Chapter 9<B>: </B>Christian Worship

Christian Affirmations
by Norman Pittenger

Chapter 9<B>: </B>Christian Worship

Worship, as a characteristic action of man the religious animal, consists in the offering of self to God and the returning gift of enhanced life, in communion with God, for man. But the specific quality of any given act of worship is dependent upon the religious outlook of the believer and the picture of the object that is worshiped; as is the god, so is the cult. It is our next interest, therefore, to consider Christian worship, in order to determine what are the peculiar elements in that particular kind of cultic action.

We may recall that Christianity is in the first instance a gospel, a proclamation, in which it is declared that the eternal Reality whom men call God has crowned His endless work of self-revelation to His human children by a uniquely direct and immediate action: He has come to us in one of our own kind, the Man of Nazareth, uniting to Himself the life which, through His purpose, was conceived and born of Mary, and through this life in its wholeness establishing a new relationship to Himself into which the children of men may enter. But in the second instance, as we have seen, Christianity is a responsive movement towards God as He is found in Christ -- a movement which is communal in nature, expressed in a society that sprang into being as the result of the life, death, and, above all, the rising-again of Jesus Christ. That responsive movement which is the secret of the Christian Church’s existence is articulated in three ways: through a faith by virtue of which the Christian is enabled to say, "I believe in God . . . and in Jesus Christ . . . and in the Holy Ghost"; through a life in grace, empowered by the divine aid, which has its own special quality and is called, in St. Paul’s letters, the "life in Christ"; and, finally, through the worship of God under the terms of the total reality of Jesus Christ, of who He is, and of what He does.

Furthermore, we have said that it is the Christian claim that in Christ and through His power, there is effected that which men have otherwise found to be impossible, no matter how much they may have sought it -- the possibility of a full and selfless offering of human life to God, in consequence of which a free communion is established between God and man in Christ. It is this which all worship seeks, wherever found -- to offer perfectly to God that which of right He asks from men and to receive from Him, in return for that total self-oblation, the gift of life which is eternal.

In Christian worship, therefore, we shall expect to find the expression of the peculiar affirmation and the special quality of the Christian faith and the responsive movement of man to God as he reacts to God’s action towards him. Besides this, we shall expect to find that this expression is given in the concrete terms of human history. But above all we shall expect that it will be mediated through outward and visible things. In other words, Christian worship, if it be true to Christian faith, will be incarnational, or sacramental, in nature. For the central assertion of the Christian tradition is that the eternal Reality, invisible to human eyes, has made Himself known to men through material mediation. He has "come" to man in a human Life, using as the vehicle for His self-expression "that which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled."

Christianity is a sacramental religion. Through outward and visible things -- through a human Life, supremely -- the invisible and spiritual Reality is given to men. But this, which is true of the Christian claim, is true of men generally; men themselves are sacramental creatures. They know what they know, love what they love, do what they do, through the instrumentality of the material and by the use of their sensory apparatus. They express their love, and they come to know what it is to be loved, through the actions which are appropriate for this experience: "I love my baby because I kiss it, and I kiss it so that I may love it more," said a great philosopher-saint of our own time. Our appreciation of beauty is made possible for us through our enjoyment of objects that are themselves beautiful. Truth is given to us through our experience of the world in which we live, with our answering meditation on that world and what its meaning may be. In every area of human experience it is normally the case that we are dependent upon the mediation of our senses, under the conditions of our "embodied-ness."

It is remarkable that this simple fact of human life fits in so closely with the pattern of the Christian interpretation of existence -- so remarkable that we may be pardoned if we believe that it is not really accidental at all, but providential. Christianity fits man’s real nature as hand to glove. This makes it possible for us to understand Christian worship as the culmination of all of man’s striving to find a satisfactory way of integration with his God, completing and correcting the many attempts which may be seen as foreshadowings of the "good thing" which was to come.

Now a reading of the New Testament and other literature of the early Christian Church can leave no doubt that the worship of the first Christians was specifically eucharistic worship. It was worship through what has been called by many names in the Christian tradition: the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Communion, the Eucharist, the Divine Liturgy, the Holy Mysteries, the Mass. The name does not matter; what is important is that we understand that normatively in the days of Christian origins, and consistently since that time, the central action of the Christian in worship has been the doing of that which, "in the night in which he was betrayed," Jesus Christ performed. He took bread, blessed, and brake it, and gave it to His Disciples; He took the cup, blessed and distributed it. Here is the origin of the worship which is distinctively Christian.

