There’s a rather startling phrase in one of St Ephrem’s prayers to our Lord Jesus Christ. He refers to the Body and Blood of Christ as “Your all-pure and terrifying Mysteries.” While I don’t think that Jesus wants to us to be literally terrified when approaching the Holy Eucharist, it seems to me that, since so many people today approach in casual or even irreverent manner, immodestly dressed to boot, a little pious terror might actually not be a bad idea—at least to get the pendulum to swing back a little.
We have a little sign at our monastery that reads, quoting psalm 95(96): “Worship the Lord in holy attire,” which we then clarify by saying, “Worship the Lord wholly attired.” After a few specifics, we sum it up by saying, “Don’t wear anything you wouldn’t wear on Judgment Day.” While the main issue of this reflection is not the way one dresses, that still is a symptom of the lack of the holy “fear of God” which one should have when coming to receive our Lord in his sacramental Mysteries. The deacon, to underscore the proper attitude, says just before Communion is distributed: “Approach with the fear of God and with faith.”
The “terror” that St Ephrem speaks of is not that which we might experience in the presence of a terrorist. It is rather the devout “fear and trembling” one feels in the presence of the Mysterium Tremendum, the awe-inspiring holiness of God. Every theophany in the Scriptures evokes this fear/awe/terror/wonder in the presence of God. It is that which gripped St Peter when he first met Jesus in the act of working a miracle: “He fell down at Jesus’ knees and said, ‘Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a sinful man’” (Lk 5:8). One of the first things we notice when we are in the presence of the Holy One is that we are not holy. We see our sins in the all-pure, searching Light of Divinity. “Woe is me!” cried the Prophet Isaiah as he beheld the glory of the Lord, “I am a man of unclean lips, and…my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Is. 6:5).
In our prayer just before Holy Communion, we have several penitential expressions, like: “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner. O God, cleanse me of my sins and have mercy on me. O Lord, forgive me, for I have sinned without number.” We realize we are wholly unworthy to approach, but since He calls us we come, but with fear of God and trust in his merciful love. On Holy Saturday we sing: “Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and in fear and trembling stand…”
It is not just the lay folk who have to approach thus. The priests also make repeated confessions of unworthiness before daring to offer the Holy Sacrifice and to receive the Flaming Ember of Divinity. “No one who is bound to carnal desires or pleasures [that eliminates most of us] is worthy to approach You or to draw near to You, or to minister to You, O King of Glory. For to serve You is great and awesome, even to the heavenly powers… Look upon me, your sinful and useless servant. Cleanse my heart and soul of the evil that lies on my conscience. By the power of your Holy Spirit, enable me, who am clothed with the grace of the priesthood, to stand before this, your Holy Table, and offer the Sacrifice of your holy and most pure Body and precious Blood. Bending my neck, I approach and petition You: turn not your face from me nor reject me from among your children, but allow these gifts to be offered to You by me, your sinful and unworthy servant…”
If the all-holy God by his very nature commands such an approach, why is it that we do not see and feel this trembling reverence in most churches today? Why isn’t the atmosphere of holiness and transcendent reality palpable? Why do we not feel like we are standing at the gate of Heaven? Is it because of the celebrant’s casual greetings, one-liners, or insipid homilies? Is it because of the drum set and electric guitars in the “choir”? Is it because most people are dressed as if they were going to the beach or the grocery store instead of going to a sacred encounter with the King of Glory? Or is it simply because nobody really believes anymore that the Holy Eucharist is truly the precious Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ?
I read recently where a (so-called) Catholic bishop actually stated publicly that the Mass was not supposed to evoke an experience of eternity, or the transcendent or supernatural, but that its main purpose is to create “communal sensitivity.” (Can you see my finger down my throat?) If people are taught such drivel, it’s no wonder that they no longer believe, and then act accordingly.
I prefer to approach the Holy Eucharist with love and longing rather than “terror,” but the latter is still much to be preferred to apathy, disdain, irreverence, or unbelief. We need to have a balance of reverence and intimacy—reverence for the awesome and all-holy Mystery of the Son of God present in our midst, and the intimacy of opening our mouths and hearts to receive Him in that everlasting love by which He wishes to abide in us and we in Him. St Ephrem, pray for us! I’d rather see people terrified than blasé, prostrated rather than chatting while sauntering up to Communion. The Lord will not be insulted forever. “I will vindicate the holiness of my great name…which you have profaned among the nations, and the nations will know that I am the Lord…” (Ez. 36:23).
So, approach with the fear of God and with faith. Receive the “all-pure and terrifying Mysteries” only after prayer and preparation and repentance. And then rejoice in the love of the Lord, who so graciously welcomes those who reverently recognize his presence in the overflowing grace of this wholly unmerited Gift of God—for to them He grants eternal life.