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Christian Worship

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Notion and characteristics

The word worship (Saxon weorthscipe, "honour"; from worth, meaning "value", "dignity", "price", and the termination, ship; Latin cultus) in its most general sense is homage paid to a person or a thing. In this sense we may speak of hero-worship, worship of the emperor, of demons, of the angels, even of relics, and especially of the Cross. This article will deal with Christian worship according to the following definition: homage paid to God, to Jesus Christ, to His saints, to the beings or even to the objects which have a special relation to God.

There are several degrees of this worship:

In accordance with these principles it will readily be understood that a certain worship may be offered even to inanimate objects, such as the relics of a martyr, the Cross of Christ, the Crown of Thorns, or even the statue or picture of a saint. There is here no confusion or danger of idolatry, for this worship is subordinate or dependent. The relic of the saint is venerated because of the link which unites it with the person who is adored or venerated; while the statue or picture is regarded as having a conventional relation to a person who has a right to our homage — as being a symbol which reminds us of that person (see Vacant, Diet de théol. cath., s.v. Adoration, and authors cited in bibliography; also ADORATION; IDOLATRY; IMAGES; DEVOTION TO THE BLESSED VIRGIN MARY).

Interior worship is to be distinguished from exterior worship. the former is not manifested by external acts, but consists in internal adoration; but when this inner sentiment is expressed by words or actions, prostration, genuflexion, the sign of the cross, or any other gesture, it becomes exterior worship. Again worship is private or public; the former, which may be an act of external worship, is performed unseen by men or seen by only a few; the second is official worship rendered by men assembled for a religious end and forming a religious society properly so called. This is not the place to show that Christian worship is a worship at once interior and exterior, public and private. It should be interior, otherwise it would be mere comedy, a purely pharisaical worship such as Christ condemned when He told His disciples that they should worship in spirit and the truth. But it should not be purely interior worship, as Sabatier, with certain Protestants and most Deists, maintains (Sabatier, Esquisse d'une philosophie de la religion, 1908, 5); for man is not a pure spirit but composed of body and soul, and he should adore God not only in his soul but also in his body. This is the justification of all external manifestations of worship — genuflexion, prostration, kneeling, standing, the sign of the cross, the lifting-up or imposition of hands. Furthermore, on the same principle it will readily be understood that, in rendering homage to God man may have recourse to animate or inanimate creatures (sacrifice of animals, incense, lights, flowers, etc.). Neither is it difficult to prove that, since man is a social being, his worship should be public and in common with others. Worship in private or even individual worship in public, is not sufficient. Society as such should also render to God the honour due to Him. Furthermore, it is natural that men who believe in the same God and experience towards Him the same sentiments of adoration, gratitude, and love should assemble to praise and thank Him.

But even if this principle of a natural right did not exist to prove the necessity and legitimacy of a social worship, the fact that Christ founded a Church, that is, a society of men professing the same faith, obeying the same laws united with one another by the closest bonds, implies the existence of the same worship. This religious society founded by Christ should have one and the same worship — "one Lord, one faith, one baptism. One God and Father of all" (Ephesians 4:5-6). This baptism represents the entire worship, which should be one, addressed to the same God by the same Christ. Hence Christian worship is the worship of the Church, the expression of the same faith, and exercised under the supervision of the ecclesiastical authority. Thus understood worship depends on the virtue of religion and is the manifestation of that virtue. Finally, theologians usually connect worship also with the virtue of justice; for worship is not an optional act of the creature; God is entitled to the worship of intelligent creatures as a matter of justice.

