First Published in 1868.
TAN Books and Publishers
On the Reverence Due to Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament
A YOUNG Portuguese traveled to India to seek his fortune. In a few years he returned to Europe, accompanied by several of his own vessels, laden with wealth, the fruits of his toil and researches. Having arrived at his native place, "Stay," said he to himself, "I must play a little deception on my relations." He put on soiled garments and a torn cloak and hastened to the house of his cousin Peter. In this disguise he claimed relationship: "I am your cousin John," said he. "I have passed several years in India; I now return to visit my friends and native land once more. You see my position, and thus by ties of kindred, I crave hospitality at your hands." "Ah! Would to Heaven I could accommodate you, my dear John," replied Peter. "Excuse me, my house is wholly occupied." John, playing his role, proceeds to another friend's house; makes the same advance, realizes the same reply; and thus to a third and fourth.
His poverty-stricken appearance had thus driven him from door to door. Ah, poor deluded friends, little did you imagine that, under that tattered garment, a man of wealth lay concealed! John hastened back to his ships, cast aside his beggar's dress, robed himself in costly attire, and followed by a multitude of servants, proceeded at once to purchase a princely dwelling in the very heart of the city. His fabulous wealth, his lordly retinue, his high-blooded steeds were the talk of the town and neighborhood. The news soon reached the ears of his friends. Picture to yourselves, if you can, their wondrous amazement! How changed would their conduct now be if the opportunity could but present itself anew! Listen to the altered tone of their language: "What is the meaning of all this?" said one to the other. "Could you have supposed this for a moment? Had I but known this before, my friend would have met with very different treatment at my hands; but alas, it is now too late! We have repulsed him forever."
The foregoing story serves as an illustration of what takes place between Christians and their Lord. This man went to his friends as a beggar, attired in poor, tattered garments, disguising thus his affluence and power. In the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, does not our Blessed Lord act in the same manner? Does He, whilst silently remaining enclosed in our Tabernacles, by day and by night, display His heavenly glory and brightness? No. But He there remains, as it were, in a poor, miserable dress, under the humble appearance of bread.
This stranger came to his friends a second time in rich and royal attire, escorted by numerous attendants. Jesus Christ will come again, at the end of the world, enthroned on the clouds of Heaven, in great power and majesty. Myriads of Angels and blessed spirits will surround Him on every side, for wealth, glory and power are His. To whom can we compare those unkind friends of our narrative? Unfortunately, to a very great number of Christians of the present day. How is that, you will perhaps ask me? Because, as they paid little or no attention to their relative in his poverty, so in the same manner, a great many Christians pay little or no reverence to Jesus Christ, when humbly concealed in the Sacrament of His love. After this conduct of Christians, let us not be astonished if we hear of infidels or heretics treating Our Lord with irreverence in the Holy Eucharist.
Once a Jewess pushed her temerity and hardihood so far as to receive Holy Communion with the Christians. Her audacity was immediately detected, although when she had received the Sacred Host, she bowed down most profoundly, covering her face with her hands as though wrapped in the purest devotion. Well, you will say, "How did she betray herself?" Those who were near her noticed that she was keeping the Sacred Host in her mouth and treating it with irreverence. She acted thus in order to ridicule and dishonor Jesus Christ, the God of the Christians. The observers of this conduct concluded that she must be either a sorceress or, as was really the case, an unbelieving Jewess.
In what does her conduct differ from that of many people of our day? Do we not see men who hardly bow their head, much less bend the knee when passing before that Most August Sacrament? Women enter the church who, by their dress and thoughtlessness, cannot claim any high prerogative in the modesty of their sex. Men even grant full liberty to their wanton gaze, heedless of the penetrating eye of their God, who fills that temple and whose sight has already pierced their souls. When, at processions intended to honor the Blessed Sacrament, I see such behavior, I must conclude that this is the result of the most complete indifference towards Jesus Christ or a total forgetfulness of His Presence. What then? Shall I call these persons Jews? Shall I call them sorcerers? No. But I think I shall not be far astray in saying that they have not a lively faith. They may be Catholics, if you will, but certainly, their faith is not practical. They do not realize that Jesus Christ is present in the tabernacle and in the monstrance. They are deceived by their senses.
