holiest works for the sanctification of the soul
"Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths"
Luke, iii. 4.
THESE words the Church incessantly repeats during the time of Advent, in order to infuse into our souls a perfect knowledge of the dispositions which are required for worthily celebrating the approaching solemnity of Christmas. "Prepare", she says, "the ways of the Lord make his paths straight. Let the valleys be filled up, and the mountains and hills be levelled; let the crooked roads be made straight, and the rough smooth". Or, in other words, prepare yourselves, my dear children, to reap the abundant harvest of this mystery by humiliation of heart, by meekness and charity, by uprightness and uniformity of life, by renouncing your own vain wisdom and exalted ideas, and by the spirit of self-denial and penance.
In the name of the Church, therefore, I address the same words to those of my present auditory who piously intend at this time to purify their souls by the sacrament of penance, and to prepare a place for the spiritual birth of Jesus in their hearts, by a worthy communion. "Prepare the way of the Lord". The sacrament which you propose to receive, is the most solemn rite of our religion, and the source of the greatest graces. Take every precaution, adopt every means which can contribute to prepare your souls for a worthy communication with the Deity; for there is this dreadful alternative if your hearts be not worthily disposed, this Heavenly bread, instead of nourishing your souls, and fitting you for eternal life, will draw down on your heads the heaviest judgments even eternal damnation. Perhaps you may say: If there be this alternative, it would be more advisable to abstain from this divine food. By no means; in this bread alone will you find the true nourishment of your souls: it is the strength of the strong, and the support of the weak; the consolation of the afflicted, and the pledge of eternal happiness. To communicate seldom, is the surest way to communicate unworthily. I repeat, therefore, again "Prepare ye the way of the Lord".
The importance of the subject is worthy your most serious attention. On the one side, you are to avoid the most grievous of all crimes the profanation of the body and blood of the Son of God; and on the other, you are to qualify yourselves in a proper manner for reaping the immense fruits of a worthy communion. The dispositions which are indispensably requisite for this important work, I will reduce to three namely, a lively faith, a pure conscience, and an ardent love: these I will discuss as briefly as the subject will permit.
1. The first disposition required is a lively faith. I speak not of that faith which distinguishes us from unbelievers, and which the mercy of God infused into our souls in our very infancy; but I speak of that faith, which pierces the clouds where the Most High resides I speak of that faith, which beholds him, not as through a perspective glass, but as if face to face I speak of that faith, which sees the angels covering their faces with their wings, and the pillars of Heaven trembling in the presence of this great King of that faith, which would not be increased by the testimony of the senses, and which is happy, not because it has not seen and has believed, but because here its belief has made him, as it were, present to the sight I speak of that humble faith, which approaches to the altar, like Moses to the burning bush, like the Israelites to Mount Sinai of that faith, which feels the presence of the Deity, and which cries out with St. Peter: "Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a mortal man and a sinner" Luke, v. 8-1 speak of that faith, which annihilates the soul in the presence of the God of majesty, and fills her with dread lest she should present herself at his table without due dispositions, without the wedding garment.
This is the faith which the apostle requires in all who approach the holy table. But, my God! can such a faith be found upon earth? If thou wert again to appear amongst us, thou wouldst find thy chosen people, the Christians, as sensual and as carnal, as thy once chosen people the Jews: thou wouldst be a stranger amongst us. Ah! my beloved, when he shall be seen coming in the clouds of Heaven, men shall wither away through fear; the sinner shall hide his face, and call out to the mountains to fall upon him and cover him. And is not the same God seated upon our altars? Do not the celestial spirits descend from Heaven and minister to the priest when he offers up the tremendous mysteries? Yes; from this mysterious tribunal the great God of Heaven examines the heart of every individual that bends his knee before him: he separates the elect from the reprobate; he passes the sentence of death and of life; he holds the thunders of his vengeance in one hand, and crowns of glory in the other.
Formerly, no one could see God and live. The unhappy Bethshamites were exterminated merely for looking into the ark: Heliodorus was chastised visibly by angels from Heaven, because he presumed to enter the sanctuary: the Israelites were not permit ted to approach the mount when God gave the commandments. But now, because the fire of his wrath does not burst forth from our altars, and destroy the wretch who presumes unworthily to approach him, we receive him into our breasts without fear, without respect! Half an hour employed in reciting a set form of prayers, is our only preparation: we receive him; we recite a few more prayers in the same tepid manner as the first, and depart, perhaps never more to thank him for this unutterable favour.
Ah! if we beheld the body of the Lord in its glorified state present before us; if the testimony of faith made the same impression on our mind as the testimony of the senses, with what sentiments should we present ourselves at the sacred table! How constantly, how profoundly would our thoughts be employed even for a month beforehand! And when the time itself drew near, with what ardour should we devote the preceding days to retirement, to silence, to prayer and mortification! Yes, my beloved; every instant would increase our solicitude, our fears, and our joy. With difficulty should we be able to divest ourselves sufficiently of that awful respect with which the presence of incomprehensible majesty inspired us, and to assume sufficient confidence to open our hearts to so great a guest. Whether we were engaged in our accustomed occupations, in company, or in amusements, we should be unable to divert our thoughts from this subject: Jesus, and his infinite love and condescension, would engross our whole attention. The Christian who is affected in this manner, truly discerns the body of the Lord.
The worldly man, I acknowledge, is troubled and confused on the approach of a solemnity, when either custom, example, or the laws of the Church, require that he should present himself at the table of the Lord. But, my God! whence originate these sentiments? From a heart overflowing with love and fear? From a heart which is convinced of its unworthiness, and which, prostrate in spirit at the feet of Christ, implores the pardon of its multiplied transgressions? No, my beloved; they are engendered by a heart which delights not in the things of God; which loathes the delicacies of the banquet of the Lord; which, like the blind and the dumb in the gospel, is dragged by the laws of the Church from the lanes and hedges and highways of perdition, and placed against its will at the marriage table.
The true Christian, on the contrary, has a greater relish for this Heavenly bread, than for all the luxuries of the world. This divine food is the only comfort in his banishment, the remedy for all his evils, the alleviation of all his afflictions, the desirable object of his wishes and tears. He is more attentive, more cautious, more solicitous in his preparations to receive it, than about any other action in life.
Now, my brethren, examine yourselves, and certify with can dour and impartiality, whether or not you are animated with this lively faith of the true Christian. We will then proceed to the second part of the preparation, which consists in a purified conscience, and to which St. Paul alludes in these words: "Let a man prove himself before he eat of this bread" I. Cor., xi.
2. But in what does this probation consist? Is it merely in the confession of sins, and in the transitory sentiments of contrition, with which the generality of Christians are animated on these occasions? Far from it. You must reflect, that yon are hastening to receive the body of Jesus Christ, the bread of angels, the Lamb without spot, who will endure those only in his sight, who have either preserved their innocence undefiled, or have regained it by repentance. You must reflect, that it is the Christian Passover of which you propose to partake, and that the participation is lawful only to those who are the disciples of Jesus indeed; who renounce their own will, who carry their cross, and who walk in the footsteps of their crucified Saviour. You must reflect, that you are about to receive a God of such infinite purity, that the angels are not clean in his sight, and consequently, that you must banish from your heart every defilement, every stain that is offensive to the eyes of his sanctity. This, my beloved, is your probation. Examine yourselves, therefore; look into the state of your souls; scrutinize your affections; reason with yourselves in this manner: I am invited to partake of the sacred body and blood of my Jesus, and to partake in such a manner as to be changed into him. But when this great Searcher of hearts shall enter into my breast, will he discover nothing that is unworthy of the sanctity of his presence? Will he find the source of my passions and vices dried up, or will he find that the torrent is pent up only for a time? Will he say to my soul, as he said to Zaccheus: "This day salvation is come to this house"? Luke, xix.
9. Have I entirely subdued that passion which has so long exercised its tyranny over me that spirit of resentment, of which I acknowledged myself guilty and repentant at the feet of God's minister that love of riches, which has so often led me into acts of injustice that unequal and capricious temper, which is impassioned by the slightest contradiction that vanity, which despises the lowly state in which my forefathers lived that envy, which was always jealous of the reputation and prosperity of my equals that censorious and malignant disposition, which is always ready to condemn the actions of others, and to applaud my own that spirit of sensuality, of pleasure, and of immortification, which reigns in my whole frame? Has the confession of my crimes entirely eradicated them from my heart? Am I a new man? What am I, O God? Am I dead, or am I alive in thy sight? Enlighten my eyes, I beseech thee, and suffer not thy Christ, thy Holy One, to see corruption. In this manner, my beloved friends, ought we to prove ourselves. God forbade the Jews to offer honey and leaven in sacrifice: see that you bring not to the altar the leaven of sin and the honey of pleasure; I mean that love of pleasure and the world, that soft and effeminate disposition, which is an enemy to the cross, and irreconcileable with salvation.
