Some time ago I posted a picture of  worship at St Peter’s. There was a crowd of altar servers, robed clergy in procession and clouds of incense.

Someone criticized, “Would Jesus recognize this as worship?” It sounded like a common misunderstanding of the roots of Catholic worship and the nature of Jewish worship in Jesus’ time. When I was growing up as an Evangelical we assumed that the early Christians met in people’s homes for prayer and Bible studies.

Well maybe but not really.

So, let’s stop for a moment and ask whether Jesus would recognize Catholic worship.

When people criticize liturgical worship they assume that Jesus was a simple, wandering preacher–a rustic carpenter from Nazareth. Jesus is the equivalent of Pastor Bob from the Backwoods Bible Church who has studied for two years at Buckboard Bible College and then set up his church. He’s a homely country man with a sincere message and a good heart. He goes in for no frills religion–prayers from the heart not out of a book. He wanders the countryside as an itinerant preacher–sort of like an old time revivalist. If he is not this, then he is a Franciscan sort of person–wandering about in tattered robes preaching to the birds and living a life of holy poverty far removed from all the pomp and ceremony of the overblown and worldly Catholic religion.

The view of Jesus as the simple country preacher does have some connection with the real Jesus, but we also have to remember that Jesus was a first century Jew. He would have been familiar with, and shared in the rituals and traditions of synagogue worship as well as the worship of the temple. What was this worship like? First of all, the synagogue worship was formal and liturgical. They used set prayers and established readings as Catholics do with their liturgy and tables of readings. Furthermore, the worship of the ‘domestic church’ for Jews was structured around seasons and feasts. Throughout the year, as Catholics do, they celebrated certain feast days and fast days. For the feasts they had structured, ceremonial meals that they shared together. These ceremonial meals consisted of set, written prayers and psalms and Scripture readings.

In addition to the worship of the domestic church and the synagogue the Jews in the time of Jesus all worshipped at the temple in Jerusalem. The worship in this splendid and glorious structure was predicated by the temple of Solomon which was in turn established according to the instructions given by God in Exodus for the construction of the tabernacle. The tabernacle, and both the Herodian and Solomonic temples in Jerusalem were splendid, ornate and rich buildings where the worship was ceremonial and ritualistic. The priests wore eloborate vestments, there were ritualistic processions into and around the temple, ornate images of angels surround the worship space and incense was burned before God to symbolize the prayers of the faithful rising to heaven.

So would Jesus recognize the Catholic worship that goes on in the great cathedrals and Catholic churches? There are clearly differences between Catholic and Jewish worship, but think of the things Jesus would recognize:

  1.  Splendid, rich and ornate temple of God
  2. Priests in rich vestments
  3. Set readings from the Old Testament
  4. the Chanting of psalms
  5. the burning of incense
  6. an altar of sacrifice
  7. golden candlesticks
  8. the bread of the presence
  9. the holy of holies (the Catholic tabernacle)
  10. the lamp of the presence
  11. processions of priests and people
  12. the offering of the holy sacrifice
  13. The laver or font for cleansing the offerings
  14. water fonts for ritual ablutions before entering worship
  15. Beautiful decorations of fabrics, carvings and embroidery

I can only assume that my critic was a non-Catholic Christian. What, I may ask, would Jesus recognize in Protestant worship? Do Protestants actually know how first century Jews worshipped? Do they therefore know the religious world in which Jesus lived and moved and preached? From what we can glean from the Bible about Jewish worship–both in the Old Testament and from the Book of Revelation (where the worship of heaven is pictured) it all looks far more like a traditional Catholic Mass than the bare preaching rooms and long Bible lectures of the Protestants.

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Primitivism is the idea that for a thing to be ‘pure’ it needs to be taken back to the original version. Protestantism is a primitivism movement–they want to get rid of all the Catholic “extra trappings” and return to the original “new testament church”. Read this article from my archived articles section: The Problem with Primitivism