September 22, 2014 / Gregory Crosthwait

Pathetic Worship

I’ve experienced pathetic worship. I’ve even led it with my guitar, three chords, and an overhead projector. Irrespective of style (or proficiency) worship offered in a body marred by division is pathetic. It’s not what it should be.

The restoration of unity in the church appears essential for worship. This requires that we become and remain pathetic, but in a different sense, one connected to pathos.

Pathos is evocative. It is an evocation, even provocation, of a response from our personal yet corporate encounter with the Living God through the risen Jesus in the Holy Spirit.

Worship in this sense isn’t limited to singing songs, though it certainly includes it. It isn’t limited to one hour in Christian community, though the assembly, the ekklesia, is indispensable. Dallas Willard describes this sort of worship as “a life, not just times, of worship.”

Worship will become the constant undertone of our lives. It is the single most powerful force in completing and sustaining restoration of our whole beings to God. Nothing can inform, guide, and sustain pervasive and radiant goodness in a person other than the true vision of God and the worship that spontaneously arises from it. Then the power of the indwelling Christ flows from us to others.

The “worship that spontaneously arises” from “the true vision of God” is pathetic.  I’m taking this phrase from Simon Chan, who also speaks of this sense of worship.

Focusing on its parochial manifestation and liturgical form in Liturgical Theology: The Church as Worshiping Community he writes:

 Where spiritual formation occurs, God’s grace and human actions are set in a dialectical relationship. This dialectic could perhaps be described as the practice of imbibing the spirit of  the liturgy. Worship is what we do; yet imbibing is, strictly speaking, something we do ‘pathetically,’ . . . . That is to say, we do not grasp the mystery but are grasped by it.

The mystery by which we must be grasped in pathetic worship is Jesus Christ, manifest in and through the church.  In pathetic worship we become simply and profoundly what God continues to do on earth through Jesus within, among, and through women and men who “are parts of his Body” (Eph 5:30 NJB).

The body of Christ, in her mystical concreteness, is the form that informs the parts. Seeing this form is crucial for grasping and being grasped by  “the true vision of God.” For the Son, by whom we see the Father, is the whole Christ together with his whole church. The witness of the catholic tradition helps us here (Catechism of the Catholic Church §795).

Christ and his Church thus together make up the “whole Christ” ( Christus totus ). The Church is one with Christ. The saints are acutely aware of this unity:

“Let us rejoice then and give thanks that we have become not only Christians, but Christ himself. Do you understand and grasp, brethren, God’s grace toward us? Marvel and rejoice: we have become Christ. For if he is the head, we are the members; he and we together are the whole man . . . . the fullness of Christ then is the head and the members. But what does ‘head and members’ mean? Christ and the Church” [St. Augustine].

“Our redeemer has shown himself to be one person with the holy Church whom he has taken to himself” [St. Gregory the Great].

“Head and members form as it were one and the same mystical person” [St. Thomas Aquinas].

Behind this vision of the whole Christ, in Chan’s argument, is an ontological view of the church as distinct from an instrumental view. This is the focus of the opening chapter in Liturgical Theology. 

Crucial to any ecclesiology is the question of how the church is to be understood in relation to creation. Is the church to be seen as an instrument to accomplish God’s purpose in creation, or is the church the expression of God’s ultimate purpose itself? The way we answer this question has far-reaching implications. If the church is essentially instrumental, then its basic identity can be expressed in terms of its functions: what it must do to fulfill God’s larger purpose. But if the church is God’s end [or goal] in creation, then its basic identity can be expressed only in ontological rather than functional terms.

In short, what the church is outranks what the church does. I won’t make Chan’s argument for him, so I’ll  quote him.

The essential nature of mission is for the church to be the body of Christ. We can be available to other persons only as embodied beings, and the church as the totus Christus is the embodied Christ made available to the world. To say “The Church is the body of Christ” means that Christ as embodied is available to the world. . . . The church’s primary mission, then, is to be itself, which is to be “Christ” for the world. . . . Mission, then, must be defined in the largest sense, which is the fulfillment of God’s ultimate reason for the church’s existence: “to the praise of his glory.”

So it comes back to worship, a subject for which my words seem sadly insufficient, pathetically inadequate to the size of the vision.

Worship is the means to an end, a superlative means to a glorious end in which ontology and instrumentality become one. Who we are and what we do will be one when we “rest and see, see and love, love and praise” (St. Augustine).

Until that day, the restoration of Christian unity requires a vision of our corporate identity in Christ and as Christ’s. In this vision, degrees of restored unity will be the outflow of captivated hearts gripped by a shared vision of the greatness of Jesus cultivated in pathetic worship.