Why do we worship? I have been exploring this question for a few decades now, and finally I have found an answer that is very satisfying to me. I have found that worship has a certain meaning in the Semitic religions that has the power to transform our earth to heaven. However, unfortunately, this meaning has been lost, and worship has degenerated into a meaningless ritual in the Semitic religions. Hence, instead of transforming our earth to heaven, it has transformed our earth to hell. Here I am making a plea to the members of all the Semitic religions to regain the lost meaning of worship, so that our earth can become heaven.
When I think of my quest, I often think of Archimedes’ quest. When he finally found an answer, he ran along the street naked shouting Eureka. He was so excited that he didn’t even realize that he had no clothes on. He was very much excited at his finding because it was the result of a very long and tedious quest, and an answer dawned on him like a revelation unexpectedly when he had almost lost hope about finding an answer. This is true about my quest too. I made this quest regarding the meaning of worship almost all my life, and I almost lost hope of finding an answer, and unexpectedly an answer dawned on me like a revelation. I also felt like running along the streets shouting Eureka. Those who saw Archimedes running along the street mistook him to have lost his mind. Even if Archimedes had stopped and explained his discovery to them, they wouldn’t have appreciated his discovery because neither did they make the quest nor did they understand the significance of the discovery. This is true about my discovery too. Almost all people I have shared my excitement of this discovery have failed to understand its significance, for they have never asked the question ‘Why we worship’.
If you have read this far, you belong to the few people who hunger and thirst after truth. I earnestly request you to continue reading and find out what I have discovered from a lifetime of search. I am going to explain in the simplest possible language the meaning of worship that has the power to transform our world.
The Background of my Quest
Let me begin explaining the background of my quest. I was born and raised in a family that follows the Eastern Orthodox Christian practice of worship. Our parents were very strict about having family prayer twice a day -- morning and evening. We assembled in the front room, sang a hymn, read a couple of chapters from the Bible, stood up facing the east, and recited prayers from a prayer book. On Sundays, we went to church, had special morning prayers, followed by Holy Eucharist. I also had Sunday school where I learned about our religious beliefs and practices. As I grew older, I happened to come in contact with Christians from other traditions, and I noticed that they vary in their beliefs and practices. For example, some of them followed an order of worship as given in a book, while some others had an informal way of worship. I noticed that we use several expressions in Syriac and Greek in our worship, whereas Christians from some other traditions do not use such expressions in their worship.
When I noticed diverse ways of worship, I wanted to know which one of them is the right way? I was asking “how” about the various aspects of worship in the various traditions. Slowly I realized that my how-questions can be satisfactorily answered only if I can answer the why-questions about worship. Thus I turned from the how- questions to the why-questions about worship. Finally I arrived at the most fundamental question about Christian worship -- why do we worship at all? How did worship originate, and and what purpose does it serve in our life?
Worship in Semitic Religions
I noticed that all religions have worship. However, I decided to limit myself to the Semitic religions for the time being primarily because I don't have sufficient background knowledge to study about the worship practices of other religions.
The Semitic religions have daily and weekly worship as well as yearly worship days. The Jews worship two to seven times, Muslims worship five times, and traditional Christians worship seven times a day. The daily worship consists of singing hymns, reading from scriptures, and reciting specially made prayers in specific format. A day in a week is devoted for worship in the Semitic religions -- Friday in Islam, Saturday in Judaism, and Sunday in Christianity. The weekly prayer is an elaborate form of daily worship with hymns, scripture readings, and reciting of prayers. They gather in their holy place -- synagogue, church, mosque, and they have communal worship led by a leader -- Rabbi, priest/pastor, imam. All the three religions observe several yearly holy days with elaborate worship. Thus these three religions have more similarities than differences in their worship practices.
Worship in Ancient Judaism
We may safely conclude that Judaism, Islam, and Christianity inherited their worship practices from the ancient Judaism. By ancient Judaism, here I mean the Judaism until their temple was destroyed in AD 70. If so, how did worship evolve in ancient Judaism? Why did the ancient Jews worship? What meaning did they ascribe to worship?
