But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth." (John 4:22-24)Anti-Catholics sometimes attempt to refute Catholicism by citing the above statement of Our Lord, and arguing that saint statues, icons, etc., do not constitute worship "in spirit and in truth". Yet Jesus was not condemning the use of sacred images or other created objects in worship. As we shall see, Catholics do worship God "in spirit and in truth": in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass!
Christ makes the statement-in-question while talking to the woman of Samaria (John 4). She asked Him whether the proper place to worship God was on Mount Gerazim (where the Samaritans worshipped) or in the Temple at Jerusalem (where the Jews worshipped). Jesus replied that soon the true worshippers of God would worship Him neither on that mountain nor in the Temple, but "in spirit and in truth".
Notice that they are not discussing the use of sacred images at all! The woman is simply asking a question about proper worship. Catholics don't worship images, we worship God alone. Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that the proper way to worship God is "in spirit and in truth". So what does He mean by that - and do Catholics do it?
Worship = Sacrifice
The word "worship" refers to the offering of sacrifice. The Jews offered sacrifices to God in the Temple, while the Samaritans did so on Mount Gerazim. This is precisely how they each worshipped God at those locations, as the woman said.
Some people mistakenly believe that prayer and worship are the same thing; they are not. Prayer is talking to God, worship is offering Him a sacrifice. Devout Jews in Jesus' day prayed to God wherever they were: at home, in the synagogue, even in the street (Matthew 6:5), not just in the Temple. Yet only in the Temple did they offer sacrifices to God. So Jesus clearly refers to sacrifice here, not prayer.
Jesus is saying that in the New Covenant people will no longer be bound to offer sacrificial worship to God in just one geographical location (a particular mountain or the Temple). They will be able to offer a sacrifice to God in multiple locations, because they offer it "in spirit".
The Christian Sacrifice
This is what the Prophet Malachi had fortold: "For from the rising of the sun to its setting My name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to My name, and a pure offering; for My name is great among the nations, says the LORD of hosts" (Mal 1:11).
The term "offering" means sacrifice in the original Hebrew. Malachi prophesied that one day Gentiles would offer a pure sacrifice to the One True God!
Now, sacrifices are offered by priests, and Isaiah had already fortold that the New Covenant would have a new priesthood which would include Gentiles: "I am coming to gather all nations and tongues; and they shall come and shall see My glory....And some of them also I will take for priests and for Levites, says the LORD" (Isaiah 66:18-21).
The author of the Book of Hebrews writes that Christians partake of an altar: "We have an altar from which those who serve the tent (ie, the Israelite priests) have no right to eat" (Hebrews 13:10). This altar is the Sacrifice of the Mass, Christ's one Sacrifice on Calvary made present to us in the Holy Eucharist. St. Paul speaks of the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist:
"Therefore, my beloved, shun the worship of idols. I speak as to sensible men; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. Consider the people of Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices partners in the altar? What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons" (I Corinthians 10:14-21).Yes, the Eucharist is as much a sacrifice as both the animal sacrifices of ancient Judaism and pagan sacrifices offered to idols! And each is mutually exclusive; one cannot partake of both the Eucharist offered to God and of meat offered to idols.
So the Church has a priesthood made up of men of all nations, who offer the purest Sacrifice of all, Christ's own Sacrifice, on altars in churches all over the world: "from the rising of the sun to its setting". The Mass is not bound to one earthly location as the Jewish sacrifices were bound to the Temple, for is a spiritual Sacrifice, worship "in spirit", as Jesus said.
"...and In Truth"
The Mass is also worship "in truth". Temple worship under the Mosaic Covenant contained foreshadowings of the Messiah; the items in the Tabernacle, the animal sacrifices, the rituals, all pointed to the One Who was to come. But since He had not yet come, the Jews did not understand the full significance of what they were doing.
When Christ finally came, He did not destroy the Mosaic Law (Mt 5:17-18), He fulfilled it. Instead of the blood of bulls and goats He offered His own Precious Blood. Our Lord revealed the full meaning of the rituals which the Israelites had observed for so long without fully understanding them.
Christians now offer the Sacrifice of the Mass in truth, that is, knowing full well the true identity and meaning of our offering. We no longer offer lambs, goats and bulls which foreshadow the coming Messiah; but the spotless Lamb of God, Who is Himself the Truth (John 14:6)! The words, symbols and gestures are not obscure, but fully understood; they do not foreshadow the future, but express an ever-present spiritual Reality.
So when Jesus spoke of "worship in spirit and truth", He was actually referring to the Sacrifice of the Mass! Which is the very same Sacrifice He offered on Calvary, made present now on our altars. On the Cross, Our Lord offered Himself to the Father "in spirit and in truth", and in the Mass we join in His supreme act of worship; a true, spiritual offering to the Father.
This is why at Mass, just before consecrating the bread and wine, the priest prays: "Bless and approve our offering; make it acceptable to you, an offering in spirit and in truth. Let it become for us the body and blood of Jesus Christ, your only Son, our Lord"1
Finally, worship in spirit does not exclude physical things, for the bread and wine are physical elements before the miracle of transubstantiation. And the use of icons or statues as aids to prayer does not in any way impinge upon the worship of God in spirit and in truth at Mass.
1 Eucharistic Prayer I. Translation of the Order of Mass, (c) 1973 by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL). Emphasis mine.
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