PEREGRINATIONS - Canadian Catholic Perspectives and Reflections by members of the PERSONAL ORDINARIATE OF THE CHAIR OF ST. PETER
Saturday, 9 January 2016
Worship in the Secular Age
Following is a homily by Hans Urs von Balthasar that was broadcast on Vatican Radio.
Falling Down and Worshipping
It is said that the three wise men who came to see the Child and his Mother “fell down and worshipped”. What they worship is the epiphany, the manifestation, the shining forth of God in this poor Child. The Old Covenant worshipped God in his majesty, his judicial righteousness, his goodness as Lord of the Covenant. Now he is to be worshipped in a human Child, and this is so astonishing that it compels us to reflect about the act of worship itself—something largely alien to us in our secularized age.
If we still have a personal relationship with God, for the most part we address prayers of petition to him, and we are right to do so. More seldom, we give thanks to him—and we remember that, of the ten lepers healed by Jesus, only one returned to give thanks—or, if some suffering comes our way, we make an act of surrender to the eternal design that is beyond our grasp. Again, we are right to do so. But surrender, acceptance, is not the same as worship.
What is it? God is unique and infinitely mysterious. Consequently, the act in which, with all our being, we acknowledge him as God, our God, is also unique and difficult to talk about. Let us try, all the same. We acknowledge that God alone exists of himself, whereas all created things only exist because of his almighty will and power and have their roots in something beyond all conditions. So, too, we acknowledge that God is truth pure and simple, the epitome of all truth, and that as a result he is always right, whatever he does or allows to happen. We acknowledge that God is goodness pure and simple, the epitome of all that is good, and that, consequently, whatever he sends us, we can always love him unreservedly with wholehearted homage and surrender. We acknowledge that God is the epitome of all beauty, and as a result we are enraptured as we submit to his truth and are caught up in rejoicing as we serve him, as the Psalms show us, and as Paul urges the Christians: “Singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, always and for everything giving thanks.” The Old Covenant is already aware of this; there too God’s faithful ones commit their hearts to him in surrender, thanksgiving and trust and in a profound reverence that is yet devoid of anxiety.
What now, however, when God sends his eternal Word to the earth in the form of a Child? First we must understand what God is saying to us through this epiphany. As always in his word, he is telling us something about himself; in all that this Child is and is to become, the youth, the man, the teacher and worker of miracles, keeping silence before the judge, scourged, mocked, rejected, crying out in his abandonment by God on the Cross, buried, and living forever after having risen from the dead—all this is epiphany, God revealing himself.
By being a tiny Child, God is saying this: with all my almighty power, genuinely mine as it is, I am still as poor and humble and trusting as this Child; indeed, not just as this Child, for I really am this Child. Later, in his teaching, Jesus will speak about taking the lowest place, about serving, about giving one’s life for the brethren, and this will not be a mere moral instruction addressed to men but something he himself does and is. Thus it will be a manifestation of the heart of God, his Father. Do this, because this is what God is like! And then comes the terrible side to it: when Jesus suffers for sinners and, carrying their sins, loses his awareness of his Father and cries out, forsaken and dying of his thirst for God: again we have to say, this is what God is like! And when Jesus shares himself out in the form of food and drink: this is what God is like! For it is the Father who offers us this word and flesh of God, bloodied, rent and torn asunder by men, so that we may share in his eternal life. And when Jesus’ heart is pierced and becomes a hollow wound where a man can place his fingers and his whole self—“hide me in thy wounds”—this is what God is like! For this wound goes right to his heart, and in it we can find healing. All this is the epiphany of God.
In falling down and worshipping, therefore, we are not worshipping flesh, that is, ourselves, but God; we are worshipping the One who is completely Other, self-existent, all-powerful, and yet who has been pleased to show us that he is sufficiently all-powerful to be powerless, sufficiently blessed to be able to suffer, sufficiently glorious to be able to take the lowest place in his creation. And God does not act “as if”: he really is humble and childlike and poor. How could the God who created children not know in his heart how a child feels?
At this point we can ask if there can be a more mysterious and incomprehensible God than this God, who goes about among us like a man, as a man, without ceasing to be truly God, the completely Other, the Eternal, Immortal and All-Powerful. In his epiphany this God has lost nothing of his incomprehensibility; on the contrary, he has become even more incomprehensible. Only now do we begin to suspect how far divine omnipotence reaches into reality. Thus there can be no more profound worship than Christian worship, when it is authentic.
What, then, in the face of this God, is the significance of the world, with all the people around us, with all our activities and busy work? It is not God in any shape or form, and hence it is in no way to be worshipped. It is worldly, creaturely, and it is wrong to say that all created reality as such contains an uncreated divine spark at its deepest level. Otherwise we should have to worship ourselves. All the same, is there not something true in this idea that something divine lies at man’s innermost core? As Christians we must say “Yes”: every man has something divine in him, but not by nature, not by the fact of being created but by God’s grace, which designates, chooses and calls all men to be children of the Father, brothers of Jesus and bearers of God’s Holy Spirit. Many, probably the majority, know nothing or very little of this vocation; they live at the level of passing things, as if they had nothing eternal in them. So they can see nothing other than the worldly dimension, not even in their fellowmen. They do not see that, in Christ, their fellowman is a child of the Father, who loves him because Christ has stood surety for him and made him his brother. We can even say that Christ has made him the brother whom the Father so loves, of himself, that he gave up his Son, Jesus Christ, for his sake. Thus, as the Apostle says, God has paid a very high price for this love of his. People ordinarily see nothing but their own likeness in their fellowmen, one chance specimen among millions. “Man is man” (Mann ist Mann—title of a play by Brecht); basically every man can be replaced by someone else.
Only the Christian is able to see something unique in each person he meets. In him he sees a being who is known by God not in a merely generic sense, or as a chance specimen, but whom God loves in his uniqueness and irreplaceability. This is only possible because of Jesus Christ, the Only Son, who gives something of his uniqueness to all his brothers and sisters.
If this is really the case, what does the Christian see when he looks at his fellowman? Not a questionable, cheap and highly imperfect specimen of humanity in general but someone whom God himself loves with a love that is unique to him, however mired and obscured the image of God within him has become. And the divine love that loves this person is worthy of worship. We are not saying that men should worship each other, for that would be ridiculous; what we are saying, however, is something quite serious and implying very definite consequences: every person should be to others an occasion for epiphany, stimulating them to worship God’s presence in each individual.
So we do not need to erect a wall between the moments we keep for prayer and worship and our everyday life in which we have quite different things to think of. Of course, if in our daily round we do not reserve a single moment for thinking of God, such thoughts will never occur to us when we encounter each other in the everyday hurly-burly of life. But once we have penetrated to the worshipful love of God through pondering the mystery of the epiphany, we shall have no need to abandon this attitude of worship in the midst of our daily work; not only are we constantly surrounded by this mystery, but each encounter with another will make us more deeply acquainted with it.
When a person is able to see and treat the world from this point of view, we say that he is living in the presence of God.
Many people think it takes long preparation by way of meditation and technical exercises to attain this attitude. I do not believe that. It is enough if we simply recall our Faith, which receives its visible seal on Christmas night: “God so loved the world” and each one of us “that he gave his only Son” for it and for each of us. Before our very eyes we have this Son, given for us. We see him before us here at Christmas-tide, but equally we see him on the Cross, and on Easter Day, and on every ordinary day of the Church’s year.