Friday, March 12, 2010

The Romance of Catholic Worship

        Laura’s favorite position to worship Jesus Christ, her dearest Lord and Savior, was to snuggle up on the couch at five a.m. when her children were asleep, cover herself with her favorite fuzzy blanket, sip steaming hot coffee then read and pray. She said it felt romantic and cozy, just Jesus and her. It was her favorite time of day.

Church was a lot of trouble--getting her kids dressed and listening to her husband’s deep, resistant breaths that complained about another day where the morning hours were scheduled. But, once at church, she enjoyed the lively praise music and theater seating. Children’s church gave her a break, so she and her husband could worship together. Church was a great place for Christian socializing, but lately, the real time for worship, real worship was alone reading scripture and talking to the Lord as she watched the dawn from her couch. There, the feelings of Jesus near, were the ultimate. 

After all, Jesus went away from the crowds for refreshing to be alone with His Father. Jesus also said that we should go into the closet and pray. Isn’t that really what was important? A special, intimate relationship with Christ, where He talks to you and you can hear His voice? As a Protestant, it doesn’t get any better than that.

Then there was James, who wanted to get back to what he thought the book of Acts described as the ancient church worship. He began a home fellowship, where neighbors could come in casual clothes, bring something to munch on and they would all sit on the couch while singing a couple songs, reading psalms and people giving their testimony. There was no real structure, just Christians fellowshipping and sharing their love of Jesus.

For many Protestants, worship means a daily comfortable, relaxing little mini-vacation from life as you read a chapter or two from scripture, lift up your voice in praise and thanksgiving to the Lord and then kneel in prayer with your list of requests. Most Protestants feel intimately connected to Christ by these times of worship and see anything liturgical, full of rites and preset prayers, any formality at all, as inauthentic worship. 

American Protestantism doesn’t get the necessity for an organized church. What’s the point? It just adds unnecessary conflicts over how you worship: the music, the building, the people, the theology. Keep it simple. That is godliness. “I can figure out the Bible by myself, thank you very much.”

Because some Protestant worship takes on the chicken-soup-for-the-soul attributes, they have a difficult time understanding Catholic worship. Indeed, some fundamentalists believe what they see in Catholic mass is idolatry. Yet, to understand a Catholic, you must take a journey with me, into the mystery of a romance with our Savior.

The Introduction and Flirtation
“How do I love thee, let me count the ways....”

I love thee, my Jesus by learning thy Holy Word daily and hiding it in my heart. 
[And yet, reading--studying--well, I study for school and read to become educated in many areas. So studying isn’t worship, nor is it unique to worship. Is there anything more I have reserved for just You, dearest Lord, just You?]
I love thee, my Jesus by praising and giving thee thanks. 
[And yet--I praise my children and thank my dear spouse. So praising and thanksgiving aren’t worship, nor are they unique to worship. Is there anything more I have reserved for just You, dearest Lord, just You?]
I love thee, my Jesus by lifting up my most intimate pleas and petitions in prayer. 
[And yet, I ask my husband often for help, and petition politicians and even once “prayed for judgment” in court. So even praying--beseeching--isn’t worship, nor is it unique to worship. Is there anything I have reserved for just You, dearest Lord, just You?]
Perhaps I am left only with the tender earnestness of my worship, the sensation of ethereal holiness as I study, petition, praise and give you thanksgiving. Is it the feelings that makes what I do change from mundane to spiritual? Is it worship when it is profound and intense, but not when I offer praise to my teachers, my husband, my children?
Aha! as I remember your commandment, I believe I know why it is worship, those things that I do in my quiet times. 
You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to worship them or serve them... Exodus 20:3-5
It is my kneeling and bowing before you that makes it go from everyday praising and petitioning into real worship! And yet, wait.... the Bible records many instances where people bow to each other.

 So I am left with nothing unique to my worship--nothing I can offer to God except to make the secular sacred by giving it to Him.

Love, Devotion and Marriage

You call the church Your bride. How am I married to You? I read in scripture that to You adultery and idolatry are related, God? This is confusing. I have no idols, I think.... Is this the key to another, perhaps higher form of worship--exclusive to you and not found in any other form? 

What is adultery in worshipping God? Is it the earnestness, the form, the praise and prayer? What is this idolatry/adultery worship?

Is hand-holding adultery? Hugging? There is nothing in scripture that says these things would be committing adultery. What about a step forward in intimacy, what about kissing? Well, you can kiss your children and even close friends, that is not cheating on your spouse. Even though I kiss my husband and my children, they are very dissimilar. One has an element of sensual love and the other, well vastly different. Could I explain the difference to one who had never kissed? 

