What does it actually mean to worship God? In the New Testament, the word we most often translate as ‘worship’ doesn’t mean to reverence another in some abstract sense. It always involves some kind of bodily action. When we think about the magi visiting the Holy Family, we sometimes convey this motion by describing them — after they fall to their knees — as ‘doing homage’. But it’s actually that same word here we might translate elsewhere as ‘worship’. It’s just that we recognise the need to describe the bodily sign of their submission and adoration of the new born King with something that sounds a bit more physical.
The word we usually translate as ‘worship’ (proskuneo) comes literally from a root meaning ‘to make yourself like a dog before the other person’. It originally meant prostrating yourself on the floor to show your humble submission before another. By the time of the New Testament, people wouldn’t necessarily have had the root of this word in mind whenever they used it,* but the word still carries with it the idea of doing something with your body to express your worship.
The feast of Corpus Christi is all about this kind of bodily worship. It’s tied to the fact that we are not pure spirits, but that we are human beings, body and soul. To worship God is not just a spiritual act. The right worship of God does not consist in simply having the right kinds of thoughts towards him. But the worship of God involves the humble submission of our entire human being, body and soul, before the God who is greater than all of us.
And ever since the Incarnation, we do this not just before an abstract spirit. Because, from the moment of the Incarnation, God really does have a human body, that we can worship, that we fall down on our knees before, like the magi and the Canaanite woman, and so many others in the Gospel who kneel down and worship Christ. When we worship God, we kneel before God who is present in the flesh, under the appearances of bread and wine, in our churches all over the world.
Corpus Christi is a joyful celebration of Christ’s presence among us, and it gives us an opportunity to think about how we respond to that gift. All this talk of kneeling and worship might not sound so joyful, but one of the great paradoxes of Christianity is that we find our greatest freedom in the humble service of God. Our greatest joy really should be found in finding ways to express this loving worship. So at least once a year, it is no bad thing to think about how we express with our own bodies that worship of God’s body, and what ways we can find to worship him even more perfectly.
This Sunday, we will carry Christ’s Body through the streets of our city. We have a chance to demonstrate to the world our love, our joyful service, our worship of him, through our presence. The procession leaves our church at 2:30pm. Make sure you are there.
But we should also think about the more ordinary things, like making sure we show that worship whenever we are in his presence. We should show through our behaviour in church that we believe him to be there: by genuflecting before him in the tabernacle of the church, and by keeping the church quiet and prayerful.
We show our worship above all by kneeling down before him — like all those people in the Gospel — for the moment of Holy Communion. And we allow the priest to place the Host on our tongues, so that we don’t handle unnecessarily what is holy and precious, and no particles of Our Lord’s Body are ever dropped or lost through carelessness.
We continue that worship in our prayers of thanksgiving after Communion and once the Mass has ended. We certainly never leave church during Communion. And we might think of ways of extending the time we spend with Christ present in the Blessed Sacrament: by attending Mass during the week sometimes, or visiting him during the times each week when his Body is exposed solemnly on the altar for Adoration, or even just by visiting an empty church, where he is waiting for us to show him our worship.
Our Lord is hidden there, waiting for us to come and visit him, and make our request to him. See how good he is! He is there in the Sacrament of his love, sighing and interceding incessantly with his Father for sinners. To what outrages does he not expose himself, that he may remain in the midst of us! He is there to console us; and therefore we ought often to visit him. How pleasing to him is the short quarter of an hour that we steal from our occupations, from something of no use, to come and pray to him, to visit him, to console him for all the outrages he receives! When he sees pure souls coming eagerly to him, he smiles upon them. They come with that simplicity which pleases him so much, to ask his pardon for all sinners, for the outrages of so many ungrateful men. What happiness do we not feel in the presence of God, when we find ourselves alone at his feet before the holy tabernacles! ‘Come, my soul, redouble thy fervour; thou art alone adoring thy God. His eyes rest upon thee alone.’
— St John Mary Vianney
* One exception is that I do think Christ had this root meaning in mind when he spoke to the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:21–28. He wasn’t randomly insulting her by comparing her to a dog, but drawing attention to the fact that she was making herself like a dog before him — i.e. worshipping him — because she recognised him to be God. In other words, he was acknowledging her worship as proof of her faith and humility.