Meneltarma, spotless and pure, mountain of Manwe, lying in the central west of the isle of Andor, land of Gift, beloved of the gods. Tall and silent, the top of the mount bears only a shallow depression, no temple was built on Andor until the days of Numenor's decline, able to hold great crowds. In this place was felt such silence that one who knew nothing of the Numenoreans' history or their customs would have refused to say a word on the top of this mountain……. It was a place not for flowered speeches, lengthy rites, burnt sacrifices and offerings, no sacrifice or offering was given in this place, that is not what Manwe desired. Instead, it was a place only to stand in awe, in silent gratitude, in an open gesture of complete thanks, possessionless, weak, vulnerable, humble gratitude for the land of Gift and the many gifts of beauty, power, culture, peace, joy and hope given to the people of Westernesse by the Valar. This is what pleased the Valar.
As the years passed, the longing for immortality and desire for power in Middle-Earth grew in the hearts of the Numenoreans and they, in their pride, brought Sauron to Numenor to be the vassal of the King. Tossed on a great hill by a great green wave, Sauron, who at that time wore a fair raiment that would deceive all but the most wise, spoke long and enchanting promising this people immortality if they turned to Melkor and the worship of darkness. The people's hearts were turned and they did Sauron's bidding and listened to his whisperings against the Valar, that they invented the fiction of Eru, the One, in order to control the people, but that if they turned to Melkor they would receive power and immortality from him. And they built a temple to Melkor in the central west of Andor, and many abandoned the Meneltarma and the worship of the Valar. It was a temple of red and black and gold, five sides, a great mass of metal, cut with straight lines and sharp angles, dark except for the raging fires that were constantly fed. Sauron would stand in the temple and overlook the sacrifices. Victims were most often found from conquered peoples of Middle Earth and from among the Faithful of the Valar dwelling still in Andor. The fires were constantly fed, and Melkor's insatiable desire for blood and to consume living things was constantly answered.
In these latter days, the Numenoreans constantly sought to obtain from Melkor what the Valar would not freely give them. They destroyed many living things, trees and men and women, to purchase from Melkor what they wanted. Their lives and society become a great self-immolation, of their own people and their own land, and of other peoples an other lands. When they seek to earn from the gods what they could not receive freely, they begin to destroy themselves. Whereas before, the land and the people flourished in beauty of forests and jewels and fair instruments of great power, and they were elevated above the lot of all the other mortal men as a gift in return for their faithfulness to the Valar, and they were asked to return to the Valar humble gratitude and silent, wordless praise.
In latter days, many of us are familiar with the Catholic Eucharist, which, as a bloody yet bloodless sacrifice, offered with words as a pleasing sacrifice to the One, the true God, raises an interesting question. If the Numenoreans had some sort of ritual worship of Eru, would they have kept their faith and loyalty to Him?
First I’ll say a few words on the Catholic Eucharist. The Catholic Eucharist is the bloodless re-presentation of the bloody sacrifice of Jesus the Christ, himself Second Person of God, offering his Self up, as the perfect priest offering the perfect sacrifice, to the Father, the First Person of God. Offering it in reparation for the sins of men, by this means reconciling them with the Father. Jesus Christ achieves this by himself becoming a man without ceasing to be God. Thus all his actions are both entirely divine and entirely human, and when he offers himself to the Father in reparation for the sins of men, he does this as a member of the race of Men, yet the sacrifice is able to satisfy so much sin because it is the Perfect Priest offering the Perfect Sacrifice, for both are God Himself. The Catholic Eucharist then, is both a thank-offering to God as well as the unbloody re-presentation of the bloody sacrifice of Jesus Himself on the altar within the sacred building. Words woven into formulaic constructions are spoken, they and the human priests practicing the rights are the physical conduits of the power of God which accomplishes the things that the words claim to carry out…the re-presentation of the Sacrifice of the Cross, the changing of bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. It seems to be an amazing mystery of God entering into earthly, physical realities…the human priest, the bread, the wine, human flesh itself. The Eucharist would not be practiced by Catholics today if God Himself, hidden more or less before, had not revealed Himself to the degree of becoming a man, not just taking on human flesh but taking on humanity, and doing and saying what he did and said, himself instituting (at the Last Supper) this rite by which Catholics honor God.
In Numenor, however, there was no parallel experience of Eru’s self-revelation to Men. He did not Himself specify how he was to be worshipped, nor do anything, as a man, that would be worthy of imitation in the daily lives of Numenoreans the way Jesus Christ did. He was just hidden, known only through faith in the words of the Valar who bore witness to his existence. Sauron comes and sharpens within them their desire for immortality, and convinces them that they must break faith with the Valar to do it, claiming that what the Valar tell the Numenoreans about Eru is mere fiction meant to control them. Having no constant ritual practice of direct interaction with Eru, perhaps it was quite easy for the Numenoreans to believe that he isn’t actually there and turn to Morgoth whom they honored directly with constant sacrifices.
This is opposed to the Catholic Mass where the priest forms a link, a bridge, between men and God; where the people in fact experience a sort of union with God in the act of worshipping Him. If someone challenged them that their God is a mere lie and deception, they could respond that actually every Sunday they are intimately united to Him, through the offering itself, mediated by the priest, and then personally once they receive Him, having taken on the appearances of food and drink and come to nourish their souls, the receiving of the Eucharist. Catholic saints have said that when men eat food the food becomes part of them, but when men eat the Eucharist in the same way they become part of God. Any Catholic then is constantly being reassured to the existence of God by experiencing his direct touch in all the Sacraments, including the Eucharist.
The Numenoreans were not so blessed by Eru. In their time, Eru only related to them through the Valar themselves and through their witness to Him. So the Numenoreans would probably spend most of their lives without any sort of direct experience of Eru. Did the faith of the many then hang by a thread? It seems reasonable then that if an impious desire for immortality was strengthened and a powerful deceiver like Sauron used this to turn them against the Valar and against belief in Eru, that it might be easy or almost even likely that they lose their faith in Eru. Their faith did not have the bulwark of ritual worship like the Eucharist, and so it seems that it failed more easily than it might have.
Why did Tolkien make this so? Why tell a story about a people who were so favored by the Valar, taught by the Valar to revere Eru, but who turned away and fell horribly, perhaps almost inevitably? Why tell such a sad story? Perhaps he saw it as saying something about people and worship in our world, perhaps that constant ritual interaction with God is a strong bulwark to their faith in Him. But for man to know how to treat God, or to have a God that they can interact with in this way, perhaps the Catholic Eucharist reveals that, for men to practice truly holy rituals, God must reveal Himself to them in some degree, making Himself less hidden, exposing his hidden personality and life in a way recognizable to them. He must embody himself, incarnate himself. Think of Eucharist, or even Greek temples and their statues of the gods they venerate. The fact that Eru does not do this for the Numenoreans perhaps highlights the weakness of men in maintaining belief in what they have not personally experienced, and throws into relief the strengthening power of Eucharistic ritual in preserving this faith.