By religious ceremonies we mean certain expressive signs and actions which the Church has ordained for the worthy celebration of the Divine service.
True devotion must be interior and come from the heart, for "the true adorers shall adore the Father in spirit and in truth. For the Father indeed seeketh such to worship Him. God is a spirit; and they who worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth." [John iv. 23,24.] But we are not to infer from this that exterior worship is to be condemned because interior worship is prescribed as essential. On the contrary, the rites and ceremonies enjoined in the worship of God and the administration of the Sacraments are dictated by right reason, are sanctioned by Almighty God in the Old Law, and by Christ and His Apostles in the New.
The angels, being pure spirits without a body, render to God a purely spiritual worship. The sun, moon and stars of the firmament pay Him a kind of external homage. In the Prophet Daniel we read: "Sun and moon bless the Lord, ... stars of heaven bless the Lord, praise and exalt Him above all forever." [Dan. iii. 62, 63. Though this passage is omitted in the Protestant Bible, it is retained in the Book of Common Prayer.] "The heavens show forth the glory of God, the firmament announces the work of His hands." [Psalm xviii. 1.] Man, by possessing a soul of spiritual substance, partakes of the nature of angels, and by possessing a body partakes of the nature of the heavenly bodies. It is therefore, his privilege, as well as his duty, to offer to God the twofold homage of body and soul; in other words, to honor Him by internal and external worship.
Genuine piety cannot long be concealed in the heart without manifesting itself by exterior practices of religion; hence, though interior and exterior worship are distinct, they cannot be separated in the present life. Fire cannot burn without sending forth flame and heat. Neither can the fire of devotion burn in the soul without being reflected on the countenance and even in speech. It is natural for man to express his sentiments by signs and ceremonies, for "from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaketh;" and as fuel is necessary to keep fire alive, even so the flame of piety is nourished by the outward forms of religion.
A devoted child will not be content with loving his father in his heart, but will manifest that love by affectionate language, and by the service of his body, if necessary. So will the child of God show his affection for his heavenly Father not only by interior devotion, but also by the homage of his body. "I beseech you," says the Apostle, "by the mercy of God, that you present your bodies, a living sacrifice, holy pleasing unto God, your reasonable service." [Rom. xii. 1.
]The fruit of a tree does not consist in its bark, its leaves and its branches. Nevertheless, you never saw a tree bearing fruit unless when clothed with bark, adorned with branches and covered with leaves. These are necessary for the protection of the fruit. In like manner, though the fruit of piety does not consist in exterior forms, it must, however, be fostered by some outward observances or it will soon decay. There is as close a relation between devotion and ceremonial as exists between the bark and the fruit of a tree.
The man who daily bends his knee to the Maker, who recites or sings His praises, who devoutly makes the sign of the cross, who assists without constraint at the public services of the Church, who observes an exterior decorum in the house of God, who gives to the needy according to his means and duly attends to the other practices and ceremonies of religion, will generally be one whose heart is united to God, and who yields to Him a ready obedience. Show me, on the contrary, a man who habitually neglects these outward observances of religion and charity, and I will show you one in whose soul the fire of devotion, if not quite extinguished, at least burns very faintly.
The ceremonies of the Church not only render divine service more solemn, but also rivet our attention and lift it up to God. Our mind is so active, so volatile, so full of distractions, our imagination so fickle, that we have need of some external objects on which to fix our thoughts.
Almighty God considered ceremonial so indispensable to interior worship that we find Him in the Old Law prescribing in minute detail the various rites, ceremonies and ordinances to be observed by the Jewish Priests and people in their public worship. What is the entire book of Leviticus but an elaborate ritual of the Jewish church. Not, indeed, that external rites are to be compared in merit with interior worship, but because they are as necessary for nourishing internal devotion as food is necessary for our animal life.
Our Savior, though He came to establish a more spiritual religion than that of the Hebrew people, did not discard the outward forms of worship. He was accustomed to accompany His religious acts by appropriate ceremonies.
In the garden of Gethsemani "He fell upon His face" [Matt. xxvi.] in humble supplication.
He went in procession to Jerusalem, accompanied by a great multitude, who sang Hosanna to the Son of David.[Ibid. xxi.]
At the Last Supper He invoked a blessing on the bread and wine, and afterward chanted a hymn with His disciples.[Ibid. xxvi.]
