“To worship ourselves is to worship nothing. And the worship of nothing is hell.” — Thomas Merton, Seeds of Contemplation
“The worship of the one God sets man free from turning in on himself, from the slavery of sin and the idolatry of the world.” — Catechism of the Catholic Church, par 2807
For as long as I’ve been paying close attention to the news, which is now over thirty years, I’ve seen the same repetitive patterns and tired pieces as Christmas approaches. There are the “Yeah, but” pieces, in which Atheist Bob or Skeptic Sue explains, with a mixture of sullen victimhood and strident pseudo-intellectualism, why the Christmas story is full of historical holes and how the world would be a more moral, rational, and loving place without pious, superstitious tales about God, angels, a Virgin and assorted extras (shepherds, wise men, etc.). Along similar lines, there are usually some pieces about how fewer and fewer Americans believe in the Virgin birth and related “myths”. And there is usually something about how Christmas alienates this or that group of people, many of them “offended” in ways that only those with the most sensitive of post-modern sensibilities can be offended.
This year, there has been a spate of stories about “ten commandments” for atheists and skeptics, the result of a contest among the faith-challenged to “rethink the Ten Commandments” and conjure up “an alternative secular version … for the modern age.” On one hand, it’s encouraging that some folks are still aware of the Ten Commandments; on the other hand, it’s strange that it took some three thousand years (give or take) for the alternative tablets to descend from a cyber hill of 2800 online submissions. And the winner was: “Be open-minded and be willing to alter your beliefs with new evidence.” I’m pretty certain that was also what Mr. Milam, my ninth grade Earth Science teacher, told us during the first week of class. The lack of divine inspiration seems fairly obvious, based on the evidence at hand (although, of course, I’m open to new evidence, if you can wake me up from a boring-story-induced slumber).
The Ten Commandments, however, are not simply a set of rules, and the first commentment is not just a pious platitude: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me” (Deut. 5:6-7). This opening, unique commandment contains, in essence, the whole of the Ten Commandments. Other ancient documents of laws and commandments exist, but haven’t had the lasting influence of the Ten Commandments. Why? Because the Decalogue is first and foremost about the revelation of God—who he is, what he commands, and how he relates to man. By condemning the worship of other gods, the true God announces that he alone is one, holy, and deserving of man’s obedience and worship. This duty to God is not separate from man’s obligation to others, but enlightens and guides it.
In commenting on the nature of “other gods,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church discusses superstition, idolatry, divination, atheism, and agnosticism (pars 2110-2128). Every man worships someone or something, for men, remarked St. Jerome, “invariably worship what they like best.” Everyone practices a religion, even if it is the devout denunciation of another religion. As Peter Kreeft explains in Catholic Christianity, “Treating God as a creature is utterly contrary to reality. So is treating any creature as God.” What was true for the ancient Israelites is equally true today: it is difficult but essential to worship God and God alone. “God’s first call and just demand,” says the Catechism, “is that man accept him and worship him” (par. 2084).
Which brings us back to Christmas. We are all familiar with the “Christmas wars” and the push to “put Christ back into Christmas.” That is all well and good, but I wonder if it sometimes obscures a particular point: the real problem, for most people, is not an outright denial of Jesus, but a refusal to worship Jesus—the Son of God, the Incarnate Word, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Savior and Lover of Mankind. Put another way, most people don’t have a problem with acknowledging Jesus, but quite a few of them want no part of adoring him. How does the ancient carol go?
Natum videte (Come and behold him)
Regem angelorum: (Born the King of Angels:)
Venite adoremus (O come, let us adore Him,)
Dominum. (Christ the Lord.)
Fifty years ago, the Orthodox theologian, Fr. Alexander Schmemann, wrote a profound book, For the Life of the World, in which he observed:
Secularism, I submit, is above all the negation of worship. I stress:—not of God’s existence, not of some kind of transcendence and therefore of some kind of religion. If secularism in theological terms is a heresy, it is primarily a heresy about man. It is the negation of man as a worshiping being…
If the United States is a “Christian nation,” it is a Christian nation that largely avoids true worship of the true God. If that is correct, it means, unfortunately, that this country is not really a Christian nation, for worship, as Fr. Gerald Vann, OP, stated in The Divine Pity (1954), “is not part of the Christian life; it is the Christian life.” Period. (For more on the sad state of Christianity in the U.S., I suggest Ross Douthat’s book, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics.)