We shall profit by a brief historical excursus at this point. Recent research has established beyond a shadow of doubt that Jewish religious practice included a large element of sacramental worship, associated with table meals of religious fellowship. It is not necessary for us to make a detailed examination of the various sorts of ritual associated with these meals; it will suffice if we see that the Jew worshiped God not only in the synagogue and in the Temple, but also in his home, where families or groups of friends met regularly for a holy supper, often held in connection with great festivals of the Jewish religious year, in which bread and wine, eaten and drunk, were believed to have a peculiar significance in establishing anew a sense of the covenant which God had made with his chosen people. It was at a meal of this kind that Jesus took the bread and the cup, and (knowing that He was to give His life for what He conceived to be the effecting of God’s Will for men) associated that bread and cup with His self-offering. He said that the bread which was broken and shared was "[His] body"; that the wine which was drunk by His friends was "the new covenant in my blood." And as the Disciples, after the Crucifixion had taken place, continued -- as inevitably they would do -- these meals of community fellowship, they came to realize that what He had said before His death was made true in their experience: He was there with them as they remembered His death and shared in the bread and wine. His presence was indeed real for them, His "benefits" -- the results of His self-offering -- were known; and they found that they "dwelt in him, and he in them."

The Holy Communion, or Eucharist, grounded in the historical fact of the Last Supper and validated in the continuing experience of the primitive Christian community, was primarily an action. It was something done, not something thought. Jesus was believed to have said, "Do this in my memorial"; the emphasis must be placed on the "do." Thus the four-fold action of the Eucharist, following the pattern of Christ’s action, came to be what Dom Gregory Dix has called the "shape" of the Liturgy. Take, bless, break, give -- the bread was taken and offered to God; thanksgiving was said over it -- and here we need to recall that for the Jew, all blessings have always been in the form of a thanksgiving to God for the objects which are to be blessed; the bread was broken, as Christ had done at the Last Supper and as His physical body was broken on the Cross; the bread was given -- distributed, so that the believer might partake of it and thereby, as the Church believed, partake of Christ Himself and become one with Him. So also the cup was taken, and blessed, and given to the believer, that he might drink of it, thus sharing in the new covenant, or relationship, between God and man which the Christian Church declared Christ had established. The implications of this action were later to be worked out, so far as this was possible; but the primary thing was the action itself, the thing that was done.

Furthermore, the action was a memorial action. Here we must distinguish carefully between the modern notion of a memorial and the ancient Jewish one. In our own thought, a memorial is usually a mental affair; we think back to that which happened long ago, fixing it in our mind and meditating upon it. Not so with the Jew. When he held his Passover meal, for example, he believed -- and the modern Jew still believes -- that it was a memorial; but it was a memorial in the sense that by the repetition of certain actions believed to have been ordained by God, the whole reality of that which God accomplished at the first Passover (when the Jews were delivered from the Egyptians, brought safely through the Red Sea, and made a peculiar people in covenantal relationship with God) was brought out of the past into the present and became a fact in their contemporary experience. As one of my students put it, after I had lectured on this theme, the Jewish notion is "not one of mental reverie but of vital recall." This is the meaning of the words which the primitive Christian Church believed that Jesus had said at the Last Supper: "Do this in my memorial." That is, "When and as you do this, my life and death and resurrection are brought out of the realm of ‘dead’ history into the living present, and I am with you as the One who lived and died and rose again from the dead."

The Book of Common Prayer had this meaning in view when it employs, in the course of the Prayer of Consecration in the service of Holy Communion, the words: "Wherefore, O Lord and heavenly Father, according to the institution of thy dearly beloved Son our Savior Jesus Christ, we, thy humble servants, do celebrate and make here, before thy Divine Majesty, with these thy holy gifts, which we now offer unto thee, the memorial thy Son hath commanded us to make; having in remembrance his blessed passion and precious death, his mighty resurrection and glorious ascension; rendering unto thee most hearty thanks for the innumerable benefits procured unto us by the same."

But we have seen, in the last chapter, that all worship has the note of sacrifice, of "offering," to God. And the Holy Communion is pre-eminently sacrificial in character. It is an offering to God -- "our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving." As the Catechism in the Book of Common Prayer puts it, in answer to the question, "Why was the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper ordained?": "For the continual remembrance of the sacrifice of the death of Christ, and of the benefits which we receive thereby." As a sacrifice, it is a memorial; as a memorial, it is a sacrifice. But if we have understood that memorial means vital recall of an event in the past into the living reality of the present, we can see that the sacrifice is not a mere token. It is in fact the Christian Church’s pleading before God the Father of that "full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction" which on Calvary was "once offered."

The theology of the Eucharist as a sacrifice has been a much-disputed and much-discussed matter. We need not enter into the details of this controversy here. But we can agree that the truth is well-expressed in words from a familiar and much loved hymn:

And now, O Father, mindful of the love

That bought us, once for all, on Calvary’s tree,

And having with us him that pleads above,

We here present, we here spread forth to thee,

That only offering perfect in thine eyes,

The one true, pure, immortal sacrifice.

Look, Father, look on his anointed face,

And only look on us as found in him;

Look not on our misusings of thy grace,

Our prayer so languid, and our faith so dim;

For lo! between our sins and their reward,

We set the passion of thy Son our Lord.

