By Jean Claude (1619–1687)
Just as God never presents Himself to the creature’s eyes without all the marks of His infinite majesty, so the creature should never appear before God without being seized with a religious fear and making the strongest efforts to put himself into an attitude of respect and profound humility.
We find in the history of the Old Testament, that when the Lord first revealed Himself to Moses under the image of a burning bush, Moses was surprised and astonished at the bush. He wanted at first to draw near to look more carefully into this miracle, but at that very moment, he heard a voice saying unto him, “Do not approach. Take off your shoes from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground” (Ex. 3:5).
By saying this, God wanted to stop Moses’ reckless and hasty movement that would have carried him right up to the bush. God did this because wherever God’s presence is, man can never use too much precaution or act with too much reserve. Moreover, when God commanded Moses to take off his shoes, He was certainly using a bodily illustration to command Moses to approach Him with internal sanctification. It was just as if He had commanded Moses to take off all that was mean and earthly and to purify himself of all his former stains.
We may truly say that the sacrament of the Holy Supper, which Jesus Christ has established in His Church, has something more venerable and sacred than Moses’ bush. I acknowledge that our eyes discover nothing that is either surprising or miraculous in it. As for the material objects of the Supper, they are merely bread and the wine, ordinary objects of small value. But as menial and insignificant as the material objects may be, we must not doubt but God is present in this holy service with all the luster of His grandeur and majesty, since it is a mystery of His grace and an authentic pledge of His covenant with us. Consequently, we must not approach it without a proper and lawful preparation.
Put off then, miserable sinner, your shoes from your feet. Quit your impurities. Sanctify your conscience. Place yourself in a condition of humility and purity, for the place where you are standing is not holy earth but an exalted heaven, the throne of the Lamb of God before whom the angels attend, and where the eternal Father sits with His Son in His glory.
These holy preparations chiefly consist in a genuine and careful examination. Everyone should make such an examination of himself, for on that examination partly depend the operations and feelings of piety, repentance, trust, and devotion, which should accompany us when we approach the table of our Lord. Now, to better judge the necessity of this examination, we need a more specific reflection upon the greatness and importance of the act of communion, for it is not an ordinary act or of little consequence.
This divine sacrament is an abridgment of all that is greatest and most admirable in religion, a temple which encloses nature, grace, and glory, a sanctuary where God and men meet together in comparison, opposition, and communion. That is to say, it is a comparison of His sovereign majesty with our nothingness, an opposition of His righteousness to our perversity, and a communion of His love and mercy with our faith and regeneration.
He is there as a Creator, Master, and Lawgiver, in all the rights that His only eternal essence and His being the first cause of all things give Him over us. As for us, we are there in this mystical feast to render Him the most profound and perfect homage of our dependence.
He is there as a God who has made, preserves, and governs the world and who has given laws to men, setting before their eyes on the one hand the punishments of his wrath and on the other, the righteous benefits of His blessing. We are there to confess that all that we are and all that we have is from Him, that we are under a natural and indispensable obligation to observe His laws, and that if we have violated them, our condemnation is just.
Again, He is there as a Judge upon His tribunal, surrounded with all the punishments of His righteous vengeance; a Judge who sees all, examines all, and discerns all, who sounds all hearts and the most secret operations of the soul and condemns crimes wherever He finds them. We are there as unhappy criminals whom the disobedience of the first man has plunged with all the rest of mankind into a general corruption, which makes us slaves of Satan, hell, and death and has sunk us into eternal ruin. Finally, He is there as a God of mercy and peace who, seeing us in this horrible misery, has made a plan to rescue us out of it by pardoning our sins and raising us to a hope of His kingdom.
In this sacrament are displayed as a precious summary all the admirable ways which God has made use of in order to save us, namely, the sending of Jesus Christ and all the arrangements that this sending entailed. This divine Savior presents Himself there, on the one side invested with all the glory of His natural condition, and on the other side, surrounded with all the shame and grief of His humiliation, smeared and covered with His precious blood which He shed for us.
In the Lord’s Supper all the marvels of His incarnation meet together, all the sufferings of his life, all the infirmities and calamities which accompanied him upon earth, the cruel persecutions of his enemies, the fierce assaults with which the devil assailed Him, His anguish in the Garden of Gathsemene, His arrest, His condemnation, His nakedness, His cross, His crown of thorns, His scarlet robe, His gall, His vinegar, and, in a word, there are all the sad details of His bloody death.
But these are not alone. The Supper shows us other marvels as well. For we see there the entire and perfect innocence of the Person of our redeemer; the infinite and inestimable price of his sacrifice, which alone has been able to render the divinity favorable to us; and the ardent love and immense goodness, which made him so voluntarily expose his life for our salvation.
In the Supper we see the eternal glory which followed His humiliation and which is the appropriate crown of His struggles. We see His resurrection, His ascension into heaven, His sitting at the right hand of God, and that He poured out His Spirit and light throughout the world.
