The Latin term adoratio originally meant a gesture of reverence made toward a worthy person or object, before whom one would bow slightly, touching the object of reverence with one’s right hand, while with one’s left hand wafting a kiss (ad os) toward the recipient of the adoration. We, however, must see this concept in the context of divine revelation, which teaches us that adoration means acknowledging that God is God and that we are creatures. This is the fundamental attitude of worship that is taught by divine revelation and Holy Scripture, for the most dangerous temptation for the creature is to make himself a god, to replace God with self. This was the sin of the fallen angels who sinned prior to man. Satan refused the act of adoration to God, to Him who is solus Sanctus, solus Dominus, solus Altissimus, as we say in the Gloria of the Holy Mass. St. Thomas Aquinas said: “The greatest of all [sins against God] seems to be for a man to give God’s honor to a creature.”
In her catechetical tradition, the Church gives us the following explanation of the theological and spiritual significance of the act of adoration:
To adore God is to acknowledge, in respect and absolute submission, the “nothingness of the creature” who would not exist but for God. To adore God is to praise and exalt him and to humble oneself, as Mary did in the Magnificat, confessing with gratitude that he has done great things and holy is his name. The worship of the one God sets man free from turning in on himself, from the slavery of sin and the idolatry of the world.
Adoration is the first attitude of man acknowledging that he is a creature before his Creator. It exalts the greatness of the Lord who made us and the almighty power of the Savior who sets us free from evil. Adoration is homage of the spirit to the “King of Glory,” respectful silence in the presence of the “ever greater” God. Adoration of the thrice-holy and sovereign God of love blends with humility and gives assurance to our supplications.
St. Thomas explains that worship or adoration involves both inward and outward acts, because of our dual nature:
As Damascene says (De Fide Orth. iv, 12), since we are composed of a twofold nature, intellectual and sensible, we offer God a twofold adoration; namely, a spiritual adoration, consisting in the internal devotion of the mind; and a bodily adoration, which consists in an exterior humbling of the body. And since in all acts of latria [adoration for God alone] that which is without is referred to that which is within as being of greater import, it follows that exterior adoration is offered on account of interior adoration, in other words we exhibit signs of humility in our bodies in order to incite our affections to submit to God, since it is connatural to us to proceed from the sensible to the intelligible.ST II-II, Q. 84, art. 2.
In the book of the prophet Isaiah (6:1–4), we read:
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole world is full of his glory.” And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.
We must give glory to God, glorify Him: that is the purpose of creation. God did not create us to increase His essential glory because He does not need it. In the modern Roman Missal, the fourth common preface says: “Although you have no need of our praise, yet our thanksgiving is itself your gift, since our praises add nothing to your greatness, but profit us for salvation, through Christ our Lord.”
God created us to praise Him, and He inscribed in creation itself the need and yearning to express His glory. Adoration, in Greek, is proskýnesis, which literally means “to prostrate oneself.” It indicates that One alone is great and that we make ourselves small. Making ourselves small is the fruit of true adoration. As the Blessed Virgin Mary and Mother of God teaches us in her Magnificat, God exalts us when we make ourselves lowly.
Adoration & Praise
Adoration is giving glory to God, praising Him without end. But what is the difference between adoration and praise? Adoration is the most explicit form of showing that God is truly great and is Lord. We can also praise or venerate creatures, but not adore them. Adoration, as the doctrine of the Church and the Holy Scripture says, is reserved for God. When the devil tempted Jesus in the wilderness, asking Him to fall down and worship him, the Lord answered, as we read in Matthew (4:10): “Begone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve’ ” (cf. Deut. 6:13).
Some may think that God’s desire to be worshipped by His creatures is almost a matter of vanity. But in reality, it is not that He wants to be adored, but that it is good for His creatures to adore Him. And it is not good, precisely for His creatures, not to adore Him. In his commentary on Epiphany, Dom Prosper Guéranger writes:
The Epiphany is indeed a great Feast, and the joy caused us by the Birth of our Jesus must be renewed on it, for, as though it were a second Christmas Day, it shows us our Incarnate God in a new light. It leaves us all the sweetness of the dear Babe of Bethlehem, who hath appeared to us already in love; but to this it adds its own grand manifestation of the divinity of our Jesus. At Christmas it was a few Shepherds that were invited by the Angels to go and recognize the Word made Flesh; but now, at the Epiphany, the voice of God himself calls the whole world to adore this Jesus, and hear him.The Liturgical Year, trans. Dom Laurence Shepherd (Great Falls, MT: St. Bonaventure Publications, 2000), Book II, vol. 3, p. 108.
He became a child precisely to make it easier for us to offer our adoration. Jesus Christ, the Incarnate God, is the supreme model of the true adoration which creatures owe to the Creator. The Son of God has restored authentic divine worship and given it a supernatural and sanctifying efficacy.
Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a chapter in the book The Catholic Mass: Steps to Restore the Centrality of God in the Liturgy by Bishop Athanasius Schneider. It is available through Sophia Institute Press.
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