One of my favorite Advent songs is also one of the most ancient: Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence. Its composition and use dates from at least AD 275, although the most commonly used melodic setting is the well-known Picardy. Be sure to listen to one of the following renditions:
As I was pondering the lyrics, I noticed that they seemed to form a conjunction with other thoughts I had been having lately. I was drawn to the final two lines of the first verse, which describe the Incarnation and mankind’s response to it. In more modern versions the text runs as such:
Christ our God to earth descendeth
Our full homage to demand
Doctrines such as the Incarnation are often couched in terms of what it means to humanity; how God took on flesh in Jesus to save humanity from its sins, how, in the words of St. Athanasius, “God became like man so man could become like God,” and other such things. Naturally, these things are absolutely true and proper to acknowledge, but one thing I was struck by in the text of this hymn is that it begins far more theocentrically.
The gaze of the text is towards God, as in the 3rd line we read:
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
What is fascinating here is that the “blessing” in Christ’s hand, while certainly intended for the good of humanity, is not the primary focus of the text as of yet. Instead, the imperative of pondering “nothing earthly minded” compels the listener to regard the “blessing” of the Incarnation not in human terms (that is, what it means for humanity, etc.) but rather to contemplate by means of the via negativa the grandeur and non-earthliness of what is transpiring. This thought is completed in the 4th line:
Christ our God to earth descendeth
Our full homage to demand
There is a deep and profound truth here which is easy to miss. According to the thrust of this text, when contemplating the Incarnation, the focus and raison d’etre is first and foremost about God. The way the text is structured suggests that the primordial purpose of the Incarnation is about God and the worship due him; thus, God’s descending to earth in Christ is first and foremost something related to God himself. In this manner, our response to the Incarnation is one that is not asked of us nor something that necessarily is emotions based, but rather imposes upon humanity a duty: as the text says, our full homage is not simply requested or a nice thing to do, but is absolutely demanded.
Interestingly, other renditions of this text describe it as such:
Christ our God to earth descending
Comes our homage to demand.
The striking and seemingly slight distinction here is that the reality described is not one locked into a moment in history, but has an ever-present reality. Thus, in God becoming man, Christ is always descending, and as such our homage is always demanded.
I’ve written many times about worship and have briefly floated the idea of worship being first and foremost a duty required of us. Now I’d like to dig into that idea a little more deeply, both on a philosophical and theological level.
A fundamental and seemingly paradoxical axiom of worship is that even though worship is absolutely owed to God, it does absolutely nothing for God. That is, whether or not God is worshipped does nothing for God in respect to his own being, which is a consequence both of his eternality and immutability but also of the relation between God as Creator and his creation. A further consequence of this is that, strictly speaking, God does not have a “real” relation to creation (meaning that this relation inheres in God’s being, as it would necessarily mean that creation is non-contingent) but rather a logical one. This means that while a “logical” relation can be intellectually perceived, it does not comprise a “real” relation.
It thus follows that our relation to God is real since it actually inheres in our being; e.g., we are created beings, contingent, etc. Consequently, all that we possess as created beings is in a real sense a gift, as we cannot bring ourselves into existence, etc.
However, since God does not have a “real” relation to creation, his relation to creation is one of freedom and Giver. God is the fullness and source of all being; everything in creation derives its existence from God and participates in that being to one degree or another. The corollary of this is that creation doesn’t somehow exist “outside” of God. Consequently, since all that creation has comes from God, there is no sense in which God can be given anything other than what he already possesses, as he is the ground of any actual or potential being.
A further consequence of creation being contingent and deriving its being from God is the philosophical grounding of worship as a duty.
Now, duty would seem to involve the concept of justice, as justice is simply “giving to one what one is due.” However, one runs into potential confusion here since the distinction between Creator and created as well as the ontological “distance” in relation would seem to preclude justice from entering into worship as a duty. Aristotle noted that justice involves the concept of equality, meaning that for justice in the sense of equality to be met, one could only render justice to one of equal rank or dignity. As an example, the honor due to a king from a subject could not be fully rendered due to the inequality of rank, much less from a created being to its Creator.