And as Jesus Christ presents Himself to us in this service in every aspect of His grace, likewise, on our part, if we would gather the fruit for which this Supper was appointed, we ought to be there with all the sentiments of faith, gratitude, contrition, hope, and zeal, which these great mysteries deserve.
From hence we may easily know that we are not to thrust ourselves so lightly upon so important a communion; but on the contrary, to prepare ourselves by a reflection of our souls upon themselves, by an elevation of our thoughts above all these earthly things, and by a sincere reflection upon ourselves, to see if we are not entirely unworthy to approach this divine table.
This necessity of self-examination also appears if we cast our eyes upon the consequences of a good and bad communion. For it is true, if we participate in this heavenly sacrament as we ought, we receive life and a blessed immortality. If we participate rightly we find there peace with God, joy and consolation of soul, and a right to the eternal inheritance.
But if on the contrary we partake unworthily, this Holy Communion is a fire which consumes our entrails. We have in it an assured death and condemnation. Consequently, we have then a great interest in not coming without a proper preparation, for fear that instead of taking a remedy, we take poison, and lest it should hasten and aggravate our judgment. That’s why St. Paul, treating upon this subject in his first Epistle to the Corinthians, perceiving himself possessed with a holy fear, seeing the danger communicants expose themselves to, says, “Let everyone examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread and drink of that cup; for he that eats and drinks unworthily, eats and drinks condemnation to himself” (1 Cor. 11:28).
Besides, the necessity of this examination will appear to you, if you consider well, how difficult a thing it is for a man to know himself well and on the other side how easy it is to deceive oneself and make too favorable a judgment of oneself. Who does not know how self-love disguises things and that the natural inclination which we have to esteem ourselves makes us scarcely see our faults or see them so falsely as to call them virtues? We have two weights and two balances, the one for our own sins, which we diminish as much as possible, lessening and excusing them and reducing them almost to nothing. The other balance is for weighing our good qualities, which we exaggerate in the joy of our hearts, exalting them in our eyes in a thousand rich colors, and magnifying them infinitely beyond an appropriate opinion of them. Therefore, it is in our best interest to make a serious examination of ourselves that we may not fall into these illusions which are so common to all men.
I confess that if to know ourselves well, we need no more but to compare ourselves with debauched men, who make an open profession of sin and pass their lives away in wickedness and uncleanness, it would be then no great difficulty. Everyone needs no more but to cast his eyes upon his own conduct and at the first sight the difference would appear. But the Pharisee did not know himself well enough using that method. “O God, I thank you that I am not as other men are, no extortioner, oppressor, nor unjust person, no adulterer, nor even as this publican” (Luke 18:11). Jesus Christ says that the Pharisee did not go away to his house justified.
If self-examination were no more than to compare ourselves with hypocrites and impostors, who conceal vices and disgrace under the appearances of sanctity, everyone might easily distinguish themselves from such people. But it is certain that such a method is not sufficient in order to judge the truth and solidity of Christian regeneration.
We must do more. We must distinguish virtue from a simple moral honesty, which temperament, education, age, and study of philosophy may give. We must distinguish it from a civil virtue, which human laws, the principles of society, the examples of the wisest men, experience, office, and dignities may produce. We must distinguish it from the vain but specious image of sanctity that superstition and false religions may inspire.
In sum, we must distinguish it from all those illegitimate and imperfect acts of piety and sanctity which may proceed from the first dispositions of grace and more particularly from that sort of temporary and fragile faith, which Jesus Christ speaks of in one of his parables. In his noting the different orders of those which hear the Gospel, He says “that some receive the word with joy; but having no root in themselves endure but for a season; but when oppression and persecution comes for the Gospel’s sake, they are offended” (Mark 4:17). But a sincere and saving regeneration goes much further.
However, since the qualities of this saving regeneration are bright and perceptible, it would not be difficult to discern them from those false and deceitful imitations, if we could have them pure and without any mixture of corruption. But, alas, experience teaches us but too well, that whatever progress we have made in righteousness, the flesh still combats against the spirit. There are remnants of sin ever within us which embroil the estate of our conscience, and that’s what makes discerning those qualities so hard. Yet it is not impossible, otherwise St. Paul would not have said, “Examine yourselves, to know whether Jesus Christ is in you” (2 Cor. 13:5). Being then neither easy nor impossible and also of such great importance to us, it is our duty to apply ourselves to it with care and, above all, not to neglect it upon an occasion where it is so absolutely necessary as it is in the Holy Supper.
In times past, God would have the Israelites purify themselves very carefully several days before they ate the Passover. That’s why you find in Second Chronicles that many of the people did not have time to purify themselves and thus were not permitted to eat the Passover. But Hezekiah made a request to God concerning them in these words, “May the LORD who is good pardon everyone” (2 Chron. 30:18).
If God required so great a preparation for the celebration of the old Passover, how much more may he require from us, when we prepare to participate in this sacrament? This preparation is necessary in all the particular acts of religion, but chiefly in this instance, as we have said, because it is a general act which includes all the holiest parts of religion. In this sacrament, all the gates of a man’s conscience ought to be opened to the eyes of God, just as all these treasures of God are opened here to the eyes of man.