Fr. Robert Barron, in his fine review of atheist Ridley Scott’s recent film, “Exodus: Gods and Kings”, pointed out that the liberation of the chosen people from Egypt was for a singular purpose: “Let my people go to worship me in the desert” (Ex. 7:16). “The implication,” noted Fr. Barron, “is that Israel has been enthralled, not only to an oppressive political leader, but to a false and corrupt religious system, which has compelled them to worship in the wrong way. When Pharaoh refuses, God visits upon Egypt the famous plagues, and we have to see that these are not simply arbitrary wonders of nature, but rather challenges to false gods.”
This important insight is considered at length by a certain Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in the opening chapter of his book, The Spirit of the Liturgy (2000). The only goal of the Exodus, explains Ratzinger, “is shown to be worship, which can only take place according to God’s measure and therefore eludes the rules of the game of political compromise.” But the liberated Hebrews are not only able to worship God, they are also able to live in right relationship with God, precisely through observing the law given to them by God. And so, Ratzinger states, “in the ordering of the covenant on Sinai, the three aspects of worship, law, and ethics are inseparably interwoven.”
What does this have to do with Christmas? Everything. It begins with worship. “Adoration is the first act of the virtue of religion,” the Catechism explains, “To adore God is to acknowledge him as God, as the Creator and Savior, the Lord and Master of everything that exists, as infinite and merciful Love” (par. 2096). The heart of Christmas is located in true adoration and worship of the Christ Child, the Savior of mankind. “All you nations, come,” declares a prayer in the Liturgy of St. John Chyrsostom, “let us adored Him who was born to save our souls!” The angels glorified him, the shepherds worshiped him, and the Magi “prostrated themselves and did him homage” (Matt 2:11).
Meanwhile, the murderous Herod assured the Magi that he, too, wanted to pay homage to the newborn king of the Jews—a lie rooted in lust for power and hatred of justice repeated today by those elected rulers who give lip service at the altar of God while supporting the death of innocents. In fact, it is the Eucharist that highlights, most of all, the inseperable nature of worship, law, and ethics, for Jesus Christ, received under the appearance of bread and wine, is the Lamb of God, worthy of true worship (Rev 5:6-14), and he is the new Law personified, perfect and exhorting us to perfection (Matt 5:17-20, 48). “You cannot,” stated St. Paul bluntly, “drink the cup of the Lord and of the table of demons” (1 Cor 10:21-22).
In the first Advent of our Lord, as I wrote recently, “heaven invaded earth in the quiet coup of the Incarnation…” The impossible has happened; the unthinkable can now be contemplated and considered. T. S. Eliot, in his Four Quartets, wrote:
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.
Here the impossible union
Of spheres of evidence is actual,
Here the past and future
Are conquered, and reconciled…
The God-man has reconciled fallen mankind to the one, true God. Creatures scattered by sin are now gathered into communion, into the household of God, the church of the living God (1 Tim 3:15). Together, we worship. Not hidden away, but openly. Not in private, but in the public square. We do not put Christ into Christmas; we proclaim Christmas because we are made anew in Christ, divinized by his life and illuminated by his love.
“We can adore the Father because he has caused us to be reborn to his life by adopting us as his children in his only Son: by Baptism, he incorporates us into the Body of his Christ; through the anointing of his Spirit who flows from the head to the members, he makes us other ‘Christs.’” (CCC, par 2782). That likely will not make the news, but that is indeed the Good News!
Ergo qui natus die hodierna. (Yea, Lord, we greet thee, born this happy morning;)
Jesu, tibi sit gloria, (Jesus, to thee be glory given!)
Patris æterni Verbum caro factum. (Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing!)
Venite adoremus (O come, let us adore Him,)
Dominum. (Christ the Lord.)
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!