These lovely words, so profoundly true to the nature of the eucharistic action and so frequently validated in our own Christian experience, bring us to another element in the meaning of the Holy Communion. For they speak of our "having with us him that pleads above." The presence of Christ in the memorial of His sacrificial action is an integral part of Christian worship. Here, once again, there have been endless controversies as to the mode of that presence, controversies concerning Transubstantiation, Consubstantiation, Virtualism, Receptionism and the like -- controversies whose acrimony has done little credit to those who are called by Christ’s name. Our concern is not with these, but rather to state simply that the reality of the presence of Christ in the Holy Communion is a given fact of two thousand years of Christian experience, and that Christian worship as it has historically developed has found that in the partaking of the consecrated bread and wine, as Christ commanded, His "spiritual body and blood" -- which is to say, the reality of His life, divine and human, in a uniquely intimate and genuine way -- have been received as His presence has been known and his person adored. A verse which comes from Elizabethan times, and which is sometimes attributed to the queen herself, puts this basic truth:

He was the ‘Word that spake it;

He took the bread and brake it;

And what his word did make it,

That I believe and take it.

There is room for agnosticism as to the way in which Christ is present, the mode in which His presence is found "in, with, and under" (as the Lutherans say) the consecrated bread and wine of the Holy Eucharist; there is for the Christian no question at all as to the fact that He is there.

And He is there to bring us into communion with Himself; and through Himself into that communion with God -- that new relationship with the divine Reality -- which it was His mission to establish among men. The "communion" side of the Holy Communion has sometimes been placed at the head of the list of the various elements characteristic of the Lord’s Supper. This is a mistake. The Communion is the result of the whole action. As the Christian Church makes memorial of Christ’s life and work, bringing these from the past into the present; as through that memorial, it pleads before God the wonder of the self-offering which Christ made on Calvary; as the communicants know the presence of Christ brought from heavenly places into their heart of hearts -- so they are in communion with Him, and with God and man through Him, the communion which is Life Eternal.

There are two final points which ought to be made. The first is that the Holy Eucharist is the action of the whole Church of Christ. It is not a private act of worship in which we take part because we find it helpful or pleasant or inspiring -- such a view changes Christianity into a sort of gnostic and esoteric relationship with God and negates the communal character of the responsive movement of men to the redemption wrought in Jesus Christ. We come to the altar as a body; indeed, we come as those who are "very members, incorporate in the mystical Body of Christ, which is the blessed company of all faithful people." Thus the nature of worship as a social action, a cult, is vindicated. You will recall that we saw in the last chapter that normally worship has this characteristic -- the tribe or group offers its praise to God, through a priest to be sure, but always with the priest as one who represents the people who are making the offering. In Christianity this truth is patently plain. The priest who celebrates the Eucharist is not acting in his own name; he is acting for Christ in his Church, and for the Church which is Christ’s Church. A whole doctrine of the Christian ministry is involved at this point, and the writer has sought elsewhere to develop it at length. It is the notion of the ministry as representative and functional, standing for, and acting on behalf of, Christ; yet standing for Him and acting in His behalf as Christ Himself acts in the Church which belongs to Him.

Thus Christian worship, centered in the Holy Communion, is the offering of the Church itself to God, through Christ; and every member of the Church -- you, and I, and the humblest and remotest Christian believer -- is incorporated in that offering. The long history of man’s seeking to offer himself to God, as is his bounden duty, is here fulfilled as the worshiper is brought into union with Christ and by Christ is offered to the Father, that through such self-commitment and dedication to God, the will of the Father may more perfectly be done and our own lives enriched by His Grace, so that "we may do all such good works as he has prepared for us to walk in"; and, in the end, dwell with Him in heavenly places.

The last point is simply that the Eucharist, while it is the crown of Christian worship, is not the whole of it. Not only the Catholic tradition, in its Eastern and Western forms, but the great Reformers themselves (like Luther and Calvin) intended that the Lord’s Supper should be the normal weekly act of Christian worship, celebrated every Lord’s Day. But none of these varieties of Christianity has thought that the Eucharist exhausted the possibilities of Christian worship. The fact that in the Prayer Book there are such services as Morning and Evening Prayer, the Litany, the Penitential Office, and others, demonstrates that there are other ways. All of these might be compared to the lesser jewels which in some precious ornament surround and set off the great central gem. Hence we should not wish to leave the impression that there is nothing but eucharistic worship in the Christian tradition. Rather, we should say that there are many different kinds of expression of the Christian action in worship; yet all of them find their implied center in the Eucharist. The day may not be far off when in every branch of Christendom the centrality of the Lord’s Supper will again be recognized, as the Catholic tradition and the great Reformers recognized it, and the eucharistic action will again be the usual and normal way in which, Sunday by Sunday, Christians gather to offer their prayer and praise to God through Christ, by the power of the Holy Ghost. But when that day comes, it will not be by denying the enormous value or the great helpfulness of every turning to God in adoration and in praise. Nor will it be by minimizing the personal devotion of the faithful Christian believer who in the privacy of his chamber seeks to enter into communion with his God and there find strength to live throughout the days of his life as one whose will is conformed to the Will of the Father. It is to that aspect of the total Christian life -- private devotion -- that the next chapter will be devoted.