From my new Study Guide for the ecumenical video Common Ground:
5. Pastor Steve spoke about how all Christians are tempted to “go through the motions” of Christianity and to not have a passionate commitment to Jesus Christ and Fr. John quickly agreed: “we’ve all done it at times.” One of the criticisms of the Catholic Church is that the liturgy of the Mass is too ritualistic, so that, therefore, it leads to such a rote observance without wholehearted involvement. Are there biblical passages that suggest observing form prayers and ritual?
Fr. John provided one reply to this objection: Psalm 136, where the same exact phrase (“for his steadfast love endures for ever”) is repeated for twenty-six straight verses. If formal worship or religious ritual were always opposed to a sincere, heartfelt adoration and praise of God, then certainly God wouldn’t have commanded it in the Bible. Yet we find that He does exactly that, in many places.
Elaborate, painstaking instructions for the Ark of the Covenant (Ex 25:1-22), the tabernacle (Ex 25:23-40; chapters 26-27), and the Temple (1 Kings, chapters 6-7) illustrate the highly ritualistic nature of Hebrew worship (see also Leviticus 23:37-38 and 24:5-8).
God did assuredly often warn the people against hypocritical worship: performing of rituals without the proper attitude of heart towards God. This is an ongoing human tendency that we all must be vigilant to avoid. God opposes deceit and hypocrisy, not formality, and rituals performed without a committed spirit and devotion, or in light of continued sin and disobedience on other grounds:
Amos 5:11-14,21-24: Therefore because you trample upon the poor and take from him exactions of wheat, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not dwell in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins -- you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and turn aside the needy in the gate. Therefore he who is prudent will keep silent in such a time; for it is an evil time. Seek good, and not evil, that you may live; and so the LORD, the God of hosts, will be with you, as you have said . . . I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings, I will not accept them, and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
(cf. Prov 15:8, 21:27; Jer 6:19-20; Mal 1:6-14)
James 1:26-27: If any one thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this man’s religion is vain. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.
When His people obeyed His commands, however, then God was pleased with the same sacrifices (see, e.g., Is 56:6-7: “their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar”; Jer 17:24-26: “But if you listen to me . . .”; Mal 1:11: “a pure offering”; many others).
Jesus didn’t oppose all repetition whatsoever, but rather, “vain” repetition or “empty phrases” (Matthew 6:7). He described such vain worship in another passage:
Matthew 15:7-9: You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: ”This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.” (cf. Mk 7:6-7)Formal and ritualistic ceremonies and worship services are recorded as taking place even in heaven itself (Rev 4:8-11, 5:8-14), complete with repetitious prayer (Rev 4:8: “they never cease to sing . . .”), repeated chants or hymns (4:11, 5:9-10), an altar and incense (8:3-4), and sacrifice (5:6).