Friday, July 27, 2007

Temple Worship and the Aspect of Ritual in Acts

Most in our culture do not understand the dynamics of liturgical prayer. To the average person, liturgical and ordered structure to prayer seems to be legalistic and constricting to the freedom of the gospel. It must be noted, however, that liturgical prayer goes well beyond the New Testament. It finds its life in the Old Testament, and it is continued by Jesus Christ. The point of this particular musing is to posit to the Christian the reality that liturgical prayer continued in the book of Acts.

Jesus, the Bridegroom of the church, is the one we look to for patterns of the Christian life. How He prays, what He prays, and the love He shows should all be examples for us as to holy living. St. Luke tells us in chapter 4:16 that it was Jesus' custom to go into the synagogue on the day of the Sabbath. The word for "custom" in Greek, eiwthos, means that it was a habitual practice of Jesus to go into the Synagogue on the Sabbath. Some may unwittingly conclude that Jesus does it because He hasn't abrogated the Old Testament cultus at that point in time. Some may say that we should really look at the practice of the apostles to see a programmatic trend to follow.

Looking, then, at the book of Acts we see the practice. Acts is duly named in Greek "praxeis apostolwn" which means "practice of the apostles." So, it is fitting to see how the early apostolic church lived out its confession. In Acts 17:1-2 we are told that it was St. Paul's custom to go into the synagogue on the Sabbath. The word for "custom" is the same word for Christ's custom, "eiwthos." It was an ongoing habit of St. Paul to frequent the Sabbath. We cannot say that Paul is a Judaizer. After all, he rebukes St. Peter for judaizing. St. Paul is a missionary to the Gentiles. Yet, it was habit for him to go into the synagogues.

It is worth noting that St. Luke, who followed St. Paul for a time, begins and end his gospel in an interesting way. Luke begins and ends his gospel with scenes in the temple. This is strange considering St. Luke is writing the gospel with the intention that Theophilus, a Gentile, will read it. This author is particularly interested in how the gospel ends: "And they worshiped Him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple praising and blessing God. Amen." In Acts 21, a subtle hint is given. St. Luke, the author of Acts, switches to the 1st person plural and includes himself with Paul. Perhaps Paul's practice impacted Luke.

What is most fascinating concerning the aspect of liturgical ritual in Acts is found subtly interspersed.

  • Acts 3:1 "Now Peter and John went up together to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour." This is an appointed hour of prayer, but there is some background surrounding this liturgical hour. Twice a day in the temple a burnt offering was performed on behalf of the community, once at dawn and the other at the ninth hour, the time Peter and John are going up to pray.

  • Acts 10:3ff "About the ninth hour of the day he [Cornelius] saw clearly in a vision an angel of God coming in and saying to him, 'Cornelius!' And when he observed him, he was afraid, and said, 'What is it, Lord?' So he said to him, 'Your prayers and your alms have come up for a memorial before God. Now send men to Joppa, and send for Simon whose surname is Peter."

  • Acts 10:9 "The next day, as they [Cornelius' men sent to Simon Peter] went on their journey and drew near the city, Peter went on the housetop to pray, about the sixth hour." Peter then receives a prophetic message concerning Cornelius and his men.

  • Acts 10:30 We learn what Cornelius was doing at the ninth hour in Acts 10:3. "So Cornelius said, 'Four days ago I was fasting until this hour; and at the ninth hour I prayed in my house, and behold, a man stood before in bright clothing..." It was customary that if one could not make it to the synagogue, they were to break at the hour of prayer and pray.

One more thing is important in Acts concerning ritual, the ongoing practice of the church. Acts 13:1-2 we are told that there were people in the church in Antioch-prophets, teachers, and some of the bishops of the Gentile church. In verses 2 we are told, "they were worshipping and fasting to the Lord, and the Holy Spirit said, "Separate for me Barnabas and Saul for the work which I have called them. Then fasting and praying and placing their hands upon them, they sent them out." The word in verse two for "worshipping" is the word "leitourgountwn," which is the word for liturgy. It is a participle, denoting ongoing activity and it is a word that emphasizes the public or corporate aspect of the prayer and devotion of the church.

This writer thinks that it is worth noting something about all of these verse in Acts. These verses which deal with someone praying and "liturgy-ing" all have something in common. The Lord communicates His love to others and the church at large. In every one of these instances someone is either healed, or directed by God to blessings, or ordained through the laying on of hands. Perhaps this is meant to be a hint to the church catholic. Go in the midst of liturgy and God will convey something to you.

Perhaps Christ's institution of the sacraments before His departure, then, have a home in the midst of liturgy because it is through baptism and the Lord's Supper that He promises to give the Holy Spirit and even Himself for the life of the world. To the Jews ritual was important and meant to be a comfort and sign of God's love. It was home. This is carried forward in the life of Jesus and even in the lives of the apostles.

May the church catholic be renewed in the knowledge that ritual notions of prayer and liturgy are not new and legalistic innovations. Rather, they are practices of the church which lead Christians out of this world for a time and into the godly and heavenly presence of Jesus Christ who comes to us, albeit through means, to convey His love to His children.

+Fr. Chadius