The Voice: Summer 2003

The Voice

The missing majesty of God

By: Jenny Berkompas

I’m going to share a truth that I learned from another denomination while on the Oxford Studies Program last semester, a truth I think we are inclined to forget: the high majesty of God.

In England, I attended Anglican worship services. The High Anglican Church has very ritualized worship. Every service is conducted according to a written liturgy appropriate for the time of the year. After every prayer, the minister says, “Lord, in your mercy,” and the congregation says, “Hear our prayer.” Members come forward to the priest and kneel around the table in order to receive the sacrament. The priest says to each, “The body of Christ, broken for you. The blood of Christ, shed for you,” and the congregant responds, “Amen.” The Bible is removed from its stand and carried to the center of the congregation before it is read. The congregation stands. The reader begins with “Hear now the Word of the Lord,” and ends with “This is the Word of the Lord.” The congregation responds, “Thanks be to God.”

A service like this one that I attended at St. Mary, Church of the Virgin, sounds dry, stiff, or stuffy to people accustomed to current worship trends. It may even seem unbiblical. Evangelical and Reformed Protestants have been taught to believe that ritual is not necessary. Nothing stands between God and us. We may come with confidence before the throne of grace. The curtain has been torn, and we may all step through. We are no longer called servants, but friends and sons. We may ask anything of God because we are part of the family. We don’t need to stand on ceremony before God. To rely on ritual when approaching God is to assume that a barrier still exists between us. It’s like praying to the saints or confessing to a priest. We don’t have to do that anymore.

The early reformers had a legitimate reason for leaving the extrabiblical ritual of the Roman Catholic Church behind. They were afraid of ritualism—the practice of replacing understanding with ritual or making ritual the means to grace. In the Church before the Reformation, the congregants were only spectators to an elaborate display of ritual that bordered on idolatry. The bread and the wine were often worshipped in their own right, the entire liturgy was done in Latin, which few of the common people could understand, and the music was sung almost entirely by choirs. The people had no ownership or understanding of what was being done or why it was being done. Simply participating in the rituals saved them.

When the Protestant reformers removed the abundance of ritual from worship, they were trying to return ownership to the people and return the focus to God. Worship became simple. Services were conducted in the vernacular. People sang the hymns in their own language, and the preaching of the Word and understanding of the Word became central.

Such is our heritage, and we must be grateful for it. We have been brought up in understanding. The danger now is departing from it again. We know that we have the right to come quickly and easily to God. We understand that grace comes through faith, not sacrament. We speak to God as though he stands beside us. We receive the Word itself and hear how it applies to our lives. We sing the songs of praise. God is immanent among us. But are we so filled with God’s immanence that we have forgotten his transcendence?

If there was one thing that the people of the Middle Ages understood, it was the majesty of God. To read the writings of their saints and mystics is to understand how great they understood God to be. God existed at an inaccessible height. God could be known only in a cloud of unknowing. It was only because of God’s love that he deigned to come near, and his coming near was an experience often reserved for saints. God’s hand and providence directed every circumstance. God was approached through ritual, through priests and saints. His favor was sought through great sacrifices like pilgrimages. He was petitioned like a king.

Obviously, we ought to have theological problems with some of these ideas. We should never presume to place something between ourselves and God. I’m not trying to imply that we should. What I am trying to do is illustrate another aspect of God, one that we often miss, and that is the majesty, the height, and the authority that is inherent in the nature and position of God, and also the mystery that goes along with these things. This is something the higher church traditions recognize more readily than we do.

In my program, we went all over Southern England, and we saw incredible cathedrals. Each of these buildings took at least 100 years to build. People spent their whole lives working on them. They brought the finest developments in science, art, and architecture into these buildings. These were palaces for a king. This was where God came down to meet with his people. These buildings brought God from the heights to the masses. The bread, the wine, and the Word were gifts from heaven, even if the worshipers didn’t understand them entirely. And surrounded by these magnificent structures, worshipers couldn’t help but be aware of how far these gifts had come. The God of these cathedrals is big.

