Common Ground? – Worship

Do Evangelicals and Catholics agree on the importance of worship? Are you kidding? Evangelicals are all about praise and worship; more than one Catholic has left the Catholic Church for the enthusiasm of Evangelical services. On the other hand, many Protestants are very favorably impressed by the reverence shown at Mass as Catholics worship their Lord. Yes, the importance of worship is a subject upon which Catholics and Protestants agree completely.

HOW to worship – that’s a different question entirely.

My Catholic hair stood on end when I read the Dallas Morning News columnist Mark Davis’ defense of the controversial services at his Protestant church: “Everyone is entitled to personal taste in terms of the worship they enjoy,” he opined. Hmm…, and where is this notion revealed to us in Scripture? Where does the Bible ever suggest that we have some kind of right to choose how to worship God? One passage concerning “creative worship” does come to mind:

And Abel was a keeper of flocks, but Cain was a tiller of the ground. So it came about in the course of time that Cain brought an offering to the LORD of the fruit of the ground. Abel, on his part also brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and for his offering; but for Cain and for his offering He had no regard. So Cain became very angry and his countenance fell. Then the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? “If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.” Gen 4:2-8

Obviously, God is not pleased with DIY worship; He reserved the right to tell Cain and Abel how He wanted to be worshiped. Jesus pointed this out to the Samaritan woman at the well when she decided to talk theology with Him:

“Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth. Jn 4:20-24

And a lot of Evangelicals, taking this passage as a condemnation of “dead liturgy,” feel that it validates their worship style as truly biblical. Those who worship Him must worship in spirit and in truth – that means worship with flash and sparkle, with spontaneity and creative touches! Right?

The pattern of worship running through the Old and New Testament is pretty well laid out, and there’s really no reason to believe that God has given His sons and daughters any leeway to follow their own “personal taste in terms of the worship they enjoy,” any more than He was pleased when Cain’s worship deviated from that of Abel. A good example of the order of Old Testament worship is found in the book of 2 Chronicles in chapters 5-7. King Solomon called the people to attend the dedication of the Temple. The people assembled.

1 And now Solomon must bring into the temple all the votive offerings his father David had made; silver and gold and lesser ware, all must be stored up in its treasure-chamber. 2 Then he sent for the elders of Israel, the chiefs of the tribes and the heads of clans; all must meet at Jerusalem to bring the Lord’s ark home from its resting-place in the Keep of David, which we call Sion. 3 It was on the great feast day of the seventh month that all Israel obeyed the king’s summons; 4 and when the last of the chieftains had arrived, the Levites took up the ark 5 and brought it in; the tabernacle, too, with all its equipment, and all the furniture of the sanctuary that remained still in the tabernacle, priests and Levites brought to the spot.

At the beginning, sins are dealt with. In the Old Testament context, this meant “burnt offerings.”

6 Meanwhile king Solomon, with the whole Israelite assembly, all that had gathered before the ark, offered rams and bulls; so many were the victims that there was no counting them.

God is praised in song:

11 At last the priests left the sanctuary; all of them who were present had purified themselves so as to gain admission, for as yet they had no times and manners of service planned out for them. 12 To the east of the altar stood Levites and singers, the clans of Asaph, Heman and Idithun alike, all robed in lawn, playing on their cymbals, zithers and harps; and now they had a hundred and twenty priests with them, sounding with trumpets. 13 Trumpet and voice, cymbals and flute, with all the other instruments, sounded aloud so that the noise of them could be heard far off, as they praised the Lord together; Praise the Lord, they sang, the Lord is gracious; his mercy endures for ever. And with that, the whole of the Lord’s house was wreathed in cloud; 14 lost in that cloud, the priests could not wait upon the Lord with his accustomed service; his own glory was there, filling his own house.

The people listen to Solomon declare the glory of the Lord:

1 Where the cloud is, cried Solomon, the Lord has promised to be. 2 It is true, then, the house I have built in his honour is to be, for ever, his dwelling-place. 3 With that, the king turned to bless the whole assembly; all Israel, that stood waiting there. 4 Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, he said, who has fulfilled in act the promise he made to my father David. 5 So many years since he had rescued his people from Egypt, and never a city among all the tribes of Israel had he chosen to be the site of his dwelling-place or the shrine of his name, never a prince had he appointed over his people of Israel, 6 till at last he chose Jerusalem, to enshrine his name there, and David for his people’s ruler.