We can see that the ancient Judaism had worship practices similar to all other ancient peoples. They did various kinds of sacrifices, and such worship continued in their temple of Jerusalem even at the time of Jesus. The sacrifice-centered worship was led by priests. One of the twelve tribes was a priestly tribe-- the tribe of Levi. They had an elaborate system of doing sacrifices, which is described in the Book of Levi in the Bible. The question of how the practice of doing sacrifices originated is worth exploring; however, it is beyond the scope of this paper. Anthropologists have come up with various explanations of the origin and meaning of sacrifices, but evidences are lacking to make any conclusions.
The ancient Judaism also developed the practice of getting together once in a week. They probably inherited this practice from Mesopotamians. They probably sang hymns in their meetings praising God/gods. One of the ten commandments was to observe Sabbath, the weekly holiday. The hymn of creation given in the first chapter of Genesis presents God as observing Sabbath, and the hymn was probably sung on Saturdays when they got together to worship God.
Whenever the priesthood corrupted, there evolved another kind of leadership called prophets, who revolted against priests and corrected them as needed. They asserted that God is not pleased by the sacrifices, but by following the will of God. When the Jews were taken abroad in slavery by Babylonians, Assyrians, and Persians, they lost the opportunity to follow their traditional worship practices, which encouraged them to evolve a non-temple and non-sacrifice based way of worship consisting of singing hymns, reading scriptures, reciting prayers. Later when they returned to their homeland, they brought back their new way of worship. Thus along with their temple worship, they also had their weekly synagogue worship, in addition to their daily worship at their homes. We read in the Bible about Jews worshiping both in their temple and in their synagogues. Once their temple was destroyed in AD 70, their sacrifice-based worship came to an end, and modern Judaism has only their Synagogue worship on Saturdays, and their daily worship in their homes.
The hymns they used to sing during worship in their homes and synagogues were put together to become the Book of Psalms. They also had their scripture readings. They read primarily from the Books of Moses. They also read from the Books of prophets. Scribes were a group of people specialized in the skills of reading and copying the Scriptures in scrolls.
During worship, the congregation faced toward Jerusalem. They stood, bowed, knelt or prostrated as if a group of people approach a king.
Later as Christianity evolved from Judaism, they inherited the synagogue worship practices. They erected their places of worship (church) like the synagogues. The congregation faced east as if they stand before the throne of God. They stand, bow, kneel, or prostrate. Their worship consists of the same elements as in Jewish worship- hymns, scripture readings, and prayers. They combined the sacrifice-based worship and the synagogue worship in the Eucharist.
Later Islam evolved in a cultural background where there were Judaism and Christianity, and it evolved a worship pattern very similar to the synagogue worship.
Whatever I have said so far is common knowledge about worship, and I have only put the information together as a background. But what I am going to say next is not common knowledge. I must say that this is my discovery because I haven’t read this anywhere, nor have I heard it from anyone.
Why do we Worship?
In order to answer the question why we worship, I haven’t considered the sacrifice-based worship at all, but I have considered the synagogue worship of praising God. God has been praised for some greatness of God. I examined the content of hymns and prayers in worship in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to find out what greatness God has been praised for.
The first thing people might have noticed about God is that God is all-powerful. God has the power to control the natural forces such as rain, wind, and lightening. Eventually they might also have praised God for knowing everything. They also realized that God lives forever. People praised God for omnipotence, omniscience, and for immortality. It was not an objective knowledge at all, but a derived knowledge. We humans have limited abilities, limited knowledge, and we live for a short time. From this we assume that God, the creator of the world, has all abilities, all knowledge and live forever.
