In connection with an academic project of mine, I’ve recently been poring over the book of Exodus and numerous commentaries thereupon. The second most famous book of the Old Testament is concerned primarily with the manner in which God shapes his people so that they might become a radiant beacon, a city set on a hill. On the biblical reading, Israel is indeed chosen, but it is never chosen for its own sake, but rather for all the nations of the world.
I would say that this formation takes place in three principal stages: first, God teaches Israel to trust in his power; secondly, he gives Israel a moral law; and thirdly, he instructs his people in holiness through right praise. The lesson in trust happens, of course, through God’s great act of liberation. Utterly powerless slaves find freedom, not by relying on their own resources, but rather upon the gracious intervention of God. The moral instruction takes place through the Ten Commandments and their attendant legislation. Finally, the formation in holiness happens through a submission to an elaborate set of liturgical and ceremonial laws. It is this last move that perhaps strikes us today as most peculiar, but that has, I will argue, particular resonance in our strange COVID period.
That education in religion involves moral instruction probably seems self-evident to most of us. And this is because we are, willy-nilly, Kantians. In the eighteenth century, the philosopher Immanuel Kant contended that all of religion is reducible to ethics. What the religious thing is finally all about, Kant argued, is making us more just, loving, kind, and compassionate. In contemporary language, Kantianism in religion sounds like this: “As long as you’re a good person, it doesn’t really matter what you believe or how you worship.”
Now, there is no question that the book of Exodus and the Bible in general agree that morality is essential to the proper formation of the people of God. Those who would seek to follow the Lord, who is justice and love, must be conformed to justice and love. And this is precisely why we find, in the great Sinai covenant, injunctions not to steal, not to commit adultery, not to covet, not to kill, etc. So far, so Kantian.
But what probably surprises most contemporary readers of the book of Exodus is that, immediately following the laying out of the moral commandments, the author spends practically the rest of the text, chapters 25 through 40, delineating the liturgical prescriptions that the people are to follow. So for example, we find a lengthy section on the construction of the ark of the covenant: “They shall make an ark of acacia wood; it shall be two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. You shall overlay it with pure gold, inside and outside you shall overlay it.” And as an ornament on the top of the ark, “You shall make two cherubim of gold. . . . Make one cherub at the one end, and one cherub at the other. . . . The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat.” Next, we find instructions regarding the elaborate furnishings inside of the tabernacle, including a lampstand, a table for the so-called “bread of the presence,” pillars and various hangings. Finally, an enormous amount of space is given over to the description of the vestments to be worn by the priests of Israel. Here is just a sampling: “These are the vestments that they shall make: a breastpiece, an ephod, a robe, a checkered tunic, a turban, and a sash. When they make these sacred vestments. . . . They shall use gold, blue, purple, and crimson yarns, and fine linen.”
No indication whatsoever is given that the moral prescriptions are somehow more important than the liturgical prescriptions. If anything, the contrary seems to be the case, since Exodus is followed immediately by the book of Leviticus, which consists of twenty-eight chapters of dietary and liturgical law. So what are we post-Kantians to make of this? First, we should observe that the biblical authors do not think for a moment that God somehow requires liturgical rectitude, as though the correctness of our worship adds anything to his perfection or satisfies some psychological need of his. If you harbor any doubt on this score, I would recommend a careful reading of the first chapter of the prophet Isaiah and of the fiftieth psalm. God doesn’t need the ark and the tabernacle and priestly vestments and regular worship, but we do. Through the gestures and symbols of its liturgical praise, Israel is brought on line with God, ordered to him. The moral law directs our wills to the divine goodness, but the liturgical law directs our minds, our hearts, our emotions, and yes even our bodies to the divine splendor. Notice how thoroughly the ceremonial instructions of Exodus involve color, sound, and smell (there is an awful lot about incense), and how they conduce toward the production of beauty.
I said above that Exodus’ stress on the liturgical and ceremonial has a profound relevance to our time, and here’s why. For very good reasons, we abstained completely from public worship, and even now our ability to worship together is very limited. In most dioceses in our country, the obligation to attend Sunday Mass is, again for valid reasons, suspended. My fear is that when the propitious moment arrives, when we are again able to return to Mass, many Catholics will stay away, since they’ve grown accustomed to absenting themselves from worship. And my concern takes a more specifically Kantian form: Will many Catholics say to themselves, “You know, as long as I’m basically a good person, what’s the point of all of this formal worship of God?”
Could I recommend that you take out your Bible, open to the book of Exodus, especially chapters 25 through 40, and consider just how crucially important to God is the correct worship offered by his holy people? Liturgy has always mattered. The Mass—involving vestments, ritual gesture, smells and bells, song and silence—still matters, big time. Isn’t it enough that you’re a good person? Not to put too fine a point on it: no.