Wednesday, January 2, 2013

All Pomp and Circumstance?

Late on Christmas Eve we watched the Christmas Eve service at the Vatican.  My wife and I were deeply moved by the proceedings and the important message given by Pope Benedict.  During all of this, someone in the room with us asked, "What spiritual benefit is there in any of that.  It's nothing more than pageantry."  I said nothing because I was tired, but more importantly, because it was a rhetorical question.  It was really a criticism--nay, a repudiation--couched in a question.

Now I would like to at least ponder what this person was suggesting.  I will answer the question with another question: What is the spiritual benefit of the banal, austere, drab, and, yes, rote ceremonies typical of so many protestant services?

I do get the person's alleged concern.  In this person's thinking, all the pomp and circumstance of the high church service equals spiritual complacency, ritual, and worship without substance.  And I would quickly agree that to many of those attending St. Peter's that night, all that pageantry was nothing more than just one more bulb to be hung on this year's Christmas tree.  But am I supposed to believe such hypocrisy is avoided by reducing the service to the din of rock music, kiddie recitals, and Silent Night sung in a large auditorium lit only by hundreds of candles held high by the happy attendees?  Sorry, all too many attending that so-called "sincere" service only saw it as seasonal entertainment.

The pomp and circumstance, or the lack thereof have no bearing whatsoever on the spiritual benefit to those attending.  The spiritual benefit comes solely from an emptying of one's self to the splendor, beauty, power, and ineffable love God has shown us through the unexpected, humiliating, and austere incarnation of Himself in a human infant.  Jesus, which means, "God saves," and Christ, which means, "The Anointed One," is the Emmanuel,"God with us."

God didn't display such awesome power for our entertainment.  He came as He did because we are a lost and doomed people.  And even though we didn't deserve it, God has intervened to save us from ourselves.  Because that infant child laying in a manger would grow up and obediently enter death for us by dying on the cross, and then overcome that death by being raised to life, and then ascend to heaven to rule over all from the right hand of God, we no longer have to live in fear of death; we no longer are without hope; we are no longer a marginalized and beaten humanity.  No, all of that is past for us if we simply trust this Jesus for our life, purpose, meaning, and provision.

In the presence of such good news, in the power of such love, shouldn't the question become, "How can any of us fail to fall prostrate before God in total adoration, reverence, awe, and abandonment?"  The venue we find ourselves should have little bearing on our response to our Good, powerful, Creator, God.  Who God is, and what He has accomplished should bowl us over with little provocation from outside stimuli.

Until we come to fully comprehend just how much God loves us, I'm afraid our church services, whether high or low, will tend to devolve to routine.

Having said all that, doesn't God deserve the pomp and circumstance?  Check out the throne room descriptions recorded in the scriptures (e.g., Is. 6:1-8).  They simply aren't low key affairs.  I think the Roman and Eastern Orthodox churches have made a valuable contribution to worship by trying to replicate the ecstasy and beauty of the throne of heaven.  The only caveat I would have to this is the Lord would not have us stay there, but go out into the dark, tormented world and spread the light of His love.  The administration of mercy to the afflicted--regardless of who they might be, or disposition we might find them in--is the kind of pomp and circumstance that will always result in spiritual benefit.


Anonymous said...

Well said.

Jeff said...

Wonderful Bruce! Why is it so hard for people to see that God is present in all of HIS creation? Jesus was equally at home in the wilderness and the Synagog. It is just as bad to condemn the pomp and ceremony of "high church" as it is to dismiss the spiritual value of 2 or 3 believers gathered together in the woods.