However, St. Thomas noted that justice can still apply to worship (for which he uses the term latria):
…nevertheless there is some mode of justice, according to which the lord renders to the servant what it owed to him, or vice-versa: which is called the justice of the ruled. And this way latria is joined to justice, because it consists in that what is rendered to God is owed Him. Whence it is reduced to justice not as a species to a genus, but as a virtue annexed to a principal one, which participates in the mode of the principal. (quoted in Religion as a Virtue: Thomas Aquinas on Worship Through Justice, Law and Charity, Robert Jared Staudt)
Justice in its sense of equality cannot apply to worship because creatures can never fully render to God what he is due. After all, God is infinite and thus worthy of infinite honor, but finite creatures are logically incapable of rendering infinite worship. However, St. Thomas notes that justice can be affixed to worship because worship offers to God what is justly due, even though it can not do so strictly speaking in the sense of equality. Indeed, God is only justly (i.e., in the sense of equality) worshiped and honored within the Trinitarian communion since to offer God strictly just worship would require that one was God.
But the question might be asked: accepting that we cannot render to God the full worship he is due, what precisely grounds worship as a duty?
It has been noted that God is Creator and all creation derives its being from his being. And given the distinction between real and logical relations of the world to God and God to the world, respectively, it is unmistakable that God’s will to create defines the parameters of the relations. It is God’s “initiative” that brought creation into being, and his will which sustains it in being.
Digging further into this primordial reality, one facet of these relations that draws out the duty of worship is that of truth. To be a contingent being entails that one is not the source of one’s own existence; to acknowledge this truth is a step towards worship. Positing God as the source of all being entails that all one has and is belongs to God, is derived from God, and is thus owed to God.
In a very real sense, worship is fundamentally to acknowledge the truth, to recognize that God is the source of all life and being. This acknowledgement of the truth is a duty because it pertains to the essence of one’s existence. Created being has on obligation to speak the truth for the simple fact that every aspect of what its existence entails does not belong to it but is a participation in something greater.
On a theological approach, worship is similarly something that is owed to God. The beginning verse of Genesis reveals the theological foundation of worship in that God is spoken of as the one who freely creates the heavens and the earth; that is, everything that exists which necessarily derives its existence form the Creator. Psalm 148 provides a litany of created things- both animate and inanimate, rational and irrational- which are called to worship God. Verses 4-5 expressly link the act of creation to the duty of worship:
Let them praise the name of the Lord,
for at his command they were created,
and he established them for ever and ever—
he issued a decree that will never pass away. (Psalm 148:4-5)
This litany is likely intentionally structured to follow the ordering of creation, thus underscoring the creatediness of all creation and the obligation to render worship to God because of his relation as Creator. It is here that we can easily perceive the “real” relation the creation has with God, as it is God’s creative act and sustaining act that gives all creation its being. St. Paul echoes this thought in speaking to his interlocutors in the Aeropagus, noting that the unknown God whom the Athenians worshiped in ignorance was the God in whom “we live and move and have our being.”
Another more obvious consideration is that worship is explicitly commanded by God. In the first of the commandments, the Israelites are commanded to worship God, and God alone. This obligation of worship (and indeed the various specific acts of worship commanded) was rooted in the possession of God’s people by God himself. They were a people specifically chosen by him, and thus belonged to him. In God’s saving acts to free his people from Egypt, this salvific act forms the duty of worship, as the statement “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt” prefaces the commandment to worship God, as well as the precepts of what were required for his people.
While there is certainly a moral dimension to worship (thus entailing an act of the will), worship takes on particular characteristics. We might think of worship as loosely comprising the totality of one’s life and acts (which would have some measure of truth) or as evidenced in particular acts like music, but according to traditional Christian teaching worship has a created object; that is, there is a particular characteristic of worship. According to St. Thomas, the created object to which latria (worship) refers is that of rendering owed servitude. (Religion as a Virtue: Thomas Aquinas on Worship Through Justice, Law and Charity, Robert Jared Staudt)
St. Thomas describes how worship thus invokes the whole of the person as rendering this owed servitude:
“…because all things in us are from God, therefore according to all things we must exhibit latria to God. And according to the spirit we must exhibit to Him the debt of desire; according the body prostrations and song; and according to exterior things, however, sacrifices, candles and such things: which we do not exhibit because of His poverty, but in recognition that we have all things from Him. And thus out of all things we call Him to mind, thus also out of all things we honor Him” (ibid.)
