A priest friend and I recently were discussing the nature of worship, and the question of when during the mass an ordinary layperson might perceive being in the act of worship. As a fan of Rudolph Otto, Mircea Eliade, and like-minded philosophers of religion, I think this is an important question. How do we orient ourselves toward the holy? How do we perceive being in relationship with God, the Wholly Other? What is the state of one who has been created in the presence of the Creator? And when we engage in community ritual to facilitate this process, what are we doing?
In The Eastern Orthodox Church: A New History (Yale University Press, 2020, pp. 151-153), John McGuckin describes a helpful range of Eastern terms relating to attitudes of respect and worship: latreia, douleia, hyperdouleia, proskynesis, and aspasia. These Greek terms he translates as “adoration, worship or reverence, special worship or reverence, bowing down, and kissing (the hand),” respectively, even as the English word “worship” could be used to describe any of them. While the kissing of aspasia might be an appropriate form of respect to give an elder or the emperor, the reverence of douleia is meant for angels and saints, and hyperdouleia, exalted reverence, is the honor we give to Mary, the Mother of God. Proskynesis may take the form of bowing and kissing holy icons or relics. As Basil the Great teaches, the honor given to the icon goes to its prototype. Yet the worship of latreia, adoration, is given to God alone, and it is this sense that generally is implied when we speak of “worship.” Of course, the confusion underlying the iconoclastic controversies is the fact that the outward forms of respect used for each of these may look similar. Intention matters.
When I consider the liturgical and paraliturgical expressions of the Roman Catholic experience today, some seem to speak more directly to the sense of worship as adoration of God. In the mass, it is possible for the opening hymn to describe the people gathered, or to sing a communal praise of God. While praising God in song clearly has potential to be an act of worship, if the hymn raises awareness of the people as the mystical Body of Christ gathered, perhaps that could qualify as worship too. God may be “Wholly Other,” but in Christianity Christ also has come near as one of us, and we are called to be part of his glory. But it does feel odd to point to oneself or one’s neighbor and call it worship.
For clarity of orientation, the Gloria (or the Holy, Holy, or in the Eastern tradition, the Cherubic Hymn) most definitely is worship, presuming people’s minds and hearts are in harmony with their voices. To exalt God is to state that God is God, even as we are not.
I have a harder time understanding the readings and the homily as intrinsic acts of “worship,” as they are more receptive. If one welcomes the Word and embraces it with joy and love, though, an act of worship in one’s heart might happen in these moments. Good preaching should aim to evoke this act of hospitality.
The Offertory is the moment we are to offer our hearts and our lives as well as the fruit of the earth and work of human hands. From the layperson’s perspective, this has the potential to be a time of worship and trust, a sacrificial offering of what we have and are, that God might transform it. While this flows into the Eucharistic Prayer, and such a spirit could or should continue, if I’m brutally honest, as a person in the pew, it’s common enough to be bored through this until we get to the words of institution and the elevation of the host, at which one’s heart is more easily moved to the recognition of “My Lord and my God.” If I’m doing well, I spend the Eucharistic prayer
offering to God the people who need my prayers, thinking about the communion of saints present, remembering the dead, and praying for the Holy Spirit to transform us and our messed-up world. Is mere intercession an act of worship on my part, though? To my mind, pure adoration seems to be the simple expression of recognizing God as God. Perhaps silent articulation of human dependence suffices. I do wish I could spend more Eucharistic prayers really sensing the sacramental time travel of Christ presiding at the Last Supper or the eschatological wedding feast of the Lamb.
The act of receiving communion begs to be an act of worship. My “Amen,” is supposed to mean my affirmation that this is the Body of Christ that I receive. I know it, instinctively. I crave communion and miss it if I cannot be present. But do I feel my “Amen” with the reverence of worship, of true adoration? It is so easy to be distracted by the need to move into procession gracefully, and perhaps to sing at the same time. Minds and hearts in harmony with voices, St. Benedict counsels, but it can be hard sometimes.
Finally, the dismissal is command to take this experience into the world, to proclaim the Gospel with our lives, to go in peace, to love and serve the Lord. The closing hymn, if well-chosen, if led with skill, again invites the praise of worship.
If we sometimes wonder why people find mass boring, perhaps the answer has something to do with how well our liturgical space and action evoke a natural sense of worship and true adoration of God. Yes, faith is about more than just “smells and bells” or pure theater. A welcoming, engaging community focused on fulfilling the mission of Jesus Christ matters intensely. At the same time, beautiful sensory elements, including high-quality preaching, invite wonder and awe, opening hearts to attend to the mystery of God present among us. We want to know and be
known. We want to be transported beyond ourselves. We want to be caught up in worship. It is a deep part of human nature to want to recognize God as God, and ourselves as human. Yes, God is present in the everyday, boring stuff of life, too. But the heart wants to worship. How can our liturgies and our faith communities make it exquisitely clear that God is the only one worth adoring?