In Christianity the worship offered to God has a special character which profoundly differentiates it from Jewish worship, for it is the worship of the Trinity, God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. The worship of the Jews is directed to God, one, omnipotent, magnificent, sovereign, King of kings, Lord of lords, God of gods, but without distinction of persons. Prayer is addressed to Him as the living God, the Lord God of Israel, the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, the God of our fathers, or simply to the Lord our God. The formula, to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, remains in use among Christians, but ordinarily God is conceived of by Christians under other titles and with another form. In the worship which Christ paid to God He shows Him to us as the Father. He adores Him as His Father: "I confess to Thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth" (Matthew 11:25; cf. Luke 10:21); "Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee: remove this chalice from me" (Mark 14:36); "Father, sanctify me . . . Father glorify me . . . Just Father" (John 17). Already He seems to claim for Himself a worship of adoration equal to what he gives the Father: "If two of you shall consent upon earth, concerning anything whatsoever they shall ask, it shall be done to them by my Father who is in heaven. For where there are two or three gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them" (Matthew 18:19, 20). The Apostles and even those who were not His disciples prayed to Him during His life-time: "Lord, if it be thou, bid me to come to thee upon the waters" (Matthew 14:28); "Lord, save us, we perish" (Matthew 8:25); "Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean" (Matthew 8:2; cf. Mark 1:40; Luke 5:12); "Have mercy on me, O Lord . . . But she came and adored him, saying: Lord, help me" (Matthew 15:22; 25), etc.

He ordained that baptism should be given in His name as well as in the name of the Father, "baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost" (Matthew 28:19). Exorcisms, imposition of hands, anointing of the sick are to be performed in His name: "In my name they shall cast out devils . . . they shall lay their hands upon the sick" (Mark 16:17, 18). In St. John this idea is emphasized: "That all men may honour the Son, as they honour the Father" (5:23); "Whatsoever you shall ask the Father in my name, that will I do; that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you will ask me anything in my name, he will give it you. Hitherto you have not asked anything in my name. Ask, and you shall receive; that your joy may be full . . . In that day you shall ask in my name" (16:23-26). No sooner is He ascended to glory than He is beside the Father and in consequence of His equality with Him the object of the worship of the early Christians; "All whatsoever you do" — St. Paul has just been speaking of prayer — "in word or in work, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, giving thanks to God and the Father by him" (Colossians 3:17), which is like the ending of our own prayers. It seems probable that the prayer for the choice of Matthias was addressed directly to Him: "Thou, Lord, who knowest the hearts of all men" (Acts 1:24). His name becomes consecrated for prayer in the formulas, "By the name of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Acts 4:10), "By the name of thy holy Son Jesus" (Acts 4:30). St. Stephen prays to Him: "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit" (Acts 7:58). The formulas of exorcism are also in His name: "I command thee (Satan) in the name of Jesus Christ to go out from her (the woman)" (Acts 16:18). Indeed even the Jewish exorcists attempted to make use of this name in their exorcisms: "Some of the Jewish exorcists . . . attempted to invoke over them that had evil spirits, the name of the Lord Jesus, saying: I conjure you by Jesus, whom Paul preacheth" (Acts 19:13). In St. Paul expressions like, "Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. I give thanks to my God through Jesus Christ . . . (Christ) Who is above all blessed forever," and others similar are too numerous for quotation. They likewise abound in the Apocalypse, usually in the form of a doxology, e.g. "To him that sitteth on the throne, and to the Lamb, benediction, honour, and glory, and power, for ever and ever . . . Amen" (Revelation 5:13-14). The Apostolic Fathers and the writers of the first centuries likewise furnish us with an abundant harvest of similar formulas. (See Cabrol, Monuments liturgica, I, Paris, 1900-02, where the texts are collected in chronological order, especially nos. 612, 627, 649, 653, 656, etc., and also Cabrol. Dict. d'archéologie chrét. et de liturgie, I, col. 614, 654.)

In virtue of the same principle and of the equality of the Divine Persons in the Trinity, the Holy Ghost also became the object of Christian worship. The formula of baptism was given, as has been seen, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. In the doxology the Holy Spirit also has a place with the Father and the Son. In the Mass the Holy Ghost is invoked at the Epiclesis and invited to prepare the sacrifice. The Montanists, who in the second century preached, and awaited, the coming of the Holy Ghost to take the place of the Son and announce a more perfect Gospel, made Him the object of an exclusive worship, which the Church had to repress. But it nevertheless vindicated the adoration of the Holy Ghost, and in 380 the anathemas pronounced by Pope Damasus, in the Fourth Council of Rome, condemned whosoever should deny that the Holy Ghost must be adored like the Father and the Son by every creature (Denzinger, Enchiridion, n. 80). These anathemas were renewed by Celestine I and Virgilius, and the ecumenical council of 381 in its symbol, which took its place in the liturgy, formulated its faith in the Holy Ghost, "Who together with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified." These expressions indicate the unity of the adoration of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; that is, that one or the other Person of the Trinity may be adored separately but not to the exclusion of the other two.