In the monstrance, or in the hands of the priest at Mass, they see nothing but the white host, and their thoughts penetrate no further. But if they only reflected on what their faith teaches, viz., that under that little host Jesus Christ conceals His heavenly splendor and glory, how different would be their deportment! How different their thoughts and feelings! Would you know how they would act if their faith were real and lively? Go to the palace of a king. Mark the silent expectation in that splendid apartment! What mean those movements so circumspect? That tread so noiseless? That voice so subdued? Ah, 'tis the royal antechamber! There a loud word is an impertinence; there unbecoming attire is a crime. But hark! Even that stealthy conversation is hushed; every eye is turned to one point; each one assumes the most respectful attitude; the curtain is drawn; and the obsequious courtiers stand in the presence of their King. What an unpardonable breach of decorum would it not be for anyone to remain sitting at a moment like this! Yes, to talk, to laugh or to remain with head covered!
Now, if such honor is paid to earthly princes, what reverence is not then due to Him Who is "King of kings and Lord of lords?" St. John Chrysostom is indignant with us for even making the comparison, and it is with reason. For what is an emperor when compared to the King of Heaven and earth? He is less than the blade of grass when compared to the whole universe.
Whenever the Blessed Sacrament is exposed in the tabernacle, borne in procession or carried as Viaticum to the sick; whenever the Sacred Host is raised at the Consecration in the Mass, our infallible faith says to us: Ecce Rex vester! "Behold your King!" Behold your Redeemer, your Judge, your Creator, your God!
If then in the presence of the Most Holy Sacrament I feel no devotion interiorly and show no modesty exteriorly, what will you think of me? You will say with truth and justice that: "That man does not believe that his God is present there"; or again, "That man's faith is cold and dead."
Who could believe that Jesus Christ is present in this Sacrament and fail in reverence towards it? What reverence did not the Jews pay to the Ark of the Covenant! No one dared to approach it, yet fifty thousand persons who, through curiosity, ventured to gaze thereat, were instantly struck dead as a punishment for their rash act! Yet, what did the Ark contain? Only the Ten Commandments of God.
But in the Holy Eucharist, faith tells us that God Himself is present, He Who made all things out of nothing and could destroy them in a moment. He Who at the last day will come on the clouds of Heaven to judge the living and the dead. Only let Catholics believe this with a lively faith,
and our churches will be filled with worshippers, whose deportment will correspond to their belief. The modest attire, the guarded eye, the bended knee, the meekly folded hands will bespeak the conviction of their hearts. Only let Catholics have a lively faith in this mystery, and Jesus Christ will seldom be left alone. At all hours, His children will come to present themselves before Him, as subjects before their prince, as slaves before their master, as sick men before their physician, as children before their father, in a word, as friends before their beloved friend.
Only let a congregation be animated with a lively faith in this doctrine of our holy religion, and each mind will be filled with amazement, the spirit will be recollected, the soul moved to contrition, the affections inflamed, the eye melted to tears of tenderness and the voice broken with sighs like those of the poor publican: "O God, be merciful to me, a sinner!" Or like unto that of St. Peter, "Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a sinful man!" Thus reverence is nothing more than a lively faith. The reality of the Divine Presence in the Blessed Sacrament is the true rule of our deportment before it. The Catholic has within himself the rule of decorum. He needs nothing else to teach him what is proper or improper in church, besides the dogma which assures him that he is in the presence of his God. If then he be but a little recollected, he will be, almost necessarily, respectful.
This then is the great means of preserving a reverent deportment, to remember Who He is that is enclosed in the tabernacle and what we are, viz.: that our Divine Saviour is in our midst and that we are His creatures and subjects come to worship Him. But although our faith is sufficient to teach us how we ought to behave before Our Lord, yet because it is sometimes difficult to keep in mind the truths of faith and because examples are always more powerful than a bare precept, I will set before you some striking examples, which may serve to impress upon your mind the duty of reverence towards the Blessed Sacrament.
First, I will propose the example of the Angels. St. Basil and St. John Chrysostom testify to having seen at the time of Mass, or when the Blessed Sacrament was exposed, many hosts of Angels in human form, clothed with white garments and standing round the altar as soldiers stand before their king. But what was their attitude and deportment? Their heads were bowed, their faces covered, their hands crossed, and the whole body so profoundly inclined as to express the deepest sense of their own unworthiness to appear before the Divine Majesty. Oh, would we but think of this! The Angels, those pure spirits, shrink before the Infinite Holiness of God, and we allow vain, worldly and even sinful thoughts to insinuate themselves into our minds in His Presence!
