By John Athanasatos
This is an iconic picture from World War II, known as the Face of War. It depicts fatigue, anxiety and fear. This past week was the 75th Anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of Okinawa. This was the last major battle of World War II which lasted 82 days. Okinawa was the bloodiest battle in the Pacific Theater. Both sides fought fiercely and bravely, especially the Japanese, since Okinawa was at the foothills of the homeland, Japan. The Japanese knew that I the Americans took Okinawa, a full invasion of Japan was the next step. Instead, however, several weeks after this battle, atomic bombs were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This ultimately compelled Japan to surrender and the war ended.
The other picture is certainly iconic of current times. We have a different kind of war, one with an unseen enemy that attacks anyone across the world, unexpectantly. This enemy is none other than Coronavirus, aka COVID-19. Facemasks and gloves are the most popular battle gear for this war. Everyone across the globe is seen wearing masks, whether at take-out restaurants, pharmacies, supermarkets, the subway or even walking the streets. New York and New Jersey have been under strict lockdown for over two weeks, yet the virus still seems to disseminate.
Last week, the holy ascetics on Mount Athos gathered for an all-night vigil specifically for the crisis of Coronavirus. It was said that after this special vigil, a special order (εντολή) came mystically from the Theotokos for all to place a cross on the outside of their door. If you don’t have a cross, to make the marking with a finger dipped in oil. However, many sources say that this order did not come from Mount Athos, that the message transmitted on social media hours before the vigil. Yet, those of faith could not doubt for a moment that such an order could not hurt, as to place a cross on a door. It certainly is the best weapon we have. It gives us all that reassurance that Christ is in our midst, watching over us and protecting us. We just need to be mindful that it is not magic or automatic that simply placing a cross on our door will keep us safe from COVID-19. We must place a cross on our door with faith and with love. The idea of placing a cross on the door to protect us from Coronavirus parallels the narrative of the first Passover, found in the Book of Exodus:
Then Moses called for all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Go away and take a lamb for yourselves according to your families, and sacrifice the Pascha. Then you shall take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood in the basin, and strike the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood in the basin. But none of you shall go out from the door of his house until morning. For the Lord will pass through to strike the Egyptians; and when He sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass through to strike the Egyptians; and when He sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass by the door and not allow the destroyer to come into your houses to strike you. Now you shall observe this thing as an ordinance for you and your children forever. (21-24)
It is called Passover, because, hence the name, death “passed over,” or skipped over the houses of the Israelites who placed the blood on the lintels and doorposts of their homes. The Greek word Πάσχα translates to English as Passover. Yet, the meaning certainly is different. For the Jews, Passover is the celebration of the passage from bondage to freedom. They escaped captivity from the Egyptians and eventually entered the Promised Land. However, as Orthodox Christians, Pascha (Πάσχα) is the passage of mankind from death to life.
With faith we say that those who decide to place a cross on their door will be protected from the virus. Even those who are already infected or have loved ones who are, the Holy Cross is their strength and hope, as they try to recover. Those who have loved ones who perished from the virus, the Cross will strengthen them as well. The Holy Cross is Life-Giving, it destroys death. We pray for those who perished from Coronavirus, beseeching God to grant them a just repose. What better, simpler item can we put on our door than the sign of the Cross? In the excerpt from Exodus, we hear of the destroyer. This is the Evil One who brings death and destruction. In recent times, the Coronavirus is viewed as the working of the Evil One. Yet, the Evil One and his works are in no match for the Cross. It was on the Cross that death was trampled, the Evil One was defeated and life was granted. It was on that very Cross that the Lord spilled His Blood along with the water from His side which baptizes us, purifies us. The hyssop mixed with the blood of the lamb is no longer needed to be dipped on the lintels and doorposts. The Lamb of God shed His own Blood for us once and for all on the Cross. A sacrifice that is not temporary and has to be repeated, but rather eternal.
As we approach the last week of Great Lent let us remember that we are awaiting His Passion and Resurrection. He will be crucified and laid to rest in a tomb but He will rise on the third day. Pascha is coming and the redemption of mankind is at hand. Pascha of delight! Pascha, the Lord’s Pascha! A Pascha all venerable has risen for us. Pascha! With joy let us embrace one another. Pascha, the ransom from sorrow! Today from the sepulcher Christ emerged resplendently as from a bridal chamber, and the women He filled with joy, saying, “Proclaim this to the Apostles.” (Praises of Paschal Matins)
This Holy Week and Pascha will certainly be unprecedented with the churches expected to remain closed. However, the clergy will still be performing these sacred services, praying for us all. As we hear in the prayer intoned by the priest during the Hymn to the Theotokos in Basil’s Liturgy (Ἐπὶ σοὶ χαίρει, Κεχαριτωµένη, In You, O Lady Full of Grace): Μνήσθητι, Κύριε, τοῦ περιεστῶτος λαοῦ, καὶ τῶν δι’ εὐλόγους αἰτίας ἀπολειφθέντων, καὶ ἐλέησον αὐτοὺς καὶ ἡµᾶς- Remember, Lord, the people here presented and those who are absent with good cause. Have mercy on them and on us according to the multitude of Your mercy. The Holy Eparchal Synod of America also added two petitions in the Liturgy: for our deliverance from all affliction, wrath, danger and distress, and from the peril of the coronavirus against us, let us pray to the Lord…for our brethren, those who lead the fight against the coronavirus, the doctors, the medical workers and the scientists, let us pray to the Lord. Our absence from Church is justified due to the trying circumstances. Our absence is in obedience, υπακοή to the directive of our blessed hierarchs. We adhere to these directives not only for our own health and safety but out of love for those around us, especially our friends and family. The holy monks of Mount Athos prayed for the entire world in the midst of this recent crisis. It is without doubt that their prayers were heard by God and that their supplications will benefit us all. Our clergy will continue to pray for all of us in the liturgical services, since whether infected or not, we are all affected by this. It is a state of war, many are suffering, a large number are dying. We need to fight the good fight and endure to the end.
A Blessed and Healthy final week of Great Lent to all!