There is a strong tendency today to regard sacred worship as more for us than for God. Some complain of “not being fed,” of Mass being boring or lasting too long. Masses are generally assessed as “good” if they please those in the pews, are “relevant” to their experiences, engage their interests, and are culturally sensitive. The focus is anthropocentric and, to the degree that they think of God, they are certain that if theyare happy then He must be, too.
I may exaggerate, but only a little.It is not far from the truth to say that God is somewhat of an afterthought in modern liturgical thinking, by congregations or clergymen. This is not to say that we neglect to consider how our liturgies can be beautiful, compelling, inspire reverence, and instruct. Unfortunately, we rarely speak of worship as a sacrifice that, in justice, we owe to God.
First and foremost, we worship God because, in justice, we owe Himpraise and thanksgiving. We have a debt to render to Him simply because He is God and also because of all He has done for us. Consider the following Scripture passages and see how they link worship as a sacrifice owed to God with the fulfillment of vows:
- I will offer to You a sacrifice of thanksgiving and call on the name of the LORD. I will fulfill my vows to the LORD in the presence of all His people, in the courts of the LORD’s house, in your midst, O Jerusalem(119:17-19).
- Vow, and pay unto the LORD your God: let all that be round about him bring presents unto him that ought to be feared(Psalm 76:11).
- Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name(Heb 13:15).
- Freely I will sacrifice to You; I will praise Your name, O LORD, for it is good. For He has delivered me from every trouble, and my eyes have stared down my foes (Psalm 54:6-7).
- Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and perform your vows to the Most High(Ps 50:14).
The term “vow” makes sense in the passages above to us who are in a covenantal relationship with God. Just as a husband and wife in the covenant of Holy Matrimony owe each other many things in light of their vows, so too do we owe God many things: love, obedience, gratitude, praise, thanksgiving, honor, and reverence.
Note again, we owe this to God. To fail in this regard is a grave injustice because we are subject to Him, because He is infinitely superior to us, and because of the goodness and providence He has shown us.
St. Thomas Aquinas placed worship not where we might expect it—in his treatise on faith or love—but in his treatise on justice. In doing so, he makes the same point: that worship and sacrifice are due to God in justice:
Natural reason tells man that he is subject to a higher being, on account of the defects which he perceives in himself, and in which he needs help and direction from someone above him: and whatever this superior being may be, it is known to all under the name of God. Now just as in natural things the lower are naturally subject to the higher, so too it is a dictate of natural reason in accordance with man’s natural inclination that he should tender submission and honor, according to his mode, to that which is above man. …
Hence it is a dictate of natural reason that man should use certain [objective sacrifices], by offering them to God in sign of the subjection and honor due to Him…. Now this is what we mean by a sacrifice, and consequently the offering of sacrifice is of the natural law (Summa Theologiae II, IIae, q 85 art 1).
Note, therefore, that we allowe sacrifice and worship to God in justice. It is not an obligation merely of those in the biblical world. Rather, it is a precept of reason and Natural Law. Hence, even pagans are bound in justice to acknowledge the debt they owe to God or to whatever superior being they acknowledge. While those outside the biblical world may be mistaken as to the nature of God or unaware of the proper way to worship Him as described in biblical texts and Sacred Tradition, they are nevertheless obliged to give honor and reverence to God as they understand Him. St. Paul said something similar about the Gentiles of his time:
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness. For what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood from His workmanship, so that men are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified Him as God nor gave thanks to Him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened (Rom 1:18-21).
Yes, natural reason is capable of concluding the existence of God and the gratitude, reverence, worship, and honor due to Him in justice. St. Paul says that those who fail to do so are without excuse and bring down darkness and confusion upon themselves.
Allow this reflection to remind all of us that the primary reason we worship God is that we owe it to Him in justice. He is infinitely worthy of our praise, love, and gratitude.
Further, allow this reflection to rebuke the rather selfish notions of worship that are so common today. Complaints of “not being fed” or of being bored cannot overrule our obligation to offer a sacrifice of praise to God every Sunday. Many liturgical notions today focus too heavily on pleasing man and too little on God. Modern preoccupations with making the Liturgy “relevant,” completely understandable, culturally pleasing, and “interesting” often move man to the center and God to the periphery. While relevance, comprehensibility, and cultural sensitivity have their place, the proper liturgy will also contain things that are mysterious and just do not fit in with modern sensibilities. The true liturgy often demands sacrifice from us, that we adjust to it and allow it to form us rather than to merely reflect us.
In the end, the Sacred Liturgy is foremost about God and the worship due to Him. This is a blessing for us, too, but only if pleasing God is truly our primary goal. Putting God first unlocks the blessings of the Sacred Liturgy for us. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you (Mat 6:33).