TEXTS – ORTHODOXY
On the respect due to the Church of God and to the Sacred Mysteries
Saint John Chrysostom (+407)
Very few have come here today. Whatever is the reason? We celebrated the Feast of the Martyrs, and nobody comes? The length of the road makes them reluctant; or rather it is not the length of the road that prevents them from coming, but their own laziness. For just as nothing stops an earnest man, one whose soul is upright and awake, so anything at all will stand in the way of the half-hearted and the lazy.
The Martyrs gave their blood for the truth, and you are not able to think little of a brief stretch of road? They gave their life for Christ, and you are reluctant to make a small journey for Him? The Martyrs’ Commemoration, and you sit in sloth and indifference! It is but right that you should be present; to see the devil overcome, the Martyrs triumphant, God glorified, and the Church crowned with honour.
But, you will say to me, I am a sinner. I cannot come. Then if you are a sinner, come, that you may cease to be one! Tell me, who is there among men without sin? Do you not know that even those close to the altar are wrapped in sins? For they are clothed with flesh, enfolded in a body: as we also who are sitting and teaching upon this throne are entangled in sin. But not because of this do we despair of the kindness of God; and neither do we look on Him as inhuman. And for this reason has the Lord disposed that those who serve the altar shall also be subject to these afflictions: so that from what they too suffer they may learn to have a fellow feeling for others.
How absurd and foolish is it that should a harper, or a dancer, or any one of these kind of people, invite us to his house, we would go there with all haste, and thank him for having invited us, and spend almost half the day there; paying attention only to him. But when God is speaking to us through His holy Prophets and Apostles we yawn, and we scratch, and we turn this way and that!
And at the circus, without a roof above them to keep off the rain, the crowds stand there crazy, the rain pouring down on them, and the wind blowing it in their faces, and they think nothing of the cold or the rain or the distance, and nothing will keep them from going there, and nothing will keep them at home! But to go to the Church, a shower, or the mud on the road, is a serious obstacle!
And if they are asked who were Amos or Abdias, or what was the number of the Prophets or of the Apostles, they cannot open their mouths. But if it is a question of horses, or charioteers, their eloquence surpasses that of the poets and orators. And how, may I ask you, are we to put up with this? I have warned you time and again that you should not go to the theatre. You heard me, but you have not obeyed me. You have gone to the theatre, and taken no notice of my words to you. Are you not ashamed to come now and hear them again?
But, you will say to me, I have heard, and not obeyed; how can I come again and listen? Well this you do understand, that you have not obeyed; and now you are ashamed, you blush, and though no one has corrected you, you have corrected yourselves, you know what I say is true and certain and even without my presence my words yet troubled your conscience. You have not obeyed me? So much the more reason have you for coming to Church, to listen again; and then you will obey.
If you take a medicine, and it does not purify you, will you not try it again another day? Suppose, O Man, a tree-feller wishes to cut down an oak. He takes an axe. Then he cuts the roots. And when he has one blow, and the tree does fall, will he not add another? And a fourth, and a fifth, a tenth? Let you do the same. I am saying these things to you, to not make you still more lazy, make you more alert.
You have entered the Church, O Man; you have been held worthy of the company of Christ. Go not out from it: unless you be sent. For if go out from it without being sent you will be asked the reason; as if you were a runaway. You spend the whole day on things which relate to the body, and you cannot give a couple of hours to the needs of the soul? You go often to the theatre. And you will not leave there till they send you away. But when you come to the Church you rush out before the Divine Mysteries are ended. Be fearful of Him Who has said: He that despiseth anything, shall it be despised (Prov. xiii. 13).
Were you to stand in the presence of the king you would not even dare. But when you stand in the presence of the Lord of all, you do not stand there in fear and trembling, you laugh, provoking him to anger? Do you not see that by this conduct you provoke Him more by your very sins? God is not wont to be as angry against those who sin as against those who, when they have sinned, feel neither sorrow regret.
And you, O Man, standing about in the Church, with a mind only for attractions of the women, are you not horrified, offering such an insult to the temple of God? Do you regard the Church of God as a house of ill fame, and of less repute than the market place? For there you would be ashamed, and afraid, to be seen staring at a woman so curiously. But in the very temple of God, while He is speaking to you, and threatening you with punishment, you dare to do such things during the very time in which you are hearing that such things are not to be done? And are you not shocked, or troubled in your soul, at making your eyes and your heart the workshop of evil doing? Better for a man to be blind than use his eyes to do this.
