In my last post I reviewed many acts that when directed toward God can be worship but are not exclusive to worship. This includes actions like praying, bowing, offering praise, or showing honor and respect to others. Each of these acts has a context when it is appropriate for other people to receive our plea or our honor. There is only one action defined in Scripture that is only appropriate to direct to God and is exclusive to worship, and that is to offer sacrifice.
The early Church faced one of its first challenges in the dispute over whether the Gentile converts coming into the faith had to first be circumcised and then keep the Mosaic law. Church leadership established the Biblical pattern for resolving conflicts – they met in the council of Jerusalem and allowed the Holy Spirit through St. Peter to guide them to resolution. They determined it was not necessary for the Gentiles to follow the Mosaic law. In the letter they sent forth with their instructions, they demanded quite little from the Gentile converts. But one thing they were clear about – they had to abstain from what had been sacrificed to idols (Acts 15:29, 21:25). Sacrifice is the singular Biblical activity that is exclusive to worship. Sacrifice can only be offered to God.
When the book of Hebrews tells us Christ’s sacrifice was “once for all” (Hebrews 7:27,10:10), many Protestants interpret that to mean there is no longer a requirement to worship by offering sacrifice to God. That would not be the Catholic view. The Catholic understanding would be while Christ’s death did happen at one moment in history, it is our sacrifice for our redemption, and is to be offered by all people, for all time. St. Paul affirms this understanding by referring to the cup of blessing as a participation in the blood of Christ, and the bread we break as a participation in the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 10:16). And if you continue reading, he relates this practice to offering sacrifice:
“Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. Consider the practice of Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices partners in the altar? What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons” (1 Corinthians 10:17-21). St. Paul is clear this offering of the body and blood of Christ is the partaking of a sacrifice, and you cannot participate in this sacrifice along with the sacrifice of pagans, which the council of Jerusalem made clear.
There are many other Scriptures that tell us when we participate in the Eucharist we are offering sacrifice. St. Paul writes to the Romans his priestly ministry is needed “so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:16). When we are told to offer the Eucharist in “remembrance” of Christ, we have to understand how twelve Jewish men who were celebrating Passover would have understood Christ’s words. It is not simply looking back and reflecting on the past. It is an active participation in the event being celebrated, just as Paul wrote to the Corinthians – it is a participation in the body and blood of Christ. The Jewish people understand by celebrating Passover the past becomes present to them and they are celebrating the exodus as though they were there. We too celebrate Eucharist knowing we are united across time to the one sacrifice of Christ. It is why St. Paul writes “Christ our paschal lamb has been sacrificed,” so we should therefore keep the feast. (1 Corinthians 5:7-8) For a more thorough review of what it means to do this in “remembrance” of Christ, you can read these posts: The Eucharist — Christ as Our Passover Lamb, The Eucharist as Sacrifice, The Eucharist as Remembrance and the Eucharist as an Offering.
When Jesus meets the Samaritan woman in John’s Gospel, he tells her the time will come when all true worshippers will worship the Father in “spirit and in truth” (John 4:23-24). There have been many different interpretations proposed of what it means to worship in “spirit and in truth.” For those Protestants who believe it simply means that our heart must align with our worship, as Catholics we can certainly agree with the thought that our hearts must be true to our actions. Anyone can simply go through the outward signs of worship and yet their heart not be truly disposed to worship.
But others want to propose worshipping in “spirit” means our physical actions are not important – the time doesn’t matter, the place doesn’t matter, the outward signs of worship like liturgy do not matter. Taken to its logical conclusion there should also be no need for believers to gather together (a physical action) or to sing or pray aloud together as these actions are not “spirit,” although few would take it that far. The idea worshipping in “spirit” negates physical aspects of worship would be a misinterpretation of what the Bible means when referring to “spirit.” For example, St. Paul refers to the manna the Israelites received in the desert as “spiritual” food and the rock that provided them water as a “spiritual” rock (1 Corinthians 10:3-4 KVJ). This does not mean the manna was not also physical food, or the rock was not a real rock. The Old Testaments testifies they were very tangible and real. He refers to Christ’s body after the resurrection as being a “spiritual” body (1 Corinthians 15:44). This doesn’t negate the truth it was Christ’s actual physical body that was resurrected (John 20:20).
