Light One Candle...: Examining the role of ritual and symbol in worship

The worship committee has a fine idea. Several other churches in the area have used an Advent wreath for years, and the committee thinks it's about time that John Knox Church does so as well. They construct the wreath, purchase candles in appropriate liturgical colors, and invite a family to read the Scripture and light the candle on the first Sunday of Advent.

Everyone is pleased with how well Jamie reads from Isaiah and how meaningful the candles are. Everyone except one elder. He knows his Presbyterian church history and is quick to point out that both Calvin and Knox opposed ceremony and symbolism. He insists that in a truly Reformed church the sound preaching of the Word will make such frivolous ornamentation quite unnecessary. When will the session put a halt to such frivolity?

Worship in Body and Truth

Some people would prefer to leave their bodies, along with hat and coat, in the church vestibule. Our worship, they say, must be spiritual, and our flesh and bones get in the way. Raising hands in worship, kneeling during prayer, getting up to form a communion circle—all these activities seem either unnecessary or intrusive in true spiritual worship. So with other physical aspects of worship: the building is merely a shelter from the January blizzard, banners are a distraction, the size and shape of the communion utensils is inconsequential. Worship, at its purest, these people maintain, is oblivious to the physical realities of our bodies and surroundings, and is essentially spirit communing with Spirit.

The worship models in Scripture, however, suggest that we may not shuck our bodies so unceremoniously. Think of the physical beauty and artistry of the temple—the wood carving, the gold, the paneling, the ornamental pomegranates. God was not offended by the physicality of fire, embroidery and wood carving. Rather, God ordered these elements of creation and art to be used in worship. Why would the use of creation be any less appropriate in Christian worship, where we serve the Lord who is at the center of all that was created? (See Col. 1:15-17) Even in the book of Hebrews, where we are led through a thicket of question marks about old covenant worship, we are directed back to God's creation. The reality of the "world to come" is alluded to in the words of Psalm 8, that great creation hymn (see Heb. 2:5-9).

Or think of those models of worship, the psalms. Marching in processions, falling flat on one's face, dancing, banging cymbals—these worship expressions are commanded of God's people. Again, the body gives expression to what's in the heart. (And, for good measure, the trees and seas are doing their part, as they clap their leafy hands and sing their watery songs—Ps. 96:11; Isa. 55:12.)

In the book of Revelation we see similar physical expression in worship. The elders toss their crowns (4:10), the worshipers sing "with full voice" (5:12), the trumpet blast announces the kingdom of the Lord (11:15), and over and over the worshipers fall flat on their faces. Revelation is also rich in symbols of incense, vestments, rainbows, and animals.

Of course, John 4:24 keeps cropping up in Reformed discussions of worship. Those who want to protest images, candles, crosses, banners, and musical instruments remind their listeners of Christ's words: "Worship in spirit and in truth." Arthur Pink, in his commentary on that text, epitomizes this interpretive slant:

We cannot worship with our eyes or ears, noses or hands, for they are all 'flesh,' and not 'spirit'. . .; stained glass windows, the costly hangings and fittings, the expensive organs— these are fleshly rather than spiritual...; true worship, spiritual worship, is decorous, quiet, reverential.

A detailed exegesis of this passage would take us too far afield. But such decorous, quiet worship is, of course, more a reflection of Victorian middle-class taste than of biblical insight, and it may well put God to sleep. More importantly, it is a misreading of the text. Jesus is not suggesting a stand-off between body and spirit, between kneeling and internal worship, between candles and the light of the soul. The notion that our bodies are not involved in and expressive of worship is Platonic blather rather than biblical wisdom. As long as we see David skipping before the ark, the early Christians drinking and digesting sacramental wine, and the twenty-four elders falling down before the throne—we know that Pink is not doing justice to scriptural worship.

Our tradition may at times have fostered the notion that if you sit quietly and decorously, if you pretend that true Christians have only minds and souls, then this irksome body will not interfere with spiritual worship. But David will always be interrupting our decorous spirituality by shouting, "Praise him with timbrel and dancing!"

A Theological Nutshell

All that physical, earthy, tactile activity in the worship of God should not surprise us, of course. After all, God made the earth and all its fullness. The creation includes lambs, colors, trees, wood for temple panels, gold for the cherubim, our hands and voices, our eyes and knees. And all of these are God's. God is not opposed to earth, to matter, to bodies. Our theology of creation confesses that the cosmos and all its contents were fashioned by the Master Craftsman, who found his handiwork very good and delightful (Prov. 8:30-31). And since all of that delightful creation is God's, it is to be used to praise its Maker.

God's delight in creation should not surprise us for another reason. God's Son became one with that creation. The Word becoming flesh created a bond between heaven and earth, between Spirit and body, between Creator and creation. Of course, it is true that the incarnation was a lowering and emptying of Christ that was part of his humiliation. But God becoming human, assuming the role of a creature, also gave new status to the creation. Isn't it remarkable that Christ retained his physical presence after the resurrection? One might have expected him to say "Whew! Glad that's over with. I never want to see myself in a body again." But there he sat, having breakfast with his disciples. As a sign of re-creation and paradise restored, we see Jesus walking around in his new creation body.

Again, the New Testament teaching on the resurrection of the body reaffirms the beauty of a future new creation, as do the visions of a new heaven and a new earth in the closing chapters of Revelation.

To sum it up in a theological nutshell: the teachings on creation, incarnation, the resurrection of the body, and the restoration of the new heaven and new earth all affirm the goodness of God's creation gifts. Moreover, the examples of biblical worship provide a show-and-tell of creation and creatures, including our bodies, being used in worship.

