The Voice: Summer 2003
The missing majesty of God
By: Jenny Berkompas
Im going to share a truth that I learned from another denomination while
on the Oxford Studies Program last semester, a truth I think we are
inclined to forget: the high majesty of God.
In England, I attended Anglican worship services. The High Anglican Church has very
ritualized worship. Every service is conducted according to a written liturgy appropriate for
the time of the year. After every prayer, the minister says, Lord, in
your mercy, and the congregation says, Hear our prayer. Members come forward to
the priest and kneel around the table in order to receive the sacrament.
The priest says to each, The body of Christ, broken for you. The
blood of Christ, shed for you, and the congregant responds, Amen. The Bible
is removed from its stand and carried to the center of the congregation
before it is read. The congregation stands. The reader begins with Hear now
the Word of the Lord, and ends with This is the Word of
the Lord. The congregation responds, Thanks be to God.
A service like this one that I attended at St. Mary, Church of
the Virgin, sounds dry, stiff, or stuffy to people accustomed to current worship
trends. It may even seem unbiblical. Evangelical and Reformed Protestants have been taught
to believe that ritual is not necessary. Nothing stands between God and us.
We may come with confidence before the throne of grace. The curtain has
been torn, and we may all step through. We are no longer called
servants, but friends and sons. We may ask anything of God because we
are part of the family. We dont need to stand on ceremony before
God. To rely on ritual when approaching God is to assume that a
barrier still exists between us. Its like praying to the saints or confessing
to a priest. We dont have to do that anymore.
The early reformers had a legitimate reason for leaving the extrabiblical ritual of
the Roman Catholic Church behind. They were afraid of ritualismthe practice of replacing
understanding with ritual or making ritual the means to grace. In the Church
before the Reformation, the congregants were only spectators to an elaborate display of
ritual that bordered on idolatry. The bread and the wine were often worshipped
in their own right, the entire liturgy was done in Latin, which few
of the common people could understand, and the music was sung almost entirely
by choirs. The people had no ownership or understanding of what was being
done or why it was being done. Simply participating in the rituals saved
When the Protestant reformers removed the abundance of ritual from worship, they were
trying to return ownership to the people and return the focus to God.
Worship became simple. Services were conducted in the vernacular. People sang the hymns
in their own language, and the preaching of the Word and understanding of
the Word became central.
Such is our heritage, and we must be grateful for it. We have
been brought up in understanding. The danger now is departing from it again.
We know that we have the right to come quickly and easily to
God. We understand that grace comes through faith, not sacrament. We speak to
God as though he stands beside us. We receive the Word itself and
hear how it applies to our lives. We sing the songs of praise.
God is immanent among us. But are we so filled with Gods immanence
that we have forgotten his transcendence?
If there was one thing that the people of the Middle Ages understood,
it was the majesty of God. To read the writings of their saints
and mystics is to understand how great they understood God to be. God
existed at an inaccessible height. God could be known only in a cloud
of unknowing. It was only because of Gods love that he deigned to
come near, and his coming near was an experience often reserved for saints.
Gods hand and providence directed every circumstance. God was approached through ritual, through
priests and saints. His favor was sought through great sacrifices like pilgrimages. He
was petitioned like a king.
Obviously, we ought to have theological problems with some of these ideas. We
should never presume to place something between ourselves and God. Im not trying
to imply that we should. What I am trying to do is illustrate
another aspect of God, one that we often miss, and that is the
majesty, the height, and the authority that is inherent in the nature and
position of God, and also the mystery that goes along with these things.
This is something the higher church traditions recognize more readily than we do.
In my program, we went all over Southern England, and we saw incredible
cathedrals. Each of these buildings took at least 100 years to build. People
spent their whole lives working on them. They brought the finest developments in
science, art, and architecture into these buildings. These were palaces for a king.
