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Ashley Patterson wrote:

Hi, guys —

I was raised a Protestant but have been going to church with a Catholic friend. I love everything about Catholicism; it feels very right to me.

One thing that family and friends often ask me about is: Why all the ritual?

Well honestly, I have no idea, therefore, I have no answer.

So where do you guys get all the rituals you do, and do any of them have a Biblical base?

Thank you,


  { Why do Catholics have all this ritual, where do they get it all, and is it biblical? }

Eric replied:

Hi Ashley, thanks for the question.

Indeed, I believe I can show a Biblical basis for employing ritual in our worship, and to worshipping in a liturgical manner, that is, employing sacred vestments and vessels, using lamps, gold, incense, and so forth.

The first thing I would point out is that when God specified in the Old Testament in meticulous detail how the Jews were to worship Him, he described a religion rich in ritual. There were special vestments, gold vessels, incense, lamps, the whole nine yards and God got really angry when the Jews did not follow procedures exactly (for example, he struck Uzziah dead when he touched the Ark of the Covenant when he wasn't supposed to). So I would contend that absent strong proof to the contrary, the Old Testament indicates that worshipping through ritual is the natural and
God-ordained way to worship Him.

One might make the counter argument that since the New Covenant makes obsolete all of the
Old Testament sacrifices, that worshipping through ritual was wiped away too. I don't think this follows, however. The reason that the Old Testament sacrifices are no longer celebrated is specifically because they foreshadowed Christ's sacrifice and existed only to point to Him —
this is the thrust of the whole book of Hebrews (and parts of Romans). The sacrifices weren't wrong; they just served a limited purpose. They were "weak and useless" (Hebrews 7:18) Nowhere does St. Paul suggest that rituals were in any way abolished or that they became an improper way in which to worship God. In fact, a careful study of the New Testament will show continued parallels to the Old Testament way of worshipping. In Hebrews 8:5, it says that when God gave Moses the details of Jewish worship, God was instructing him to copy the image of the Heavenly tabernacle He had shown him on the mountain. In other words, God had shown Moses the true tabernacle in Heaven, and instructed him to pattern the Jewish tabernacle after that one. Hence all of the details in Deuteronomy and Leviticus.

In Hebrews 9, the author recalls some of the details of the pattern Moses saw: the tabernacle,
a lamp stand, a table with consecrated bread, a golden altar of incense, and so forth. He then explains that Jesus entered the true tabernacle in Heaven, not made by human hands (Hebrews 9:11,24). Moreover, he opens the way for us to enter into the Most Holy Place as well (Hebrews 10:19).

Continuing this theme of the Old Testament worship being a pattern of heavenly worship,
in Hebrews 12:22-24, the author gives us the first description:

"You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem"

— that is, the Church, the city set on a mountain (Hebrews 11:10, Matthew 5:14) —

"and to innumerable angels in festal gathering and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is Lord of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously that the blood of Abel."

(That is, the Blood of the Covenant, the Eucharist.) This is a mystical image of Christian worship, describing the unseen spiritual reality behind what is seen on earth. This worship, it continues, must be "acceptable worship, [done] with reverence and awe, for our `God is a consuming fire'" (12:28). Furthermore, the author goes on to describe the Christian altar in Hebrews 13:10,

"We have an altar of which those serving the tabernacle have no right to eat."

  • He is specifically referring here to the Jews but what altar is he referring to?

Paul is saying that we eat from an altar.

  • Where is the altar?
  • What do we eat?

The flesh and blood of Christ in the Eucharist.

See verse 12 and following:

". . . Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then go to him outside the camp . . ."

The author is alluding here to the Day of Atonement. This was the only sacrifice which was outside the temple and outside the camp, and the only one which the priest had no right to eat. But in God's infinite love, He sacrificed His only Son outside the camp to be our Atonement, but this time to be a sacrifice which we can eat.

The second description of Christian worship is in Revelation. Turn to Revelation 4-5. Here we see an image of the Heavenly Liturgy: the worship going on in Heaven right now, which we enter into ourselves when we celebrate the divine and sacred Liturgy, patterned after Revelation 5. Here we have the awesome Seraphim always praising and worshipping the enthroned Father and the Lamb (singing the liturgical refrain, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.") The Lamb Himself is "looking as if he had been slain" — which means that in the Holy Liturgy of the Eucharist, we are making present the one Sacrifice of Calvary, that is, the flesh of the sacrificed Paschal Lamb. The fact that this is the sacrifice is clear since there is an altar
(cf. Revelation 6:9), under which are the martyrs — this is why it is a Catholic and Orthodox custom to put the bones of martyrs under our earthly altars, as a pattern of the heavenly Altar.
In the mystical imagery of Revelation, the Lamb's sacrifice, like the Jewish conception of the Passover is an eternal reality, not a past event. There are the seven torches of fire, the seven spirits of God; these are represented by candles in the Holy Liturgy. Finally there are the twenty four elders — the Twelve Patriarchs and the Twelve Apostles. These elders, who symbolize all the Saints in glory, are carrying "golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints"
(Revelation 5:8).

