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Does the Mass Contradict or Fulfill Worshiping God ‘in Spirit and Truth’?

Most Protestants view the Mass as unnecessary; some view it as evil. Does it contradict John 8:24?

One of the Bible verses Protestants abuse most commonly is John 4:24, where Jesus tells the Samaritan woman, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must wor­ship in spirit and truth.” We find the verse misused typically in one of two ways by even the most prominent Prot­estant theologians. The first way is to suggest that external forms of worship are irrelevant. John Wesley (1703-1791), the founder of Methodism, in his famous Letter to a Roman Catholic, wrote:

I say not a word to you about your opinions or outward manner of worship. But I say, all worship is an abomination to the Lord, unless you worship him in spirit and in truth, with your heart as well as your lips, with your spirit and with your understanding also. Be your form of worship what it will, but in everything give him thanks, else it is all but lost labor.

In Wesley’s view, the Catholic mode of worship isn’t so much evil as simply unnecessary. The outward form of wor­­ship is irrelevant, since what matters is the interior act of worshiping God “in spirit and in truth.”

A harsher view of Catholic worship comes from the Calvinist wing of Pro­­t­estantism. In a 1652 sermon entitled “The chamber of imagery in the Church of Rome laid open; or, an Antidote to Popery,” the Puritan theologian John Owen declared:

That which I design here, is to obviate the meretricious allurements of the Roman worship and the pretenses of its efficacy to excite devotion and veneration by its beauty and decency. The whole of it is but a deformed image of that glory which they cannot behold.

Owen was saying that the purpose of his sermon was to make Catholic liturgy less appealing by proving that it’s simply a “deformed image” of true worship. The only worthwhile worship, Owen argued, is “to obtain and preserve in our hearts an experience of the power and efficacy of that worship of God which is ‘in spirit and truth.’”

In this view, the externals in Catholic worship aren’t just unnecessary—they’re wicked. Owen argued that men are habitually incapable, “by the light of faith, to discern the glory of things spiritual and invisible,” and so they “make images of them unto themselves, as gods that may go before them.” Thus, Owen argued, Catholics had come up with “ceremonies, vestments, gestures, ornaments, music, altars, images, paintings, with prescriptions of great bodily generation” that are as poor an attempt to depict heavenly worship as the golden calf was an attempt to depict God.

Many Protestants today hold essentially the same view as either Wesley or Owen, even if they lack the erudition to express themselves in the same way. Some view the Catholic Mass as fine, even as a pleasant way of drawing the soul upward toward God but never­theless a mere matter of taste. Others view the Mass as wicked, as an idola­trous parody of true worship. But both camps tend to view true worship as something essentially internal and invi­sible. As Owen put it, “The worship of the church is spiritual, and the glory of it invisible unto eyes of flesh.”

Jesus changes everything

The argument behind each of these theories tends to go something like this. In the Old Covenant, Jews could pray to God only in a handful of spots and in precise rituals; what Relevant Magazine recently called “a ritualistic series of mechanical devotions centered around the temple in Jerusalem.”

Within the temple was a veil, which (according to Southern Baptist Theo­log­ical Seminary’s Daniel Gurtner) “was a physical, visible barrier indicating that access to God was strictly prohibited because of his holiness.” For Samaritans, it was the same story, but on Mount Gerizim instead of in the Jerusalem temple.

But everything changes with Jesus. He dies on the cross, the veil is torn, and now we can go directly to God. No longer do we need priests or rituals or anything else. As Billy Graham said, while one style of worship “may be more comfortable for you than another; the important thing is that it should turn your heart toward God in worship and praise,” and so you can’t “look down on those who prefer other styles of worship.” After all, “God is more concerned about the attitude of our hearts than the way we express it.”

So, how should a Catholic respond to this? By carefully separating the truth from the falsehoods. There’s just enough truth in what I’ve relayed above that it seems convincing—particularly since most Christians (Catholics and non-Catholics alike) have only a dim idea of what Jewish prayer and worship was like.

It’s true that it’s important to have a heart devoted to God, and it’s true that Christ’s death on the cross radically transforms worship. But most of the other details are false. To set the record straight, it’s important to understand seven things.

1. Praying directly to God has always been okay

When your Protestant friend asks why you have priests or why you pray to Mary and the saints “instead of” praying directly to God, it may be because he’s unaware that Catholics pray to God. Many years back, I read a Presbyterian blogger who opined that, apart from justification, nothing separated Protestants from Catholics and Orthodox more “than the idea that we who have been born again in Christ now have been given the ability to speak directly to God the Father through the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus.” This gross ignorance of Catholicism and Orthodoxy also extends to Judaism.

