There is a sobering passage in the Book of Leviticus that speaks to the need for priests to be faithful to the prescribed liturgical norms. While the offense described in this passage is complex, the main point is clear enough: The liturgy is revealed by God and is not the personal plaything of the priest or the congregation. Although some of the liturgical edicts of the Old Covenant have been fulfilled and are therefore no longer binding, only the Church, in careful discernment, can set liturgical norms; God’s priests and people must not stray from them.
Let’s take a look at the text consider its sobering reminder:
Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered strange fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord has said: ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’” (Leviticus 10:1-3).
Wow, two priests struck dead by God for a liturgical violation! The severity of this moment ought to make us more cautious about brushing off liturgical abuses as “no big deal.” And while not all liturgical errors are equally serious, intentionally dispensing with sacred norms is highly displeasing to God.
The sin of Nadab and Abihu is complex and the nature of their offense is somewhat debated. A common explanation sets forth the following problems with what they did:
- Although the wording is not completely clear, it is likely that Nadab and Abihu each took “his” own censer rather than the sacred thurible of the sanctuary. However, it is also possible that the “his” referred to Aaron, and that Nadab and Abihu each took Aaron’s censer (see # 3 below).
- They seem to have offered it together, whereas the incense was generally offered by only one priest at a time.
- They intruded upon the functions of the high priest, who alone burnt incense in a censer (see Leviticus 16:12-13; Numbers 17:11). (Although ordinary priests sometimes burnt incense, it was only on the golden altar in the holy place (Exodus 30:7-8) or on the brazen altar as a part of the memorial (See Leviticus 2:2-3; Leviticus 2:16).)
- They offered the incense at an unauthorized time (apart from the morning and evening sacrifice).
- They offered “strange fire,” meaning that they filled their vessels with common fire instead of taking it from the holy fire of the altar, which was always to be used in burning incense. (Others think that the phrase “strange fire” denotes fire not offered according to the prescribed law (see Leviticus 9:24; Leviticus 16:12).)
- Later on in Leviticus, the text indicates that Nadab and Abihu had partaken too much of the drink offering and were likely intoxicated (see Leviticus 10:9).
The above enumeration may seem like “inside baseball” and the technicalities described arcane, but we should be most concerned about the last line of the Scripture passage: Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord has said: ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’”
In other words, the purpose of the liturgy is not to glorify man. It is not to entertain. It is not to serve as an occasion for priests to boast or to engage in unauthorized and egocentric displays. The purpose of the liturgy is that God be glorified and known as holy.
Sadly, many people today see the liturgy as a stage upon which man is to be exalted and entertained. Much time is devoted to announcements, self-referential hymns, self-congratulatory outbursts. Liturgical norms are often set aside in service of human preference or the ego of a priest who thinks his own words and gestures far outshine what the “institutional” Church and sacred tradition have directed. Speed, convenience, and comfort seem to far outweigh any notion that the liturgy involves offering a sacrifice to God in gratitude and obedience.
This does not mean that the sacred liturgy has to be unreasonably severe, slavishly robotic, or wholly unconcerned with the good of God’s people. Charity and prudence both require that the liturgy also manifest God’s mercy, goodness, and truth in ways that are intelligible and helpful to God’s people. In general, though, the balance has tipped so far away from glorifying God that we must constantly reminded ourselves that God is the point, not us. When He is the point we are blessed, for we look beyond our often petty and vain pursuits and come to find our true selves in God.
This passage from Leviticus should remind us that misconstruing the sacred liturgy is displeasing to God—not because He has a big ego, but because such abuse harms us. We were made to glorify God and find true happiness in so doing. Liturgical abuse in service of anthropocentric interests makes our liturgies small-minded and insular. Ultimately it is we who are deprived of our truer and greater joy, which is God Himself.