Opinion Piece: The Heart of Worship – EpicPew

Opinion Piece: The Heart of Worship

Recently I had a conversation that took me by surprise. In this conversation, an acquaintance of mine suggested that it was audacious and insulting that the Church would insist on “telling us” what can and can’t happen in the Mass. In essence, they were incredulous that we have such mechanisms as rubrics and that we, the laity, couldn’t decide how we wanted to celebrate and participate. To say I was taken aback is an understatement. However, it did get me thinking. What is worship? And how do we get it wrong or right?

Made for worship

It should come as no secret to us that we, as humans, are made for worship. We are, of course, made to worship God, but often we place our attention and energy towards worshipping anyone or anything but; we worship sports teams, pop stars, influencers, vices, and addictions. When Adam and Eve ate the fruit in the Garden of Eden and introduced disorder to our interior lives and social lives, we lost our orientation towards right worship. Thus began the love story of a God who patiently and painstakingly undertook to bring us back to relationship with him. That is what we see first in the Old Testament! God teaching his people how to be his people. The old Mosaic covenant is God laying the groundwork for what it means to live and worship as a chosen people. When God sent Moses to Pharaoh it was so that his people could be set free to worship. “Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh, and say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of the Hebrews: Let my people go, so that they may worship me” (Ex. 9:1). When Moses received the Ten Commandments, the very first is, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall not have other gods beside me. You shall not make for yourself an idol or a likeness of anything in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters beneath the earth; you shall not bow down before them or serve them. For I, the Lord, your God, am a jealous God…” (Ex 20: 2-5). In other words, you, my people, shall worship only me!

Later in the Old Testament, we are treated to what we may think of as the “boring books.” Leviticus with all its measurements and “rules.” Numbers with its, well, numbers and names, and Deuteronomy with its repetition of the story of Exodus. What is that all even about anyway? Well, it is about worship. Remember the Israelites didn’t know how to not be slaves. And they certainly didn’t know how to worship God the way he deserved to be worshipped. God had to teach them. To say that the Israelites were slow to learn might be an understatement. Yet, God taught them, instructed them, and coached them in how to worship. He even went so far as to explain in great detail to them how to build a place for worship! When they turned away from him, they suffered the consequences, and then God would call them back and reorient them towards right worship. And what was at the heart of that worship was relationship. God didn’t demand worship because he is or was an authoritarian narcissist who demanded attention. No, he instructed his people in how to worship because that was what they were made for! Why? Because it is through worship that God’s people enter into relationship with him.


Every healthy relationship needs boundaries. When boundaries are in place, the relationship can grow and flourish in a healthy, functional way. When boundaries break down, we see disfunction, disorder, and hurt affect the relationship. God, as the creator of the human race, knows exactly how we are made for relationship with him. When our first parents didn’t respect the “boundaries” set for them and they chose to sin, humanity’s ability to have a healthy, functional relationship with God was damaged. So God spent centuries repairing the damage and teaching us how to have a functional, healthy relationship with him again: the relationship we were made for. This involved God spelling out for His people where worship was to take place (the temple), how it was to take place (through various forms of sacrifice), and by whom (the people through the Levitical priests). Then, at exactly the right time, God sent his Son to the world so that through him we could be fully restored into relationship with God the Father. When Jesus came he fulfilled the Mosaic covenant and instituted a new covenant with humanity. With this new covenant came new boundaries and a new way to worship. Yet, this new way to worship found its roots in the old, it didn’t replace the “old formula” (temple + sacrifice + priest), it perfected it.

The Mass

The Mass is the most perfect form of worship. At the Last Supper, Christ, the high priest according to the order of Melchizedek, instituted the ordained priesthood of that same order, and instituted the Eucharist. He celebrated the First Mass and then instructed his new priests (the Apostles) to do the same. “Do this in remembrance of me.” Then he offered himself as victim and Sacrifice on the Cross. The Mass we are familiar with today, which traces its beginnings to the Upper Room of the Last Supper and Pentecost, follows the same “prescription” for worship that the Old Covenant called for: a temple, a sacrifice (Christ, who offered himself at Calvary and offers himself on the altar at every Mass), and a priest who stands in persona Christi according to the “new” order of priesthood through the line of Melchizedek, and leads the people in worship. Here is a twist: while the faithful typically celebrate Mass in a Church building, it is the body of Christ, the people, all temples of the Holy Spirit themselves, that is important for our equation. And the Sacrifice of Christ was one time and forever, but made ever-present to us (outside of time). It is during the Liturgy of the Eucharist that the faithful find themselves at Golgatha while the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross is made present once again. But is it only possible to worship at Mass?

