Fox News ran a piece shortly after President Trump declared a National Emergency in the United States in regards to the onset of the novel coronavirus and COVID-19, the sickness it brings. That piece stated that Sunday, March 15, is now designated as a national day of prayer. This declaration and request for everyone to pray holds even as many churches are announcing suspension of or radical alterations to, their church services, including the Eastern Orthodox Christian jurisdictions.
The Fox piece says the following:
“We are a Country that, throughout our history, has looked to God for protection and strength in times like these….,” Trump tweeted. “No matter where you may be, I encourage you to turn towards prayer in an act of faith. Together, we will easily PREVAIL!”
The [regular] annual National Day of Prayer is scheduled for May 7. Trump’s announcement came after he declared a national emergency over the coronavirus pandemic, in addition to partnerships with several large companies to expand testing for the illness.
Trump has large support from white evangelical Christians and Catholic voters. As president, he’s championed religious liberty and called for greater religious freedoms, such as strengthening prayer in public schools.
In addition to the updated guidance on prayer in schools, the Trump administration also took action across nine federal agencies, releasing proposed rules to ensure religious organizations are not discriminated against by the federal government.
“In America we celebrate faith. We cherish religion,” he said during his State of the Union address last month. “We lift our voices in prayer and we raise our sights to the glory of God.”
One of the most surprising notices to any group of traditionally relgious Americans came from the Orthodox Church in America’s Diocese of the South, with its bishop, Alexander Garklavs circulating the following instructions in an encyclical piece:
• All parish and mission events and activities, including coffee fellowship, church school, and the rest, and all services other than the Sunday Liturgy of St. Basil the Great, the Vesperal Liturgy of the Great Feast of Annunciation, and the Presanctified Liturgies, are cancelled through March 29, beginning from today. At which point we will adjust this as the situation warrants.
• Everyone in the parish or mission, other than the priest (and deacon), a reader, a server, and no more than two (2) chanters or singers (all of whom are physically strong and at low risk for COVID-19), should remain at home, even at the time of the Divine Liturgy. The holy body and precious blood of our Lord can never be a source of disease, it is after all for the healing of soul and body, but the COVID-19 virus can still be passed through the congregation. Out of love for our neighbor, we must do everything we can to protect the vulnerable by slowing the rate of infection not only in our parishes, but in the greater community, and thereby allowing the hospitals and medical community to more adequately care for those most at risk. All who are “at risk” – the elderly, those with pre-existing conditions, any who are actively sick or exhibiting signs of illness – should absolutely absent themselves from the services.
• Priests are instructed to commemorate all of the faithful on the diskos at the proskomedia (as I presume is your practice, regardless).
• If possible, the service should be webcast on the internet so that the faithful may participate in the prayers, which are themselves a source of grace and consolation. Every effort should be made to provide the faithful with the service texts.
• The clergy are to either:
1. Include the OCA’s petition or prayer in your services, or add into the Great and Augmented Litanies the special petitions from the Molieben in Times of Pestilence (GB of N, vol. IV, pg. 93-94, and111-112 respectively). In our prayers we should especially remember health-care workers. They are going the bear a heavy burden during this time of trial.
2. Offer the Molieben entirely following the Divine Liturgy.
• Clergy are reminded that they have the primary responsibility of visiting the sick, but should take care not to expose the faithful and others to the virus.
This is not the season of Great Lent we anticipated, but it is nonetheless a fitting Lenten effort: focus on the greater good of our neighbors, recognizing that this initial response to this pandemic will work for the greater good of our faithful and our neighbors. Use this time of “social distancing” for prayer and to keep vigil “in one’s cell.”
While many other mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic leaders have been reported as taking measures, the Orthodox Church had been largely business as usual until a series of meetings all taking place between March 11 and 13 across several of the large Orthodox jurisdictions resulted in encyclical letters going out from each of the bishops and each of the synods that met to discuss this issue.
President Trump is on to something about the power of God and how He acts when people make their approach to him in prayer. That goes for anyone and everyone who does so. One of the more encouraging bits of news was reported by Archbishop Kyrill, the overseer of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia’s Western American Diocese:
The members of the Faithful are encouraged to increase their prayers by daily reciting an Akathist to the Lord, or the Theotokos, or to our beloved St. John of Shanghai & San Francisco, or to the Saint of their choice, praying for the cessation of this pestilence. To increase the sanctification of our souls and bodies, we are all encouraged to frequently partake of Holy Communion, and also of Holy Water and Prosphora; to daily anoint ourselves with Holy Oil from the Saints; and to confess our sins and pray fervently. Our arms against this epidemic, although spiritual, will be nonetheless powerful.
Already reports are coming in that the Archangel Michael has appeared to many people promising them his powerful help. Also, the newly-glorified Saint Nikephoros the Leper has appeared in Greece to a pious Orthodox serviceman and assured him that he will intercede for all who ask his prayers to be protected and healed from the Coronavirus.
Troparion, Tone 1:
“All the angels were awestruck by the courage and fortitude of Saint Nikephoros the Leper, in ascetic deeds and contests, for like another Job he suffered pain, with patience, ever-glorifying God, who has crowned him now with glory, granting him grace to work great, wondrous miracles. Rejoice, O guide of monastics and their aid, Rejoice O shining beacon of light, Rejoice for thy relics now exude a fragrance bringing joy to all.”
Kontakion, Tone 8:
“The valiant athlete of endurance and fortitude, the steadfast diamond of great patience and long-suffering, was tried by the affliction and pains of illness, and who in this way did glorify the Most High God, let us praise and laud the leper Nikephoros, saying unto him: Rejoice, true namesake of victory.”
Let us use this time to draw closer to the Lord in repentance, as once did the citizens of Ninevah. Much of mankind has fallen so very far away from God: the modern spiritual pandemic has led many of our contemporaries even to fundamentally deny the very nature with which God has imbued us. We must ask the Saints for intercessions on our behalf and all those around us who are sick. Let us also remember that it is only through earnest repentance and prayer, and not through worry and fretting, that we can influence our circumstances for the better. With the vast spiritual resources given to us, we must entreat the Lord, who has exhorted us: “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” (Is. 41:10) Let us “seek first the Kingdom of God and its righteousness,” and all things that we need to get through this crisis will doubtless be provided to us. (Matt. 6:33)
Truer words have not been spoken. This is the challenge for all of us – will we come back to the basics of all of life and pray to God for help, or will we remain intellectually self-sufficient, rejecting this, and with it, the One who has always come through for all of us when asked?
This appears to be the big question.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.