ATHENS, Greece (ChurchMilitant.com) - In a show of resolute defiance, the Orthodox Church in Greece rebelled against the China virus lockdown to celebrate Epiphany — one of the Eastern Church's greatest liturgical feasts.
Orthodox Christians flocked Wednesday to churches in Greece to mark the holy day despite a Tuesday directive from Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis insisting that the Church should "assume responsibility" by shutting places of worship.
The Holy Synod "does not consent to the new government measures," Church authorities declared in a strongly worded letter to the government Monday.
Synod leaders stated that the churches had thus far "observed all the prescribed medical measures to limit the dispersion of the coronavirus" and there was no justification for the state to prevent Epiphany services.
Epiphany, also known as the Feast of Holy Theophany in the Greek Orthodox Church, commemorates the baptism of Christ and the revelation of the Holy Trinity.
Earlier, the government had allowed Epiphany services to go ahead, limiting attendance in large churches to 50 congregants and to 25 in smaller churches, but suddenly withdrew permission on Sunday after announcing an extension of the lockdown.
The Synod's letter pointed out that church leaders were nevertheless going ahead with "that which was originally agreed with the state.
Archbishop of Athens and All Greece Ieronymos II is reported to have spoken briefly on the matter with premier Mitsotakis Tuesday during the swearing-in ceremony of the new ministers appointed in Monday's cabinet reshuffle.
Police were told by their superiors to keep a low profile and said they would not interfere with services but would use "mild" measures to persuade people not to crowd inside.
But officers became more strident as crowds increased outside some churches and shouted through megaphones asking people to stay away, Reuters reported.
"No law can order us what to do. State orders are one thing, and faith is another," 38-year-old Stavroula told the news agency after attending morning service at a church outside Athens.
Skai TV photographed a priest sprinkling holy water on a police car in Thessaloniki while a female police officer takes off her mask to kiss the cross.
In the Piraeus metropolis, located in the urban area adjacent to Athens, worshippers stood in long lines to receive Holy Communion. Many churches continue to offer the consecrated Bread soaked in wine from a common spoon.
"I see it as the body of Christ, so I am protected," head of the Synod's press office Giorgos Vasileiou said earlier, responding to a debate that has raged in Orthodox churches since the beginning of the crisis.
Government health adviser Eleni Yiamarellou publicly declared that the practice poses no health risk to believers, especially since the communicant tilts the head back and opens the mouth as wide as possible, thereby allowing the priest to drop the sacrament into the communicant's mouth without ever coming into contact with the spoon.
COVID alarmists responded with hysterical outbursts on social media. "Kissing crosses, sharing spoons, defying the law, denying the pandemic. The Greek state is passively watching a disaster brewing," tweeted Myrsini Kaforou, a researcher in infectious diseases.
Manolis Dermitzakis, professor of genetics at Geneva University, told Skai TV he was "shocked" by images of the faithful receiving Communion from the same spoon and the crowding in the streets on the feast day.
The lockdown policy has been challenged globally by more than 39,545 medical practitioners and 13,084 medical and public health scientists in the Great Barrington Declaration.
"As infectious disease epidemiologists and public health scientists we have grave concerns about the damaging physical and mental health impacts of the prevailing COVID-19 policies," the medical experts write.
"Basic epidemiological theory indicates that lockdowns do not reduce the total number of cases in the long run and have never in history led to the eradication of a disease," they note. "At best, lockdowns delay the increase of cases for a finite period and at great cost.
Greek Orthodox bishops and priests also went ahead with the blessing of the waters liturgy, which is a highly-anticipated part of the Epiphany celebrations and takes place both inside churches and on waterfronts.
Many clergy said they would not perform the ceremony in the open to prevent the risk of infection.
However, Metropolitan Ieronymos of Kalavryta and Aigialeia, who went ahead and conducted the service in the open, was fined 1,500 euros ($1,850).
Open-air Epiphany services include the "Dive of the Cross" ritual where the priest throws a cross into the sea to bless the waters. Men, and sometimes women, dive into the icy waters and swim quickly to catch the cross. The person who retrieves the cross is considered to be blessed all through the year.
Two swimmers, who dived into the harbor of the town of Aigio to retrieve the cross, were fined 300 euros each.
British Catholics cheered the Greeks on social media for their "holy defiance" as Britain imposed draconian measures on the British Isles that prohibit worship in Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man.
Churches in England and Wales may remain open for public worship, but Northern Ireland is persuading clergy to voluntarily shut churches and move services online.
Pope Francis has adopted a preferential option for shutting churches during lockdowns and rebuked lockdown breakers as "victims only in their own imagination" who are "incapable of moving outside of their own little world of interests."