Beginnings of Christian worship

It has been, and is still sometimes, asserted that Christ did not establish worship or, rather, that He proscribed external worship and was unwilling to allow any but interior worship, the adoration of the heart "in spirit and in truth." He wished, it is asserted, a religion without priest or altar, and admitted no temple save the soul. The complicated whole which constitutes the Catholic religion is not, according to these writers, of Christian origin and is to be condemned in the name of a purer Christianity. These objections were first formulated by the Protestants of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, who violently attacked the ceremonies of the Church, especially the Mass, as being tainted with idolatry and paganism. They have been repeated by Protestants of modern times, which is not astonishing, for if Protestantism is logical it will reach, as certain liberal Protestants have reached, the conclusion that worship should be purely individual and private. Each man should make his worship, like his religion and his creed, in accord with the principles of free inquiry (cf. Sabatier, Esquisse d'une philosophie de la religion, 1905, 5). The attacks of the Protestants, especially those of the Protestant Middleton, are cited in the articles on worship by the author of this article, quoted in the bibliography; we cannot here resume this discussion, but will merely summarize the origins of Christian worship.

Christ did not abolish at one stroke the ceremonies of Jewish worship. When it is said that He was satisfied with a wholly interior worship, thereby condemning exterior worship, the assertion is wholly gratuitous and is contradicted by facts. It is certain, on the other hand, that Christ went to the Temple to pray, that he celebrated the Pasch and the Jewish feasts; he received baptism from John, subjected Himself to fasting, laid His hands on the sick, drove out demons with exorcisms, and gave His disciples the power to drive them out in His name. It is almost certain that He carefully observed all the prescriptions of Jewish worship, for a deviation on one point or another would certainly have aroused protests of which some echo would have been preserved in the Gospels. The only point on which a protest of this kind was manifested was the observance of the Sabbath and certain prescriptions which the Pharisees followed in too narrow a spirit. The Apostles and disciples at Jerusalem continued to go to the Temple, as we see in the Acts (2:46-47; 3:1; 5:21; 5:42, etc.). By the worship in spirit and truth, which was to supplant the ancient worship, is meant less the form of a new worship than the spirit in which worship should be understood. Instead of adoring at Jerusalem or Garizim, men will adore everywhere; the believer will adore in his heart, no matter what his nation, be he Jew, Samaritan, or even Gentile. And he will adore not like the Jews or the Pharisees, with a purely external worship, with the lips, and in a formalist and hypocritical manner, but with a true and sincere worship, which supposed and implies a pure life and upright conduct.

But it must be recognized that if He did not directly attack the ancient worship, Christ substituted for it a new worship which would by degrees and naturally replace the Jewish worship. First came baptism, which might have been more or less clearly prefigured by the ablution of the Jews, but which assumed a new character in the Gospel and which is truly a new rite, for it is baptism in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost. It is especially the Eucharist, the Lord's Supper, which recalls the ancient sacrifices. The Eucharist at an early date was enshrined in the Jewish service of the synagogue, profoundly modifying its character, and which also by concomitance, brought about the substitution of Sunday for the Sabbath. This last fact, from the standpoint of Christian worship, is of the utmost importance, on which we cannot dwell here (see SUNDAY). The rites of penance, anointing of the sick, the ceremony of washing of the feet, the imposition of hands on the ministers, some benedictions, invocations, exorcisms, follow close after baptism and the Eucharist, and are mentioned in the New Testament. The Divine Office and the various forms of psalmody are already in germ in the most ancient Christian Synaxaria. Soon came the cult of the martyrs with the ceremonies for the burial of the dead. Sunday and soon Thursday and Friday constitute a Christian week wholly different from the Jewish week, the pivot of which had been the Sabbath. Easter and Pentecost became the pivot of a liturgical year. But this nucleus, which is almost all we know of the primitive Christian liturgy, dates from the first Christian generation. The residuum reached by successive eliminations, and by going back through the centuries, is Christian and exclusively Christian, whatever analogies may be found with the Jewish ceremonies, because the Christian rites, especially the Eucharist, baptism, and the Sunday, have such a determinate significance as to permit of no mistake. This worship is Christian in the sense that the authors of its foremost and essential institutions were Christ and His Apostles, and the institutions are to be found in the Gospels, the Epistles, and the Acts. It has been shown above how this worship differs from the Jewish worship by a new character which is peculiar to it; its object is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