The Angels tremble before His Greatness, and we fear not to talk and laugh in His Presence! The Angels, those princes of Heaven, are all humility and modesty, and we, the dust of the earth and miserable sinners, all impertinence and pride! The Angels veil their faces before His splendor, and we do not even so much as cast down our eyes, but rudely stare and gaze around! The Angels bow down to the earth, and we will not bend our knee! The Angels, full of awe, fold their hands upon their breasts, and we allow ourselves every freedom of attitude and movement!! Oh, what a subject of confusion! What humiliating reflections! What an impressive lesson! Secondly, I will take you from the princes of Heaven to the princes of the earth, and teach you a lesson from the example of kings and nobles. There are many beautiful examples on record of the homage which kings and emperors have paid to the Saviour of mankind, so humbly hidden in the Blessed Sacrament. Philip II, King of Spain, always dispensed with regal pomp and pageantry when he assisted at processions of the Blessed Sacrament, and as an ordinary personage, mingled with the common throng. Inclemency of weather deterred him not from paying this tribute of honor to his Lord. One day, as he was devoutly accompanying the Blessed Sacrament with uncovered head, a page held his hat over him, to shield him from the burning sun. "Never mind," said Philip, "the sun will do me no harm; at such a time as this we must regard neither rain nor wind, heat nor cold."
On another occasion, whilst the Blessed Sacrament was being carried a great distance to a sick person, Philip accompanied it all the way on foot. The priest, observing this, asked him if he were not tired. "Tired!" replied he, "Behold, my servants wait upon me both by day and by night, and never yet have I heard one of them complain of being tired! Shall I, then, complain of fatigue when I am waiting upon my Lord and my God, Whom I can never sufficiently serve and honor!"
Rudolph, Count of Hapsburg, whilst hunting one day, observed a priest carrying the Viaticum to the sick, whereupon he immediately alighted, and insisted on the priest mounting in his place. The offer was accepted. The priest, having gone through his sacred and pastoral duty, returned the animal, with many marks of gratitude, to the Count. But this noble and Christian Count could not be prevailed upon to accept it. "No," said he, "keep it, for I am not worthy to ride upon a horse which has borne my Lord." (Heiss's History of Austria).
Whilst the Lutheran heresy was spreading its ravages throughout Germany, Charles V, of Spain, hastened to Augsburg to assist at the diet convened there to stem the pernicious influence of this heresy. The feast of Corpus Christi fell at that time. It was celebrated with every possible pomp and magnificence; the Emperor Charles assisted thereat with the most edifying devotion. At the procession, the Prince: Bishop of Mayence carried the Most Adorable Sacrament, being supported on the right by Ferdinand, the Roman King, on the left by Joachim, Elector of Brandenburg. The canopy was borne by six princes, namely, Louis, Duke of Bavaria; the son of the Elector of Brandenburg; George, Duke of Pomerania; Philip, Count Palatine of Werdelburg; Henry, Duke of Brunswick; and the Duke of Mecklenburg. When these six princes had carried it as far as the Chapel on Mount Berlach, six others took it and carried it to a place called the Holy Cross, whence six others bore it to the Cathedral. The Emperor Charles, torch in hand, on foot and with uncovered head, accompanied by several Archbishops, Bishops and many persons of high rank, followed the procession during the whole route.
Such noble traits of devotion are not confined to days gone by; in our own times, we see princes who have inherited from their fathers this true devotion to the Most Holy Sacrament. Of the present Emperor of Austria it is related that, one day as he was riding through the streets of Vienna, at the signal announcing that the Blessed Sacrament was being carried to the sick, he immediately stopped his carriage, alighted, and on bended knees, there devoutly adored his Lord and God. The same is said of that excellent princess, the late queen of Belgium.
Now, these instances of reverence are not mentioned as being great in regard to the Blessed Sacrament. Before Him Who dwells concealed under that veil, princes are as nothing. Why then should we be astonished at this? Why look on this tribute of devotion as something extraordinary? 'Tis true, these princes are as nothing before Our Lord, but they are great and mighty when confronted with us and may well serve to remind us of the obligation which Faith imposes upon us. If then those whose position bespeaks honor and ease cheerfully submit to humiliation, inconvenience and pain at the call of Religion, what ought we not to do? We cannot boast of high position to make us proud, luxury to make us effeminate or gentle care to make us tender. On the contrary, our position bows us to humility; our necessity and poverty bend us to labor; our life accustoms us to forgo our ease. This being the case, while we honor the great ones of the earth, shall we refuse to join with them in worshiping Him Who is the source of all greatness, and who is above all?
We have seen that reverence towards the Blessed Sacrament is enjoined upon us by faith and reason, and preached to us by Heaven and earth. I will add then but one more reflection: It is urged upon us by the teaching of our Holy Mother the Church.
