Venerating God, Worshiping Nothing

I’ve been an Orthodox Christian now for a bit more than 21 years. During that time, I’ve heard (and enjoyed hearing) some things that struck me as cute quips or snappy evangelistic comebacks.

One, which I thought of as just a snappy comeback to the charge that we Orthodox “worship icons,” went like this:

You just don’t know what worship is. We’re merely venerating the saints or the events depicted in those icons. We worship only God.

Maybe you merely venerate God and worship nothing.

“Venerate God and worship nothing” struck me as true of my former tradition after my experience of Orthodoxy.

The experience of real worship had been a strong draw to Orthodoxy, a fulfillment of a long longing, and the answer to my trouble-making in “Worship Committees” and such, about un-worshipful gospel songs — songs directed to one another rather than to God.

Let’s take just one example, far from the worst:

I serve a risen savior, He’s in the world today.
I know that He is living, whatever men may say.
In all the world around me, I see His loving care,
and every time I need Him, He’s always there.
He lives! He lives! Christ Jesus lives today!
He walks with me and talks with me along life’s weary way.
He lives, He lives, salvation to impart.
You ask me how I know He lives? He lives within my heart!

God is third person singular, a topic of discussion, not a second person singular Thee/Thou or You/Your, an object of worship. And there’s way too much “I.”

Hand me a contemporary Christian “hymnbook,” or whatever they call them these days, and I could go on all day and all night.

But my objections to that sort of thing fell on deaf ears because some people liked those songs.

If there is any of that—singing about God to each other rather than singing to God—in Orthodox services, it has escaped my notice for 21 years. And I love that absence.

But given the insensate response to my concerns within my Protestant context, all I felt comfortable saying about Orthodox worship to non-Orthodox was “come and see,” hoping that my invitee would experience the fulfillment I experienced. “Venerate God and worship nothing” was insider talk, not really useful.

Or so I thought. My reticence ended Thursday, December 13, around 5:30 PM.

After running an errand and catching the evening news, I listened to podcasts as I drove to a meeting an hour away. A particular podcast brought home to me that the quip about veneration and worship is literally true in an objective sense, not just as an allegation about subjective intentions.

That was a revelation, though probably not a life-altering epiphany for me as I’m already Orthodox. But it may be a life-altering epiphany for you.

I’ve transcribed much of that podcast for you, though I’d encourage you to pour a coffee (or whatever) and savor the less than 14 minutes it takes to hear all of The Sacrifice of Worship, spoken in Father Stephen Freeman’s deeply reflective, gentle southern drawl.

My convention in transcribing the podcast is that italics represent emphasis in Father Stephen’s delivery, whereas boldface represents my added emphasis:

… Sacrifice itself was part of the universal language of of ancient religion … This was worship.

Today, “sacrifice” has passed into more generalized cultural metaphors that have nothing to do with worship, and “worship,” the word itself, has become a vague concept, generally associated with prayer and praise and hymn-singing. And as such, it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish what many contemporary Christians describe as worship from the treatment of various rock, sport and entertainment stars, or patriotism and ideological fetishism.

At a large gathering of some tens of thousands, hands are lifted in the air, people are singing, the music swells — and if I stop the description at that point, it is possible that this is a moment of praise and worship. But if, however, I note that the venue was a concert, then it’s mere adulation of a celebrity. But … the bare bones, what I call the “grammar” of the action — is utterly the same …◊

So fast-forward now to the setting of an Orthodox Church. Here, there are numerous icons of holy men and women, saints, adorning the Church. Candles and lamps burn before them. A non-Orthodox contemporary Christian, visiting for the first time, becomes distinctly uncomfortable and thinks to himself “they are worshiping saints!

Somehow, the psychological confusion that is contemporary culture can distinguish between the worship of God and the adulation of celebrities, but accuses traditional Christianity — that is, Orthodox Christianity — of violating the second and third commandments.

What we have is a clash of grammars.

So I suggest a working definition for contemporary worship. It would be this. It would mean “any number of activities, including singing, dancing, waving hands, shouting, weeping, when in a religious setting. The same actions in a non-religious setting are not worship.

But in the grammar of Orthodoxy — and, may I say, in the grammar of scripture — worship has a different definition. Worship may be defined, just as it was in Abraham’s day [when Abraham progressed toward sacrifice of Isaac], … as the offering of a sacrifice to a deity.

The trouble comes when one grammar seeks to understand the other. That which the Orthodox render to saints and holy objects, such as relics, the cross, icons and such, is understood to be honor or veneration, for no sacrifices are ever offered to saints as though they were gods. Note this carefully

This distinction is difficult for contemporary Christians because the notion of sacrifice in its original meaning has been lost. It is certainly the case than honor and veneration are given to God, but they do not of themselves constitute worship.