The idea that Jews couldn’t pray directly to God is a strangely common misconception given how replete the Bible is with examples of Jewish people praying directly to God. It’s true that the Jews had intermediaries (“the people cried to Moses; and Moses prayed to the Lord,” as Numbers 11:2 puts it), but we also hear regularly of how “the people of Israel cried out to the Lord” (Exod. 14:10), a phrase that is used no fewer than six times in the Book of Judges alone. And notice, this calling out to God in prayer isn’t confined to a particular space. Jesus rebukes those hypocrites who “love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners” (Matt. 6:5).

2. The difference be­tween the synagogue and the temple

During his public ministry, “Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every infirmity” (Matt. 9:35). But while there are synagogues in every town, there’s only one temple. What’s the difference?

In the synagogue, there were scripture readings and prayer. While synagogue is Greek, the Hebrew term for the building is bet tefila (“house of prayer”). You can get a feel for what this would have been like from Luke 4:16-30, in which Jesus teaches in the synagogue in Nazareth.

But the temple is something more than a synagogue. It’s there, and only there, that the Jews could offer sacrificial worship. This is why we see priests in the temple and not in the synagogues, and why the Jewish priesthood stops operating when the temple is destroyed. Bible readings and prayer don’t require a priest, but offering sacrifice does.

What makes all of this confusing is that both Jews and Protestants have lost a sense of “temple” in their daily lives. In the case of the Jews, it’s because the Temple was destroyed in A.D. 70. In the case of Protestants, it’s because they reject the Mass and the sacerdotal priesthood, and so they’re left with only the tools of the synagogue: the Bible and, hopefully, someone who can explain it.

3. The true dispute be­tween Jews and Samaritans

It wasn’t a dispute over where or how to pray. It was a dispute over where and how to offer true sacrificial worship. Most people don’t realize that while Jews and Samaritans each claim to believe in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible), their Torahs have some important differences.

The most important of these is that the Samaritan version of the Ten Commandments has a different tenth commandment: a command to build “an altar unto the Lord thy God, an altar of stones” upon Mount Gerizim, and to “bring upon it burnt offerings to the Lord thy God, and thou shalt sacrifice peace offerings, and thou shalt eat there and rejoice before the Lord thy God.”

So, the question between Jews and Samaritans wasn’t “Where can we pray?” but “Where can we worship?” in the sense of offering sacrifice. That’s important background if you want to understand what is going on between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. The two are standing on Mount Gerizim, which we know from the woman’s comment to Jesus: “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain; and you say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship” (John 4:20).

Jesus responds by saying that “the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father,” and that “the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:21-24).

The question is about sacrificial worship, and so we should read the answer in the same way. Jesus isn’t talking about where and how we’ll pray in the New Covenant but where and how we’ll offer sacrifice.

4. The connection be­tween John 4 and Isaiah

Jesus’ discourse with the Samaritan woman was shocking to her—and transformative (John 4:39-42). But Jewish and Christian readers have an advantage that Samaritans don’t: we have the Book of Isaiah. It is there we see God’s promise to incorporate “foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord” into his chosen people: “these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isa. 56:6-7).

This is not a description of what the temple looked like. Rather, it’s a prophecy for what will happen in the time that Jesus spoke of as the hour that “is coming, and now is.” So, the New Covenant church would be “a house of prayer for all peoples”—Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles alike—but it’s also one in which sacrifices are being offered “on my altar.”

In the last chapter of Isaiah, the prophecy is even clearer: “I am coming to gather all nations and tongues; and they shall come and shall see my glory, and I will set a sign among them” (Isa. 66:18-19). And just what is to happen with God’s entry into history? He will gather together the faithful remnant,

. . . and they shall bring all your brethren from all the nations as an offering to the Lord, upon horses, and in chariots, and in litters, and upon mules, and upon dromedaries, to my holy mountain Jerusalem, says the Lord, just as the Israelites bring their cereal offering in a clean vessel to the house of the Lord. And some of them also I will take for priests and for Levites, says the Lord.

Again, there’s a sense of the univer­sality of the people of God in the New Covenant. It’s the worship that’s de­scribed in Hebrews 12:22-24:

You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, 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 God 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 than the blood of Abel.