If we summarize what Hebrews and Revelation tell us about Christian worship, we come up with the following:

  • A throne;
  • A sacrificed Lamb;
  • "sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel";
  • An altar for the above;
  • Martyrs under the altar;
  • Seven torches (the seven spirits of God);
  • "Innumerable angels in festal gathering";
  • the Saints, that is, the "assembly of the first-born enthroned in heaven" and
    the "spirits of just men made perfect";
  • incense;
  • Gold and precious stones;
  • White robes;
  • Reverence and awe.

So while the details of worship have changed some from the Old Testament to the New,
the symbolism is very similar, and there is no reason to believe that the style has changed.

Related to the Eucharist, the central theme of the two descriptions of worship, I might point out that the Last Supper, in the minds of most scholars (Protestant and Catholic), was a Jewish Passover Seder ritual. The Mass, for Catholics, our central act of worship, is a re-enactment of the Last Supper, and so it would make sense that, like the Passover Seder, it would be a ritual.

The early testimony of Christians also suggests that they worshipped in a liturgical manner, just as the Jews had. St. Clement, the bishop of Rome, wrote in 80 A.D. to the Corinthians (chapter 40), in rebuking the Corinthians who had overthrown their presbyters:

"Since then these things are manifest to us, and we have looked into the depths of the divine knowledge, we ought to do in order all things which the Master commanded us to perform at appointed times. He commanded us to celebrate sacrifices and services, and that it should not be thoughtlessly or disorderly, but at fixed times and hours. He has Himself fixed by His supreme will the places and persons whom He desires for these celebrations, in order that all things may be done piously according to His good pleasure, and be acceptable to His will. So then those who offer their oblations at the appointed seasons are acceptable and blessed, but they follow the laws of the Master and do not sin. For to the high priest his proper ministrations are allotted, and to the priests the proper place has been appointed, and on Levites their proper services have been imposed. The layman is bound by the ordinances for the laity."

Justin Martyr, Apology, I.66 to 67 A.D., 2nd century:

Communion in the Body and Blood of Christ

It is allowed to no one else to participate in that food which we call Eucharist except the one who believes that the things taught by us are true, who has been cleansed in the washing unto rebirth and the forgiveness of sins and who is living according to the way Christ handed on to us. For we do not take these things as ordinary bread or ordinary drink. Just as our Savior Jesus Christ was made flesh by the word of God and took on flesh and blood for our salvation, so also were we taught that the food, for which thanksgiving has been made through the word of prayer instituted by him, and from which our blood and flesh are nourished after the change, is the flesh of that Jesus who was made flesh. Indeed, the Apostles, in the records left by them which are called gospels, handed on that it was commanded to them in this manner: Jesus, having taken bread and given thanks said, ``Do this in memory of me, this is my body.'' Likewise, having taken the cup and given thanks, he said, ``This is my blood'', and he gave it to them alone.

The Sunday Assembly

Furthermore, after this we always remind one another of these things. Those who have the means aid those who are needy, and we are always united. Over everything which we take to ourselves we bless the Creator of the universe through His Son Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit.

On the day called after the sun [Sunday] there is a meeting for which all those dwelling in the cities or in the countryside come together. The records of the Apostles or the writings of the prophets are read as long as time allows. When the reader has stopped, the one who is presiding admonishes and encourages us by a sermon to the imitation of those good examples.

Then we all stand up together and lift up our prayers and, as I said previously, when we have finished our prayer, bread is brought forth and wine and water. The one who is presiding offers up prayers and thanksgiving according to his ability and the people acclaim their assent with ``Amen.'' There is the distribution of and participation on the part of each one in the gifts for which thanks has been offered, and they are sent to those who are not present through the deacons.

We all come together on the day of the sun since it is the first day, on which God changed darkness and matter and made the world. On that day, Jesus Christ our Savior arose from the dead. They crucified him on the day preceding that of Saturn, and on the day of the sun he appeared to his Apostles and disciples and taught them these things which we have presented also to you for inspection.

One final point pertains to the sometimes-quoted objection that Jesus said "true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth":

"Sir," the woman said, "I can see that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem." Jesus declared, "Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.

John 4:19-23

The implication of this objection is that worshipping God in ritual and liturgy is somehow contradicting the principle of worshipping him "in spirit and in truth." I'd submit that the point Jesus was making here, when the Samaritan woman brought up the question of worshipping in Jerusalem, was that Jesus was soon to reveal the fulfillment of Old Testament worship (worshipping in truth), which would be centered not on earthly animal sacrifices, but (Hebrews 9:11,24) on the Heavenly Sacrifice of Jesus entering the true tabernacle in heaven (worshipping in spirit).

There is no reason to believe that worshipping "in spirit" means worshipping without ritual or liturgy. If anything, such an assertion smacks of the Gnostic heresy, which taught that:

  • the material was opposed to the spiritual
  • the material world was evil, and so
  • everything material must be rejected.

I hope this helps illuminate the Biblical basis for Catholic worship. As I've said, God instructed the Jews very carefully in the rituals He wished them to use in worship. There is no suggestion in the New Testament that God has changed His mind, or that we are no longer to worship using ritual. In fact, Hebrews and Revelation suggest that Christian worship is based on the same symbolism (but glorified in the light of the Resurrection) on which God based the Jewish liturgy.

Yours in Christ,

Eric Ewanco

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