Eyes and Art in Worship

Now a dash of church history, and then on to our worship practices.

Zwingli may have been wrong, but he was consistent. The sixteenth-century Swiss Reformer felt that any use of the body in worship, including singing, is dangerous. Breath, vocal cords, and diaphragm, said the Reformer, are all so physical. And who needs the physical in worship? "It is the mind which prays;... faith is utterly unrelated to anything involving sensation." So, says Zwingli, let's not sing during worship. Whatever spiritual truths are to be expressed in worship can be expressed in the heart, in the spirit, in the mind.

Reformed people have generally not followed Zwingli in this extreme antibody notion about worship. Some did favor the exclusion of musical instruments, but congregational singing has always been one of the glories of Reformed worship. The voice and the ear belong in church.

But how about the eyes? The Reformed tradition is not so sure. Of course, one needs eyes for reading the text or the hymn—in other words, to read words. And here we arrive at a dual issue. The eyes, says the Reformed tradition, are necessary to read words, to comprehend ideas, to catch rational thought. The emphasis on thought, dogma, rationality (important ingredients all) begins to loom very large. In fact, at times this focus on rationality becomes an exclusive emphasis, dominating all of the Christian life, including worship. Interwoven with this emphasis on rationality is suspicion of the body, of physicality, of the senses. The New Testament warnings against "the flesh" are interpreted as disapproval of the body and a wave of pseudo-spirituality engulfs the church.

How does all of this affect us on Sunday morning? What does all of this have to say about the Advent wreath? In terms of worship we can pull together the various issues we have looked at with the question, "Can we, in worship, profitably and fittingly use expressions and communication other than verbal speech?" The question is basic and elementary, and continues to be asked in various ways.

During 1990 the Protestant Reformed Churches faced this question. Two members had sent a loud protest that the cross on the wall in their new sanctuary was Roman, non-Reformed, non-biblical. (If one goes back some fifty or one hundred years in the history of other Reformed churches, one will find many such cross controversies.) The Protestant Reformed Synod of 1990 spent over one hundred pages and many hours of its agenda on this cross. The conclusion the synod came to? "The Second Commandment does not forbid symbols." A minimal truth, perhaps, after such prodigious labor, but a basic truth and one worth laboring over.

Those churches can now go on to discover the implications of that fundamental truth; they can recognize that alongside of song, sermon, and text, there is a place for color, shape, and symbol. Every time the worshipers see that cross, it will call up for them the memory of the suffering, blood, sacrifice, and victory of Christ's atonement. It will evoke gratitude in the hearts of believers. What the sermon and the hymn have taught before will now be reinforced and recalled in the symbol.

And the elder who had difficulty with the candles in the Advent wreath? The same holds true for him. This symbol, too, evokes and calls up; it reminds, it refreshes our memory. Light is, of course, a pervasive scriptural symbol, usually suggesting the wisdom, glory, and grace of God. When Christ called himself the Light of the world, he did so in the glow of the Feast of Tabernacles, when giant lampstands lit up the temple area. The simple candles on the Advent Wreath remind us of this Messiah, this fulfillment of all the old covenant images of light. As we light a new candle each week, we hear again his words of hope and promise: "I am the Light of the world."

Symbolism Is…

These two examples demonstrate the basic ingredients of symbolism. Theories on and definitions of symbolism can be very learned and complex, but for our purpose here we can define symbol in very basic terms: "a symbol is an object that is invested with meaning; that is, it 'stands for' something else." For example, a flag is a piece of cloth in certain color combinations that stands for a nation.

This association sometimes flows naturally from the object. Thus a candle gives light, and light often means direction or rescue. So with the Christian symbolism of water, vine, or shepherd.

In other cases the association may be assigned to the object because of a particular history. For example, the idea of reconciliation is associated with a cross only because of Christ's death.

Of course, such classifications are too neat and teacherish. The excitement and beauty of symbols is in the depth, the multiformity, the richness of their associations. A liturgical banner portraying water will evoke a flood of associations, some generally human, some specifically biblical. Cleansing and nurturing, drink and relief are among the many images called up by water. At other times (or at the same time) water might suggest drowning or destruction or death.

The question for some may still be: "Why bother? Doesn't the catechism spell it all out more plainly than symbols can—without the risk of confusion?" Perhaps, but not as richly. The Lord saw fit to demand worship with loud noises, vivid images, bright colors, dancing and falling on your knees—in other words, worship that is more than words, more than dogmas. The Lord is pleased when we use all of creation and each of our gifts in worship.

How do we do that? In worship, as in many other aspects of our journey of faith, we may need to become as children. Children are sensitive to sight, color, movement, and gesture. A child bouncing to the original Genevan rhythms of Psalm 47 (see and hear the Psalter Hymnal version), or a five-year old gasping at the beauty of a bright red Pentecost banner—unless we become like one of these, we may not be offering our whole selves to God in worship.

And that's one reason for a magazine like Reformed Worship. In the sixteenth century our tradition reacted against the abuses of ceremony, and rightly so. The church must always guard against such abuse. But later the church moved too far in the other direction: from beautifully simple to barren, from unadorned to ugly. One purpose of Reformed Worship is to reclaim the biblical heritage of full-bodied worship, of the use of creation, of our offerings of craft and art in the worship of the Lord.

Harry Boonstra (hboonstr@calvin.edu) is former theological editor of RW and emeritus theological librarian of Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan.