One of the more surprising stories in the Old Testament book of Exodus receives little attention, perhaps because the story is so short. But Moses is up on Mount Sinai receiving the Law, and God tells him that He intends to come down into the camp and meet the people in three days. Moses accordingly reports God’s intention to the people down below who tremble with fear (they can see the fiery shaking mountain, after all) and suggest, alternatively, that they will stay in their tents, and perhaps Moses can just climb back up the mountain and meet God there.
The story makes us smile, because it seems to show a primitive understanding of God—a fear of big, fiery deities. We might think ourselves more sophisticated with our advanced understanding of God’s fatherly love. We might suppose that since we embrace God’s compassion, we would accept with open arms this re-invitation to the Edenic paradise that our first parents forsook. For God had met them personally in the cool of each evening.
But there’s another possibility. Maybe the Israelites were actually more advanced than we are. Maybe the fear of the Lord is the first step toward the love of the Lord. Remember, the 111th Psalm states that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom. Not its end, admittedly, but it is definitely the beginning. Have we modern men embraced the love of God, or have we perhaps instead lost the love because we never formed the fear? Perhaps we’ve replaced them both with a contemporary alternative: indifference.
For, like the Israelites and like our first parents, God still attempts to come into the camp to walk with his people. Only the modes differ, not the divine objective. The current mode is the Holy Eucharist, God’s becoming present in the bread and the wine. And the first question we have to ask ourselves is whether we really believe that this is true.
There’s nothing particularly hard in it, hard at least for God. If he could descend from the heavens to become a physical man, it’s not difficult for him to descend to become wine or bread. But I suppose it follows that it’s not particularly hard for us either. For if we believe that Jesus truly is the Son of God, that the incarnation of God is real, then why couldn’t the “carne” part of the incarnation happen in some other physical medium like bread? That’s really a question of divine prerogative.
The liturgy places the Eucharist at the climax of the rite, because meeting God is the objective of faith. But how do we react to the Eucharist? It is here that the worry about indifference arises. What are our possible reactions? Peter Kreeft has suggested there are really only two choices: the skeptic and the saint. The skeptic refuses to kneel; he doesn’t believe what God has said He is doing in the bread and wine. The saint? He can barely rise, because if God is up there on that table, really, then . . . well, how could you get up off your knees? And yet somehow one must rise and partake.
But this isn’t what happens in our minds, is it? We shatter Kreeft’s dilemma. We recite the creed, denying any skepticism. But unlike the saint, we’re just not that afraid of the Eucharist. This is probably why we barely prepare for it. The old Christians, of course, fasted prior to the liturgy, so that only after mass would they “break the fast,” i.e., eat breakfast. One didn’t approach God without first cleansing oneself of sins through Confession. One prepared to meet God. But we don’t really prepare. Is this because we are so convinced of God’s love? Or is it more likely that we just don’t think of it very seriously? A kind of indifference creeps into us over time, and we forget that it is actually God. Our minds wander, we think about the game in the afternoon or the roast in the oven or the list of things that somehow must get done before Monday or the bills that are piling up higher than our bank accounts . . . but it’s God up there, isn’t it? At least the Israelites believed that it was God. They had prepared for three days, and nevertheless decided that it was better to stay far, far away from God. They were under no illusions about their lack of holiness. But we don’t think about the divine holiness at all. Why? Because we are already saints? No, we apply that category only to marble statues. We become indifferent because maybe we don’t think we are taking God into our very selves as God once took our nature into himself. To deny the reality of the Eucharist isn’t all that different from denying the Incarnation. They are twin sides of the same coin. The Protestants deny the reality of the Eucharist while they insist upon the Incarnation. Have we Catholics become Protestants?
The cure to Eucharistic indifference is a combination of faith and habituation. First, we must believe that God is there, just as much as we believe that God is three persons in one substance. It is true. But second, we have to admit the fidgetiness of our nature and then do something about it. I suppose if the priest were surrounded by fire and smoke and a shaking mountain, we’d probably notice and find our attention transfixed. But when the same thing happens week after week (if your priest uses incense, you do have fire and smoke every week), we become accustomed to it. Merely becoming accustomed to a thing doesn’t make us indifferent to it. The indifference occurs if we not only lack faith but also fail to prepare, for preparation molds our anticipation.
Consider the way the Lenten Fast affects your preparation for Easter. You stop eating meat or wine or dairy or oil (the four traditional elements of the old Orthodox fast), you pray and confess far more, and you devote your saved food dollars toward giving to the poor. If you fully embrace the old fast’s tradition of abstinence, you might even put a hold on your sexual relationship with your wife (though you may do so only through mutual consent, as St. Paul requires). Forty days after Ash Wednesday you are a starving, well-prayed, sexually desperate, and (hopefully) very morally and spiritually focused person. You can almost begin to feel that you have one foot in this world and one in the next. This alteration in your habits, perceptions, and aspirations prepares you for the momentous event of Easter; you are ready for the Great Feast (which also lasts for forty days).
The Lenten Fast and the Easter Feast are the models for the rest of the Church year. We can approach every Sunday liturgy by taking a page from our Lenten fast, by preparing in our confession of sins, our giving, our eating, our sexual love, and in our prayers for meeting God. This discipline focuses our attention, increases our anticipation, and spiritually and morally roots us more firmly in the actuality of loving God. Your spiritual life must never be reduced to a mere state of mind, for our minds are too easily distracted. The greatest commandment directs us to love God with all of ourselves including our body, heart, and strength. This should come as no surprise, because human beings are combinations of mind and body. In redeeming man, God redeems the whole of man. How? Through the sacraments of the Church, all of which merge mind, heart, body and strength in loving God. The Eucharist is the greatest sacrament that we have, so we should make use of the others to prepare our whole selves. Doing so requires significant attention to detail in altering our normal course of life, and that very focus decreases the likelihood that indifference will blind us from the reality of meeting God.
It’s interesting to note that if you travel to Jerusalem on a holy pilgrimage and visit the Temple Mount, at one end you will find the old Herodian stairway up to the top. If you climb the stairs, you’ll quickly trip, because each stair is unevenly distanced from both the previous one and the next one. Why? Because the Jews understood that they needed to slow down and reflect on their approach to the Holy One. Those that didn’t pay attention ended up prostrate before God anyway!