Prayer is offered:

12 Then Solomon stood before the Lord’s altar in full view of all Israel, and stretched out his hands. 13 In the midst of the great court he had bidden them set down a block of bronze, five cubits across either way and three feet in height; on this he mounted, and there, in the sight of all Israel, kneeling down with his hands lifted up towards heaven, he prayed. 14 Lord God of Israel, he said, thou reignest without rival in heaven and earth, making good thy merciful promises to all who follow thee with undivided hearts. 15 And thou hast not disappointed thy servant, my father David; thy act matches thy word; this day, who doubts it? 16 Do not forget, Lord God of Israel, that other promise of thine to David, that he should always have an heir to sit on the throne of Israel, would but his sons guide their steps, like David himself, as in thy presence; 17 let that promise too, Lord God of Israel, be ratified!…. 42 Lord God, do not reject my prayer, the king thou hast anointed; bethink thee of the loving designs thou hadst for thy servant David before him.

The Holy Spirit falls upon the offerings, consuming them:

Scarce had Solomon finished his praying, when fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt-sacrifice, consumed all the victims; the glory of the Lord, too, filled the temple, 2 and the priests might not enter; his own glory was there, filling his own house. 3 The fire that fell, the brightness of the Lord’s visible presence, was seen by all Israel; there on the stone pavement they fell down to earth in worship, crying, Praise the Lord, the Lord is gracious, his mercy endures for ever. 4 King and people offered their victims in the Lord’s presence; 5 the beasts king Solomon slew that day, when he and all the people dedicated the Lord’s house, were twenty-two thousand bulls and a hundred and twenty thousand rams.

Then, the feast:

6 There stood the priests at their task, and the Levites with the instruments of sacred music, that king David had given them to praise the Lord with, playing David’s own chant of everlasting mercy, while the priests led with their trumpets, and all the people stood around. 7 That day, the king must needs hallow the middle part of the court before the Lord’s house, burning there the burnt-sacrifice and the fat taken from the welcome-victims; the brazen altar he had made would not suffice for these and for the bloodless offerings too. 8 After this, king Solomon spent seven days in keeping the feast of Tabernacles, and with him a great multitude from the whole land of Israel, that stretched from the pass of Emath down to the river of Egypt; 9 and the eighth day he kept as a great holiday, after seven days given up to the temple dedication, and seven to the feast.

The people are dismissed:

10 At last, on the twenty-third day of the month, he sent the people home, rejoicing with full hearts over the mercies the Lord had shewn to David, to Solomon, and to his own people of Israel.

Okay, so the pattern demonstrated in the Old Testament is assembly, forgiveness of sins, praise, a declaration of God’s wonders, prayer, the offering of a sacrifice, feasting and dismissal.

But that’s all behind us – that’s the Old Covenant! Besides, why should we believe that this represents a pattern, and not just some random get-together?

Because the worship of the first Christians follows a similar pattern. The closest the New Testament comes to describing the worship of the first Christians is in Acts 2 where we learn that they “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” How this all actually played out is made more explicit in a first-century extrabiblical record of Christian worship called the Didache that instructs believers to:

Assemble on the Lord’s Day, and break bread and offer the Eucharist; but first make confession of your faults, so that your sacrifice may be a pure one. Anyone who has a difference with his fellow is not to take part with you until they have been reconciled, so as to avoid any profanation of your sacrifice. For this is the offering of which the Lord has said, “Everywhere and always bring me a sacrifice that is undefiled, for I am a great king, says the Lord, and my name is the wonder of nations.”

Assembly – forgiveness of sins – offering the sacrifice: the Eucharist. Again, circa 150 A.D. the order of Christian worship is explained to the Roman emperor by Justin Martyr.

And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons.