We in the twenty-first century are at a great advantage in knowing the closeness of God, but we forget the magnitude of the God whom we are approaching. By forgetting the magnitude of God, we forget the humiliation that God endured in becoming man. Do you know why the Muslims cannot accept Jesus as God? There are five main reasons, but chief among them is that there is no way in their eyes that the transcendent holy God of the universe could, would, or would want to demean himself to become man. There’s just no way. It’s impossible. That God would become filthy, decaying flesh and blood is inconceivable to them. The distance between God and humanity is just too great.

Our response is that God did become man; moreover, as a man, he ate, drank, slept and performed all necessary bodily functions. Then he bled, and he died. The distance between God and humanity is simply evidence of how great his love for us is. But in order to appropriately appreciate that love, we have to appreciate that God should not have had to do that. It is this distance between created, mortal being and eternal Creator Lord that makes this grace so incredible. And I would argue that treating this distance as if it never existed cheapens grace to us.

I’ve been encouraged to illustrate what I mean by cheapening grace, but I don’t know if I can. The obvious would be habits where we take God for granted, like falling asleep in the middle of prayer or church service. You wouldn’t do that in conversation with your boss, but we often do it with the King of the universe. My other ideas are a bit more uncomfortable. Would you come to meet a king in your blue jeans? Would you tell that joke if you remembered he was listening? But in the end, I can’t say how we cheapen grace because it differs with each person. A man who comes to church in blue jeans and falls asleep might appreciate the grace of God more than the guy in the tie who remembers the entire sermon. One person prays more sincerely in a hurried breath than another prays the Lord’s Prayer. You know the place that God occupies in your life. I’m just trying to increase understanding.

If you had to kneel before God in fear and trembling every time you came before him in prayer, odds are his majesty would be first thing on your mind. It’s not easy to get down on your knees, to physically put knee to floor and bow in submission. For one thing, kneeling is a rather clumsy action. For another, kneeling has connotations of childhood prayers, kings and subjects, masters and slaves. Friends don’t kneel to each other. But Jesus is more than our friend. He is also our Lord.

Lord is a word that we don’t use very often outside of religious contexts anymore. The concept doesn’t work well with democracy because it assumes superiority on the part of one person over another. We don’t really understand how one person could have the right to demand family, life, or identity from another person, which is exactly what a lord could do. We can’t understand that people would willingly submit to such demands without demanding something in return. Being products for the most part of democratic, Western ideals, we can really only fathom that kind of authority as a historical construct. But this is exactly the kind of authority that God, by his very essence and position as God, holds over us. That is why we should kneel. Kneeling translates a vague idea in our mind into an action. The action carries the power of the idea into reality and makes it a symbol. Kneeling is then a symbol of what we know to be true: God’s superiority and lordship.

And what of the Word? He didn’t have to give it to us. C.S. Lewis points out in Mere Christianity that God, because he is outside of nature, didn’t have to reveal himself to us unless he wanted to. This book is not something to be taken for granted. Every word in this book is a gift. Ought we not thank God for it? And what of Communion? The Catholics believe that we take Christ’s blood and body into ourselves when we partake of the Lord’s Supper. We disagree, but even the symbol of his life is worthy of being received in greatest reverence. We should never kneel to the bread itself, but we should certainly kneel to the one who provides it. We should recognize with our bodies as well as our minds the debt of honor that we owe to God.

Does kneeling before God or thanking him for the Word make us more holy? No. If you are tempted to read such meaning in it, don’t do it, ever. Kneeling, just like any other ritual, is meant to help us understand what we already know. It’s a deliberate action of submission. But kneeling isn’t easy. I submit that it is far easier to raise hands and cry out, “Lord, fill us now,” than it is to kneel and say, “Lord, your servant waits.” It is far easier to burn than to bow. And we must do both. We must be filled, and we must submit. Some would say that we are filled, and then we kneel in awe. I would say that when we kneel, we become aware of the magnitude of being filled. And we will be filled. By the grace of God who chooses to make us, reveal himself to us, save us, love us, and rule us, we will be filled. But before anything else, let us be filled with gratitude, a gratitude that comes from appreciating the majesty of God and how far he has come for us.