Many who are attracted to traditions of Christian worship that use a richer set of gestures and ornaments like the symbolism of these things. Often they believe these traditions to be superior for that very reason to those which are sparser. I disagree. There are some who mistakenly think unintelligible symbolism makes worship deeper and more mysterious. More mysterious, maybe. Deeper, no. Unintelligible signs – signs whose meaning no one can agree on, and whose effect is not rational – are useless to Christian worship, which relies not only on a relationship but also on the historicity of certain events and the truth of certain doctrines. But even symbolism as a system of conscious signification has its own hazards. The danger, not least in our own time, is that symbols cloud rather than enlighten the mind. As John Barach says,
Another term for this ‘pursuit of the cool’ might be the one Alexander Schmemann uses: mysteriological piety. In the mystery religions, people performed certain rituals because those rituals would create a sense of something ‘special,’ something mysterious, something transcendent, or whatever.
The early church fell into this kind of piety when, for instance, it stopped doing baptisms immediately upon conversion or upon the birth of a covenant child and instead made Easter the day for baptisms. Why? Because baptism symbolizes death and resurrection and wouldn’t it make it more special to be baptized on the day we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection? Wouldn’t that make the symbol all that much more glorious, meaningful, and (if I may say it) ‘cool’?
Of course, there may be a much more prosaic reason for baptizing adults on Easter Day: grouping converts together makes it easier to catechize them – that is, to train them to take part in the sacraments with the faith required – without a disproportionate expenditure of time and energy. If a day must be chosen on which to be baptized, then, Easter Day is not a bad day for it, when the day’s significance is only a secondary consideration.
Likewise, the primary purpose of incense in connexion with worship is to adorn the service fittingly with an atmosphere of festivity, as one does with flowers and banners. The presence of incense may inspire certain meditations, just as one might meditate on the life of an ant – and to encourage such reflection is good and biblical – but it is not right that Christians should so elevate the role of incense that it ever becomes a focal point of public worship. For the same reason I have written against paying too much attention to candles. It is better to attend to what must happen. For example, says G. W. O. Addleshaw,
Before the Consecration Prayer the priest arranges the elements, symbolizing, as Beveridge puts it, ‘God’s eternal purpose, and determinate counsel, to send His Son into the world, and to offer Him up as a sacrifice for the sins of mankind’.
Such pious reflections are not distracting. But when the people are in danger of paying too much heed to things of indifference, their teachers must expound what the word of God tells us and, if necessary, dispense with the things by which the people lead themselves astray.
At no point may we be suffered to serve rituals. Rituals are to be used, and only their moral principles served. The chaste way to use rituals is to observe them as the fitting way to do what is good and godly, not reaching beyond our stations but showing honour to those to whom it is due. Ritual teaches us also that the word of God rules all things and its truth can be known in all things upon further reflection. But Jesus Christ has taught that the true worshippers of the Father now worship in spirit and in truth. The true schismatics are they that reject other Christians for differences in ceremony and ornaments. These things are a matter of prudence but not marks of the true Church. Baptists are not heretics for not using set forms of worship, but are schismatics for accounting them unbaptized who have not been completely immersed in water. Those also are schismatics who will not tolerate chasubles being worn by Lutheran priests who preach the gospel purely, or who insist that those who do not mix water into their chalices of wine have not validly consecrated the Lord’s Supper. In each church God requires discipline and obedience, but in no church does he despise the mere use or disuse of what his word has not settled as divine law.
If I see a child in church and remember that the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these, or if I see an image of a great saint and thank God for the faithfulness and courage shown by that saint, I have not worshipped God by unlawful means. But if I think my church closer to God for having images and incense, and I even think it a matter of orthodoxy to have and bow down to icons, then I have sinned and broken the Second Commandment. And so despising the rest of the Church, I then have dishonoured my Father and my Mother and borne false witness against my neighbour. So too if I call them false Christians who have images of stained glass in their church windows, or if I call them childish fools who sing Christmas songs during Advent.
And the carnal mind, the one that delights in sensuous pleasure and not the righteousness of God, is seeking always to replace the truth of God’s word with incense and fog machines, to worship God by means that he has not appointed. Such worship the holy Scriptures condemn. Those who devise new ways to worship God, and add things to tickle their fancies, face his righteous indignation for showing contempt for the primacy of his revealed will. They might as well be heretics who preached God’s gospel only to those they judged to be the elect. But the spiritual mind, the one that loves the ways of God, is respectful of human tradition but mindful of the higher claims of the Kingdom of God and all his righteousness; and such a heart will see God.