One of the most beautiful things about Catholic worship, particularly when it’s done well, is that it’s a full-body experience. We smell the incense, we sing Psalms and hymns (and hear these being sung), we listen to the Scriptures and the homily, we see the Sacrifice of the Mass (and the priest’s liturgical gestures are loaded with meaning), we kneel, sit, stand, we taste the Blessed Sacrament, we embrace at the sign of peace. The Liturgy reflects the Catholic view of the body, and of matter, and our deep-seated belief that Creation should give glory to God. It’s also consistent with the worship of the Old Testament, of the early Christians, and of the apparent Heavenly Liturgy described in the Book of Revelation.
|Limbourg brothers, The Ark of God
Carried into the Temple (1416)
Worship in the Old Testament engaged each of the five senses: hearing, sight, touch, smell, and taste. Hearing was engaged, along with the gift of speech, in the proclamation of the word, in the singing of hymns, and in vocal prayer. The Shema Yisrael, perhaps the most famous Jewish prayer, begins, “Hear, O Israel…” (Deuteronomy 6:4).
Old Testament worship was no less tied to the sense of sight. The Mosaic Law contains incredibly precise instructions for the materials to use in worship, and both Temples were built according to plans intricately detailed by God (see, e.g., 1 Chronicles 28). In worship, religious images and statues were used, such as the golden cherubim in front of the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 25:18), and the depictions of the cherubim on the Temple Veil (Ex. 26:31). Full chapters deal with specific details like what priestly vestments should look like, and the materials to be used in designing them (see, e.g., Ex. 28).
Smell was engaged, in the use of incense. In fact, the Mosaic Law prescribed special incense to be used that was only permitted to be used in worship, creating a holy scent tied to worship (Exodus 30:34-38):
And the LORD said to Moses, “Take sweet spices, stacte, and onycha, and galbanum, sweet spices with pure frankincense (of each shall there be an equal part), and make an incense blended as by the perfumer, seasoned with salt, pure and holy; and you shall beat some of it very small, and put part of it before the testimony in the tent of meeting where I shall meet with you; it shall be for you most holy.And the incense which you shall make according to its composition, you shall not make for yourselves; it shall be for you holy to the LORD. Whoever makes any like it to use as perfume shall be cut off from his people.”
Just as there were sacred scents, there were also objects sacred to the touch, like the altar (Ex. 29:37) and the various sacred objects associated with the altar (Ex. 30:29). And when priests were consecrated, they had an ephod fastened on them, a turban placed on their head, and anointing oil poured upon them (Ex. 29:6-7)
Even the sense of taste was tied to worship, through the sacrificial system. Certain sacrifices required you to eat them. For example, in Deuteronomy 27:6-7, we hear:
Build the altar of the Lord your God with fieldstones and offer burnt offerings on it to the Lord your God. Sacrifice fellowship offerings there, eating them and rejoicing in the presence of the Lord your God.
So Old Testament worship really did use all five senses for the glory of God.
|Christ’s Trial before Pilate, from the
Sarcophagus of Junius Bassus (359 A.D.)
In the worship from the first five centuries of Christianity, we see worship that engages all five of the senses. Sometimes, it’s through sight, as early Christian art, like the funerary art found in the Catacombs (including the beautiful sarcophagus of Junius Bassus depicted on the right), attests. Other times, it’s in the sacred smells. A fascinating example of this comes from the second-century Martyrdom of Polycarp, which tells us that when the Romans attempted to burn Polycarp alive, he was preserved from harm, and “we perceived such a sweet odour [coming from the pile], as if frankincense or some such precious spices had been smoking there.”
The sense of hearing, of course, is engaged in listening to the Scripture read aloud in church. Revelation 1:3 makes clear that this is the normal way that people were exposed to the Scriptures in the early Church. Hearing also was engaged through sacred music. Touch is also involved. Look at the use of oils in confirmation (which the East calls chrismation, in recognition of the use of holy chrism), and in the anointing of the sick. James 5:14 says, “Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord.” In the Liturgy, we see the sense of touch being used for the glory of God at what the early Christians called the Kiss of Peace, in which, as St. Justin Martyr tells us, “we salute one another with a kiss.” Finally, the Eucharist draws the sense of taste into the worship of God (Mt. 26:26-29; 1 Cor. 11:23-29). So all five senses were engaged in early Christian worship. In a similar way, Catholics and Orthodox today use all five senses in worship.
|Worship Before the Throne of God,
The Bamberg Apocalypse (11th c.)
The Book of Revelation is rich in metaphor, and is liturgically rich. It draws vivid images of the end of days, juxtaposed against what appears to be a Mass in Heaven attended by the angels and the Saints. The liturgical worship depicted in the Book of Revelation engages each of the senses as well. For example, read the sights described in the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21:9-21, as the angel has John precisely measure the contours of the city, and shows him the various precious materials used in making it. Or read Rev. 7:9’s description of the praising masses in their white robes. And Rev. 5:8-10 depicts heavenly worship as involving singing, harps, and incense, glorifying speech, as well as engaging the sense of hearing and smell:
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; 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, and hast made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on earth.”
Old Testament, early Christian, and heavenly worship are remarkably similar: all five senses are engaged. This worship avoids two extremes. On the one hand, the senses aren’t violated or overwhelmed, like eating Limburger cheese at a rock concert. But on the other hand, the sense aren’t shunned or ignored, as if we were beings of pure spirit, or as if the body were inherently evil. Instead, the senses are exalted, in that they are drawn up into the worship of God. And they’re engaged in very similar ways: through sacred art and architecture, religious vestments, anointing oil, incense, sacred music, and partaking of the sacrifice through eating. I would suggest that these things are not merely incidental, but are important elements of drawing our whole being, body and soul, into the worship of God.