St. Paul writes to the Romans “I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1). He certainly didn’t see “spiritual worship” as having nothing to do with the physical, or nothing to do with offering sacrifice.
He also writes to them “those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh, you are in the Spirit, if the Spirit of God really dwells in you” (Romans 8:8-9). Clearly when St. Paul tells the Romans they are not “in the flesh” he doesn’t mean they no longer have bodies. But he does tell them what it means to be “in the Spirit” — the Holy Spirit dwells within them. Worshipping in “spirit” simply refers to the truth that the Holy Spirit will dwell within believers and correctly direct their worship.
Sometimes lost in the passage where Jesus tells the Samaritan woman believers will worship “in spirit and in truth,” is the understanding that by worship, the Samaritan woman is referring to offering sacrifice. Jesus’ statement is in response to the woman’s profession “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain; and you say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship” (John 4:19-20). “This mountain” is a reference to Mount Gerizim, which is where the Samaritans offered sacrifice to God, as opposed to the temple in Jerusalem. The Jews met in synagogues throughout the land to pray the psalms and study Scripture. The thought by some that the Jews did not have “direct access” to pray to God without a priest is not accurate. But to offer sacrifice was reserved to the temple in Jerusalem and did require a priest. When Jesus responds to her that it will be neither this mountain nor in Jerusalem where sacrifice will be offered but “the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth,” he is speaking to the truth that offering sacrifice will no longer be limited to one specific place but will be universal.
This is why the prophet Malachi tells us “For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering; for my name is great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts” (Malachi 1:11). There is no “pure offering” other than Christ. And Malachi tells of a time where incense would be offered in every place (not just the temple), and a pure offering will be made. This is the universal worship referred to in the book of Hebrews that tells us “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel.” (Hebrews 12:22-24). No matter where we offer the sacrifice of the Mass around the world, we enter the heavenly Jerusalem and there along with all the angels and saints are joined to the one eternal offering of Christ.
So does it matter where we offer sacrifice? Catholics would say yes. Canon law states “The Eucharistic celebration is to be carried out in a sacred place unless in a particular case necessity requires otherwise.” Just as God showed Moses a vision of the heavenly sanctuary and directed Moses to build a copy for the Israelites to worship (Hebrews 8:4-5), our churches reflect the heavenly sanctuary. They are consecrated and set apart for worship.
Some will point out the first Christians worshipped in homes, not buildings dedicated to worship (Acts 2:46) and will use this to promote the idea sacred space that has been consecrated for worship is not Biblical. This overlooks the fact that the practice of Christianity was not legal under the Roman empire, which would have prohibited the first Christians from building churches. As soon as the empire began to tolerate the practice of Christianity in 313, Christians began to build churches. It also overlooks the fact that the homes used by Christians were houses that were given to the community for worship, or parts of the home were dedicated to worship. While the outside appeared to be a normal home, inside sacred space had been carved out for worship. The “house churches” today that have become popular where people meet for prayer and then the family returns to watching TV is in no way comparable to how Christians worshipped in homes in the early centuries of the Church. For example, one of the oldest house churches that survives today is the Dura-Europos church in Syria. It was in use somewhere around the years 233-256, and is a normal domestic house that was converted for worship. It contains frescos on the walls of Christ the Good Shepherd, healing of the paralytic, Christ and Peter walking on the water, women at the tomb, and the Samaritan woman at the well. It has both a meeting room and a room converted as a baptistery.
When Protestants abandoned the understanding that the heart of worship is sacrifice, they were left with only those acts that when directed to God are worship – offering praise, bowing, or praying. But they had no action that was exclusive to worship. This is an opinion, but I think perhaps that is why some so easily want to accuse Catholics of “worshipping” the saints, and especially Mary. Even though it’s not Scriptural to believe that we should only bow to God, or praise God, or pray to God as was covered here, when that became the totality of Protestant worship it is much easier to confuse the lines between these activities of what is due only to God. For Catholics the line is clear – while we may direct praise, or prayer, or bowing to God as part of worship or to others as an act of honor or respect, sacrifice is offered only to God. In our Eucharistic worship we offer to the Father, in the Holy Spirit the sacrifice of the death and resurrection of Christ, our pure offering. This sacrifice alone can make perfect those who draw near (Hebrews 10:1).