Thoughts of Reverence
Since joining ESC I have struggled with the application of reverence. The first time I entered Christ Church and attended mass I was aware of the emphasis on reverence in every aspect of the building and service: the careful ceremony, liturgy, altar, vestments, and even the architecture. The church follows a high-church tradition and massive institution created for reverence to last ages.
I almost immediately began to ask myself, “What is reverence?” Reverence seemed tied to a very old ritual repeated in prayers and mass, very different from the church I grew up in. Is reverence in the vestments, symbols, ceremonies and traditions so essential to church here? Or is reverence the way David danced before the Lord? Is reverence the self-constraint of silence, strict observances and proper order? Is it found in the institution of the church? Or is it anywhere, anytime, anything – just an absolute awe before a vast and awesome God?
I like silence. I have some of my best thoughts in stillness. A certain amount of order is a good thing. But I first worshiped God in off key Spanish praise music blasted from 4 ft speakers, in a bare room lined with plastic chairs. I first understood the Gospel from undocumented immigrants. I first understood the joy of the Lord from an adventurous 15 year old free-spirit. To me the Gospel is a party. Silence is the deepening reflection and prayer that ground joy and action.
I understand the gospel as a revolution, not a religion, as a movement, not an institution. Jesus hung out on the steps outside the temple, by the village well, in the houses of social outcasts. His friends were all kinds of people. He was a homeless prophet in the backwaters of an empire, who got himself killed by the authorities. His first and only allegiance was to God. Jesus was often irreverent to the institution, yet he was always attuned to the Father and showed extreme reverence in obedience. Is reverence then obedience and honor out of deep respect? Reverence only for God? Do we need particular traditions, order, and distance to be reverent?
I hope not. I don’t understand the reverence of careful silence, distance, ceremony, and hierarchy. I get stuck by the distance. I feel constrained by the order and confused by the complexity of the rituals. When reverence seems to extend to tradition, order, and leaders, I lose my grip, slip aside. I can’t convince myself to trust the traditions for reverence. I believe they can contain it, but cannot create it or encompass it.
And yet, I do still feel awe when I enter a cathedral or beautiful church. Two years ago I visited St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican and felt the awe and saw myself small. I am never sure if it is awe for the grandeur and beauty, or for God. I’m afraid it’s the first, but know it’s supposed to be a guide to the second. I mistrust that awe. God chose a stable for the birthplace of Jesus when he could have had Caesar’s palace. He chose to die an unglamorous death. I see the reverence put into high church, but I can’t feel it connected with the God I’ve experienced. I wish that I could.
In reverence the humble must be valued before the beautiful, the small before the great, the servant before the leader. Jesus turns the world upside down with his resurrection. He came for the sinners and called the poor blessed. Reverence then is humility too.
What is reverence? Only absolute awe before a vast and awesome God. Obedience from honor and deep respect. Humility. Reverence is separate from anything we wrap it in. It is an untamed welling from the soul directly to God. We can show our reverence in everything we do.