by Amanda Higgin
As I come into the chapel, I click open the hidden panel in the woodwork above the hymnals and flip on the lights. In this weather it’s more of a habit than a need; the summer sun already illuminates the checkerboard floor tiles, the familiar wooden pews and the soaring space above. I’m supposed to be in the chaplain’s room in seven minutes for a meeting, but I’m early so I’ve come into the chapel to loiter.
In the new, summer light the stained-glass window above the altar is the most striking thing in the chapel, illuminating the elegantly monochrome space with bright blue, green, pink and yellow. In the centre panel a traditionally blue-clad Mary holds up the baby Jesus, the pair flanked on either side by a trio of figures: wise men, shepherds and a couple who, I presume, represent Simeon and Anna. It is a picture of adoration, admiration, veneration, of reverence, of respect: a picture of worship. Men in crowns kneel down to a naked baby, held by his mother. He can’t yet speak, and Jesus already has more paparazzi than I predict I’ll ever get. And to this day groups of fans convene regularly some two millennia after his execution.
I’ve grabbed a hymnal on the way in for the sake of something to do with my hands, so I flip through it. I don’t know many of the hymns; the New English Hymnal doesn’t tend to keep up with the latest releases on the Christian music scene, although there are a few good classics.
In ancient polytheism, the point of worship was to placate your gods in the hope that they would either bless you or just not destroy you. People sacrificed to the god of travellers before setting off on a journey in hope of safe passage, to the god of war before battle to ask for victory, to the god of plague on particular days to try and stave off their wrath. Christianity isn’t so much about earning favour anymore, though, which can make it hard to see why we bother telling Jesus that he’s amazing. After all, I’m sure he’s already aware.
So, if worship is neither flattery in hope of recompense nor informing God of an unknown magnificence, what’s the point? It is, I think, supposed to be a natural expression of reverence. The whole point of God is that he’s amazing beyond anything else, which compels you to say so in the same way that you might say ‘That’s beautiful’ about a sunset that can’t hear you.
There’s also a sense in which we worship because we want to want to, because we recognise that God is something we don’t yet understand but which is worth worshipping. It’s like expressing the beauty of a sunset while wearing sunglasses. If you say the sunset is beautiful, if you’re gathered in a group of people also saying how beautiful the sunset is, then some day you might take the sunglasses off and see for certain.
All of which is to explain what’s going on when you hear choral music echoing around first quad (as an aside, the chapel choir is also just inarguably very good). It’s a recognition of what is seen and an aspiration to what is unseen. Additionally, Jesus isn’t the only thing in this world which people worship (as I’m sure many other articles in this issue will make clear). We may not sing songs in praise of our degrees, but we talk to our friends about them at length, examining the minutiae of the specifications, the past papers and the reading lists as if they are sacred scripture. We give our time and thought to college sport, to our relationships, to our society ambitions.
Take a moment, perhaps, to consider what it is you worship. Because, someday, you may take the sunglasses off and see that it’s not as beautiful as you always thought.