. To say “Jesus bit the hand” is an understatement. In fact, He did it deliberately, knowing that it would provoke them to murderous rage in which they show their true alliance at the time, in the Pharisees’ answer to Pilate’s question, “Shall I crucify your King?” and their response:
“We have no king but Caesar!!” (c.f. The Gospel of John, 19:15)
In other words, the Pharisees rejected their own God, their own Creator, who was standing in Person before them, and they ragefully and violently expressed their true allegiance to the pathetic powers of this fallen world.
With these thoughts in mind, I want to reflect on the experience of being in attendance at a “masked” church, a parish not terribly distant from my home in Moscow. I was there this morning. I do not write this as a complaint, nor as a condemnation of the people there, but rather, as a hopeful means of conveying the tragedy that is attacking Christian believers all over the world at this moment, as experienced in one parish church in Moscow, Russia. No doubt this same experience exists where you are, too, especially if you are in the United States or Canada or in Europe. However, the tragedy is only part of it.
I also must recount an experience of hope that took place today.
There were approximately 70 to 100 people in attendance, a fair number for a weekday morning service. The rule of the parish was that everyone must wear a mask, exceptions being for the clergy and those singing in the choir. I usually sing, but today I wasn’t. I stood in line waiting to receive Confession and was hoping to join the choir when Confession was done.
The first thing I was greeted with on entering the Church was a guard. A masked guard. I had a mask, as I knew that the guards outside often insist on people wearing one before they even cross the gates of this church (it is very large and is in fact a veritable “campus” of several buildings). However, I despise wearing it because (1) I cannot breathe in it, and (2) I think wearing a mask is an offense to God. Everything about these things is ugly. Whether it is a flimsy “surgical” mask or the new cloth ones that some creative people try to make funny or stylish (one does have to give such efforts credit!), the covering of people’s faces makes them look less than human.
It also makes them look and, as I experienced today, feel, fearful.
The guard was not pleased with me for some reason. but he saw that I had a liturgical garment, showing that in some way or another I am part of the clergy. He nodded recognition. I am a clumsy man, so I probably looked like a fool as I fumbled with my podryaznik (under cassock), trying to put it on while my mask hung crazily from one ear. Then, I got myself together after this and went to the line of people awaiting Confession. While there, I wanted to take a photo of the way the sunlight and iconostasis were just making beauty happen, but the same guard asked me something. My mask was haphazard again, so I thought that was it, but when I tried again to take a photo, he approached me again, and asked that I turn my phone off.
So that’s what it was, maybe? My Russian is still not very good, so a lot of this is “understanding by conjecture” for me, and I of course turned my phone completely off and showed him this. Message received and understood, sir!
But it didn’t end there. I fiddled with the damned mask so I could take a little comfort in breathing normally, but as I advanced forward in the Confession line, my new friend, the guard, was matching my every move, and every step. I saw this, but pretended not to.
Now, it should be understood that I am known by the clergy in this church. I am no stranger, in fact, they know me particularly well because I have been a great help to them from time to time. However, no one came to straighten this matter out, and as a part of my own efforts, I was not thinking the usual line “doesn’t he know who I am?” Of course he doesn’t. Why should he?
But I was also angry. I was angry because the mask rule is totally based on false information (how can a mask prevent the passage of a virus? How does my wearing one help anyone else when I am not sick in the first place?)
Let’s face it, folks, for the last year we have been given a worldwide snow job called “how to keep safe in a pandemic.” It features “rules” that in some countries change every day. Thankfully in Russia, things remain much more steady, but the fact that people are in the House of God being required to be more afraid of some virus that has a very low contagion rate and an even lower fatality rate… what is this?
Look at that global case number. Sure it is large, 149 million cases, but we have over seven-and-a-half billion people on the planet. If pure numbers alone are an objective reference, the virus has affected just under TWO PERCENT of the population in one year. It is endemic, it is everywhere, but it is also not very much of a wildfire spread when viewed in that context. Two percent!
And because of this slow creep in 15 months from zero to two percent of the population, I have to be shadowed by Mr. Okhrannik (‘охранник’ is the Russian word for ‘guard’) because maybe, what? I am a threat to the population?
Now, at least one good thing came out of this: I had something to confess! So I did. I told the masked priest that I was angry, that I thought these masks are stupid and not in line with God’s will, and yet… I am commanded by the Lord to be patient. The priest did not try to convince me of the rightness or wrongness of mask wearing. I had gotten to a problem I could address, my tremendous lack of patience with when people are doing something stupid, dishonest and in this case, faithless.
I could not change anybody else, but I can change my patience. Great, thank God, the confession brought that to the surface, so maybe I should say, “thank you, COVID-19?”
