What Is Worship? Sacrifice, Participation, and Beauty
Worship, as the Baltimore Catechism states, is the giving of honor to God by various acts.
But what exactly does worship consist of? The catechism, without elaborating, gives prayer and sacrifice as two examples. Both Scripture and the Church’s liturgical tradition example allow us to elaborate on this definition. Reviewing what has been revealed to us points to three particularly salient aspects of worship: sacrificial communion, transformative participation in mystery, and contemplation of beauty.
The Mass: Sacrificial Communion
The Eucharistic celebration always includes: the proclamation of the Word of God; thanksgiving to God the Father for all his benefits, above all the gift of his Son; the consecration of bread and wine; and participation in the liturgical banquet by receiving the Lord’s body and blood. These elements constitute one single act of worship.
- The Mass is the foundation for our understanding of what worship is. It is what forms and informs our devotions outside of the Mass and it is the end to which we are constantly journeying in all our prayers and works.
At the center of the Mass is Christ’s sacrifice and ours which is joined to His. In our society, this notion of worship as sacrifice is a foreign concept, perhaps even in some Catholic circles. Instead we tend to think of worship in terms of praise, as this writer points out.
Why is sacrifice at the core of worship?
Let’s go back to the definition of worship offered by the Baltimore Catechism as giving honor to God. One way of defining honor is giving someone what is due to Him. In the case of God, what is due to Him, as our Creator, is nothing less than our whole selves, as
On the cross, Christ showed how to render perfect worship to God. In imitating Christ, we too must offer our whole selves to God. This acknowledgement of the debt that we owe to God establishes a relationship between man and his Creator. Sacrifice to God thus leads to communion, as St. Paul said,
The chalice of benediction, which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? And the bread, which we break, is it not the partaking of the body of the Lord? For we, being many, are one bread, one body, all that partake of one bread. Behold Israel according to the flesh: are not they that eat of the sacrifices, partakers of the altar? (1 Corinthians 10:16-18; Douay-Rheims translation)
Transformative Participation in Mystery
The Mass, of course, is not simply sacrifice, but our participation in Christ’s sacrifice, as St. Paul indicates above. This aspect of worship is well illustrated in one Old Testament passage that foreshadows the Eucharist, where Isaiah glimpses the worship of angels in heaven:
In the year King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne, with the train of his garment filling the temple. Seraphim were stationed above; each of them had six wings: with two they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they hovered. One cried out to the other:
“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts!
All the earth is filled with his glory!”
At the sound of that cry, the frame of the door shook and the house was filled with smoke. Then I said, “Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
Then one of the seraphim flew to me, holding an ember which he had taken with tongs from the altar. He touched my mouth with it. “See,” he said, “now that this has touched your lips, your wickedness is removed, your sin purged” (Isaiah 6:1-7).
Imagine how out of place Isaiah must have felt. He is a creature of the earth who has been caught up to the heavenly heights and witnesses something he realizes no mortal can see and still live. And yet, far from being cast out, the sacrifice of the altar is extended to Isaiah. The hot coals that burned the sacrifice on the altar now singe his lips.
Participation is thus also transformative. We are changed by the way we worship. Sacrifice necessarily requires a change in the one making the offering. And, our own offering is purified and elevated through our encounter with Christ’s own sacrifice.
What we participate in must always in some sense remain a mystery—if we understand mystery in the sense of the original Greek word as something that is hidden. In the Eucharist the mystery that is God is veiled in the Eucharistic bread and wine. So also in Isaiah 6, God is never seen—only the “train of His garment filling the temple.” In much the same way that God only permitted Moses to observe Him from behind, so also Isaiah can only gaze upon God indirectly. And for much of the scene we can only see God through the eyes of the angels who look upon Him.
Contemplation of Beauty
Worship necessarily is also contemplation of the beauty of God. Such is the beauty of God that biblical writers who describe the worship of the heavenly court cannot describe Him directly in His essence. Instead He is depicted by way of analogy and by His surroundings. This tendency is evident in Isaiah above it is also on display in Revelation:
At once I was caught up in spirit. A throne was there in heaven, and on the throne sat one whose appearance sparkled like jasper and carnelian. Around the throne was a halo as brilliant as an emerald. Surrounding the throne I saw twenty-four other thrones on which twenty-four elders sat, dressed in white garments and with gold crowns on their heads. From the throne came flashes of lightning, rumblings, and peals of thunder. Seven flaming torches burned in front of the throne, which are the seven spirits of God.
In front of the throne was something that resembled a sea of glass like crystal (Revelation 4:2-6).
At the forefront of those worshipping are the four living creatures, whose six wings are covered in eyes inside and out. It’s a strange physical attribute indeed, but does it not make some sense in context? God has given the angels a multiplicity of eyes so that they might be able to gaze upon His beauty all the more.
We too are invited to worship God by adoring His beauty. Only in the next chapter do we get a description of Christ as the lamp who was slain. All of creation is involved in worshipping the lamb, Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, everything in the universe, cry out:
“To the one who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor, glory and might, forever and ever,” (Revelation 5:13).
This lamb is the same one about whom John the Baptist spoke when Christ appeared to him—
“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). In Revelation, worship once again culminates in communion—what the book calls the ‘wedding supper of the lamb,’ which is the eternal celebration of the Eucharistic feast. To this final supper are invited not just the four living creatures and the angels but all those who are saints (see Revelation 19:9).
That wedding is between the lamb and the bride—which is the Church. In this mystical encounter, the bride has been transformed by her encounter with the lamb. She too is now beautiful:
Let us rejoice and be glad
and give him glory.
For the wedding day of the Lamb has come,
his bride has made herself ready.
She was allowed to wear
a bright, clean linen garment.”
(The linen represents the righteous
deeds of the holy ones)
To our secularized society, worship may seem like such a chore. We prefer to be spectators who are entertained. Or information buckets waited to be filled with facts. Or, all too often, in certain contexts, worship can become a therapeutic exercise in self-expression.
Scripture and tradition show us that worship is so much more than this. It is a sacrificial act that establishes communion with God. It is a participation in His mystery and a contemplation of His beauty that utterly transform us.