To the Reverend Clergy, Monastics, and Faithful of the Diocese of the West:
Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen!
In the Divine Liturgy, at the apex of the Anaphora, the Gifts are raised on high by the deacon as the following prayer is said, ending with the exclamation:
Remembering this saving commandment and all those things which have come to pass for us: the Cross, the Tomb, the Resurrection on the third day, the Ascension into heaven, the Sitting at the right hand, and the second and glorious Coming.
Thine own of Thine own we offer unto Thee, on behalf of all and for all!
This year, more than perhaps any other year in our lives, every Orthodox Christian virtually the whole world over has to answer the question: do we really believe those words? The current social situation and the need to protect one another in love by living in semi-isolation because of the COVID-19 pandemic has kept most of us from most everyday activities, including the church services during this most holy time of the year, and will even inhibit, or even prohibit, attendance at Paschal services.
But the worship of the Church — the Liturgy in particular — reminds us that it (or rather He) is always offered by those offering the service “on behalf of all and for all.” The services are still being served, the Sacrifice is still being offered, the People of God continue to strive for communion with Him, even when we cannot gather together. We are called this year to offer ourselves to Him through those who can still stand at the altar. We have been given the opportunity and the time to look deep within ourselves to search out and find that place where God dwells outside the doors of the Church. We have been called to be the Church the way we are supposed to be the Church when we can go to worship. Each and every one us in the midst of Paschal joy tempered by absence must find true Paschal joy by dying with Him, setting aside our own disappointments, and rising with Him.
If we look at three different “Paschas,” we can see that they are all the same. The very first Pascha had the People of God huddled in safety behind the doors of their houses, staying inside at the command of God, protected by the blood of the Lamb. They must have been wracked with doubts and fears. Would God really protect them? Despite the fears, the Lord leveled their enemies, and passed over their houses. Later He allowed them to pass over the Red Sea in the first baptism into the Promised Land. It was the foreshadowing of our own Pascha, first in baptism, then in death.
THE Pascha saw the disciples fleeing the Savior in fear, abandoning Him to humiliating trial and death. The body of the Most Pure One was tended by Joseph and Nicodemus alone. The followers of Christ huddled in safety from the high priest and his minions, aided by Romans who wanted nothing but to quell the disruption this Jesus had caused. Someone remarked to me that it was incredibly sad that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was closed this Paschal season. That Sepulcher was closed and sealed then, too. Despite the fears and confusion (and absence) among the disciples, the Lord destroyed the Enemy by His own death. The closed and sealed Sepulcher could not hold Him.
This Pascha, the followers of Christ are, for the most part, huddled in safety and fear behind closed doors. Would God really protect us? Despite our faith and hope, many are also wracked with doubts and fears. There are only a few allowed to tend to His Body and to come to the empty tomb to proclaim the Resurrection. Despite the fears and confusion that weigh heavily upon each of us, despite our physical absence, the tomb still cannot hold Him.
Beloved brothers and sisters, the Lord is challenging all of us to look at Him and the Church differently when this is all over. Pascha in 2020 will be a very different celebration than all of us are used to, and we mourn a little over that. It will be more subdued than we hope and desire. But no matter what, whether 1000 or the 2 or 3 gather to pray the services, one inescapable fact remains: the tomb cannot hold Him, death is destroyed, and He is Risen! Rejoice, and again I say, rejoice!
Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen!
Yours in the risen Christ,
†Benjamin; Archbishop of San Francisco