So even now, on Earth, we are approaching the “heavenly Jerusalem” in our worship when we bring our offerings to the Lord. And yet there is human involvement and meditation. Notice that God speaks of taking some of the New Covenant believers as priests. That’s quite a contrast from what most Protestants believe about the priesthood and sacrificial worship. For example, John MacArthur, a Calvinist, argued against the Catholic priesthood by saying:

We don’t need any priests. Revela­tion 1: You are a kingdom of priests. We only need one high priest, and it’s not the pope. We have one mediator, the man Christ Jesus. The veil is torn. We go right into the Holy of Holies. You are a priest and I am a priest unto God.

In the span of these few sentences, MacArthur affirms three contradictory positions:

  1. We don’t need any priests;
  2. We’re all priests; and
  3. There’s one priest, Christ Jesus.

But God, in Isaiah, affirms a fourth option: “some of them also I will take for priests and for Levites, says the Lord.”

These are radical promises. It’s why St. John Chrysostom argued that “the priestly office is indeed discharged on earth, but it ranks among heavenly ordinances” since “neither man, nor angel, nor archangel, nor any other created power, but the Paraclete himself, instituted this vocation and persuaded men while still abiding in the flesh to represent the ministry of angels” (On the Priesthood).

Chrysostom goes on to encourage his readers to have a deeper appreciation for the divine liturgy: “For when you see the Lord sacrificed, and laid upon the altar, and the priest standing and praying over the victim, and all the worshipers empurpled with that precious blood, can you then think that you are still among men, and standing upon the earth?”

5. “Spiritual” doesn’t mean “in­­visible”

One reason so many Protestants believe that “worship in spirit and truth” is untied to anything visible or physical is because of a sort of dualism in which “spiritual” is treated as if it means “intangible” or “invisible.” We find this same problem among some scholars who treat Jesus’ resurrection as spiritual and therefore not bodily. Yet the New Testament usage doesn’t really mean that. St. Paul says of the resurrection of the body that “it is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body” (1 Cor. 15:44), but this isn’t a denial of the physicality and bodiliness of the resurrection.

Jesus invites the Twelve, “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have” (Luke 24:39). And St. Paul tells the Galatians that “if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness” (Gal. 6:1). Since his readership is presumably not ghosts, it’s clear that “spiritual” doesn’t mean “invisible.” Yet because we have that connotation in English, we hear worshiping “in spirit” and imagine something essentially intangible.

6. True worship does have an invisible dimension

One area in which we can partially agree with John Owen is when he declares that true worship does “not appear unto the sense or imaginations of men.” The majesty of the Mass is beyond what we can perceive. It’s signified by the (hopefully) beautiful chanting and music, incense and architecture, but the fullness of what’s going on goes far beyond this.

Aquinas proclaims in the Pange Lingua, “The Word as Flesh makes true bread into flesh by a word, and the wine becomes the Blood of Christ.” But he quickly adds that “if sense is deficient to strengthen a sincere heart, faith alone suffices.” Or, in the original Latin, “Sola fides súfficit.” That’s a sola fide we Catholics can get behind: faith alone sees the mystery of the Eucharist.

Where Catholics and Puritans part is what to make of this truth. For Catholics, the fact that true worship is indescribably glorious is reason to make the earthly worship as glorious as possible. The Jewish sanctuary was “a copy and shadow of the heavenly sanctuary” (Heb. 8:5), a dim reflection of heavenly worship. We now, through Jesus Christ, engage in that heavenly worship. And so, our worship should look more like the divine worship described in Scripture, not less.

After all, when you’re overjoyed and grateful, what do you do? You smile and you say “thank you.” Do your smile and your “thank you” fully convey the depths of what you’re feeling? No, of course not. Something of the depths of that experience will be incommunicable. But you’re still able to communicate something. You don’t conclude from this that it’s better to sit stony-faced, since those external actions do a worse job of communicating the incommunicable.

7. This isn’t limited to the Mass

The Mass seems to be the most direct meaning of both Jesus’ words in John 4 and the Isaiah prophecies. But the underlying truths go beyond this. St. Paul says, “I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1). In other words, wherever you are, you can offer up your own sacrifices anytime and anyplace.

This isn’t to the exclusion of communal worship, of course; it’s built on top of it. But it’s perhaps the most concrete way that you exercise your baptismal priesthood. And this is something new, from Good Friday forward. Prior to that point, you could pray to God. But now you can do more: you can offer him a sacrifice by uniting it to the perfect sacrifice of his Son on the cross.

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