Ritualistic, Formal Worship is a Good and Biblical Practice

If religious ritual were intrinsically opposed to a sincere, heartfelt praise of God, then God never would have commanded it.

(photo: Alexandre-François Caminade, “Le mariage de la Vierge”, 1824)

All Christians are tempted at times to merely “go through the motions” of Christianity, lacking passion and commitment and wholehearted devotion. This charge often seems to be directed towards Catholics, in terms of how we worship. It's said that the Mass is too “ritualistic” and that this leads to rote observance without wholehearted participation.

I thought it might be helpful, then, to survey what the Bible has to say about formal worship, and whether it is inevitably or even usually “cold” and “dead” (as critics would have it).

If formal worship or religious ritual were always and intrinsically opposed to a sincere, heartfelt adoration and praise of God, then certainly God wouldn’t have commanded it in the Bible. Yet we find that He does exactly that, in many places.

It is abundantly clear in the Old Testament. Elaborate, painstaking instructions for the Ark of the Covenant (Ex 25:1-22), the Tabernacle (Ex 25:23-40; chapters 26-27), and the Temple (1 Ki, chapters 6-7) illustrate the highly ritualistic nature of Hebrew worship (cf. Lev 23:37-38 and 24:5-8).

Formal and ritualistic ceremonies and worship services are recorded as taking place even in heaven itself:

Revelation 4:8-11 (RSV) And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all round and within, and day and night they never cease to sing, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” [9] And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives for ever and ever, [10] the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives for ever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne, singing, [11] “Worthy art thou, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for thou didst create all things, and by thy will they existed and were created.”

Revelation 5:6-14 And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth; [7] and he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne. [8] And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints; [9] and they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy art thou to take the scroll and to open its seals, for thou wast slain and by thy blood didst ransom men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, [10] and hast made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on earth.” [11] Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, [12] saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” [13] And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all therein, saying, “To him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might for ever and ever!” [14] And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped.

With “thousands of thousands” and “every creature in heaven and on earth” all uttering the same praise or prayer (or “liturgy” if you will) at the same time, it's obvious that these are form prayers and formal worship: distinguishable from (sincere) spontaneous praise and worship (with its “praise the Lord”'s, “Hallelujah!”'s, and “Glory to God!”'s).

Note that these examples include repetitious prayer (Rev 4:8: “they never cease to sing”), repeated chants or hymns (4:11; 5:9-10), and sacrifice (5:6). Revelation 8:3-4 also mentions an altar and incense.

It seems quite clear, then, that the Bible is not opposed to either ritual or formality (in either worship or prayer) at all. What God does oppose is hypocritical worship, lacking the proper attitude of heart towards God. This is an ongoing human tendency that we all must be vigilant (by His grace) to avoid:

Amos 5:12, 21-22 For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins . . .  [21] I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. [22] Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings, I will not accept them, . . . (cf. Prov 15:8; Jer 6:19-20)

Matthew 5:23-24 So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, [24] leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

Matthew 6:1-2 Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. [2] Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. . . . (cf. 6:3-6, 16; 23:23-28)

Matthew 15:7-9 You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: [8] “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; [9] in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.”

God opposes deceit and spiritual hypocrisy, and worship (whether formal or informal) devoid of a committed, heartfelt spirit and devotion, or in conjunction with continued sin and disobedience.

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito says of discerning one’s college choice, ‘There has to be something that tugs at you and makes you want to investigate it further. And then the personal encounter comes in the form of a visit or a chat with a student or alumnus who communicates with the same enthusiasm or energy about the place. And then that love of a place can be a seed which germinates in your own heart through prayer.’

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Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito, assistant professor of theology at the University of Dallas (UD) and subprior (and former vocations director) of the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas, drew from his experience as both a student and now monastic religious to help those discerning understand the parallels between religious and college discernment.

Representing the Holy Spirit that descended “like a dove” and hovered over Jesus when he was baptized.

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