This was where God came down to meet with his people. These buildings
brought God from the heights to the masses. The bread, the wine, and
the Word were gifts from heaven, even if the worshipers didnt understand them
entirely. And surrounded by these magnificent structures, worshipers couldnt help but be aware
of how far these gifts had come. The God of these cathedrals is
We in the twenty-first century are at a great advantage in knowing the
closeness of God, but we forget the magnitude of the God whom we
are approaching. By forgetting the magnitude of God, we forget the humiliation that
God endured in becoming man. Do you know why the Muslims cannot accept
Jesus as God? There are five main reasons, but chief among them is
that there is no way in their eyes that the transcendent holy God
of the universe could, would, or would want to demean himself to become
man. Theres just no way. Its impossible. That God would become filthy, decaying
flesh and blood is inconceivable to them. The distance between God and humanity
is just too great.
Our response is that God did become man; moreover, as a man, he
ate, drank, slept and performed all necessary bodily functions. Then he bled, and
he died. The distance between God and humanity is simply evidence of how
great his love for us is. But in order to appropriately appreciate that
love, we have to appreciate that God should not have had to do
that. It is this distance between created, mortal being and eternal Creator Lord
that makes this grace so incredible. And I would argue that treating this
distance as if it never existed cheapens grace to us.
Ive been encouraged to illustrate what I mean by cheapening grace, but I
dont know if I can. The obvious would be habits where we take
God for granted, like falling asleep in the middle of prayer or church
service. You wouldnt do that in conversation with your boss, but we often
do it with the King of the universe. My other ideas are a
bit more uncomfortable. Would you come to meet a king in your blue
jeans? Would you tell that joke if you remembered he was listening? But
in the end, I cant say how we cheapen grace because it differs
with each person. A man who comes to church in blue jeans and
falls asleep might appreciate the grace of God more than the guy in
the tie who remembers the entire sermon. One person prays more sincerely in
a hurried breath than another prays the Lords Prayer. You know the place
that God occupies in your life. Im just trying to increase understanding.
If you had to kneel before God in fear and trembling every time
you came before him in prayer, odds are his majesty would be first
thing on your mind. Its not easy to get down on your knees,
to physically put knee to floor and bow in submission. For one thing,
kneeling is a rather clumsy action. For another, kneeling has connotations of childhood
prayers, kings and subjects, masters and slaves. Friends dont kneel to each other.
But Jesus is more than our friend. He is also our Lord.
Lord is a word that we dont use very often outside of religious
contexts anymore. The concept doesnt work well with democracy because it assumes superiority
on the part of one person over another. We dont really understand how
one person could have the right to demand family, life, or identity from
another person, which is exactly what a lord could do. We cant understand
that people would willingly submit to such demands without demanding something in return.
Being products for the most part of democratic, Western ideals, we can really
only fathom that kind of authority as a historical construct. But this is
exactly the kind of authority that God, by his very essence and position
as God, holds over us. That is why we should kneel. Kneeling translates
a vague idea in our mind into an action. The action carries the
power of the idea into reality and makes it a symbol. Kneeling is
then a symbol of what we know to be true: Gods superiority and
And what of the Word? He didnt have to give it to us.
C.S. Lewis points out in Mere Christianity that God, because he is outside
of nature, didnt have to reveal himself to us unless he wanted to.
This book is not something to be taken for granted. Every word in
this book is a gift. Ought we not thank God for it? And
what of Communion? The Catholics believe that we take Christs blood and body
into ourselves when we partake of the Lords Supper. We disagree, but even
the symbol of his life is worthy of being received in greatest reverence.
We should never kneel to the bread itself, but we should certainly kneel
to the one who provides it. We should recognize with our bodies as
well as our minds the debt of honor that we owe to God.
Does kneeling before God or thanking him for the Word make us more
holy? No. If you are tempted to read such meaning in it, dont
do it, ever. Kneeling, just like any other ritual, is meant to help
us understand what we already know. Its a deliberate action of submission. But
kneeling isnt easy. I submit that it is far easier to raise hands
and cry out, Lord, fill us now, than it is to kneel and
say, Lord, your servant waits. It is far easier to burn than to
bow. And we must do both. We must be filled, and we must
submit. Some would say that we are filled, and then we kneel in
awe. I would say that when we kneel, we become aware of the
magnitude of being filled. And we will be filled. By the grace of
God who chooses to make us, reveal himself to us, save us, love
us, and rule us, we will be filled. But before anything else, let
us be filled with gratitude, a gratitude that comes from appreciating the majesty
of God and how far he has come for us.