Man it seems has always had a need for worship. In fact one of man’s characteristic titles as used by anthropologists is ‘homo adorans’ i.e. worshipping, praying people and as used by priest John on the web page Ascent. From the earliest days of civilization in the cities of Mesopotamia we find evidence of worship, with temples and priests sacrifices and praise. Each city felt that it was protected by a particular god. There was worship of many hundreds of these gods, each one with particular responsibilities e.g. a god of the river, one of bread, one of fertility and so on. There were particular rites to be carried out and opportunities for the people to make offerings. These of course were meant to placate the god and to ensure that the river continued to provide fish, the fields were fertile and so on. Worship in a way took the place of science, being used in cases where the population did not understand the processes involved. Out of this situation came Abram and his family, who of course became Abraham, the ancestor of the peoples of the Book – the Jews, the Christians and the Arab races. Abraham was a monotheist, an innovation at a time when it was common to both believe in and worship many different gods. There was in those times a belief in the god of a place, but Abraham worshipped a God of the whole of creation, so wherever he went God was there and he could worship wherever he was e.g. in Genesis 13 v 3 we are told that Abram had built an altar near Bethel and that there he prayed to God. This he presumably did with his family, but worship can be that of an individual, of a small group or of many people led by a celebrant or priest. It can consist of prayer, corporate or individual, of sacrifice, spiritual or material, of dance, ritual, meditation, pilgrimage and the sacraments. Whatever its form and whoever carries it out, it is addressed to a higher being, whether that be the creator of the universe or to some minor deity. It can also involve music and song, whether using ancient texts such as the psalms or more recent songs of worship. Within Judaism and Christianity it is a response to what God has done for us, but also a response to verses such as Deuteronomy 6:5 (New International Version) ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength’, a command echoed by Christ in the pages of the New Testament.
Within Catholicism and the Eastern orthodox churches there is of course the adoration due to God, but this can run alongside the veneration offered to saints. Problems can sometimes arise when the lines between adoration and veneration become blurred. There are those who would classify the later as idolatry – these would include Sunni Muslims, most Orthodox Jews and many Protestants.
Often associated with worship is a sense of having to be fit to do so e.g. the washing of hands by the priest before celebrating the Eucharist in Catholicism, the General Confession that is recited before the Communion service in the Anglican church and so on. The psalmist challenges worshippers in Psalm 24 v 3-5 :-
Who may ascend the hill of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place? He
who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to an idol
or swear by what is false. He will receive blessing from the Lord.
The psalmist of course helps us in this passage to realise that worship is a two way process. We give worship to God and we respond and receive from him. In the sacraments grace is received, in scripture we receive information e.g. Genesis 50 v 22, ‘Joseph stayed in Egypt’; prophecy e.g. Acts 1 v 11’ This same Jesus who has been taken from you into heaven will come back’; encouragement e.g. John 15 v 16 ‘The Father will give you whatever you ask in my name; support e.g. Matthew 28 v 20 ‘Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age’; commands e.g Matthew 28 v 19 ‘Go and make disciples of all nations’. It is up to us to respond in worship and service.
In his book ‘At the Origins of Christian Worship’ Larry Hurtado distinguishes early Christian worship form that of other worship of the time.( Chapter 2) He cites as its distinguishing marks the fact that Christ is worshipped alongside the God of the Old Testament and the worship of any other gods is rejected. At first Jewish Christians continued to worship in the temple or at synagogues as well as attending worship with the new group. This would not have been a very formal affair at first. The reading of Old Testament scriptures, the singing of hymns such as that probably quoted in Philippians Chapter 2 and often a love feast, comments upon the scripture passage and presumably the reading of statements from the apostles and other leading Christians as we now read in the letters of the New Testament. In I Corinthians 10 v 23-30 we see how Christians, while still mixing with the world of their pagan neighbours, separated themselves from certain activities. They did not for instance attend feasts in honor of the various gods for their worship was directed to one God only. There were no sacraments except baptism, no imposing buildings, no priesthood, although there were leaders. Converts would in one sense have been making a sacrifice in limiting their worship to a simple gathering in a home. Yet just because these other things were absent the church as a group would have been very aware of themselves as the living embodiment of God’s kingdom on earth. We have, from the end of the Ist century, John picture in the book of Revelations, 21 v 2 of the church as the bride of Christ:-
I saw the Holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven
from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.