Jewish and pagan influences

Although, as we have seen, the Church constituted a worship for itself, it nevertheless retained several memorials of the Jewish religion, which was a preparation for the Christian religion. But even here the originality and independence of the Christian worship are loudly affirmed. Thus the circumcision, which was the great sacrament of Judaism and as it were its distinctive sign, was rejected by the Church. The Temple of Jerusalem, the religious capital of Judaism, was deserted by the Christians, even by those of Jerusalem, and it was never the centre of their worship. They loved to assemble in private houses to hear the Word, to pray, and to have the breaking of the bread. The Jewish feasts were likewise condemned. Neither the feast of Tabernacles, nor that of Lights, nor that of the Dedication, nor that of Purim left any trace in the Christian calendar.

Easter and Pentecost, which kept their Jewish names and even, to a certain extent, their place on the Christian calendar, changed their object, one becoming the feast of the Resurrection and the other that of the Holy Ghost. But what is still more important, as has been said, is that the Church substituted Sunday for the Sabbath. The distinction between clean and unclean animals, which related to Jewish worship, was also rejected in the very beginning. On these questions, therefore, the Church asserted its independence. However, it borrowed certain things from the synagogue. It retained the Sacred Books as the most precious portion of its heritage and at once made them its liturgical books. For they are truly the core and the substance of the Christian liturgical books. The Church also borrowed from the Jews of the Diaspora the form of their meetings in the synagogue on the Sabbath day. At first the Christian meeting, like that of the synagogue, was taken up with the singing of psalms and the reading of the Sacred Books, followed by an exhortation or homily. These are the chief points of Jewish influence on Christian worship.

The question of pagan influences on Christian liturgy is more complicated, and requires lengthy considerations which can only be summarized here; for further details see works of Cabrol cited below in bibliography. According to some, it was through Gnosticism that pagan influences slipped into Christian worship. Gnosticism, they assert, served somewhat as a bridge between paganism and Christianity. This theory, which has been chiefly supported by Renan in his Origines du christianisme, has now lost much ground. The truth is rather the contrary. Gnosticism, which borrowed from all sides, borrowed from the Church several of its liturgical practices. This theory is sustained by Matter in his great work on Gnosticism; it is also defended by Probst (Sakramente u. Sakramentalien, Tübingen, 1872, 11, 12, sqq.) and Duchesne (Christian Worship, 336). According to others, it was much later, in the fourth century, that the Christian religion allowed itself to be contaminated by polytheism and admitted numerous pagan practices (Harnack, Das Wesen des Christentums, Berlin, 1900, 126, 137-38, 148). But most frequently these pretended borrowings are only unmeaning analogies, and when the Church borrowed from the religion of the Gentiles certain general rites which are current in all religions, such as the use of incense, lights, processions, gold and silver ornaments, she did not fail to profoundly change their character. This has been shown by Newman with his usual profundity in several chapters of his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (ed. 1894, 169 sqq.). This is admitted even by such writers as Loisy (L'évangile et l'église, 186) and Reville (La religion à Rome sous les Sévéres, 294).

