Our Need to Worship
We may realize the importance of symbols of worship most when we are deprived of them
by Sheila Liaugminas
In late January, slipping on some keenly polished hardwood floor, I fell and broke the big toe on my right foot. The injury was painful, and I was annoyed at not being able to move as fast as usual. “Maybe the Lord is trying to tell me to slow down”, I thought with some resignation.
But He had another message in mind, and it came to me after days of clumsily hobbling through daily routines, through airports and parking lots and city streets, up and down stairs, in and out of public engagements and limping to church for Mass: I couldn’t genuflect.
I could come before the Lord. But I couldn’t not genuflect. But I always genuflect and make the sign of the cross before entering my pew and not just a little dip of the knee but a knee-to-the-floor moment, and say a silent prayer to come into the presence of the Lord. It struck me a gesture of reverence that has such deep meaning and that had become a daily habit had now become impossible.
So sitting before the tabernacle, before Mass began, I started to realize how important to worship this gesture is like other things I miss more and notice more when they’re not available.
Like the missing Alleluia during Lent. Every day of ordinary time we can say or sing Alleluia as often as we like, but not during Lent. The joyous “great Alleluia, the triumphant word of praise for God of men and angels” is absent from the Church’s liturgy during the solemn penitential season of Lent.
Throughout the liturgical year, the Catholic Church makes certain changes to the Mass to reflect the liturgical season. Next to the change in the color of the priest’s vestments, the absence of the Alleluia during Lent is probably the most obvious.
The Alleluia comes to us from Hebrew, and it means “praise Yahweh”. Traditionally, it has been seen as the chief term of praise of the choirs of angels, as they worship around the throne of God in Heaven. It is, therefore, a term of great joy, and our use of the Alleluia during Mass is a way of participating in the angels’ worship. It is also a reminder that the Kingdom of Heaven is already established on earth, in the form of the Church, and that our participation in Mass is a participation in Heaven.
Alleluia (or hallelujah) is a Hebrew word adopted by the Christian Church. (Another familiar Hebrew word is amen, “so be it”.) Hallel is the greatest expression of praise in Hebrew. Combined with Jah, the shortened form of the name of God, JHVH (meaning “I AM”), it becomes Hallelujah. Alleluia is a Latinized spelling.
From the time of the apostles the proclaiming of the Alleluia was a revered custom in ordinary life as well as in connection with the liturgy of the Church. Farmers and tradesmen sang it as they worked, and mothers taught their children to pronounce it before any other word.
(From Women for Faith & Family’s Family Sourcebook on Lent and Easter. Online: wf-f.org/EasterDay.html)
But on the spiritual journey of our “Lenten exile”, notes this online guide, we do not sing with the choir of angels. Yet.
Why do we need these signs and gestures? Or, keeping this personal, why do I? This all came to me in the pew that day I had tried to make a full genuflection and couldn’t. It came as a steady realization of what we do, and why we do it. After all, God is not made greater by our praise. He knows what’s in our hearts.
And then this came to me…
“You have no need of our praise”
In one of the prayers of the Mass, a Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer, these words always catch my attention:
You have no need of our praise, yet our desire to thank you is itself your gift. Our thanks adds nothing to your greatness, but helps us grow in your grace, through Jesus Christ Our Lord.
(Preface for Weekdays IV)
We need to worship. And the highest point of that worship is the Liturgy the worship of God even if popular culture fosters idol worship and respects signs of the times more than transcendent ones.
“Thoughts and feeling create idols; only symbols in action lead into the mystery”, Father Jean Corbon* states in The Wellspring of Worship. We experience the mystery of faith in the liturgy, he explains.
… the Eucharist and the major sacraments come to us from Christ and the first apostolic community. They are facts of tradition; the liturgy is not invented but received. These great sacraments are “covenant signs”…
As for the “works” of Jesus through His mortal life, they were astounding to the point of arousing wonder and leading to faith: no one had ever spoken like this man nor worked such miracles. At that time, the “signs” were dazzling.
Sometimes I feel childlike in my sense of the history of faith, which is why Father Corbon’s exquisite writing came to my mind just then, pondering these signs and gestures and the mystery of it all.
What about now, in our last times? The sacraments in which the “wonderful works” of God in the Old Testament and the miracles of Jesus’ ministry are brought to fulfillment are manifested in signs so simple that even believers pass them by with indifference. “Truly, you are a God who conceals Himself” (Is 45:15): the closer His return, the thicker the cloud.
Which gets back to how easy it is to walk into church and shuffle into a pew with no real thought of the mystery unfolding there. Father Corbon asks:
How can we be filled with jubilant wonder and thanksgiving in our celebrations … if the power of the resurrection does not daily penetrate the depths of our sinfulness and death? How can we share the Father’s joy if we are not constantly open to His overwhelming mercy?...
And since the only true joy is paschal joy, joy in the life that springs from the victory over death, how can we celebrate the feast that is the liturgy if we have not learned to be “glad of … distress for Christ’s sake” (II Cor 12:10) in the details of our everyday lives…?
Okay. It took a happenstance of everyday life, like my broken toe and swollen foot, to set the stage for this meditation. But the mystery of our faith is about the human drama of salvation history. And it will unfold, polished and unpolished, until the end of time.
* Editor’s note: Father Jean Corbon, OP, 1924-2001, born in Paris, was a priest of the Greek Catholic eparchy of Beirut. He was a professor of Liturgy and Ecumenism at the University of the Holy Spirit in Kalik, and the University of St. Joseph in Beirut. Father Corbon also contributed to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, helping to compose the fourth section on prayer. His book The Wellspring of Worship was published by Ignatius Press in 2005.
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