Over time symbols of various kinds came to be incorporated within worship. The bread and wine used at the Eucharist are obvious examples, but there are many others. The waters of baptism, for instance, represent a cleansing, but when total emersion takes place as is the norm in certain branches of the church, it can easily be seen in terms of John 3 v 3 ‘No one can see the kingdom o f God unless he is born again’ and so we have a picture of going down into the death of the old life, and a rising into newness in the kingdom of God. The rings used at a wedding, by the way that they traditionally touch fingers first while the names of the Trinity are invoked, before being placed on the ring fingers remind us that God is present in this marriage, and, as the rings are retained, continue to do so. At the same time their shape makes us think of eternity, never ending as is the love of God.
Places of worship often, though not always, contain aids to worship, whether by their shape with traditional spires reaching up to heaven, or because they contain stained glass with pictures that are helpful, the stages of the cross perhaps are permanently displayed. Often there is an empty cross to serve as a reminder of a risen Saviour, or Christ on the cross as a reminder that he loved his created people enough to suffer and die for them. The altar is central, emphasizing its importance and centrality, but the scriptures too are prominent. The font, if present, is usually near the door of a church, because baptism is used as a means of gaining membership to the church of Christ. None of these of course were present, except perhaps the scriptures, in the earliest of church gatherings, which usually took place in a home or a borrowed room.
Over time and for many reasons the worship of the churches early years has developed into worship as we now have it in the modern day church. The scattered churches were united only by a common faith. Many of the things that we associate with church came much more gradually over a long period of time. The Eucharist is barely mentioned in the New Testament, for example Acts 20 v 11 is perhaps a vague reference to the Eucharist, for it is possible that some rite in remembrance of Christ’s words at the Last Supper was carried out on occasions. The love feasts, as recorded in Jude 12 more or less disappeared when the emperor banned fraternal feasts in the second century and so the modern and more formal Eucharist developed. Worship was not always led by a priest however and nor does it necessarily need to be. Wherever and whenever Christians gather in worship, whether or not a formal rite is celebrated and whether it takes place in a grand cathedral or in a very ordinary home and whether or not a priest is present, this a true worship of Christ if they gather in Christ’s name.
Gradually then worship among Christians changed. This was often in the face of opposition and heresy. For instance worship would have been much freer and relaxed in the early years, with many individuals participating in leadership. Heretics used this freedom to put over their own ideas and so gradually there was felt to be a need for more control over who conducted services and who was allowed to teach. This in turn led to a formal ordained priesthood, and, later within Catholicism , to the idea that there be a chain of authority coming from the Bishop of Rome and carried out only by celibate males, this despite New Testament ideas such as the equality of all believers, ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ Galatians 3 v 28 and I Peter 2 v 4 and 5 which speaks of the whole Christian community as a priesthood:-
As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by men but chosen by
God and precious to him— you also, like living stones, are being built
into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
In some senses the church no longer has one form of worship. There is diversity ranging from the stillness of a Quaker gathering to the ecstatic worship of Pentecostal communities. We have the formal priesthood of ordained ministers and we have Brethren assemblies where a whole group comes together to lead worship. These are only a few examples. There have developed over the years clear and defined differences both in matters of doctrine, authority and practice. In recent years there have been many attempts to ‘update’ worship in order to make it more relevant to the needs of modern people. These range from Vatican II to the setting up of Internet churches for those in isolated places. Some of these attempts have been more successful than others, but whatever way we worship if it is true and heartfelt it seems that Christ still recognizes the church he founded nearly 2,000 years ago – not made up of the super spiritual on the whole, but of ordinary people whom God loved and loves and who were aware of God in their lives and felt the need to respond to him in worship, whatever form that takes.
The church started with just a few people, but now there are more than 2 billion people who claim the name Christian. Some will be regular worshippers, for others perhaps it is a less frequent activity, yet they still willingly retain the title. Presumably it is because God created us as ‘homo adorans’. It is natural to worship, but having said that true worship is a response which only comes out of knowledge of who God is and what he has done and continues to do for us.
Bible, New International Version, Hodder and Stoughton, Toronto 1988
Hurtado, L. ‘At the Origins of Christian worship’ Paternoster Press, Cumbria 1999
Gods, goddesses demons and monsters. http://www.mesopotamia.co.uk/gods/home_set.html 4th March 2008
John, Homo Adorans, April 4th 2006, Ascent http://holyascension.blogspot.com/2006/04/homo-adorans.html 4th March 2008