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A Year Without Pascha

An Orthodox priest stares at the portal into Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulcher, closed this week for the first time since the 14th century Black Plague (Photo by EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP via Getty Images)

In the jurisdiction of the Orthodox Church in America (the Diocese of the South), our bishop has issued his directions for Holy Week and Pascha worship. He has effectively cancelled them. That is, the liturgies will go on, but with only a skeleton crew of no more than five people in the church building at a given time — and these must be the same five people throughout the busy Holy Week schedule. There are some details having to do with whether or not the parish is in a mandatory stay-at-home zone, but in both cases, the de facto policy means that for almost the entire parish, there will be no Holy Week or Paschal services.

I can hardly express to you what a blow this is. It would be for any Christian church, but especially in Orthodoxy, when we spend Holy Week in church for a long time, every day. It is an intense time of great holiness and mystery, and the Paschal liturgy is an event of indescribable joy.

In the Year of Our Lord 2020, it will have been taken from us.

Please don’t misread me: I support Bishop Alexander in this. As much as I hate to hear the news, this drastic move seems like the most prudent and compassionate decision. Did you know that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the one built over the site where Jesus died, was buried, and was resurrected, has been closed for the first time since … the Black Plague, in the 14th century? The right way to see this is that we Orthodox Christians are being asked to make an absolutely extraordinary sacrifice for the life of the world — so that this plague which has killed, and will kill, so many, and will have reduced so many to poverty, can be defeated. As the old-school Catholics like to say about sacrifice, we should, “offer it up” as an extreme sharing of Christ’s passion. We will know in a way we never have the meaning of the crucified Jesus’s words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

My fellow Orthodox, in this emergency situation, let’s not be like the Pentecostal pastor in Baton Rouge, who is bringing disgrace and contempt onto the name of Christ by defiantly holding worship services, despite the governor’s legitimate order against large gatherings. They are failing in their duty of love of neighbor, and increasing the suffering of the greater community by potentially incubating and spreading the plague. They are not sacrificing for the community; they are expecting the community to sacrifice for them. And the community will remember that. The greatest witness we can have to the world is to show that we humbly accepted the thing that means the most to us as a Christian body — Pascha — so that lives might be saved, and the world rid of this plague. We can do this for the world. Nobody is asking us to deny our faith, but rather to make an unusual, and unusually painful, sacrifice, to ransom the lives of others.

We can do this. We must do this. And let us think about the deeper lesson here. Learning this morning of the effective cancellation of Holy Week and Pascha really and truly brought home for me how apocalyptic these dark days are. The question that has to be on every Orthodox Christian’s mind — and on the mind of every Christian, period — is, What is God trying to tell us in this? 

Is it a chastisement? A warning? A portent of a time to come when we may be forbidden to go to Church? What?

The Year Without Pascha. My God. After this, let’s never, ever take church for granted again.

UPDATE: This passage from the Gospel of Luke (via Bible Gateway) teaches us how to regard what’s happening now:

Isn’t it right that we make the sacrifice of attendance at our liturgies, even the Paschal liturgy, for the sake of saving lives and healing people?

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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