In a discussion of the rite of baptism, St. Justin goes into more detail on how the newly baptized received their first Holy Communion:

Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss. There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen. This word Amen answers in the Hebrew language to γένοιτο [so be it]. And when the president has given thanks, and all the people have expressed their assent, those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion. And this food is called among us Εὐχαριστία [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savior, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, “This do ye in remembrance of Me, this is My body;” and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, “This is My blood;” and gave it to them alone.

Assembly, declaration of the glory of the Lord, prayers, the offering of the Sacrifice (which Justin says is the very Body and Blood of Jesus). One of these things is not like the others. What’s the common link between the Old Testament worship of 2 Chronicles, the first-century worship described in the Didache, and the second-century worship that Justin Martyr was familiar with that’s missing from Protestant worship?

The Sacrifice – and it’s missing for good reason, Protestants say. Jesus Christ is the Sacrifice, once for all! He said, “It is finished!” We can’t resacrifice Him!

And Catholics couldn’t agree more: Jesus cannot be resacrificed; as the Catechism plainly states, “the sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice.” When we participate in the Mass, He is not crucified anew. Hebrews assures us that “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” However, the Eucharist makes possible our participation in this sacrifice as it is made present to us in our time. The bread and wine become for us the very Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ which He commanded us to eat and drink: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me.” As Benedict XVI put it:

By his command to ‘do this in remembrance of me’ (Lk 22:19; 1 Cor 11:25), he asks us to respond to his gift and to make it sacramentally present. In these words the Lord expresses, as it were, his expectation that the Church, born of his sacrifice, will receive this gift, developing under the guidance of the Holy Spirit the liturgical form of the sacrament. The remembrance of his perfect gift consists not in the mere repetition of the Last Supper, but in the Eucharist itself, that is, in the radical newness of Christian worship. In this way, Jesus left us the task of entering into his ‘hour.’ ‘The Eucharist draws us into Jesus’ act of self-oblation. More than just statically receiving the incarnate Logos, we enter into the very dynamic of his self-giving.’ Jesus ‘draws us into himself.’ The substantial conversion of bread and wine into his body and blood introduces within creation the principle of a radical change, a sort of ‘nuclear fission,’ to use an image familiar to us today, which penetrates to the heart of all being, a change meant to set off a process which transforms reality, a process leading ultimately to the transfiguration of the entire world, to the point where God will be all in all (cf. 1 Cor 15:28).

When we “lift up our hearts to the Lord” at Mass, God makes the gifts holy by sending down His Spirit upon them “so that they may become for us the Body and the Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The worship instituted under the Old Covenant foreshadowed heavenly realities, realities in which the Church actively participates at every Mass, and the offering of the Sacrifice is the nonnegotiable component. Every Christian writing in the first millennium on the subject of the Eucharist emphasized, as St. Justin emphasized to the Roman emperor, that the Sacrifice is the actual Body and Blood of Jesus. The Reformers, lacking in faith, got creative and removed the offering of the Sacrifice from their services, spiritualizing the celebration of Holy Communion. Fervent prayer, heartfelt praise and enthusiastic singing are commendable practices that should accompany worship, but to engage in those and in some extended Bible study, and call it good, misses the point. Seriously, why do you think your church has an altar?

The Bible nowhere encourages Christians to worship God as we please. The heavenly liturgy, with “the Lamb Who was slain” as its centerpiece, was the model and guide for Old Testament worship, and even more so for New Testament worship, and worship without a sacrifice simply isn’t worship. Evangelicals, who generally try to be so careful to eschew “man-made traditions,” engage in a boatload of them every Sunday as “innovative contemporary worship” is offered wherever Evangelical churches are found. Sunday worship, folks, is just not the time to get creative.

Cain can tell you that.


On the memorial of St. Titian of Oderzo

Deo omnis gloria!

  1. Gina Nakagawa said:

    Beautiful post. Just beautiful and meaningful.

  2. Kala Nila said:

    This is great! The reverence of worship in the Mass was something that stood out to me the first time I went.

    • I agree. When the priest elevates the Eucharist at my parish, you can hear a pin drop. I love that, because we are signifying that we realize that it’s really HIM!

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