Most of these pretended borrowings have no bearing on the essence of the liturgy. From the very first, Christian worship was in possession of all its organs. Instances have been cited of pagan feasts becoming Christian, of pagan temple consecrated to the worship of the true God, of fountains, of statues of the gods baptized and transformed into Christian patrons. It does not suffice to say, as has been said, that Christianity has been superimposed on paganism, that it is a religion of superimposition. With regard to the cult of the saints which has been especially assailed ["A low type of Christianity was born of the cult of the saints" — (Harnack, op. cit., 126); in the same sense, Lucius, Die Anfänge des heiligenkultus in der Christlichen Kirche, Tübingen, 1904, and Saintyves, Les saints successuers des dieux, Paris, 1907] a serious and profound study of the subject has led such scholars as Delehaye, Dufourcq, and Vacandard to conclude that the worship of the saints was not borrowed from paganism, and also that it indicates a high type of religion. The pagan gods and heroes never died. Local saints were not, no matter what has been said to the contrary, the local gods dressed up to suit Christianity; the saints are the enemies of the gods as much as their successors. And it is an illusion to believe that by a mysterious transformation the gods and the Graeco-Roman heroes have survived in the Church. There is no proof that a single one of them has even been honoured under the name of a martyr or even under a travesty of his own name (Vacandard, Etude de critque et d'histoire religieuse, 3d series: Les origines du culte des saints, 211, 212). Moreover it is easy to prove that, given the opposition of principle between Christianity and paganism, the two religions could scarcely borrow from each other. Paganism was based on the worship of many gods, and, at least for the masses, this worship usually consisted of gross fetishism. When piety existed among the pagans it was generally narrow, ignorant, and paltry. The gods were honoured either to win their favour, or to avert their anger, while the god of the Christians desired to be worshipped in spirit and in truth. The worship of the one true God is at the bottom of all Christian liturgy.

In conclusion it may be said that, while admitting that certain customs or rites accepted by Christianity may have existed in paganism, though with a very different significance, we must guard against admitting all the resemblances which have been suggested in recent years between Christian liturgy and pagan religions. In these cases all the evidence of assimilation must be established according to historical methods. Certain analogies between the two rites are merely fortuitous coincidences, and not borrowings. The misconceptions of some scholars of recent years are no longer of any value. There has been an attempt to see in the inscription of Abercius the epitaph of a priest of Cybele and to prove that St. Paul borrowed the Holy Eucharist from the Corinthian mysteries of Eleusis, while certain saints have been made to resemble pagan divinities. Even if some of these comparisons can be sustained, most of them are founded only on imagination. Space does not permit an enumeration of examples; these will be found in the monographs and articles cited in the bibliography.


CHOLLET, Culte en general in Dict. de theol. cath., III, 2404-27; BOUQUILLION, Tractatus de virtute religionis, I (Bruges, 1880); CARROL, origines liturgiques (Paris, 1906), 47 sq., 197; IDEM, les origines du culte catholique in Revue pratique d'apologetique (15 Nov., 1906), 209-23; (1 Dec.), 278-87; IDEM, L'idolatrie dans l'Église in Rev. prat. d a pol. (1 Oct., 1907), 36-46. On MIDDLETON, A Letter from Rome showing an Exact Conformity between Popery and paganism and its different editions, and criticism of the work see CABROL in ALES, Dict. apologetique, s.v. Cult chretien and I, 833, 848, where several other Protestant works on the subject are cited; MARANGONI, Delle cose gentilesche e profane transportate ad uso e ad ornamento delle chiese (Rome, 1744); HATCH, Influences of Greek Ideas and usages upon the Christian Church (London, 1890); BASS MULLINGER in Dict. Christ, Ant., s.v. Paganism; KELLNER, Heortology, tr. (London and St. Louis, 1908); DUCHESNE, Christian Worship, Its Origin and Evolution (London, 1904). There is a refutation of some Protestant prejudices regarding the origin of Christian Worship (London, 1897), The Liturgy and the Ritual of the Ante-Nicene Church (London, 1897), 248 sqq. (2nd ed., London, 1912); VACANDARD in etudes de critique et d'histoire religieuse, 3d series, Les origines du culte des saints (Paris, 1912); DELEHAYE, Legendes hagiographiques (Brussels, 1905), esp. the chapter Reminiscences et survivance patennes; DUFOURCQ, Le passe chretien, IV: Histoire de l'Église du III au X I siecle (Paris, 1910); BRIDGETT, The Ritual of the N.T., an Essay on the Principles of the Origin of Catholic ritual in Reference in the N.T. (London, 1873); OSTERLY AND BOX, The Religion and Worship of the Synagogue (London, 1907), especially xiii, xvi to xx; LECLERCQ, De rei liturgicae in synagogis Ecclesiaque analogia in Mon. Ecclesiae Liturgica (Paris, 1900-02), I, xi sq.

About this page

APA citation. Cabrol, F. (1912). Christian Worship. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Cabrol, Fernand. "Christian Worship." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 15. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Beth Ste-Marie.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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