3. In the third place, when we communicate, we must endeavour to be animated with the same sentiments with which our Lord was animated when he instituted this sacrament. "I have ardently longed", said he to his apostles, "to eat this pasch with you" Luke, xxii. 15. He sighed for the happy moment; the thought of it soothed the agonising pains which were occasioned by the foresight of his approaching passion. Here then is our model: we must seat ourselves at this Heavenly table with a heart burning with the seraphic flames of love, with a heart panting after the waters of life, with a heart tormented with a holy hunger and thirst for the body and blood of her Redeemer. "Lord, come and take full possession of my soul", the pious Christian exclaims with St. Augustine (Conf., b. 1, c. 5). "Come, O Lord, and be my only delight; satisfy my eager desires, inebriate me with the torrent of thy pleasures, take off my affections from all creatures, from the whole world itself, and unite me to thee for ever. If thou shouldst discover in my soul any remains of my former corruption, cleanse me with thy grace: command 'that I be made whole' John, v. 6. Come, O Lord, and delay not; every good thing will come together with thee: sufferings, persecutions, afflictions, and humiliations, will appear as nothing when I shall have tasted thy ineffable sweetness". These, my beloved, are the sentiments which ought to accompany us to the altar.
But alas! what are the sentiments of the generality of Christians? Some have a loathing, a disgust for this divine food; to partake of it at the times of indulgence is thought too often; some would not communicate even once a year, were they not driven to the altar by the anathemas and excommunications of the Church. My God! is it possible that this precept of love, which constitutes the whole happiness of a Christian on Earth, should be considered even by a single individual as a painful duty? Is it possible that the most glorious privilege with which man can be favoured should be a subject of constraint and disquietude? Didst thou expect such treatment, O divine Jesus! when, out of compassion to lost man, thou didst bequeath thyself to him in this adorable sacrament? Others approach the altar with a sluggish heart, a depraved taste, a frozen soul. These people frequent the sacraments, and indulge in worldly pleasures alternately: they partake as freely of the table of Satan as of the table of Jesus: they attempt to serve two masters. A communion costs them only one day of restraint and reserve; their devotion ends with the solemnity: they are content with what they have done, and they return, as if by a preconcerted agree ment with self-love, to their former ways. Thus they come to the banquet with a palate vitiated by the pleasures and follies of the world: they taste not the sweets of this Heavenly food; the tumult of their passions, the recollection of their unlawful pastimes, make a greater impression on their minds than the presence of Jesus. Against these the Royal Prophet denounces a curse: "May their table be to them a snare, a stumbling-block, and a scandal" Ps., lxviii. 23.
To communicate in commemoration of Jesus, my beloved brethren, we must awaken in our souls all the tender emotions, which are naturally excited in the mind of a lover when communing with the object of his dearest affections. The most tender connections are weakened, the warmest friendship is cooled by absence. Jesus foresaw, that, after his ascension, his disciples would soon forget his favours arid instructions. Moses was only forty days on the mount, and yet, in that short interval of time, the Israelites forgot the prodigies which he had wrought in their favour: "Let us make gods", they said, "who may go before us, and defend us from our enemies" Exod., xxxii. 1. In consideration of this our natural inconstancy, the paternal goodness of our divine Redeemer would not leave us in an orphan and defenceless state; his infinite love would not expose us to the danger of forgetting him, and therefore he descends daily on our altars he resides constantly in our tabernacles: from hence the voice of the turtledove is heard calling to her beloved (Cant., ii. 12); here we may enjoy his presence, and dwell with increasing raptures on his wonders, his blessings, and his love.
Our pious ancestors, with a truly religious spirit, visited the land which he had sanctified by his presence. The sentiments which were inspired by the sight of the places where he wrought his principal miracles, and shed his precious blood for our salvation, gave confidence to repenting sinners, endowed the weak with strength, and inflamed the just with increased ardour.