Priest, prophet, and king

When you were Baptized, you were given a special mission. A mission that only you can fulfill. You were also made a partaker in the mission of Jesus: to be priest, prophet, and king. Now, as a lay person, you aren’t ordained, (think priest with a lower case ‘p’) but you share in the priestly mission of all the faithful; and what do priests do? They sanctify. When you offer a sacrifice to God, whether that sacrificial offering is praise, thanksgiving, suffering etc, you are entering into worship. You see, sacrifice is the necessary component for all worship, and sacrifice implies that worship is not primarily about us. When it comes to personal worship, the place may not be a church, but the space in which you are worshipping is made holy, is set apart, even for just that time, by the very act of your worship and when you are in the state of Grace, you are a temple of the Holy Spirit. So you see, the same “formula” applies, (temple, sacrifice, priest) just in “lower case.” In fact, when you are at Mass, (remember, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the most perfect form of worship), it is expected that as the priest leads the congregation in worship, the congregants unite themselves with Christ through the priest to make their offering of sacrifice too. And what is being offered? Well, not what, but who. Christ is being offered to the Father. The USCCB explains:

The Eucharistic Prayers make clear that these prayers are offered, not to Christ, but to the Father. It is worship offered to the Father by Christ as it was at the moment of his passion, death and resurrection, but now it is offered through the priest acting in the person of Christ, and it is offered as well by all of the baptized, who are part of Christ’s Body, the Church. This is the action of Christ’s Body, the Church at Mass.

The priest offers the Eucharistic Prayer in the first person plural, for example, “Therefore, O Lord, we humbly implore you…”  This “we” signifies that all the baptized present at the Eucharistic celebration make the sacrificial offering in union with Christ, and pray the Eucharistic Prayer in union with him. And what is most important, we do not offer Christ alone; we are called to offer ourselves, our lives, our individual efforts to grow more like Christ and our efforts as a community of believers to spread God’s Word and to serve God’s people, to the Father in union with Christ through the hands of the priest. Most wonderful of all, although our offering is in itself imperfect, joined with the offering of Christ it becomes perfect praise and thanksgiving to the Father.

Liturgy of the Eucharist. USCCB.org

Coming back to worship

Worship at Mass is powerful and amazing. The “smells and bells” as some people say, all play a part in reminding us what is taking place. The “rules” and rubrics of the Mass are intentional—directing our minds and hearts towards the Eucharistic sacrifice. When Christ gave us the Church, and instituted the papacy and hierarchy that we now recognize as having apostolic succession, he intended his Church, his Pope, his bishops, and his priests to safeguard the faith and preserve worship the way God has revealed He should be worshipped. Why then, do some Catholics balk at the idea that the Church would “dare” to tell us how to engage in this worship? I suspect it has to do with a misunderstanding of what worship is and who it is for. If we think of worship as something I do for me, then I am missing the entire point and worship becomes an exercise in ego. In fact, it becomes a form of self-worship; but, we aren’t called to worship for our own sake. God taught us how to worship because he made us to be in relationship with him and he deserves our worship, after all He is God….and we are not. The paradox is, when we rightly order our relationship with Him, and make worship about Him, we become more fully ourselves!

As we persevere through the rest of Lent and prepare to enter into the Paschal Triduum, let us all enter more fully into the heart of worship. Lets us refocus on the most Holy Eucharist, the “source and summit of the Christian life1,” and let us, as a once popular praise song says, “Come back to the Heart of worship, because it is all about you, Jesus.”

Featured Image: By Almicar – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2701031

  1. Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium, 11. ↩︎