Both within and without we have an owed submission to God because all things are from God. This entails that our worship must be ordered first and foremost to God, to submit one’s will to his service and to obey his commands. Our worship is in this manner an approach towards justice, since God is deserving of all our worship and devotion.
Jesus expands upon this thought in his conversation with the woman at the well. Once confronted with her sins, she launches in a theological distraction by asking Jesus where the correct place to worship God was; at the temple the Samaritans worshiped at, or the temple the Jews worshiped at. Jesus answers the question by rejecting the false choice and pronouncing that true worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.
The truth aspect of worship details some of what has already been mentioned: in worship we essentially proclaim the truth about God, and since Jesus is God in flesh and thus “the Truth,” worship involves confessing him as who he is. But the spirit aspect is just as important. It is easy for us moderns to oppose the spiritual to the physical, and in fact to conflate the spiritual with the emotiona. It can be effortless to equate “in spirit” with heartfelt emotions or desires, but this doesn’t seem to be what Jesus is getting at.
Instead to worship God “in spirit” speaks to a means of worship, which is through the Holy Spirit. The trinitarian overtones are unmistakable, as we are told to worship God in and through the Holy Spirit and in truth, who is the Son.
And since truth is involved in worship, it involves the duty of speaking that truth and even abiding in it. St. Thomas speaks of how the theological virtues (faith, hope and love) form the basis and ability of worship:
…it must be said that God is said to be worshipped by faith, hope, and love, not as if worship is elicited by these virtues, but because by a dictate these virtues order toward worship, or even because the act of the ordered virtue passes into worship. (ibid.)
Faith, hope and love, which are infused by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, enable us to worship in spirit and in truth, as the virtues which enable this worship are the things which bind us to God as the object of worship. St. Thomas notes that faith makes clear to us the one to whom our worship is directed, and how love binds us to God as the object of our worship, among other things. There thus exists an even deeper level of owed servitude as our ability to worship is also contingent on God’s grace poured out into our hearts through the Spirit also as to enable us to rectify our wills and worship God as he commands.
The practical import of this rumination is that worship as we moderns tend to understand it has little to do with many of the things with we associate it. While worship may be an experience, we can no more enhance it than we can bring out our own existence, for even our capacity to worship is a gift.
Worship is not an exercise in feeding our own predilections or stoking our own egos or having our preferences and needs met. Much less is it some sort of massaging of formulas to elicit particular emotional responses.
Instead, it is a radical subordination of our entire being, both interiorly and exteriorly, to God’s service. This is not a favor we do for God as if God needed anything, but rather a duty imposed upon us by our being created beings. Everything we have and are comes from God, and as such to God alone it is due.
In the modern church we too often treat worship as something to be experienced, something that is ultimately meant for us to be able to feel a certain way or to experience a certain thing. We spend endless amounts of time trying to discern the right songs to play or the right aesthetics to employ or the right language to utilize. Experiencing worship is something that is inevitable since we are creatures of linear experiences, but too often we treat worship as a subjective thing from our end. We clamor over which church’s worship is awesome or not or whose stage design is the coolest and move from place to place like Jesus’ interlocutors trying to find the perfect worship experience, perhaps not realizing that the entire time we are focusing on things that have no necessary relation to worship at all.
We talk about how worship is important to us and we spend a lot of time and resources to make it awesome, but then we treat it so trivially evidenced by how subjectively we have reduced it. Instead of understanding the terrible responsibility it entails and requires, we tend to treat it as a way to evoke certain feelings or to give us a sense that we do things in inserting and creative ways.
But if worship really and truly is a duty, then what happens, as the song says, “when the music fades, and all is stripped away?” Are we capable or worshiping and spirit and in truth? Do we allow the space for the Holy Spirit to pour faith, hope and love into our hearts so we are even able to worship at all? Do we judge the quality of our worship by how great and creative the music and service is, or by how much our wills have been brought into rectitude with the truth and submitted to God’s will?
Is the worship we like to create something we are willing to submit to God, even if it means recognizing that we might have made it all about us instead of all about God? Are we willing to speak the truth about God when our experiences don’t line up with our vision of worship or when the feelings we desire are absent?
Worship finally means that we give ourselves over completely to God no matter what, since everything we have belongs to him and is due him. As Jesus said:
So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’ (Luke 17:10)