Eventually something very important was found about God, that God is holy, which means that unlike we human beings or angels, God doesn’t do anything wrong or bad or evil. God does only what is good and right. We may ask why God alone is holy. We may think of a very simple reason. We do errors out of our ignorance, but God, who has all knowledge, won’t commit any errors at all! I noticed that in all the Semitic religions, God is praised primarily for one greatness -- being Holy.
As I mentioned earlier, I belong to the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition, and the liturgy we use has been translated from Syriac, which is another form of Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke. These prayers were in use in the early Christianity, and they must have come from the Jewish liturgy. The simplest order of worship we use is called a kauma, and it is recited all the time we pray. Each of the seven times of prayer begins and ends with a kauma. This Syriac word means stand, which must have been an instruction to stand while reciting this. The kauma has as its central part the Trisagion, which is praising God holy three times as the angels do in the vision of Isaiah.
Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty!
Heaven and Earth are filled with the praises of God!
God is praised for being Holy. It is repeated three times to give emphasis. This is further expanded in the kauma as follows:
Holy art thou, O God!
Holy art thou, Almighty!
Holy art thou, Immortal!
God’s holiness is mentioned meaningfully for the first time in the Book of Isaiah. Isaiah, a prophet of the 8th century BC, had a vision of angels praising God for being holy. It was immediately after king Uziah died of leprosy. It is possible that the people of that place must have been blaming God for the death of the king, for he was a great king who administered the land successfully for about half a century, and the land prospered during his time. It was believed in those days that leprosy was a punishment from God for sins. Uziah being a very good king, the people couldn’t find any justification on the part of God for punishing him. In the vision, Isaiah saw that the angels were not blaming God, but they were praising God for being holy. It must have been a misunderstanding on the part of the people to assume that Uziah was punished by God with leprosy. Isaiah realized that God alone is holy, for God, knowing everything, does everything right, but we, out of our ignorance, err in our thoughts, words and deeds.
The Syriac statement, kaadeesh aat aloho, may be translated in English as Holy is God! This statement asserts beyond doubt that God alone is holy. This knowledge is derived from the understanding that no human being or angel is holy. Thus the statement ‘God alone is holy’ is synonymous with the statement ‘none of us is holy’ or ‘it is human to err’.
The knowledge that God alone is holy has an important practical implication. Once we realize that it is human to err, it becomes easy for us to forgive each other and to seek forgiveness from each other. Thus praising God holy becomes the basis of a peaceful existence for us. Isaiah understood this. As he had this vision of angels praising God, he became aware of his own unclean tongue. He had also blamed God along with the other people for punishing Uziah. When he admitted his tongue was unclean, immediately he was forgiven.
Coming down in history, we do not know who else has had a clear understanding of this other than Jesus. Jesus repeatedly asserted that God alone is good and perfect. If so, people cannot be classified into righteous and unrighteous, for all people are of the same category before God. We all err, and realizing this, we will be willing to seek forgiveness and forgive others.
It seems that Christianity was built upon this revolutionary understanding, which must have been the yeast that had the power to transform an entire civilization. Jesus rightly named it the Kingdom of Heaven, for when people forgive each other and seek forgiveness from each other, our earth can be transformed into heaven!
Meaning of Worship Hidden
However, within a short time, this understanding was hidden under a pile of beliefs, doctrines, superstitions, and meaningless rituals. The statement “Holy is God” lost its meaning. It began to be uttered in worship to mean God is holy. Holiness was seen as one of the attributes of God. The word “Holy” has been used to describe many other things such as Holy day, Holy Bible, Holy church, and Holy people, and God became just one of the Holy ones. Christianity, instead of transforming our earth to heaven, degenerated into a religion that offered salvation in the other world after death. Its worship degenerated into a meaningless one, and it developed elaborate systems of rituals under the leadership of a hierarchy of priests. Down through history, there have been several attempts to uncover the lost understanding, but no attempt has been fully successful.