To what tend all her beautiful ceremonial, her minute ritual and her costly ornaments, but to inspire or express reverence for her Divine Spouse? Why is the priest who celebrates Mass and the faithful who are communicated required to be fasting, but on account of the greatness of the Guest they are about to receive? The incense, the lights, the flowers, the vestments of the priests, the numerous attendants, the genuflexions, are not all these to honor Him who has so greatly humbled Himself for the love of us? And not content with her daily homage, she has appointed a festival in the year for the express purpose of repairing the injuries which Jesus Christ has received from men, either at the time of His visible sojourn on earth or since the establishment of His Religion.
What is the procession of Corpus Christi but a reversal of the judgment which an unbelieving world passed upon Our Lord and a compensation for the outrages which it has inflicted on Him? As He was once in the most ignominious manner led as a malefactor through the streets of Jerusalem, from Annas to Caiphas, from Caiphas to Pilate, from Pilate to Herod, from one tribunal to another, so is He, on this day, borne in triumph through the streets, as the Spotless Lamb of God and man's Highest Good.
As His sufferings had no other witnesses than envious and mocking Jews, so now on this day, every knee bends in adoration before Him. As the executioners once led Him forth to death, so in this procession, the great ones of the world mingle with the throng to do Him reverence. As then His ears resounded with the most scornful and outrageous blasphemies, so now on this great festival, the Church greets Him with every kind of musical instrument and song of praise. The crown of thorns which once pierced His brow is now exchanged for the wreath of flowers around the monstrance, while civil magistrates with their insignia and troops of heroes with glittering arms and waving banners replace the fierce Roman soldiers who once kept watch around His dark and silent tomb. The Cross which Jesus bore with sorrow and sweat up the rugged hill of Calvary is on this His day of triumph carried before all as the sign of victory. Jesus Himself, who was lifted up upon it, is now in the Blessed Sacrament raised aloft to impart His Benediction to His kneeling and adoring people.
If such be the spirit of the Church, what should be the practice of her children? Are we Catholics? Where then is our faith?
It is Jesus our Saviour who remains enclosed in the tabernacle, and who is lifted on high in the monstrance. It is the true Eternal God whom we receive in Communion. We must show by our works that we believe this. I do not say that we are bound, as the early Christians, to prostrate ourselves to the earth and press our foreheads in the dust. I do not say that we are bound to imitate St. Vincent de Paul and bend the knee when it costs us the most excruciating pain to do so.
Nevertheless, we are bound at least to avoid offending our Divine Lord and dishonoring Him to His face. We are bound, when about to receive Holy Communion, carefully to prepare ourselves by a good Confession and thus avoid the dreadful peril of receiving Him in a state of mortal sin. We are bound to lay aside all unbecoming attire and scandalous behavior, especially in the House of God, and to be modest, reverent and humble in attitude and deportment. We ought to regard all our members as in some way consecrated by Jesus Christ, Whom we so often receive, or at least whom we visit in the Church. It is not fitting that the feet which have I borne us to the altar of God should carry us into evil company; that those eyes which, in the morning at Mass, have looked upon the Immaculate Victim, should through the day look at that which is unclean; that the tongue which has been the throne of God should utter blasphemous, impure or calumnious words; that the heart which has been united to the Infinite Purity and Beauty should be polluted by the stain of sin. But alas, how often such indecencies are perpetrated!
When one thinks of the offenses which Jesus Christ receives in this Sacrament, of the sacrilegious Communions which those make who receive in mortal sin, or in the proximate occasion of sin, of the neglect of so many to receive Holy Communion for a long time, and the insufficient preparation they do make when they receive, all this is enough to make the true Christian shudder with horror. Yes, we are inclined to believe [that] as of old God repented that He had made man because his heart was bent on wickedness, so now Our Lord must surely repent of having instituted this Sacrament and must even wish to take away from His priests the power which He gave them of consecrating His Body and Blood.
But no, such a thought does an injustice to His love. Jesus Christ will never withdraw the power which He confided to His Church of changing bread and wine into His Most Adorable Body and Blood.
He will continue to suffer patiently and silently till the End of Time for the sake of those faithful souls who give Him pleasure by the devotion and love with which they receive or visit Him. Let us seek to be of that number. Accedamus cum vero corde in plenitudine fidei. "Let us approach Him with an upright heart and a lively faith."
One day He will throw off His disguise and appear in His heavenly might and splendor. Oh, how happy will they be then who have kept Him company in His humiliation! They will not be confounded, but will "stand before Him with great constancy." They will "see His face" and rejoice forevermore.