The contemporary road map of religion consists almost exclusively of various psychological states. The honor given a rock star is understood to differ from that given to God based on the intention within the person who is giving the honor. To the outside observer, the actions might appear indistinguishable. But, we’re told, God knows the heart and so God can tell the difference between the two.

Sacrifice has largely disappeared from the experience of contemporary Christianity. The Protestant Reformation mounted something of a frontal assault on medieval Catholicism’s treatment of the Eucharist as a sacrificial offering … [Catholic counter-arguments] fell on deaf ears — at least for the reason that the ears wanted to be deaf …

I jump in here to note that the Orthodox view of the Eucharist is essentially identical with that of Roman Catholicism, which the Reformers and their spiritual progeny rejected. Father Stephen makes that point himself, but in a way that seemed a digression from my point in this blog.

… [In contemporary Christianity] “Do this in remembrance of me” becomes a mere memorial and then simply becomes a means of forgetting …

The Mystery of our salvation as well as they Mystery that we described as “worship” is found within the sacrifice of Christ. Abraham and all of ancient Israel would have understood worship to largely be identical with sacrifice … Christians of the first millennium-and-a-half understood that the bloodless sacrifice of the Eucharistic offering was the central act of worship. Their hymns and psalms happened as part of that context …

We continue to offer the bloodless sacrifice‡ of Christ’s death. It is the single perfect offering of all of humanity, made through the person of God’s Son ….

By a strange twist of history, the praise that took its meaning from the sacrifice itself by analogy came to displace the sacrifice and made praise itself the essential element of worship.

As hungry as my Protestant self was for real worship, my understanding of it did indeed stop at, essentially, “praise of God and to God, with no calculated sentimentality and no focus on one another in our songs and hymns.” Praise to God was my “essential element of worship.” Worship wasn’t “about me.”

I wasn’t wrong, but far short. So are you if praise (or a sermon) is your essential element of worship.

An implication of this is that if your church “serves communion” only rarely, then at best you worship only rarely. If your church treats the communion elements only as a remembering-with-props, then you worship never.†

And sacrifice properly speaking is a ritual or rite. As Father Stephen said in his opening (part of the initial ellipsis in the transcription above):

When God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac, in Genesis 22, there was no questioning on Abraham’s part about what was intended. He understood precisely what was involved in such a thing.

There was wood to be gathered, an altar of stones to be constructed, the victim was to be bound, and then the slitting of its throat, the gushing forth of blood, all consummated in the burning fires of the now-completed offering.‡

You cannot turn your contemporary Christian church’s wafers and grape juice, prepared in the church kitchen by who-knows-who the night before and dumped down the disposal after the service, into the Christian Eucharistic sacrifice, the true body and blood of Christ, just by fervently thinking of it that way.µ

You need, at a minimum, to be in a Church with an epiklesis, and that’s part of a whole package.

If you are as I was, then right about now you’re saying “Father Stephen called this the grammar of scripture. Now put up or shut up. Show it to me in The Book.”

Okay:

16 The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?
17 For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread.
18 Behold Israel after the flesh: are not they which eat of the sacrifices partakers of the altar?
19 What say I then? that the idol is any thing, or that which is offered in sacrifice to idols is any thing?
20 But I say, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils, and not to God: and I would not that ye should have fellowship with devils.
21 Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils: ye cannot be partakers of the Lord’s table, and of the table of devils.

I Corinthians 10.

Satisfied? Now what are you going to do about it? Do you care enough to forsake your praise services and find a Church that worships?

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Notes:

◊ Thus it is especially ironic that they accuse us, the Orthodox, of worshiping things that aren’t God because they don’t notice the difference—a difference that I didn’t notice, either, in a way that I could articulate before now. Mea culpa! We do bring baggage into the Church with us!

† Another implication is that Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans and the handful of Reformed congregations that have adopted weekly communion are not my focus here. I’m not indifferent to the differences among us, but sussing those out is not my task for today, if ever.

‡ As I labored over this blog, some more personal implications of my “revelation” emerged, such as freshened appreciation for the shed blood of Christ once-for-all, the predicate of our now-bloodless Eucharistic sacrifice. The desire to preach to others is rarely what I get out of Fr. Stephen.

µ Maybe it’s even prepared in a commissary: I and thousands of others engaged in that sort of “communion” on New Year’s Eve 1970-71 in at Assembly Hall in Champaign-Urbana, under Intervarsity Christian Fellowship auspices, so shallow was our parachurch understanding, so feckless those few present who knew better.

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About readerjohn

I am a retired lawyer and an Orthodox Christian, living in a collapsing civilization, the modern West. There are things I'll miss when it's gone. There are others I won't. That it is collapsing is partly due to calculated subversion, summarized by the moniker "deathworks." This blog is now dedicated to exposing and warring against those deathwork - without ceasing to spread a little light.
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