Islam may be seen as such an attempt to regain the lost understanding. Although it could partially recover certain aspects of the original, it could not regain the lost understanding fully. Muslims place so much stress on living a life according to the will of God. But they have gone to the other extreme of believing that we were created to worship God. Thus worship is presented as an obligation. This is a deviation from what we see in Isaiah’s vision, in which the angels praised God not out of obligation, but out of their wonder. When we see the greatness of God, the praise comes from the innermost soul by itself. Moreover, Muslims, stressing a life of surrender to God, believe that we are nothing but God’s servants. In the original understanding as explained by Jesus, although we surrender ourselves at the feet of God as servants, God never treats us as servants but as children. The prodigal son surrenders himself at his father’s feet as a servant, but the father accepts him as his son.
Reformation in Europe under the leadership of Martin Luther and others was another attempt to regain the lost understanding. Although it was successful in overthrowing the enslaving dominance of the Roman Catholic church, it was unsuccessful in regaining the original understanding. The infallibility of the pope was replaced by the infallibility of the Scriptures.
The enlightenment in the following centuries was another attempt. Although it elevated human dignity by regaining our freedom to think, it went to the other extreme of overthrowing God, which has been suicidal for humankind.
The socialist movement, a child of enlightenment, was another attempt to regain the lost understanding and bring heaven on earth. However, that too has proved a failure, for it believes in forceful and violent conversion of earth to heaven.
The western liberalism, another child of enlightenment, through its system of education, is trying to educate the people, and bring about heaven on earth. However, with its Godless view of the world, it is destined to fail as well.
Almost half of our world’s population belong to the corrupt Semitic religions, with its piles of superstitions and rituals, that offer salvation in the other world after death. Of the remaining, a quarter of the population belong to the reform movements, such as socialism and liberalism, that try to overcome the corruption of these religions. The remaining quarter belong to the eastern religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism. The eastern religions have often served to point out the corruption in the Semitic religions, but they have not been very successful, for they have often been influenced in turn by the Semitic religions.
Regaining the Original Meaning
Isaiah’s vision, in which God is praised for being holy, seems to be the beginning of a revolutionary understanding of worship. Hence the trisagion, praising God holy three times, became the focus of Jewish worship, which later became the focus of Christian worship as well.
The hope for a peaceful world lies in regaining the lost understanding of worship in Semitic religions. We need to regain the vision of Isaiah and affirm along with the angels that God alone is holy, for God alone is all-knowing, which implies that we with our limited knowledge err in our thoughts, words and deeds. With this understanding, we will be quick to seek forgiveness from each other and will be quick to forgive each other. Thus we can convert our earth to heaven (sorry for the repetition, for this is the primary point I am making here). Jesus tried to regain the vision of Isaiah for his generation proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of heaven, but soon after his time, the religion that formed in his name got corrupted making our world even worse than before.
I am making a plea to the Christians all over the world to regain the vision of Isaiah as explained by Jesus. Once Christians regain this understanding of worship, Jews and Muslims also can regain this understanding, and we can together make our earth a heaven. I started examining the liturgy of eastern Orthodox Christianity, the one in which I was born and raised. Later I found that my findings can be relevant to all the Christian traditions. As I continued my quest, I realized that my findings can be relevant to all the Semitic religions. As this is about the peaceful coexistence of all humanity on the face of the earth, non-Semitic religions wouldn’t have anything against these findings, and will be willing to accept it wholeheartedly.
Dear reader, if you have read this far, I owe you my sincere gratitude, for you have spent some of your time to find out a discovery which is, I think, of great importance. I like to hear from you. Your input will help me tremendously to make this presentation even clearer and sharper. If you like to explore this topic further along with me, I suggest you do the following:
1. Read this article again and also read my other articles in my blog, johnkunnathu.blogspot.com
2. Listen to my talks in my youtube channel at youtube.com/johnkunnathu. I have 20 short talks there in English and Malayalam under the topic “Worship Made Meaningful”.
3. Join me in spreading this idea by talking to your friends, and by writing about it in print and in digital media.
Let us join hands in bringing heaven on earth!