Recently, I was involved in a discussion regarding the appropriateness of showing honor to persons or things who aren’t God. I won’t get into the specifics of the argument. Rather, I want to pick up where the discussion left off.
We had been talking about Icons- not in theory but actual practice, and at the end the other participant began to wrestle with what (granting his assumptions) distinguishes the very intense affirmation of a loved one from idolatry. After all, in the beautiful words of the old Prayer Book, husband and wife vow to worship each other with their bodies.
Specifically, he asked “What is worship? How was worship accomplished? Why is worship actually worship? Is worship ever defined in Scripture? What is veneration? How is veneration accomplished? Why is veneration actually veneration? Is veneration ever defined in Scripture? How is worship not veneration and vice versa?”
His questions got me thinking, and I’ve been reminded that one of the most significant things that separate and distinguish Evangelicals- excluding Lutherans- from the catholic branches is a differing understanding of why we gather on the Lord’s Day.
Evangelicals say they gather to ‘Worship’, and their meaning is congruent with the etymology of the English word ‘worship.’ They meet to express the worthiness of God. They meet to praise him.
From this perspective veneration and worship (what God’s people gather to do on the Lord’s Day) are different points along a continuum of honor.
If idolatry is conceived of in terms of ‘worship’ and worship means giving praise, the distinction between ‘giving honor where honor is due’ and ‘idolatry’ is finally a matter of subjectively feeling or objectively expressing ‘too much’ affection/praise/honor for a person, place, thing or idea.
On this analysis, catholic piety smells of idolatry, but… so does the marriage bed. Evangelicals believe that kissing an image of Christ plays with idolatry per se, but affirm the obligation of kissing the image of Christ they are married to. Maybe you can see the tension.
I know there is truth in the implied concern. From the catholic side, expressing an inordinate degree of affection/praise/honor is certainly related to idolatry and the false worship that attends it. The distinction between dulia and latria was meant to recognize this.
So it’s odd to find Evangelicals critiquing the distinction on the basis that in the end it’s merely a semantic game with no real impact on the life we live.
Now, I agree that there is a disconnect with the reality we actually live in, but I think it’s the criticism that leaves for cloud-cuckoo land, while the actual practice is… well, what we do in this world.
Human faculties are limited. Our potential sensations and acts can be counted. Lewis talks about this in his essay on Transposition.
The emotions are far more complicated and numerous than the sensations that accompany them. Sensations have to ‘double, triple or quadruple up’ in their meaning. The wonderful sensation that we might experience on meeting ‘that girl’ might be objectively identical to the feeling one has upon learning that a loved one has died- only its not.
Judging what is ‘really’ going on by an objective measuring of brain waves or the flutter of the diaphragm might be entirely misleading. Likewise, judging whether a soldier has confused his wife for God- sliding from lawful affection to illicit latria- might be a pointless exercise- especially if you were watching the reunion after a long deployment.
It is this attempt to discern/judge the distinction (that might be very real) that takes us out of the real world- not the distinction itself.
But here is my real point- the catholic branches (including Lutherans) don’t understand what we are doing on the Lord’s Day as being primarily about what Evangelicals mean by ‘worship.’ We aren’t meeting to simply honor or praise God. That can and ought to be done anywhere. That can and ought to be done in solitude.
On the Lord’s Day we gather as a community. We are doing something more. We are meeting for something that includes but goes beyond ‘worship.’
The language we use to refer to why we gather reflects this. Evangelicals meet for worship, but Lutherans have Divine Services. Orthodox, Catholics and Anglicans meet for the sacrifice of the Eucharist which is the culmination of the Liturgy (work).
We go to Mass; we go to the Service; we go to the Divine Liturgy. Of course we worship during the Mass, Service and Liturgy, but we go to Mass, the Service or the Liturgy.
I think that this is in keeping with the Hebrew and Greek that is routinely translated ‘Worship.’ The biblical usage goes beyond what the English word connotes. While occasionally meaning ‘praise’, the original languages more often than not refer to Service, Sacrifice or cultic ritual.
Like Zaccheus, the church assembles where we know our Lord will pass by. We have faith that Word and Sacrament are effectual because of his promise. The movement begins with God, but returns to him. God serves us (through Jesus) and we, as men and women, return service to him (in Jesus). This meeting of God and man is the intentional point of our assembly. It takes place in the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ.
Anyway, for catholics of all stripes ‘worship’ isn’t a vague extreme on the emotional scale of honor. Or rather that is what ‘worship’ is about, but that’s not primarily why we gather on Sunday. For catholics, ‘Worship’ is the particular God ordained act (ritual) by which God gives himself to man and man offers up to God that which God had always hoped for in man- which is to say that ‘worship’ is about receiving Christ from God and offering Christ to God.
It is about the communion and memorial of the Eucharist.