Despite our culture’s growing proclivity towards irreverence and disrespect, there are still some areas of life where reverence is modeled and even expected. For example, when a judge enters a courtroom, all stand out of respect. There is a certain decorum that is expected in such places. Military rites and ceremonies also retain their reverent and solemn character. When the flag is raised and the national anthem sung, people still remove their hats and place their right hand on their heart. Reverent silence is expected at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Solemn occasions call for appropriate actions and attitudes. Though there is certainly nothing wrong with laughter or talking, most people know instinctively that such things would be out of place when soldiers fold a flag at the burial of military personnel.
Reverence also becomes those who come before the King of Kings and Lord of Lords in the Church. The writer to the Hebrews acknowledges this when he says,
“Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe” (Heb. 12:28).
By reverence, we mean first and foremost a humble and respectful attitude in the heart. But reverence is also expressed outwardly in concrete ways. We show that the Church is a sacred space, set apart for holy works and actions, by conducting ourselves differently than we would at a ball game or a concert or in our living rooms. Our demeanor, the way we dress, even the way we speak and sing all communicates that worship is a solemn occasion, unlike anything else we do the rest of the week.
At the same time, we are also joyful. Solemn does not mean somber. Somber means gloomy, dark, and dull. There is nothing gloomy or dull about the Church’s worship! Solemn means serious, dignified, and formal. Worship is a joyful occasion, but it is also a serious matter. God approves of formality. In the Bible, we find that worship was both formal and serious. It is solemn because of Who is present and what is taking place. It is also joyful because it is the time when the Bridegroom comes to meet with His Bride and to shower her with His love and mercy. It is often the case, however, that Christian joy and reverence are pitted against each other, as if it were an “either/or.” You can either be joyful or reverent, but not both.
There may be several reasons for this. It could simply be a misunderstanding—reverence and solemnity are mistaken for somberness. It might also have something to do with one’s view of God. When Moses encountered the Lord at the burning bush, he was told to remove his sandals, “for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exod 3:5). It was also understood by both Old Testament and New Testament believers that this holy God was present among them when they gathered to worship. Jesus says: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matt 18:20). Where God’s Name is, there He is to bless us. Where this confession of God’s presence and holiness is weak or lacking, where Christ is portrayed merely as a friend or pal or our equal, then reverence may be seen as being antithetical to joy.
Truly, Christ is a friend to sinners! This is the Church’s joyful confession. Because of Christ’s redeeming work on the cross, we who are baptized and believe in Him can approach the Father’s throne in faith. And we can do so without fear of condemnation. We are covered by His mercy. Thanks be to God! However, this is not the only thing that we confess about God from the Holy Scriptures. Scripture also teaches that God is holy and majestic. When we are assembled in His holy Name, we believe that we should come before Him as before a King. For this reason, it is still fitting that we conduct ourselves reverently and respectfully when we come together for worship. We strive to maintain an atmosphere that is befitting the King of Kings, not because we are afraid of his anger and wrath, but out of godly faith and fear.
It has sometimes been argued that reverence is subjective rather than objective. In other words, what I think is reverent may be different than what someone else thinks is reverent. To a certain degree, reverence is subjective. In the Scriptures reverence is not always expressed in the same way. Some people showed reverence by bowing to the ground (e.g., the Magi – Matt. 2:1-12) while others fell down at Jesus’ feet (e.g., Peter – Luke 5:1-11 and the one leper who returned – Luke 17:11-19). The sinful woman anointed Jesus’ feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair (Luke 7:36-50). The apostle Paul speaks of bowing the knees before the Father (Eph 3:14-21) and wrote that at the name of Jesus “every knee should bow” (Phil 2:5-11).
While each of these displays of reverence looks a little bit different on the surface, they all share one thing in common: they reveal a heart that is filled with humility, faith, and gratitude toward our God and King, Jesus Christ. There is a lowering of the self before God, much like we lower ourselves in humble faith when we kneel to receive the most holy Body and Blood of the Lord. The lowering of the eyes, the bowing of the head, indeed, the entire posture of our bodies communicates something about our attitude toward God.
I would also submit, however, that there is an objective character to reverence, that there are certain ways of speaking and acting that are more fitting than others when the Church comes together for worship. Would we consider it reverent if someone dressed in a clown suit and ran up and down the aisle during the Divine Service giving “high-fives”? Would that fit the solemn character of the worship assembly? It might be funny and get everybody relaxed and laughing, but would it really be proper? Can you imagine someone doing that at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier? If not there, then why at church?
As the Body of Christ, it is our joyful privilege to receive from our divine King the most blessed treasures on earth in the Church: the forgiveness of sins, life, and eternal salvation. This Christian joy is reflected all through the Service in the singing of psalms, hymns, and liturgical responses of praise and thanksgiving. We come in humble and reverent adoration of the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, who assumed our human nature and offered Himself as an atoning sacrifice on the cross and who is present with us in His Word and Sacrament. Whatever we do, say, or sing in the context of worship, may it always be done with “joyful reverence” before God.
“God Himself is present: Let us now adore Him
And with awe appear before Him.
God is in His temple; All within keep silence;
Humbly kneel in deepest rev’rence.
He alone On His throne
Is our God and Savior; Praise His name forever!”