In the Lives of the Saints, we read about innumerable miracles, from ancient times to the present. Through the inspiring stories, we are reminded that the “Kingdom of God is among [us]” (cf. Luke 17:21) and miracles are common. Most of us have also experienced something miraculous – great or small – in our lives that helps confirm these stories.
Conversely, we also see death, corruption, and sin. Scandals in the Church and seemingly unanswered prayers cause people to lose their faith. We don’t know how to understand a God who, for example, will answer the prayer of a mother whose baby has a fever while allowing another mother’s child to die from cancer. One person is healed, the next is not.
We live in the Age of In-Between – in the kingdom of yes and not yet.
Yes, the Kingdom of God is among us; yes, it is within us; yes the mysteries of the Church bestow great grace upon us. But we are surrounded by daily reminders that we are still far from heaven.
The Apostle Paul acknowledges our in-between state, As it is, we do not yet see everything subjected to Christ (Heb. 2:8). We do not see it for we live in between the two comings of Christ, with one foot in this world and one in the age to come. We live and die, we laugh and cry, we love and hurt, we have moments of divine insight and others of discouraging confusion. Everything in us yearns for the Kingdom; it jumps with excitement when it glimpses heaven, only to later be crushed under the weight of this world’s despair.
Our unpredictable state sometimes causes confusion, which has been worsened by the present COVID-19 pandemic. There are some who say that the grace of God’s presence in the church building (temple) is so strong and overwhelming, that we cannot contract any disease nor suffer any harm in the temple. New churches are “chrismated” and consecrated by a bishop. The place itself is sanctified by God through the coming of the Holy Spirit. It becomes a conduit of incorruptibility, and therefore, some conclude, it protects all who are within it from the corruption and decay of this world. I call this perspective Liturgical Immunity.
There is another perspective, and it is here that I find myself. We affirm much the same: that the church temple is indeed a holy place; that even though God is everywhere present and filling all things, the temple offers a special grace not found elsewhere; that the divine mysteries usher the kingdom of God into our earthly lives in the temple. But we stop short of concluding, “Therefore, no harm can come upon you.” For we are at the intersection of heaven and decay: the Age of In-Between.
There is no Liturgical Immunity – at least not all the time. Regarding the building itself, it is far from incorruptible. It still needs maintenance and repairs. Accidents happen, fires have burned down innumerable churches, old pipes and worn roofs leak, wood rots, and mold grows. Even the paint on icons wears away and the holy chalice which enthrones the Body and Blood of our Lord tarnishes and must be polished periodically. The temple is a holy intersection of heaven and earth, but in our present age, it is not immune to corruption. Neither are those within it.
The people within it are even more sacred, for they are living temples of the Holy Spirit. Many of our saints achieved theosis (deification) in this present life. They attained such oneness and unity with God that they often performed great miracles, went into the “third heaven” like the Apostle Paul (2 Cor. 12:2), could read the minds of their fellow man, knew the future, cast out demons, raised the dead, and frequented the Divine Liturgy to receive the Body and Blood of our Lord.
Yet, all these deified saints, these men and women – whose bodies and souls partook of the divine nature – died. Not one of them achieved bodily immortality despite being deified – not yet anyway. Some of them have incorrupt relics, even streaming myrrh, but not all of them. St. Seraphim of Sarov is one of the greatest deified saints of modern time, yet his body decayed. He died, he rotted, his body was consumed by bacteria and worms. That happened despite his unity with the divine nature. Being deified did not protect him from corruptibility in our present age of Not Yet.
We cannot systematize our in-between state into a one-size-fits-all formula. We cannot claim complete Liturgical Immunity nor should we deny the ways God frequently protects those who come to worship in His temple. I know someone who has a severe gluten (wheat) allergy, who can go into anaphylactic shock from a tiny breadcrumb. Yet every time she consumes the Body and Blood of the Lord, she feels temporary relief from her chronic ailments. But others have died in church due to natural causes, carelessness, and persecution.
Some live, some die; some are healed, some are not. The Age of In-Between.
The Apostle Peter reminds us that we are sojourners in this world (1 Pet. 2:11), affirming an Old Testament prayer, We are sojourners…Our days on the earth are like a shadow, and there is no abiding (1 Chron. 29:15). We are not left as orphans (cf. Jn. 14:18), we have been given the Holy Spirit and the mysteries of the Church to strengthen us in our journey. But this world is not our home, not even the sacred churches.
These temples manifest God’s grace and glory; they are conduits of the uncreated energies of God. Yet we must hold that thought in tension with the fact that disease, decay, and corruption still occur – whether to the temples themselves or to those within.
I realize that thinking through these things could bring some people to a faith crisis. If martyrs have been killed in churches, sacred temples fall apart without maintenance, deified saints decay in their graves, and even the reserved sacrament can sometimes grow mold (there are instructions for clergy on how to handle the precious Body and Blood if the gifts experience corruption), then what does that say about the truthfulness of our faith? It does not oppose it at all.
Health and wealth are promises of the Prosperity Gospel, not Orthodox Christianity. God works through matter, and matter in the Age of In-Between is still tainted with corruption – both things and people. God’s grace gives us a foretaste of the Kingdom of God, but it is just that, a foretaste. It assures us that we are on the right road, that the path is leading us to eternal life, but we are not there yet.
We should continue to gather for community worship but without demanding or expecting miraculous protection for our bodies. There is room for both reverence and reason, utilizing our faith in God and the medical knowledge He has granted to us through scientific advancements. Some of us may become sick, many will not. Others will need to stay home until the pandemic eases. Whatever we do, let us do it with faith, love, and obedience to our bishops.
In this Age of In-Between, God is here with us, performing miracles and wooing us with His grace and beauty. These things are a foretaste, a glimpse of what is to come. But it is not here in its fulness. It will be someday, but not yet. May God protect us and strengthen us in this struggle.
Image courtesy of Getty Museum. A bishop celebrating the liturgy with his deacon and people. From the year 1030.