Glory to God for All Things

Fire and Light

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Behold: I draw near to the Divine Communion.

Burn me not as I partake, O Creator,

For Thou art a Fire which burns the unworthy,

Rather, cleanse me of all defilement.

This short prayer, appointed for devotional use before receiving communion in the Orthodox Church, has always been one of my favorites. It draws out the great mystery of the Presence of Christ which is experienced both as threat and as consolation. This same mysterious presence is seen in the account of God’s intervention at the Red Sea. The Israelites are trapped on the shore and the Presence of God (described as the “angel” of the Lord) comes between them and the Egyptians (Exodos 14:19-20).

And the angel of God, which went before the camp of Israel, removed and went behind them; and the pillar of the cloud went from before their face, and stood behind them: And it came between the camp of the Egyptians and the camp of Israel; and it was a cloud and darkness to them, but it gave light by night to these: so that the one came not near the other all the night.

This experience of God plays a very large role in the writings of many of the Fathers. St. Irenaeus (late 2nd century) uses this imagery (drawing largely from St. John’s Gospel) to describe the character of God’s judgment. It marvelously reconciles the mercy of God, and our experience of His wrath. His wrath is nothing other than His mercy – just as the Angel of the Lord was Light to the Israelites and Darkness to the Egyptians. God is not different, nor does He change. The difference, the change, is to be found in the state of the human heart that confronts Him.

Here is a passage from St. Irenaeus (I apologize for the antique translation):

And to as many as continue in their love towards God, does He grant communion with Him. But communion with God is life and light, and the enjoyment of all the benefits which He has in store. But on as many as, according to their own choice, depart from God. He inflicts that separation from Himself which they have chosen of their own accord. But separation from God is death, and separation from light is darkness; and separation from God consists in the loss of all the benefits which He has in store. Those, therefore, who cast away by apostasy these forementioned things, being in fact destitute of all good, do experience every kind of punishment. God, however, does not punish them immediately of Himself, but that punishment falls upon them because they are destitute of all that is good. Now, good things are eternal and without end with God, and therefore the loss of these is also eternal and never-ending. It is in this matter just as occurs in the case of a flood of light: those who have blinded themselves, or have been blinded by others, are for ever deprived of the enjoyment of light. It is not, [however], that the light has inflicted upon them the penalty of blindness, but it is that the blindness itself has brought calamity upon them: and therefore the Lord declared, “He that believeth in Me is not condemned,” that is, is not separated from God, for he is united to God through faith. On the other hand, He says, “He that believeth not is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only-begotten Son of God; “that is, he separated himself from God of his own accord. “For this is the condemnation, that light is come into this world, and men have loved darkness rather than light. For every one who doeth evil hateth the light, and cometh not to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that he has wrought them in God.”

From Against the Heresies, V, 27.2

6 Responses to “Fire and Light”

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  1. The picture accompanying the article is from the ordination service of my son-in-law, Fr. Philip Rogers, to the Holy Priesthood. He is being assisted at the Holy Chalice by my other son-in-law, then Deacon, now, Priest, Fr. Hermogen Holste. May God grant them many years as they stand in the fiery presence of God and serve!

  2. Michael says:

    Hi Fr. Stephen,

    first I want to say I really like your blog :). I’ve just started mine, but it’s still under construction. I wanted to share with you what we (Coptic Orthodox) individually pray before partaking of the Eucharist – an excerpt from our prayer book of the hours.

    “O Lord, I am not worthy that You should come under the roof of my house, for I am sinful, but say first a word and my soul shall be healed. Say unto my soul: “Your sins are forgiven.” I am barren and in need of Your righteousness, Your compassion, Your mercy and Your love. You humbled yourself and descended from the heavens, and unutterable glory to our lowly state and accepted to be born in a manger. O Holy Saviour, do not reject my humble and miserable soul, which is waiting for Your glorified coming; but accept to come into my soul to cleanse it. As You did not refuse to enter into the leper’s house and to heal him, please Lord enter into my soul and heal me. Do not forbid me from receiving Your Holy Body and Your Precious Blood. As You did not forbid the woman, who was a sinner from kissing your feet. May my communion with You banish the defilement and mortification of all my evil desires. Help me obey Your Life-giving commandments, and heal my soul and body from all sins, that I may accept your gifts. May Your grace dwell in me and may Your Spirit abide in me and make me united with You; that I may live for the glory of Your Holy Name. Amen.”

    Remember me in your prayers,
    Michael

  3. Fatherstephen says:

    Michael,

    Thank you for the kind words, I look forward to reading your blog. We have the same prayer as part of our preparatory prayers for communion. The one I quoted was among the last of several pages worth.

  4. Demetrius says:

    Michael’s communion prep reminded me of what I used to recite just before Holy Communion as a Catholic: “O, Lord, I am not worthy to receive you. But only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”

    All of the wording gets back to God’s love for a people so flawed. When I was younger (and less flawed, I guess), I used to wonder at the idea of trembling before God. At the time I thought, “Why would I tremble? I’d be full of joy!”

    I guess it’s one of those things–like the Optina Elders’ Morning Prayer (with lines like “give me strength to bear the fatigue of the coming day”)–that it takes aging to understand. Now I’m hoping I’m no longer capable of peeing my pants when Christ comes for me because joy isn’t what I’m going to be full of at first.

  5. Steve Hayes says:

    That is really useful — where does one get these CDs?

  6. Steve,

    I assume you mean the CD’s like Fr. Hopko’s. If you click on the link in that article, it will take you to St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press Bookstore, where many such CD’s can be ordered online. I commend them to you.

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