It is not necessary, however, to cross the seas. Salvation is near at hand. The word which we preach will, if you please, rest on your lips and in your heart. Open the eyes of faith fix them on the altar, and you will see, not a country which he formerly sanctified by his presence, but Jesus Christ himself. Approach, then, in commemoration of him; draw near to this unquenchable fire of love; rekindle in your breasts the seraphic flames of affection arid gratitude. Learn from his meekness, which would not suffer him "to break the bruised reed, or extinguish the smoking flax" Isa., xlii. 3; Matt., xii. 20; that is, to revenge the injuries he received from the weakest, the most defenceless of mankind: learn, I say, to correct the sallies of an impatient and hasty temper. From his laborious and painful life, learn to renounce a life of softness and ease. From his modesty and humility, learn to correct the odious passions of pride and vain glory. From his zeal against the profaners of his temple, learn to present yourselves before him with respect and fear. From his fast of forty days, learn to exercise yourselves in the holy virtues of mortification and penance. From his love and charity for lost man, learn to pity the distresses of the afflicted, and to relieve their wants. From his pious and instructive conversation with his disciples, learn to converse with your neighbour in the language of piety and instruction. In a word, from his innocence and example, learn to correct every imperfection, every weakness to which you have hitherto been subject. In this manner, you will communicate in commemoration of Jesus.
But if you approach the altar with a heart constantly defiled with the same imperfections imperfections a hundred times repented of, and never sincerely renounced; if you do not endeavour to advance daily more and more in the ways of perfection, but propose to yourselves a certain degree of sanctity, beyond which you never intend to pass; if you relapse as of ten as you pretend to repent, and, after many years, are not more devout than you were at first; if you continue addicted to animosities, dislikes, calumny, detraction, vanity, and pride; and if you are as unmortified, and as much the enemy of the cross of Christ as before, oh! you have more than sufficient reason to tremble.
Perhaps you may ask: Does the Christian, who is defiled with these habitual imperfections, receive the body of the Lord unworthily? This question can be solved only by the great Searcher of hearts. The following is the only answer that man can give namely, that such a one does not communicate in commemoration of Jesus; that, at the last day, many things which appear right and just to man, will be discovered to have been abominations in the eyes of God; that many who had even prophesied in his name, will be rejected with, "I know you not"; and that the state of such a communicant is exposed to the greatest danger. Peter, although the voice of Truth had declared him undefiled, was not permitted to partake of the last supper until Jesus had washed his feet. Magdalen, although she had washed away her sins, and bathed the feet of her Saviour with floods of tears, was forbidden to touch him after his resurrection; because her eagerness was not divested of every imperfection. And we, defiled and imperfect as we are strangers to true penance intent only on enjoyment and ease tepid and callous to the tender feelings of divine love we, who neither endeavour nor desire to advance in piety beyond a certain point, we frequently partake of his sacred body!
Oh! what an abyss, my friends, perhaps what a multitude of crimes is concealed from our view, of which we repent not, because we are ignorant of their existence; and which, perhaps, are the stock on which we engraft innumerable profanations! What an abyss! I say again what a mystery of iniquity will, perhaps, be revealed on the day of final retribution!
"What am I in thy sight, O God! I can neither please thee nor displease thee by halves; my state will not allow me to steer a middle course between virtue and vice: if I am not a saint, I am a sacrilegious profaner: if I am not a vessel of honour, I am a vessel of dishonour: if I am not angel of light (there is no medium), I am an angel of darkness: if I am not the living temple of the Holy Ghost, I am a den of unclean spirits. Good God! what powerful motives are here for vigilance, circumspection, fear, and love, when we receive the holy communion.
Ah! the fruits produced by one worthy communion are so abundant, so manifest, the soul is overwhelmed with such a torrent of Heavenly graces and communications, that, had I no other reason to suspect the unworthiness of my communions than the little profit I reap from them, I should have sufficient reason to tremble. The Christian who partakes worthily of this sacred food, feels his pious hunger increased; and I retire from the holy table fatigued and satiated; I rejoice that the business is concluded, as if it were a painful, an unwelcome task. The Christian who partakes worthily of this sacred food, lives only for God; and I continue to live for the world, for myself, for my friends, for my family; seldom do I live a single day for God alone. What then must I do? Ought I to refrain from this sacred food? What! shall the fruit of the tree of life be forbidden me? What! shall the bread of consolation be no more broken for me? No, my God! thou wilt not banish me from thy table. Thou wiliest only that I put on the wedding garment; thou dost not refuse me the bread of thy children, but thou wiliest that I should not, by my unworthiness, oblige thee to give me a serpent in its place.
Come, then, dear Jesus, and prepare a place in my heart worthy of thy presence; humble my pride; correct my failings; purify my desires. Thou alone canst be the precursor to prepare thy ways. Fill the immense void in my soul with the gifts of thy Holy Spirit; enable me to partake worthily of thy sacred body at the approaching solemnity, and to live solely and eternally for thee, O Jesus, my Mediator, my Lord, my God, and my all; to whom be honour, and power, and praise, and glory, and benediction, for ever and ever. Amen.