I’ve been in a church where the congregation was not even allowed to see the altar, so awesome and fearful was the sacrament celebrated there. And I’ve been in a church where we were handed a small square of wonderbread on a paper napkin as though it were nothing more than a cookie.
The first was a Ukranian Orthodox Church with a full “iconostasis,” that is, a wall of icons between the congregation and the altar. As is traditional, each panel of the wall featured one of the apostles. The large double doors in the center, featuring the resurrected Christ, were only opened once a year (as part of the Easter celebration, I believe), and the rest of the year a small side door was used for the priest to come out with the consecrated bread and wine, so that the people would not look upon Jesus on the altar.
In a non-denominational church (with great music and preaching, I would note), I was actually surprised to find that they had communion at all. With no explanation and virtually no Eucharistic prayer that I could identify, a square of white bread was dipped in juice and placed on a napkin, which immediately became soggy and stuck to the bread. I gathered by watching others that I was to carry this back to my seat and consume it there. This was somehow supposed to represent the presence of Christ to me. It didn’t.
Where should we be? Should we be so “chummy” with Jesus that He becomes nothing special, or should we be so fearful that we don’t even look at the altar?
The truth is that we find both in the Scripture. In this Sunday’s Old Testament lesson, the Lord says to Moses, “You cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” (Click here to read it.) This is Moses, no less! God, in His fullness, is so fearfully righteous and powerful that we cannot see His true face and survive. Then, we also read in the Scripture of Jesus welcoming the children and promising that when we see Him, we have seen the Father!
We do well to remember both. By the work of Christ on the cross, we are forgiven and approach the Father without fear, clothed in Christ. He remains the completely righteous One, but loves us enough to call us friend and invite us into His presence. We need not fear to enter, but we must never take this gift for granted.
The Collect for Purity, which I say at the beginning of every service is a good reminder of how we are to enter the presence of God:
“Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.”
This column first appeared in the October 15, 2017 issue of St. John’s eNews. Click here for the complete issue.
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