Recovering Reverence for Holiness
I. “My house shall be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of robbers” (Luke 19:46).
The Ark of the Covenant was associated with power, mystery, fear and death. It was built of acacia wood overlaid with pure gold, and God overshadowed it with His presence. The Old Testament tells stories of the Ark warding off enemies, leveling cities, and parting seas. St. John’s Revelation describes the Ark with “flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake and a severe hailstorm” (11:19). So it was no light matter when the Ark was trusted to the house of Abinadab. They were given all the directions: to guard it vigilantly, worship with reverence, and, under no conditions, to ever touch it. In that way, the clan’s whole life revolved around the Ark for 20 years.
Now, there was a boy in that household named Uzzah. He grew up in the presence of the Ark, day after day, and, like a child who loses his sense of wonder, became apathetic. Familiarity bred contempt. Uzzah came to see the Ark as a mere piece of furniture. Finally, after 20 years a new king reigned in Israel. King David and the Israelite army conquered their enemies and returned to bring the Ark to Jerusalem. Uzzah and his brother were in charge of driving it on their cart. David and all the men nd women in the procession were making merry, dancing, singing, and playing their tambourines. But as they pressed on, the road became rougher, and before anyone knew what was happening, the Ark began to tip. Uzzah knew the rules, but he didn’t think much of them, and had the audacity to put out his hand to steady the Ark. So we read, “The anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; and God smote him there…and he died beside the Ark” (2 Samuel 6:1-8).
II. How often do we make the mistake of Uzzah?
We become over-familiar. We grow forgetful. We lose our reverence of God, even when we stand in His very presence.
In mainstream Christian thought, there’s a big disconnect between the Old and New Testament. We read about the events of Moses on Mt. Sinai, the burning bush, the visions of cherubim and seraphim, and the caustic nature of God. Then we read about Jesus, who is gentle and compassionate and we assume He came to abolish all that awe, fear and wonder. That it a terrible error. The New Testament should give us far more awe than the Old. God’s presence simply hung around the Ark of the Covenant like a shadow. God revealed Himself completely in His son Jesus Christ. If we understand the incarnation, then we should stand with far more reverence and awe then the Jews before us.
This is why, by the way, we pay so much respect to Mary. She is the Mother of God. She didn’t give birth to a mere prophet or righteous man. Mary invited God into her womb, the God who: “Stretches the northern sky over empty space and suspends the earth on nothing” (Job 26:7), He sits enthroned in “an immense cloud with flashing lightning and surrounded by brilliant light” (Ez. 1:4), “a river of fire flowing, coming out before him” (Dan. 7:10), while “angels, numbering thousands upon thousands and ten thousand times ten thousand worship” (Rev. 5:11). The angels fall down before God unable to look up at Him. Yet Mary, in her holiness, contained God in her womb, gave Him her DNA, nursed Him from her breasts, and cradled Him in her arms. The Ark, which contained a shadow of God, has nothing to Mary, who contained God in His fullness. How much more ought we to honor this new Ark, who is a woman and a mother?
III. With this same kind of reverence, we must enter the House of God, our church.
It’s easy to become familiar. Like Uzzah, we spend time in the sanctuary week after week, and it becomes common to us. But we must never forget where we are.
In the words of Martin Luther, Jesus Christ didn’t say, “Take, eat, this is symbolically my body.” He said, “Take, eat, this is my body.” Where the Eucharist is, there is God entire, and we worship Him. Jesus Christ is in our midst. God revealed Himself to Moses on a mountaintop shrouded by a cloud. Today, He is with us on the altar, veiled behind our tabernacle; hidden in the consecrated bread and wine, but no less powerful and sublime as He was on Mt. Sinai.
St. John Chrysostom offers this beautiful tribute to the Eucharist. It’s a bit long, but worth every minute of attention:
“The Fountain [of the Holy Eucharist] is a fountain of light, shedding abundant rays of truth. And beside it the angelic powers from on high have taken their stand, gazing on the beauty of its streams, since they perceive more clearly than we the power of what lies before us and its unapproachable dazzling rays. The wise men adored this body when it lay in the manger…they prostrated themselves before it in fear and trembling…Now you behold the same body that the wise men adored in the manger, lying upon the altar…you also know its power. How many of you say: I should like to see His face, His garments, His shoes. You do see Him, you touch Him, you eat Him. He gives Himself to you, not only that you may see Him, but also to be your food and nourishment.”
IV. We must honor the Eucharist and the House of Prayer with the utmost reverence.
In instructing priests how to handle the Eucharist, Origen wrote: “protect it with all caution and veneration lest any small crumb fall from it.” If you notice, after consecrating the Eucharist until the final absolution at the end of Mass, the priest holds his hands with thumb and finger together. We are commanded to do this because those fingers, and only those, touch the Eucharist. They remain locked firmly, to keep the slightest crumb from falling. For the same reason, for hundreds and hundreds of years, Christians in the East and West strictly forbade any un-ordained person from ever touching the Eucharist. The very thought would have scandalized Christians in every century before ours. The Eucharist is the lamb consecrated on the altar in heaven. It’s the fiery coal that touched the lips of Isaiah and purged him of his sins (6:7). We must never lose our awe of this reality.
V. When Christ looked down at Jerusalem He wept.
“My house shall be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of robbers” (Luke 19:46).
Where is the House of Prayer today? It is here, at the altar, in this sanctuary, and in our hearts.
Throughout this past month, we’ve been discussing the importance of reverence in the sanctuary. I remember my dad telling me a story of a trip in Russia. He went into a church, sat down and crossed his legs for a minute or two. To his shock, an old woman showed up from nowhere and wacked him with a cane. Thank God for the babushkas. You have to laugh at it, because Russia is a very different culture, but I suspect the babushkas are right. In Russian society, these old ladies are the guardians of reverence and honor, and I myself, as a young priest, am slowly learning to respect the elderly who have a kind of wisdom here, very, very profound. We should listen.
VI. We Christians have the duty to guard the holiness.
I’ll end with one last story. At the clergy symposium, Bishop Thomas told a story of his uncle, the neighborhood priest. As a boy coming home from school, Bishop Thomas would walk past his church and hear chanting from a window above. There was his uncle, alone in the sanctuary, praying the daily services. One Monday morning, Thomas asked his uncle what he was doing. The uncle responded, “I’m preparing for Sunday.”
In the same way, we need to spend our entire week preparing for Sunday. When we pull up in the parking lot, we should sign ourselves with the cross, preparing our minds and heart. Once we walk through the front doors, we should say quietly, “I am walking on holy ground.” Then, Mass begins.
Have you ever looked up in the sky at night and wondered at the stars and planets? They’re magnificent. God wove together those stars and set in them in motion, as well as everything on earth and in the sea as a way of preparing the universe for one thing: this holy liturgy. This is where we enter into the worship of heaven, with all the angels chanting day and night, “Holy, Holy, Holy” (Rev. 4:8). There is where humanity and divinity become one and we are transformed from “glory to glory” (2 Cor. 3:18). This is the Missa – our mission in Christ. If our eyes were opened so that we could see everything happening here and now, we’d fall on our knees and never get up. But…we can see. The more we prepare our hearts, the more we learn about the liturgy, the more we work to enter into the prayer and worship, the more transparent the veil becomes, and in the experiences of the saints, vanishes completely. “The pure in heart shall see God” (Mat. 5:8).
VII. “My house shall be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of robbers” (Luke 19:46).
These are the words of Jesus Christ. Let’s obey and worship.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.