Would Jesus Recognize Catholic Worship?

“It is in this eternal liturgy that the Spirit and the Church enable us to participate whenever we celebrate the mystery of salvation in the sacraments.” (CCC 1139)

The Shekinah Glory Enters the Tabernacle; illustration from The Bible and Its Story Taught by One Thousand Picture Lessons. Edited by Charles F. Horne and Julius A. Bewer. 1908.
The Shekinah Glory Enters the Tabernacle; illustration from The Bible and Its Story Taught by One Thousand Picture Lessons. Edited by Charles F. Horne and Julius A. Bewer. 1908. (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

You’ve seen pictures of splendid traditional Catholic worship. The clergy and servers are robed, the incense is billowing, the church building is magnificent. Would Jesus recognize such worship?

The assumption is that Jesus is a simple, wandering preacher — a rustic carpenter from Nazareth. Jesus is the equivalent of Pastor Bob from the Backwoods Bible Church who has studied for two years at Buckboard Bible College and then set up his little church in an old shop front.

He’s a homely country man with a sincere message and a good heart. He goes in for no frills religion — prayers from the heart, not out of a book. He wanders the countryside as an itinerant preacher — sort of like an old time revivalist. If he is not this, then he is a Franciscan sort of person — wandering about in tattered robes, preaching to the birds and living a life of holy poverty far removed from all the pomp and ceremony of the overblown and worldly Catholic religion.

The view of Jesus as the simple country preacher does have some connection with the real Jesus, but we also have to remember that Jesus was a first-century Jew. He would have been familiar with, and shared in the rituals and traditions of synagogue worship as well as the worship of the Temple. What was this worship like? 

First of all, the synagogue worship was formal and liturgical. They used set prayers and established readings as Catholics do with their liturgy and tables of readings. Furthermore, the worship of the “domestic church” for Jews was structured around seasons and feasts. Throughout the year, as Catholics do, they celebrated certain feast days and fast days. For the feasts they had structured, ceremonial meals that they shared together. These ceremonial meals consisted of set, written prayers and psalms and Scripture readings.

In addition to the worship of the domestic church and the synagogue, the Jews in the time of Jesus all worshipped at the Temple in Jerusalem. The worship in this splendid and ornate structure was predicated by the Temple of Solomon which was in turn established according to the instructions given by God in Exodus for the construction of the tabernacle. The tabernacle, and both the Herodian and Solomonic temples in Jerusalem were splendid, ornate and rich buildings where the worship was ceremonial and ritualistic. The priests wore ornate vestments, there were ritualistic processions into and around the Temple, ornate images of angels surround the worship space and incense was burned before God to symbolize the prayers of the faithful rising to heaven.

So would Jesus recognize the Catholic worship that goes on in the great cathedrals and Catholic churches? There are clearly differences between Catholic and Jewish worship, but think of the things Jesus would recognize:

  1. Splendid and ornate temple of God
  2. Priests in fine vestments
  3. Set readings from the Old Testament
  4. The chanting of psalms
  5. The burning of incense
  6. An altar of sacrifice
  7. Golden candlesticks
  8. The bread of the presence
  9. The holy of holies (the Catholic tabernacle)
  10. The lamp of the presence
  11. Processions of priests and people
  12. The offering of the holy sacrifice
  13. The laver or font for cleansing the offerings
  14. Water fonts for ritual ablutions before entering worship
  15. Beautiful decorations of fabrics, carvings and embroidery

The idea that Jesus was a simple preacher leading worship in a homely room usually comes from Bible-only Christians, but what we can glean from the Bible about Jewish worship — both in the Old Testament and from the Book of Revelation (where the worship of heaven is pictured) — all looks far more like a traditional Catholic Mass than the bare preaching rooms and long Bible lectures of the Protestants.