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