Several months ago, not long after Pascha, which the vast majority of Christians celebrated at home due to the pandemic, Fr. Oleg Stenyaev spoke in detail during one of his talks about how Holy Scripture relates to quarantine and how an Orthodox Christian should conduct himself during such epidemics. In these days, as the pandemic resurges, public gatherings are once again limited. Therefore Fr. Oleg’s talk on the problem of quarantine is quite timely even now.
We have lived to such times, that we had to greet Pascha in very pressing circumstances, somewhat reminiscent of soviet times when by far not all who wanted to get into a church were able to do so.
But what finally happened? After all, the Lord never allows any evil that He does not intend to turn into good. It turned out that the faithful celebrated Pascha in their homes. When people gather in churches to celebrate Pascha, such a spread of Pascha doesn’t happen. But on this Pascha people lit their candles, placed them on their windowsills, prayed, and our homes turned into churches.
The devil has always tried to stop Church services on our planet, and especially Divine Liturgy. Why does he try to do that? The holy fathers say that the Bloodless Sacrifice—Divine Liturgy—stops idol worship and restrains the devil. Of course, he didn’t manage to stop divine services because the priests served the Liturgy and offered the Bloodless Sacrifice. But the doctors and the influencers of this world insisted that people stay home all that time in quarantine. It’s hard to argue with these circumstances.
Now the whole planet is in a terror and panic. Everyone is afraid of the epidemic. Something similar happened in the Middle Ages, when the Black Death—the Bubonic Plague—was spreading, and in some lands up to two thirds of the population perished. Because nowadays people move around very quickly, flying in airplanes, people infected each other on a planetary scale. And this of course is a disaster. It is entirely possible that someone is using this disaster to his own aims—political, social, or economical. Some people may have their own nefarious plans.
But we Christians know how to conduct ourselves in the case of an epidemic. We should react to everything that is happening from the point of view of Holy Scripture. The Bible is the Lord’s instruction guide. What do we see in Holy Scripture having to do with such situations?
First of all, we know that the Bible is the first book on the planet to specify such a concept as quarantine. From ancient times, people with infectious diseases and even those under suspicion were put under quarantine without fail. The Book of Leviticus, part of the Pentateuch, tells us about this. The Pentateuch is the Law of God; and the Lord said, “I came not to break the law but to fulfill it” (cf. Mt. 5:17).
So, the Law of God establishes for us that if there is suspicion of infectious disease, a person is isolated. In ancient times, priests were also knowledgeable medics. A priest looked over a person and if he saw some suspicious signs, he sent him into quarantine for a week. The sick man was supposed to wash all his clothes and not meet with anyone. After a week the priest looked him over again and pronounced his decision: whether he was healthy, or needed to be quarantined for another week—and so on for up to three weeks. If the sick person was not recovering after three weeks, and it was obvious that this was an infectious disease, he received the status of “unclean” and was obligated to wear black clothing with little bells, so that his approach would be made known even in the dark. Whenever he entered an inhabited area he was supposed to start shouting from a distance, “Unclean, unclean!”
Christians accepted this Mosaic law about quarantine. In the Gospel of Mark it is told how Christ healed the leper and said to him, “Go and show yourself to the priests” (cf. Lk. 17:14). What does this mean? Based on Leviticus chapter 13, the priest could cancel a quarantine. Or he could not cancel it. And when Christ sent the leper to the priests, He was acting according to the Law.
The Law forbade those who had come into contact with something unclean—with the dead, for example—from celebrating the Passover. In such cases there was suspicion that the person could become infected by the corpse. And even more so were those in quarantine forbidden from celebrating the Passover. For these people, the Passover was postponed for a month or two. The Passover was likewise postponed for those who were on the road, located somewhere amongst pagans. There they could not fully celebrate the Passover as they should.
The commandments are given not for death but for life. Well, on television we saw some fanatics who licked the grates on coffins in Iran during quarantine. These are real fanatics; they showed the fanaticism of their faith. Later all those who licked the grates got sick, and several of them died.
In Israel, religious Jews defied the quarantine and gathered in bunches—there the majority of them were infected, and they risk losing all their honored elders, because the latter are of advanced age and would die first of all.
But we know that we mustn’t tempt the Lord. When the devil tempted Christ, he placed Him on the pinnacle of temple. Why on the pinnacle of the temple? The temple is a holy place, and it should enjoy God’s special protection.
“Jump down,” said the devil, “You shall not dash Your foot against a stone.” Again, the stone at the foundation of the temple is also a holy place.
How did Christ answer to this? He said, It is written, thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God (Mt. 4:7).
Therefore, we are guided not by the fanaticism of some unwell people, and not even by the recommendations offered us by secular people. We are guided by Holy Scripture, and it teaches to agree to the quarantine and to refrain from contact with people. This is God’s Law.
Incidentally, Christianity is not a religion of the temple. Judaism is a religion of the temple. The Jews now have no temple—they can only have a temple on Mount Moriah, and now they cannot offer sacrifices or perform the censing.
That’s not how it is in Christianity. In the first four centuries, Christians lived without any churches at all. Only in the fourth century did the first basilicas appear. But in certain areas there were no churches until the eighth century. Christianity arose as a religion without temples. But we can serve all the sacraments without temples. That is why we are not restrained in the least. The most ancient Christian churches were house churches. Read the epistle of the apostle Paul where he writes, I greet the house church of so-and-so, or such-and-such. The very word “church” has never meant a temple or edifice. The Greek word for “church” is “ecclesia”, which means “assembly”.
We know that in the last days, Christians will lose their churches. Just as the Church began in the catacombs, it will end it the same situation. This will be because in the days of the antichrist, there will be no possibility to openly serve the services; and we will return to the experience of the early Church.
And we mustn’t forget that God turns every evil into good. Otherwise He wouldn’t have allowed this to happen to us.