Then there is the consummation of a marriage, the most exquisite of intimacies with your spouse. Outside of marriage it is a very deep and serious sin--it is called adultery. This is what God has warned us is equivalent to idolatry. So what, dearest Lord, is this in our worship? How does one commit adultery in worship? Does one have to have an idol we clothe, feed, and pray to, to commit idolatry? Is that not what Catholics do by bowing and praying to Mary in worship? 

What is Adultery in Worship?
Well, to a Catholic, there are common forms of intimacy, like prayer, petition, praise and study. These do not constitute the fullness of worship. They are likened to handshakes, kisses and hugs. They are the beginning of intimacy but can be done to others who are family and friends. Mary and the saints in heaven are supposed to be our family, so to kneel in petition to them is no different from those who kneeled in the Bible to petition their family or Israel’s kings. It is not an intimate worship. It rather is relationship-oriented and a form of devotion or respect  when done to kings and queens. 

But, for Christ there is another level the Catholics have that is to them the ultimate form of worship this side of heaven. It is reserved only for the Godhead. It is called the Eucharist. 

Each week, the whole church, the Bride, is commanded by her Lord and King, to meet her in the exclusive and most intimate of communion. It is the mystery of Christ with us, Christ in us and we in Christ. We share the cup of His blood poured out for us, we eat the manna from Heaven, the bread broken for us which is His body. We are united in Him and that is the highest form of worship known to humans. It is an encounter with the Divine that He will share with nothing or no one. It alone is set aside, sanctified and made holy in a way that no study, prayer or praise can do alone. 

While Catholics come together at mass and begin the dance of love with their creator in singing Psalms, reading His holy word in scripture and lifting up praise and petitions, our worship has only begun. It is when we kneel and watch the bread being blessed by the anointed and consecrated priests, we are entering a form of miraculous worship, that eternal and timeless making present the God’s Holy sacrifice of the cross. This is the perfect, highest and ultimate adoration found in the passion of Christ. He shares His passion for His bride and we respond with faith and submission. It is the sweetest intimacy from which flows His eternal life into ours that we may become a life-giving force for the world.  The parallel to the consummation of marriage is profound and mysterious.

His body is broken and poured out in love for us and as we partake in Him, we become more fully His body. Therefore, having received His grace, we go and break ourselves to restore the broken of the world to Him. That is the crowning form of worship which we do not share with any secular or casual form. It is for God alone.
Because the Protestant church services do not include the transubstantiation of the Bread and Wine, they do not have the same form of this worship. Their communion service is symbolic and therefore does not have the same intense complexity as the Catholic.
So while, in a sense, the Protestant forms of worship never goes beyond the kissing and hugging stage. They have not experienced the rite of consummation, so they have no higher forms of worship than studying, prayers of petitions and praise. They feel like they are engaged in idolatry when they use these forms, especially kneeling in petitions to God. But in the Catholic mind, these forms are not necessarily worship, but are part of the beginning stages of intimacy that are worship only when they are done before God. Do not misunderstand, these forms can and do constitute worship or Satan would never have told Christ to bow at his feet and worship him. The wise men would not have journeyed across the Arabian peninsula if they could not have worshipped at the feet of the babe who was to be King. This indeed is worship, but not always.

Just as it is not worship when Lot fell down prostrate in front of the two strangers who turned out to be angels visiting Sodom, so bowing does not necessarily mean worship. Just as kissing your child and kissing your husband are very different acts of love. This is the same understanding Catholics have for praying to saints. Praying isn’t necessarily worship. Studying isn’t necessarily worship, kneeling isn’t necessarily worship and praise isn’t necessarily worship. It is only when these things are within the ritual of intimacy with Christ, they are worship and when they lead us to the Eucharist, we have found the most precious form and sacrament of worship that is exclusively towards God and God alone. 

Just as Israel as a group, would be called to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices and celebrate special holy commencements, so Catholic believe that you cannot separate the highest forms of worship from the whole of the community. We can worship Christ individually, but there is a power, a glory, a holiness that is found when the Body of Christ is joined in adoration of the King, from the saints and angels in heaven singing “Alleluia” to the Christian pilgrims on earth to those in purgatory, we are all one church and part of the one body of Christ. It is when our hearts and souls and spirits combine to one resounding Body--His Church becomes His Body through the Eucharist, that all glory and honor, all devotion and reverence, blessings and praises, thanksgiving and love reach their powerful zenith in worship.