(St John of the Ladder, but
Sunday 20 March 1968
In the Name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.
When Moses came down from Sinai after his vision – not of God but of the glory of God, his face was shining in such a way that no one could endure its brilliance. And he had to cover his face with a cloth so that people could stand face to face with him and hear the message that God had given him.
And this, of course to a much lesser extent, happens to us when a great joy has filled our heart, when we have been face to face with something that filled us with wonder, with unutterable joy, which has led us somehow into a sense of worship. This may be a meeting with someone who conveyed to us love, who unfolded to us something of God which we have never perceived. It may happen to us when we meet God in the silence, the stillness of nature. It may happen to us in so many ways, but no one is mistaken when we are met; people are aware that we have seen something with the eyes of the heart, that something had shone through us and that this light can be perceived in our eyes, on our face.
How is it then that we come to communion time and again; some – daringly, week after week; some – with a greater fear of God, more seldom; and yet – that one does not see this resplendence of God in our face, in our eyes, or indeed, that the splendour of God is not manifested in every word of ours, in the deep stillness which is within, in the glory of every action performed in a way worthy of God Himself?
And also, how is it, that receiving communion year after year we are so little aware of something unutterably great that has happened to us. Remember what Saint Symeon the New Theologian says, an old man already; he had received Communion on a Sunday morning, and then he retired to his cell, a hut of mud, where there was nothing else than a wooden bench; and he sits there, looking at his hands, looking at his body, and exclaims: How a w e i n s p i r i n g this body of mine is! It is now f i l l e d with the presence of the Living God!.. He came into the world to pour His Divinity into our humanity, and now, receiving the Bread and Wine I partake both to His holy humanity and to His Divinity. These hands, these limbs, so old, so frail are the limbs of God Incarnate! And this hut, so small, so insignificant is vaster than heaven, because the fullness of God resides in it through my presence!..
Has anyone of us ever perceived a n y t h i n g that could make us u n d e r s t a n d his experience? Identify with it may be too much for us – but just understand? Have we ever touched the fringe of this mystery? And if not – why, why? Isn't it because one can come to Communion in several ways: one can come ‘as a matter of course’, because it is a feast, because it is a Sunday; or because we assume that the word spoken to the Apostle, ‘Take, eat, drink ye all of this’ apply indiscriminately to all of us, in the comfort, the anemic Christianity which is ours? But then, there is another way in which Communion could be received (from) (?) people a h u n g e r e d with God, people who feel desperately that they are separated from Him, u n a b l e to reach out, u n a b l e to soar Godwards, and them, who, spiritually on their knees receive from God, in the earthly gifts of Bread and Wine, identified by Him to His resurrected body, what we cannot reach out for: God coming down to us, pouring Himself into us in response to the desperate hunger, to the cry of our soul and body, to the cry, the howling cry of all our life – orphans in a world where God is not to be found...
But there is also the way in which Saints have received communion; with awe, with the sense of terror; ‘i t i s f i r e’ says one of the prayers before communion – O, may I not be burnt down!
Are we aware of this? Do we come to communion with this sense that we are coming to God Who is Devouring Fire? Could we repeat the words of Isaiah, quoted by Saint Paul ‘It is a dread thing to fall into the hands of the Living God’?
How is it that we can come time and again and know n o t h i n g of the experience of Symeon, nothing of the desperate hunger or of the wonder of this meeting?
And again, it is our heaviness, our blindness our lack of perceptiveness that allows us to do this; because I remember in the life of one of the Russian Saints of the 15th century, Paphnuty Borovsky, who was a hermit and was called once to celebrate the Liturgy because there was no priest in the monastery; after the Liturgy he said to his brethren, ‘N e v e r ask me to celebrate again e v e n in your greatest need! Because to see what I have seen, to experience what I have experienced is possible once; a second time I would d i e of it!’... Do we know a n y t h i n g of it? Do we suspect that such things exist or happen? We must give more thought to what we do! God receives us – yes; but, at what cost? Saint Seraphim of Sarov said to one of his disciples ‘Yes, when you pray, when you come to God, God, in Christ, answers your prayer; but remember the cost He has p a i d to be able to give what you ask!’ – the Incarnation, His life on earth, Passion week, the Crucifixion, the Descent into hell – t h i s i s t h e p r i c e He has paid for us to d a r e come near Him!’
With what awe, reverence, sense of worship and sense of responsibility should we come then!
But how is it then that coming so near the Fire we are not burnt? And here is a thought that always gives me a sense of terror; a passage from the same Symeon the New Theologian who says that God does not allow His holy body and His sacred blood to be defiled, profaned by and in us; and if we come lightmindedly, sinfully, unworthly, He retires from the particle of Holy Bread the (part) of Holy Wine which we receive so that we are not burnt, are not destroyed, are not responsible together with His Murderers for His blood shed and His body crucified.
But how terrible it is to think that because of our unworthiness this c a n happen!
Let us therefore remember these warnings which we find throughout the lives of Saints and the conversion of sinners, and ask ourselves, ‘H o w d o I c o m e to communion? In desperate need – or in comfort? Brokenhearted, because I n e e d God more that I need life or anything – or cheaply, because I am a member, an enrolled member of His Church, but not a living limb of His body?
Let us reflect, as Saint Paul says, let us judge ourselves so that not to be judged – and condemned! Amen.