During the days of the plague, Milan had one of the lowest death rates in Europe. The city’s strategy was simple, but at the same time brutal. If the town became aware that a family had been infected, they simply burned down the house along with all the members of the family, infected or not. In this way, they limited the spread in the city and many escaped the black death that ravaged the rest of Europe.
Today, we renounce such methods, and instead we use the information we receive from the authorities and experts. Covid-19 is a virus that strikes hard on the weak and the elderly, while in younger and healthy people, the symptoms are usually less severe. The problem is that it is we who are healthy and relatively young who spread the infection to members of the high-risk group, who can become seriously ill and die. Therefore, it is we who must take responsibility for not spreading the infection by changing our behavior. It is through good hand hygiene, not going to school or work if we are sick, and keeping a distance from others that we will reduce infection, save our health service from an excessive burden and save many lives.
It is also a matter of not gathering in larger groups at which the infection can be more widely spread such as in religious services. We therefore need to severely limit our gatherings now and in particular at Easter. The government has prohibited by law gatherings of more than 50 people, but we need to do more than the law stipulates. We need to completely close our churches during Easter if we want to show solidarity to high risk and vulnerable members of our communities. We should continue to pray, but at home, and prepare for a delayed Easter celebration. Easter time is long and each of us can enjoy Easter later, as we approach summer (if not sooner), but on Easter day we should all stay at home. Some churches broadcast the liturgy over the Internet while others celebrate the liturgy with a few altar servants, and then let the people come and take the communion individually during the bright week. Various churches have various solutions. Please consult with your church to find out what applies.
Both priests and laymen have appeared on social media and claimed that the Christian gathering is protected from being infected. It is not the first time in Church history that such arguments have been made. During the plague, it was claimed that it was lack of faith that caused the plague to spread, and that those who were infected were cursed by God. However, many priests showed solidarity with the sick, and many of them died while they cared for the sick without knowing how the disease was spread.
During the days of the ancient church, there were those who wanted to claim that the body of Christ could not be decomposed, nor could it be affected by the forces of death in this world, which was called aphthartodocetism. Severus of Antioch, the “Crown of the Syrians”, opposed this, claiming that Jesus’ body was fully part of this world, and thus exposed in the same way as we are to the forces of death. Only after the resurrection did his body become incorruptible and free from the forces of death. Aphthartodocetism was also later condemned by the Byzantine churches at the Council of Constantinople 553. The same is true with the Church. We are not liberated from corruption, diseases, or other maladies in this world. Like Christ, we share the suffering of humanity, and must take responsibility for our neighbor. Those who want to claim that the Christian gathering is in a special way protected by God, or who claim that the sick person lacks enough belief, deny the mystery of the Incarnation, which implies a complete communion with the condition of humanity. By extension, they also deny the mystery of the resurrection, which is a complete communion with the risen Christ. If the community here and now is not complete, then the community in the coming kingdom is not complete either. If we cannot take our situation in this world seriously, then we will not be able to do so in the coming world.
Now, it’s serious. We are beginning to receive reports of bishops and priests who are dying, and members of our churches who are seriously ill or who have died. Most of us are not seriously affected, but we can spread the infection. To paraphrase slightly the words of Christ, “Where were you when you learned how the elderly and the sick became infected?” It is important now that we Christians take responsibility and close the churches during Easter. The liturgy will still be celebrated in the monasteries and seminaries, but the larger gathering will have to wait until it is safe for our mothers and fathers, the sick and the elderly to join us. The liturgy is not just for the strong. Those who continue to believe as the phantasiasts (those who thought the incarnation was not real) did, do not take their Christian faith seriously, but turn it into magic and superstition, and there is no need to listen to their voices. Christ is with those who are sick and with those who pray in their homes, and among the priests who keep in touch with those who are isolated and need to hear the voice of comfort. This is reality, taking this seriously and demonstrating Christian love.
Dean, Sankt Ignatios