But, since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.
I Thessalonians 5:8
O gracious, loving compassionate and ever-merciful Lord, plentiful in mercy, and rich in beneficence, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, Who through Your holy Apostles have empowered us to heal the infirmities of Your people by oil and prayer, confirm this oil unto the healing of those who shall be anointed with it, for relief from every ailment and every malady; for deliverance from evils of those who in firm hope await salvation from You. Yes, O Master, Lord our God, we pray to You the Almighty, that You will save us all. O only Physician of souls and bodies, sanctify us all; as Healer of every malady, heal also these Your servants. Raise them up from their bed of pain, through the mercies of Your goodness. Visit them in Your mercy and compassion. Cast out from them every sickness and malady; so that being healed by Your mighty hand they may serve You with all thanksgiving; that even now, sharing in Your ineffable love, we may sing praises and glorify You, Who do great and wondrous things, both glorious and transcendent. For Yours it is to show mercy and to save us, O our God, and to You we give glory, to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and forever and to ages of ages. Amen. (4th Prayer)
On Palm Sunday 2020, I celebrated Divine Liturgy in an empty church. The Covid-19 pandemic caused all the churches to close, except for the few people needed to conduct the service. The church had been closed for three weeks prior to Palm Sunday. I found I could wrap my head around this situation for the first few weeks by telling myself “I have celebrated Divine Liturgy with only a few people in attendance, it happens frequently at weekday services.” So celebrating Liturgy in a nearly empty church wasn’t something I had never done. However, on that morning, it hit me that we really were going to do Holy Week with no people, something I had never done before (and something I hope I’ll never do again). Usually, on Palm Sunday, I used the biggest chalice we have and it is filled and heavy, because of the great number of people who will receive Holy Communion. On Palm Sunday 2020, the chalice was heavier than ever before, not because of what was in it, but because of what was not in it.
When I was an altar boy, I remember seeing our priest lift the chalice over his head, prior to him receiving Holy Communion. To a boy who was 9 or 10 at the time, I remember thinking that at this point, the chalice was the highest thing in the church, like God ruling over all people. It made an impression on me. I lift the chalice in the same way before I receive, and I remember that thought from my childhood, that God rules over all.
As I lifted the chalice on Palm Sunday 2020, I had tears in my eyes as I realized that instead of distributing Communion for an hour, as I’m used to doing, that I would be offering Holy Communion to exactly four other people—two chanters and two altar boys. When I had turned around moments before to ask forgiveness, the normally packed church was absolutely empty, save for a video camera.
And as I lifted the chalice, I had this thought in my head: “May this (crazy and sad situation) be unto my salvation.” Since that day, this phrase has often come to my mind, whatever things happen, whether they are very good, or very difficult, may they be unto my salvation.
The fourth prayer of Holy Unction asks God “for relief from every ailment and every malady; for deliverance from evils of those who in firm hope await salvation from You.” In other words, we ask God that whatever is happening to us be unto our salvation, that it lead us to salvation. We will face many bleak situations in our lives. For me, one of them was Palm Sunday 2020 in an empty church and the many months of an empty church that followed. For some of us, that bleak situation might be being presented with divorce papers, or being let go from a job, or having to declare bankruptcy, or being wheeled into an operating room for heart surgery. There are countless numbers of bleak situations in life and no life will be immune from having at least some of them.
It is in these moments when ideally our faith kicks in when we pray “Lord, let this be unto my salvation. If this situation leads to my salvation, it is not all for naught.” This prayer reminds us that even the most dire situations can lead us to salvation.
The prayer also reminds us that when we are healed by God’s mighty hand, our response should be “that they (we) may serve You (God) with all thanksgiving.” When the dire situation passes, we shouldn’t only feel relief and joy. We should also feel motivation to serve God with all thanksgiving. So that when a person survives surgery, or gets a new job, or fixes a relationship, the first thought shouldn’t be “woo hoo, let’s party,” it should be “I have overcome this challenge with God’s help, let me go and serve God with all thanksgiving.”
Think on this question: If you were being wheeled into an operating room for a serious operation for a life-threatening illness, would you be thinking “if I survive, I’m going to have more fun,” or “if I survive, I’m going to do more good.”
This prayer reminds us that God’s mercies and healing should motivate us to do more good, to serve God with thanksgiving. God assures us that He can use any situation to bring us closer to salvation. We have to remember that God is great, even in times of sorrow. And as lift ourselves from pain, failure and sin, may we have the same thought as I lifted the chalice in the empty church: may this be unto my salvation. May God always stand as a firm hope for each of us as we await salvation.
O fervent Intercessor, and impregnable Wall, fountain of Mercy, and refuge of the world, to you we earnestly cry out: “O Lady, Theotokos, come and deliver us from dangers, who alone are a swift protector.”
Whatever happens to you today, whether it is a triumph or a defeat, may it lead you one step closer to salvation!