When the deaf and dumb man was brought to Him, before healing Him, He put His fingers into his ears and touched his tongue with spittle, "and, looking up to heaven, He groaned and said: Ephpheta, which is, Be thou opened." [Mark vii.]
When He imparted the Holy Ghost to His disciples, He breathed on them [John xx.] and the same Apostles afterward communicated the Holy Ghost to others by laying hands on them.[Acts viii.]
The Apostle St. James directs that if any man is sick he shall call in the Priest, who will anoint him with oil.[James v.]
Now, are not all these acts which I have just recorded--the prostration and procession, the prayerful invocation, the chanting of a hymn, the touching of the ears, the lifting up of the eyes to heaven, the breathing on the Apostles, the laying on of hands and the unction of the sick--are not all these acts so many ceremonies serving as models to those which the Catholic Church employs in her public worship, and in the administration of her Sacraments?
The ceremonies now accompanying our public worship are, indeed, usually more impressive and elaborate than those recorded of our Savior; but it is quite natural that the majesty of ceremonial should keep pace with the growth and development of Christianity.
But where shall we find a ritual so gorgeous as that presented to us in the Book of Revelation, which is descriptive of the worship of God in the heavenly Jerusalem? Angels with golden censers stand before the throne, while elders cast their crowns of gold before the Lamb once slain. Then that unnumbered multitude of all nations, tongues and people, clothed in white raiment, bearing palms of victory. Virgins, too, with harp and canticle, follow near the Lamb, singing the new song which they alone can utter.[Apocalypse, passim.]
How glorious the pageant! How elaborate in detail!
Surely there ought to be some analogy and resemblance, some proportion and harmony between the public worship which is paid to God in the Church militant on earth, and that which is offered to Him in the Church triumphant in heaven.
Strange would it be if God, who, in the dispensation past and that to come, is seen delighting in external majesty, should have deprived the Christian Church (the living link between the past and the future) of all external glory. "For," as St. Paul says, "if the ministry of condemnation is glory, much more the ministry of justice aboundeth in glory."[II. Cor. iii. 9.]
It is true that God uttered this complain against the children of Israel: "This people draw near Me with their mouth and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me." [Isaiah xxix. 13.] It is also true that He was displeased with their sacrifices and religious festivals.[Ibid I. 13.] But He blamed them not because they praised Him with their voice, but because their hearts felt not what their lips uttered. He rejected their sacrifices because they were not accompanied by the more precious sacrifice of a penitent spirit.
The same Lord who declares that the true adorer shall adore the Father in spirit commands also that public praise be given to Him in His holy temple: "Praise ye the Lord," He says, "in His holy places... Praise Him with sound of trumpet. Praise Him with psaltery and harp. Praise Him with timbrel and choir. Praise Him with strings and organs."[Ps. ci.]
If He says in one place: "Rend your hearts and not your garments,"[Joel ii. 13.] immediately after He adds: "Blow the trumpet in Sion, sanctify a fast, call a solemn assembly. Gather together the people, sanctify the Church. ... Between the porch and the altar the Priests, the Lord's ministers, shall weep and shall say: Spare, O Lord, spare Thy people!"[Ibid ii. 15-17.] The Prophet first points out the absolute necessity of interior sorrow and contrition of heart, and then he insists on the duty of performing some acts of expiation, penance and humiliation, as you do when you have your forehead marked with ashes on Ash Wednesday, and when you observe the fast and abstinence of Lent.
When St. Paul says that though he speak with the tongues of angels and of men, and distribute all his goods to feed the poor, and deliver his body to be burned, and have not the love of God, it profiteth him nothing,[I. Cor. xiii.] he points out the necessity of interior worship. And when he says elsewhere that "in the name of Jesus every knee should bend of those that are in heaven, on earth and under the earth,"[Phil. ii. 10.] he shows us the duty of exterior or ceremonial worship.
When political leaders desire to influence the masses in their favor they are not content with addressing themselves to the intellect. They appeal also to the feelings and imagination. They have torchlight processions, accompanied by soul-stirring music discoursing popular airs. They have flags and banners floating in the breeze. They have public meetings, at which they deliver patriotic speeches to arouse the enthusiasm of the people.
What these men do for political reasons the Church performs from the higher motives of religion. Therefore, she has her solemn processions. She has her heavenly music to soften the heart and raise it to God. She consecrates her sacred banners, especially the cross, the banner of salvation. She preaches with a hundred tongues, speaking not only to our head and heart by the Word of God, but to our feelings and imagination by her grand and imposing ceremonial.