Think, O Man, of Who it is Who is close to thee in this tremendous sacrifice, and of who it is with whom you are to call upon God; that is, of the Cherubim, the Seraphim, and the other heavenly powers. Remember who are celebrating, together with you, the worship of God. This will suffice to make you recollected in spirit, when you reflect that while enfolded in a body, and clothed in flesh, you have been made worthy, together with the incorporeal powers, to praise the common Lord of all.
Do not then take part in this holy praise, in these sacred mysteries, with a dissipated soul. Let not your thoughts during this time be occupied with worldly things. Rather, casting all earthly things from your mind, and being wholly turned towards heaven, and as though you were raised on wings as the Seraphim, and were standing at the very threshold of His glory, offer your holy praise to God for all He has done.
Because of this are we bidden to stand worthily during the time of the divine sacrifice, so that while still on earth we may raise to heaven our dragging thoughts, so that shaking off that dissoluteness which comes from the affairs of this life, we may be enabled to awaken our souls to the presence of God. It is not a question of the hands and feet of the body, for we are speaking here not of runners or gymnasts; but we desire by these words to raise up the powers of our inner thoughts, brought low through temptation. For at the time of the Divine Supper, Brethren, it is not men alone who raise that tremendous cry, for even the Angels are bowed down before the Lord, and the Archangels are in prayer; for them too it is a fitting help, and a helpful Offering.
And as men spread branches of palm before kings, meaning by this to remind them of mercy and compassion, so likewise the angels, bearing before them instead of branches the Body of the Lord, pray to the Lord on behalf of mankind, and all but saying: We beseech Thee on behalf of those whom before Thou didst deign to so love, that for them thou gavest up thy own spirit! We supplicate Thee for those for whom Thou didst shed Thy Blood! We pray to Thee for these for whom Thou hast given Thy body in sacrifice!
Let each one consider within himself what faults he must remedy in himself, what good work he may yet do, what sin he may wipe out from his soul, so that by this he may become better. And if he finds that he has made progress in this excellent market, through fasting, and is aware that there is need for much care for his wounds, then let him draw near. If however he remains neglectful of himself, and has only his fasting to show, and makes no progress in other directions, then let him remain outside, and let him return only when all his sins are cleansed. He who does not fast, offering as a reason the weakness of his body, may fittingly receive pardon. But he who will not correct his evil ways cannot be excused in the same way.
And what shall we do if the Lord requires of us an account of this neglectfulness of conduct in our assemblies? For well you know that oftentimes, while the Lord Himself is speaking to us through the mouth of His prophet, we turn away to hold prolonged and frequent conversations with our neighbour, and on things that have nothing to do with us. Putting aside all our other sins, should He exact punishment for this conduct what hope of salvation have we? Do not regard this as a little sin; for if you wish to see how evil it is, consider this same offence in relation to men, and you will see the magnitude of your folly. Should some prince or person of superior station speak with you, would you dare to turn away to begin a conversation with a servant; and here you perceive what your offence is, doing this very thing in the presence of God. If this other were a powerful person, he would seek satisfaction for the insult offered. But God, Who is offended each day by many and by grievous sins, and not by one man only, but by nearly all men, forbears and endures in patience.
And when you seek to placate the anger of an earthly king, do you not come all together, with your wives and your children, and sometimes you deliver from punishment someone who has been condemned by the anger of the king. But to placate the King of heaven, and to deliver from His wrath, not one, or two, or three, or a hundred, but all the sinners of the world, you do not hasten together, all of you, so that God, being appeased by your common prayers, forgives your offences, and remits the punishment due to them. You stay away.
I would like to know then, what they are doing who so neglect the assemblies of the faithful, and keep away from this sacred table? I know but too well. They are either talking about vain and idle things, or immersed in worldly things. The time used in either case is without justification, and merits severe correction. As to the first there is no need to prove it in words. Nor can they be excused who put forward the excuse of family affairs, and of the needs that arise from them; for it is plain that they do not esteem spiritual and heavenly things above those of this world. For what servant, I ask you, attends to the things of his own house before fulfilling those of his master?
How absurd is it therefore that among men, where authority is but a mere name, such reverence and obedience should be shown to masters, while to Him Who is not alone Our Master, but the Lord of all Powers, we do not offer even such reverence as we give our own equals? Would that it were possible that I might set before your eyes the souls of such men, and you would see how stained and unworthy they are, how profligate, how weak and earthly? Would that I might open to you their hearts, they who cut themselves off from the sacred assembly! Would that you might penetrate into their consciences, then would you clearly see with how many wounds it is afflicted, how many the thorns that are there!
For just as soil that is not touched by the hand of the farmer goes wild and becomes unlovely, so likewise the soul that goes without spiritual cultivation brings forth weeds and thistles. For if we who each day hear the teaching of the prophets and apostles, singing from our hearts the songs of Holy Scripture, can scarce contain our own fiery hearts, scarce hold in check our own angers, scarce free ourselves from the poison of envy, scarce master our own concupiscence, scarce restrain these wild beasts, what hope of salvation have they who never use these saving medicines, never listen to the divine teaching?
For just as he who leaves behind a place of safety will stray in every direction, and he who goes without a light in darkness will strike against many things, so he who falls into forgetfulness of the fear of God will be given over without ceasing to cares and pains and anxieties. And as when God is with us and protects us, sadness is banished from us; so, leaving Him, and abandoning ourselves to forgetfulness of Him, our soul is split in two, and our heart afflicted with sorrow, and those who torment us laugh at us, so that even the very careless, because they are tormented by all, return quickly whence they set out. Thy own wickedness shall reprove thee, and thy apostasy shall rebuke thee (Jer. ii. 19). For abandonment is a form of divine providence. For while He cares for and provides for us, He is despised. He then lets go of us, and forsakes us, to the end that being undone by their own neglect, they who had despised Him now become more diligent.
I believe that many of those who long ago forsook us, and deserted to the gatherings of iniquity, today are present among us. And I wish that I might know them with certainty, that I might cast them forth from this sacred abode, not that they might remain shut out, but that having mended their ways they might return again, just as fathers, should their sons provoke them, are wont to drive them from the house, and forbid them the table; not indeed that they may for ever be deprived of these things, but that being so reproved they may become better, because of this, and may be restored with due honour to the paternal inheritance.
This shepherds too are wont to practise. For they separate the sheep with mange from those that are healthy, and when they are cured of the disease they return to the flock; and so the rest are not infected. It is for this reason we desire to know them. And though we cannot tell them with our eyes, these words of ours mark them; and where it touches their conscience, it will readily persuade them to withdraw themselves in secret, teaching them that he alone is of the household who reveals a disposition worthy of the Christian way of living: Just as he who while living unworthily becomes a partaker of this sacred Supper, though he approaches hither in the body, yet is he cast out, and more truly sent forth than those who have been shut out, and who may not partake of the sacred table.
For these latter have been excluded according to God’s laws, and while remaining without have yet a good hope of presently returning; and if they seek to amend their faults, they can return again with a pure conscience to the Church from whence they were banished. But they who have stained themselves, and have been warned that they must not return before being purified of the blemish of their sins, and then conduct themselves shamelessly, make more grevious their wound. For there is no sin so grevious as shamelessness after sin committed.
Many partake of the Sacred Mysteries but once in the year; others twice, others oftener. Who among these are we to praise? They who come once? Or they who come oftener? Or those who come less frequently? Neither those who come once nor they who come oftener, nor they who come more rarely, but they who come with a clean heart, with unclouded conscience, with a manner of life that is without reproach. Let such as these approach: they who are not of this kind, let them not come even once, for they take judgement and damnation unto themselves. For as food that has the power to nourish, if it enter into one who has a stomach infected with disease, injures and aggravates everything, and becomes a cause rather than a remedy for sickness, so is it with this tremendous Mystery.
Will you partake of this spiritual table, the table of the King, and then soil your body again with filth? Do you anoint it with ointments, and then fill it up with foulness? Do you consider that it suffices for the forgiveness of the sins of the whole year if you at each returning year partake of communion, and then at the end of the week give yourself again to your former conduct?
Tell me this. If you after forty days were restored to health again from a serious illness, should you return again to those things that earlier had brought on your sickness, would you not squander uselessly all your former efforts? And if the things of the body are spoiled in this way, how much more the things that depend on our own free will and decision? And if there be bitterness in your mouth, you do not eat even the simplest food: how then, I ask you, when there is so great foulness in your soul do you dare to partake of the Sacred Mysteries? What forgiveness is there for this? For the Apostle says: Whosoever shall eat this bread, or drink the chalice of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and of the blood of the Lord (I Cor. xi. 29); that is, he shall have the same guilt, and the same punishment, as those who crucified Christ. For as those butchers became guilty of His Blood, so likewise are they who partake unworthily of the Eucharist. For as he who has torn the royal purple, or bespattered it with mud, has equally insulted the one who wears it, so those who take to themselves the Body of the Lord, and It with an impure soul, treat Him with the same mockery as they who dishonour the royal apparel.
The Jews put Him to death upon a cross; they who receive Him with unworthy hearts dishonour Him. Therefore, though the sins may be diverse, the affront is the same. This troubles many of you, this confounds many, this gnaws at the conscience of many who listen to me; and not alone the consciences of you who hear me, but even more than you, it troubles our conscience who speak to you. For this teaching is for every man: for all have the same afflictions, and for this reason I set before you the common remedies. This is the doing of the divine benevolence: that he who speaks, and he who listens, share the same nature and are subject to the same laws: so each alike is guilty who offends them. And why is this? That he may correct with moderation; that he may be prompt to bestow forgiveness on those who have sinned; that mindful of his own infirmity he will not make his rebuke unendurable.
If therefore there is one among you of those who gather together with you in the Church who is a fornicator, and you observe him approaching the sacred mysteries, say to the dispenser of them: This man is unworthy of the mysteries: exclude him who is unworthy of our sanctities. For if such a man is not worthy to declare the justices of God (Ps. xlix. 16), consider how he adds to his punishment should he touch the sacred table; and not alone he, but you also who countenance him. For He said not: ‘and you committed adultery’; but: and with adulterers thou hast been a partaker (Ps. xlix. 18).
Save us, what an evil, to cover up the rottenness of another! For the Lord says that you make yourself a sharer of the retribution that will come to them; and rightly too. For the other had the excuse of passion; though this is no justification for pardon. You had not even this. Why then, since you shared not in his pleasure, do you make yourself an associate and a partaker of his punishment? Neither let you make to me that remark which is laden with selfishness: What is it to me? I mind my own affairs. For then do you best care for your own affairs, if you care for them by helping the need of your neighbour; as Paul has also said: Let no man seek his own, but that which is another’s (I Cor. x. 24), so that he may thus find what is his own. For when one who has sinned sees that all turn away from him, he will then come to see that his sin is something evil and reprehensible. But should he see that others do not consider his conduct to be unworthy, and accept him without complaint, and even encourage and abet him, then will the approval of others, abetting his own corrupt soul corrupt also the judgement of his conscience.
Many, not submitting to these grave corrections have after their return among us been very indignant, and have complained that we turned them away from the Sacred Table and shut them out from Communion. And so I am forced to speak of these things, so that you may understand that I do not turn away, but seek to unite; nor do I repel or exclude, but seek rather by trials to help you. For the fear of chastisement falling on the consciences of those who do wrong destroys and consumes sin as fire touching wax, and while it remains there preserves the soul clean and undefiled, and thus brings us to a greater degree of confidence. And just as the physician who ministers bitter medicine to those whom food disgusts drives out distressing poisons and helps to revive the lost appetite, so that our accustomed food is eaten with even greater appetite, so does he who uses sharp words, and helps to purify the evil thoughts of the heart, and lift the heavy burden of sin, allowing the conscience to breathe, and thus prepares the soul to taste with even greater delight the precious Body of the Lord.
Rightly then has the blessed Paul told us: Obey your prelates and be subject to them. For they watch as being to render an account of your souls (Heb. xiii. 17). You no doubt carefully look after your own affairs, and if they are well ordered you have no account to render for those of others. But a priest, though his own life should be well ordered, yet, if he has not an earnest care for yours also will go down to Gehenna with the reprobate. And often, though not betrayed by sins of his own, he perishes because of those of others.
And since we have spoken sharply to those who partake unworthily of the Sacred Mysteries, it is necessary that we speak also to you who minister them, that you may dispense those Gifts with great carefulness: for otherwise your chastisement will not be light. For should you while knowing that a man is unworthy permit him to partake of the Sacred Table, his blood will be required at your hands. And should he be a general of the imperial army, or a Prefect, or even one whose head is encircled by the imperial diadem, and should he approach while unworthy, forbid him. Yours is a higher authority than his. Take care not to provoke the Lord, by not purifying His Body.
Do not offer a sword in place of food. And should such a man, because of his infirmity, approach so that he may take part, fear not to forbid him. Fear the Lord God, not man. If you fear a man, he will scorn you; and you will anger God. If you fear God you will be dear to him, and revered by men. Should you fear of yourself to do this, then send him to me. I shall not suffer him to attempt to do this. I would give up life itself first, rather than communicate the Blood of the Lord to the unworthy. Far better to be deprived of one’s own life, for God’s sake, than to save that life, and be deprived of God; to Whom be honour, praise and glory now and forever. Amen.
Patrologia Graeca 63, Cols. 623-32. Taken from The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers, trans. and ed. by M.F. Toal (Swedesboro, NJ: Preservation Press, 1996), pp. 137-145. This is a classic and indispensable four-volume set of collected writings from the Holy Fathers. Preservation Press has done the Church a great service in reprinting this text.