I don’t think I will say that.
The fun was almost over. After Confession, I asked the priest about someone I was expecting to meet, he checked and that person was not there. I was not blessed to sing this day, so I found a place in the back of the Church where I stood in my cassock and my mask and listened to the service. My wayguide was no longer visible, but there were other guards in the Church, too, and I spotted them. I was resolved to endure this stupidity for the sake of receiving Holy Communion, and I was calm, though the residue of being afraid of being shadowed in Church and being angry about these things was still tangible.
After a few minutes, someone came from the altar, as the clergy were now aware of my presence, and they invited me into the altar, where I remained for the rest of the long service. I stood near the priests. I prayed there, received Holy Communion there, and I noticed a few things:
One was obviously almost nobody wearing a mask. There certainly was no mandate to wear one, and the guards did not ever enter the altar.
The second thing was that the air felt lighter. No fear. Of course, the Altar in an Orthodox Church is the highest holy place, and for those of us blessed to be in a Church that serves a lot, there truly is a change of atmosphere when one walks into this sanctuary.
It got me to thinking about Fear, and what so many believers are being put through with the crazy COVID rules:
Fear. And not fear of God in any way, neither the awe we try to mean when we talk about “Fear of God” or actually being afraid of Him (which is never a pleasant experience), However, for me, the fear in the nave of this temple was of the guard, of the rule about masks, of the compliance I am being expected to show to a set of regulations that are completely contradictory to everything I am taught as an Orthodox Christian. But there is even more fear: fear of being disobedient (another very big teaching in Orthodoxy – “do what you are told without question, as though the command came from God Himself.”
So, I am fearful about being disobedient to a load of crap rules that oppose Christianity, yet which many people have tolerated and allowed to creep into the Christian Church!
How does that work for the faithful? This was my next thought, about all the masked people in the nave. I was happy because I was free of the blasted thing in the altar, but isn’t that getting off easy? After all, the laity do not have the privilege I do of coming into the altar. Most of the people there today were women, and women are not traditionally allowed in Orthodox altars unless they are monastics.
And a good question: Who is showing the most faith here?
I think the answer to that question is undoubtedly clear: those women and others who endured this outrage for three and a half hours this morning, and who will endure it again tonight and tomorrow and all through the rest of Passion Week and Pascha (often – incorrectly – called “Easter” in English).
These people endure the fear, they practice obedience, and most of them seem not to mind. That is one of the most amazing things about Orthodox Christian people in Russia – their way to salvation is sometimes difficult to see because they know how to let those who watch the body see what they want to see, while the inner world of the soul is somewhere completely different.
However, for some of us, there is nothing more horrifying than having to feel this sort of abject fear of secular authority when in the House of God.
In older American movies, the Church was often portrayed as a “sanctuary” not only with God, but from the law, or even from the bad guys. If you needed protection for any reason, the Church was where you went, even if you had done something wrong, and it was a place where earthly laws stopped, at least long enough for a person to get their heart, soul and mind together.
Now, we have been deprived of this. Now, the will of the fearful, humanist, secular, non-believers, has extended its reach into our temples. This last year has been and continues to be a great test of how far the seculars can actually go with this power grab. It has gone much farther than anyone even just two years ago would have expected.
Yet, it is not a lost cause. We see in America and other places, people obeying even the natural (but no less God-given) instincts they have to say this has gone far enough, and it is time to live life normally again. This is certainly happening in Russia as well, and many temples are not full of maskless-people-hunters, even in Moscow. In our city, the cases increased a bit, but most people seem determined to live life normally. Businesses are going back to pre-pandemic operational structures and so on. The pendulum is moving the other way again, as it must.
This is not to say that the problem is over. India is now in a massive second wave of COVID-19, and if the data shows us anything concrete, it is that the virus appears to have about a three to four month “period” of increase and decrease, totally irrespective of season, climate, or anything else. The only peculiarity that remains is that it goes for non-Asiatic people with much more ferocity than it does Chinese or other Oriental folks. Race apparently does make a difference, though the media is not about to give that idea the attention that it really needs.
But in all this, God is in charge. After I received Communion I noticed a change in the air in the altar. While I cannot be sure I actually saw anything physically different, the air seemed luminous, and it felt extraordinarily peaceful. I felt the sense that everything was okay here, in this small, luminous spot, even if the gibbering of the dark forces has managed to enter the temple. But I also noticed (in retrospect) that this peace extended throughout the temple afterward, and while the feeling was not as clear and luminous as it was for me in the altar, it was still there, and I could sense it with the people themselves, those masked women, as they left the Church.
God is with us. Understand, all ye nations and submit yourselves, for God IS with us.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.