What does it mean to worship God in spirit and truth?

July 28th, 2014

God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth. (John 4:24 NRSV)

"What is worship in spirit and truth?" the preacher asked. His answer to his own question, delivered with no small amount of passionate aplomb: "You can't define it, but you know it when you see it." He was a gifted preacher, but very unhelpful when it came to answering the biblical question he placed in our minds!

So... What is worship in spirit and truth?

The tradition does not contain only one settled interpretation of what “spirit and truth” in John 4:24 mean. Rather, we are offered many, often complementary, interpretations. A handful of such can be found in St. Thomas Aquinas’ lectures on John 4.

Yet the late neoscholastic extraordinaire, Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., says something while speaking of Mary’s “divine maternity” (which refers to the fact that she is mother of God incarnate) that opens up an interesting interpretation of John 4:24. Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange says this in his Reality: A Synthesis of Thomistic Thought. He writes:

To become Mother of God, Mary had to give her consent to the realization of the mystery. By this consent, as tradition says, she conceived her Son, not only in body, but also in spirit, in body, because He is flesh of her flesh, in spirit, because He awaited her consent. But her act of consent was given, says St. Thomas, in the name of the human race.

Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange speaks of Mary’s consent to the incarnation, which we see in Scripture in Luke 1:38: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange interprets Mary’s consent as Mary’s conceiving Jesus “in spirit” (as distinct from “in body”). If “in spirit” may be taken to mean “consentingly,” we thus see an interesting way to interpret the sense of what Jesus is saying in John 4:24. On this reading, he means something like: Those who worship God must worship consentingly and in truth.

What we gain by this interpretation is clarity about the intrinsic freedom of true Christian worship. Just as Mary freely says yes to the plan by which God will save humankind by becoming incarnate in Jesus Christ, so every true worshiper must say yes to God’s revelation inwardly in order to truly worship.

This also makes it clear why worship “in spirit” is connected to worship “in truth.” The truth in question is the truth of God’s incarnation in Jesus Christ (c.f. John 1:14). This is a truth that only saves insofar as it is received — that is, insofar as we say yes to it. Every time a Christian worships the Father she says yes to (that is, she gives her consent to and receives) Jesus Christ (who is the truth, John 14:6). From this we may see that the church’s yes is typified by Mary’s yes — Mary’s yes is the archetype of the church’s yes and each of our many yesses. Mary is in this way a picture of the church, and is a model disciple.

Further, we may see that in Christian worship the church is constituted anew as the Bride of Christ by saying yes to his offer of fruitful covenant love. This is especially the case at the celebration of the Eucharist, as each Christian, giving consent, receives the Lord in the flesh with open-handed embrace or open-mouthed kiss. That is worship in spirit and truth.

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