Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Worship as an Offering

Presentation of Christ at the Temple by Hans Holbein the Elder, 1500-1501 (Kunsthalle, Hamburg)

Mary was a devout woman and so she was anxious to do all that the Law of the Lord required, not because she felt coerced or put-upon, and not because she was afraid of the consequences if she didn't, but because her entire life was one of saying "Yes" to God.  Remember, that's how it all began, when the Angel Gabriel came to her, announcing that she would give birth to God's Son.  She said, "Yes -- let it be according to your word."

One of the great truths about human life and our relationship with God is that we have been given the freedom to choose -- we choose whether or not we will be a part of the life which God offers, and we choose whether or not to seek God's will.  And God waits for our free participation.  Mary said, "yes," and in that response she was blessed.  That's why she has always been seen by the Church as the first example of what it means to live the Christian life.  It means living in joyous response to the will of God.  Because Mary said "Yes," the Holy Spirit overshadowed her, and the miracle of the Incarnation took place.  By the power of God she conceived in her womb, and the perfect union of humanity and divinity was accomplished.  That's why Mary is among the blessed and that's why Christians down through the ages have always shown great love and devotion to her.

This feast also reminds us of something that is essential to the whole idea of worship, and that is that worship is something that we offer, something that we give to God.  In the Temple scene where Mary and Joseph stand by the priest, holding their baby and offering their sacrifice, there is something very simple and natural -- something wonderfully objective.  They did not perform this act because they thought it would make them feel good inside.  I suspect that they would have been shocked if anyone had asked if they got anything out of it.  They may well have been moved by a beautiful act of worship, but that's not why they did it.  They were simply fulfilling their obligation -- participating in the religious observance of their faith, something that completely transcended their own feeling or convenience.

Worship is both an offering and an experience:  it is something we offer to God and it is also intended to put us in touch with and give us an experience of the 'holy.'  But we need to avoid the temptation of becoming so totally focused on our experience that we lose sight of worship as offering.  Far too many people have developed a twisted idea that worship is a kind of church program whose primary focus is on the worshippers, and making them feel good.  If the reason we come to church is to give ourselves some positive strokes, then what we're engaged in isn't the worship of God but the worship of self -- and that, it seems to me, is the supreme blasphemy.

Worship is giving glory to God, offering our praise and thanksgiving, and acknowledging our dependence on God for everything that we are and ever will be.  It's a time to be reminded of what it means to be God's people, and to join with our sisters and brothers in Christ in receiving the Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation.  That's what we're to get from it -- the sacramental assurance that we belong to God and that nothing in this world has the power to change that fact.  There are times when it is not particularly fun or exciting, there are times when we don't particularly feel like it, but we do it anyway because that's part of what it means to be God's People.  In fact, I would argue that it's precisely when we don't feel like it that we need it all the more.  We need to reject the temptation to be consumed by our own feelings, and instead place ourselves before the one who knows us, inside and out, because God is the one who can bring us wholeness and strength.

So we give thanks on this feast day for our Lord Jesus Christ, who is our light and our salvation.  We give thanks for the example of Blessed Mary and her loving and willing obedience to God's will.  And we offer our worship in the way in which God delights -- gathering around the altar with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven to lift our hearts and voices in praise and thanksgiving.

Excerpt from a sermon given for the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the Purification of the Blessed Virgin, February 2, 1997, St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Dekalb, Illinois by Fr. James M. Jensen.