Today “Worship” itself has become a vague concept, generally associated with prayer/praise and hymn-singing. As such it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish what many contemporary Christians describe as “worship” from the treatment of various Rock, Sport and Entertainment stars (or patriotism and ideological fetishes). At a large gathering of some tens of thousands, hands are lifted in the air, people are singing, the music swells…
If I stop the description at that point it is possible to assume that this is a moment of praise/worship (at church). If, however, I note that the venue is a concert, then it’s mere adulation of a celebrity. But the grammar of the action is utterly the same.
Move to the setting of an Orthodox Church. Here there are many icons of saints adorning the Church. Candles and lamps burn before them. A non-Orthodox Christian, visiting for the first time, becomes distinctly uncomfortable and thinks to himself, “They are worshipping saints!”
Somehow, the psychological confusion that is contemporary culture can distinguish between the worship of God and the adoration of celebrities but accuses traditional Christianity of violating the second and third commandments.
What we have is a clash of grammars.
I suggest a working definition for contemporary worship: any number of activities, including singing, dancing, waving hands, shouting, weeping, when in a religious setting. The same actions in a non-religious setting are not worship.
In the grammar of Orthodoxy, in the grammar of Scripture, (and in Judaism at the time, and the ancient world in general) worship has a different definition. Worship may be defined as the offering of a sacrifice to a Deity.
The trouble comes when one grammar seeks to understand the other. That which the Orthodox render to saints and holy objects (relics, the Cross, icons, etc.) is understood to be honor or veneration. No sacrifices are ever offered to saints as though they were gods.
This distinction is difficult for contemporary Christians because the notion of sacrifice, in its original meaning, has been lost. It is certainly the case that honor and veneration are given to God, but they do not, of themselves, constitute worship.
The contemporary roadmap of religion consists almost exclusively of various psychological states. The honor given to a Rock Star is understood to differ from that given to God based on the **intention** within the person who is giving the honor.
Sacrifice has largely disappeared from the experience of contemporary Christianity. The Protestant Reformation mounted something of a frontal assault on medieval Catholicism’s treatment of the Eucharist as a sacrificial offering.
It is all well and good to say that Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross was once-and-for-all, and to file it away as such. However, such historicizing of the Cross places ever more distance between the believer and the event. “Do this in remembrance of me,” (as mere memorial)
The Scripture reminds us that the “Lamb” was “slain from the foundation of the world.” That, is, the death of Christ occurs within history, but has an eternal reality that transcends history.
The Orthodox to this day continue to emphasize this understanding. The Eucharist is described as the “bloodless sacrifice,” meaning that there is no “re-shedding” of the blood of Christ.
Christians of the first millennium-and-a-half understood that the “bloodless sacrifice” of the Eucharistic offering was the central act of worship. Their hymns and psalms happened as part of that context.
We no longer offer the sacrifice of bulls and goats, but we continue to offer the bloodless sacrifice of Christ’s death. It is the single, perfect offering of all humanity, made through the Person of God’s Son.
St. Paul’s entire understanding of the Eucharist is rooted in its sacrificial character. The Eucharist is the Christian sacrifice, once and for all. This is also at the heart of Christ’s teaching that whoever eats His flesh and drinks His blood has communion with Him (Jn. 6).
By a strange twist of history, the praise that took its meaning from the sacrifice itself, by analogy, has come to displace the sacrifice and made praise itself the essential element of worship.
This confusion not only creates false accusations against those who offer praise and honor to the saints of the Church as well as all holy things, but also makes all praise and honor, including that accorded to celebrities more than a little problematic.
Of course, the absence of ritual sacrifice in most modern religions does not mean that idolatry has ceased. However, our analysis of idolatry should remain focused on sacrifice rather than the objects of mere adulation.
The ancients often made sacrifices to obtain favors or to avert disasters. Idolatry sought to control the outcome of history through the management of the gods. By that understanding, idolatry is alive and well and is the primary object of the Modern Project.
Having abolished the ancient sacrifices, we have replaced them with science, technology, politics and war. Rather than learning how to live well, we make sacrifices to technology so that we might not need to live well. Modernity is building “heaven on earth” and needs no gods.
Perhaps Modernity has itself become our god. Excerpt from Pravmir: The Sacrifice of Worship ARCHPRIEST STEPHEN FREEMAN