John C. Pontrello
For Fear of the Flu
John C. Pontrello
April 18, 2020
"Now when it was late that same day, the first of the week, and the doors were shut, where the disciples were gathered together, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them: Peace be to you."
I write this today with a heavy heart. It’s Holy Saturday in the Orthodox Church and tonight we celebrate the most holy event in the history of the world – the glorious Resurrection of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. This is the day Orthodox Christians anticipate all year long. This is the day we gather together in dark unlit Churches and await the light of Christ to come forth and illuminate each person, the Church, and then the whole world. It is a day of triumph of light over darkness, of faith over fear, of hope over despair. This is the day we celebrate, together, with great joy Christ’s triumph over sin and death as we shout “Christ is Risen! Truly he has Risen!”
Unfortunately today a great shadow looms over the world. For the first time, possibly in its 2000 year history, Orthodox Christian churches in many countries have canceled public services for the celebration of Holy Pascha. And like the Apostles who hid in the upper room, Christians across this nation and several other nations, have fled the scene and are hiding in isolation, afraid, this time not of the Jews but of a flu.
There are few words to describe my sadness and disappointment. Instead of hearing messages that inspire faith and hope such as “cleanse the leper” “ heal the sick” “raise the dead” many of us Orthodox Christians have been hearing messages that provoke anxiety and fear such as “wash your hands repeatedly” “practice social distancing” “stay home and stay safe.” It’s one thing to hear these messages repeated all day long from the world and quite another to hear them from believers. Is this really the message Christians want to hear from their Church? This is certainly not the message I want to hear.
Earlier today I was trying to imagine what it would have been like had Christ instructed his apostles to avoid the leper because they may get sick. Such a message, grounded in worldly cares and self-preservation doesn’t inspire. It stymies faith. You see, faith breeds faith but fear breeds fear. Yet Christians are supposed to be a people of light. We want to be inspired and we in turn want to inspire others by our witness. Countless Christians whose icons Orthodox Christians venerate chose horrible deaths for their faith. The blood of martyrs keeps the torch burning so that it can be passed on from generation to generation. This inspires. I confess that I want to be inspired. I want to hear my Church tell us to take off our gloves and masks and proclaim to the world “we are Christians; this is what we do. Come worship with us this night because fear has no place here!” But sadly, this is not the message I am hearing these days.
I am not going to get into whether this pandemic is real or contrived, or whether our inalienable rights to assemble and worship God have been violated. Doesn’t even matter. What matters is how we Christians respond to any perceived threat in any age. Today, for the first time since my baptism into this beautiful faith I feel let down. I feel let down because I know we Orthodox Christians are the light of the world and yet most of us have been told to hide in the upper room until our government officials assure us that it is “safe” again. I cannot help but feel that we are failing a great spiritual test of faith at a critical time. Consequently I asked myself this very day, “and so what if I were to catch a deadly disease from gathering with my fellow Christians this Holy night?” The answer came quickly. So be it. I’d rather die in faith than live in fear.
Look, I’m no model Christian. I sin too much, daily. I know my weaknesses. I work at becoming a better Christian each day the Lord gives me but I have a long way to go. Even still, as weak as my faith is at times, I know one thing; I would be at Church this evening if I could, and without a mask and without worrying about practicing “social distancing.” I may be far from perfect but I am not afraid. There is no place for fear in God’s temple where He has commanded us believers to gather and worship Him.
I am sorry Lord. I am sorry that our faith has grown so weak in these days that we would rather shelter in place than gather together for the Feast of Holy Pascha. Yet I know that the light of your triumphant and glorious Resurrection that we celebrate tonight cannot be kept at bay. You will come into the upper room once again. I think I speak for many when I repeat these words, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.”