Why do we worship?
It is a fundamental question.
We could say that we worship because it is a commandment. “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.” Yet, is this why we worship, in obedience to a law that says we must? I don’t believe so.
I think that worship is a movement of the heart. It is something that arises from our innermost being and, upon occasion, allows us to glimpse, like Moses, the glory of God in a single moment that is filled with the eternal. Owing to this, that vision of God may come to us in solitude or in the company of others. It may come to us in a cathedral with a thousand others by our side in cascading sound and melody, or it may come to us in a hermit’s hut in silence. As each of us worships, it is as though we are a singular figure kneeling before the manger yet representing all of humanity.
As we worship, however, we join a current of others, from all places and all ages, and that powerful current carries us together, and alone, into the presence of God. As our worship is offered in Christ, it becomes an act of his whole body. So, it reaches out and incorporates all those who are his. Even the housebound, the elderly in the loneliness of a nursing home, the prisoner in his cell are caught up with us in adoration. As we worship, we are joined by all those who have gone before us in faith and the whole company of heaven are as close as the neighbor at our side.
Yet, worship is more than an ethereal experience, for we are not gnostics. We recognize that we are made up of body, mind and spirit. The incarnation is rooted in the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us. Our worship, therefore, would be incomplete if each part of what constitutes our humanity did not contribute. The whole person is called upon. Perhaps this is why we take a certain posture when we pray. In scripture we can find a basis for standing and lifting our hands in prayer (1 Tim. 2:8). I can also find the example of Christ kneeling in prayer (Luke 22:41) and yet other references of lying prostrate (Matt. 26:38-39). We can even take the example of David and sit as we pray (II Sam. 7:18). To insist upon one or the other posture for prayer, however, is to miss the point. In our worship, we bring our bodies with us and there is an innate sense that our bodies should reflect our attitude of worship.
In worship, we also bring our voices. There is a kinship between the human voice and the Word. There is a kinship between our every breath and God’s Spirit. In the very acts of speaking and singing we may bring what is profoundly human into contact with that which is eternal. Whether in choruses, hymns, choirs in harmony, or chant, that which is most human may rise in praise to that which is eternal. We express this as well, with both mind and voice, in corporate prayer.
Now, I realize that there are many, who object to the idea of corporate prayer. I’ve always found this puzzling. It seems obvious, at least to me, that when Christ was teaching his disciples how to pray, he began with corporate prayer. “This then is how you should pray: Our Father in heaven…” (Matt. 6:9) To pray together – “Our Father” – requires the attention of the mind and the activation of the voice. It also allows us to reflect our unity as the Body of Christ in its very opening words, for he is not only “my” Father in heaven, he is “our” Father. In our corporate prayer, with voices joined, we not only pray, but we reaffirm in our prayer that there is “One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.” (Eph. 4:6)
As we bring the fullness of who we are to our worship, we bring new possibilities. With the creative choice that belongs to art, in our worship we select essential symbols, substances, words and actions to bring before God – fire and water, bread and wine, stillness and movement, spoken words and silence, music and contemplation. As we worship, these elements carry with them the whole of God’s creation in its rich variety, finding their true place and worth in service of him.
If I were to ask what I could do or say to truly worship God, I would be reduced to silence. Perhaps I might venture to lie prostrate and mute, for I am unable to worship God as I should. Maybe it would be best to leave it to a silent gesture or the flame of a candle, for I have no words, no thoughts, no actions that are adequate. Yet, Christ is the Word made flesh and we must worship with our lips as well as our lives; and it is our worship, however fragmentary, partial or inadequate, that allows us to glimpse, if only for a moment, the glory of God.