Ritual and Ceremony
I know that some (most? all?) of you have wondered about some of the things you see me do around the altar. (This is a good chance for me to remind you that you can ask me any question at any time, and I would be happy to talk with you about it!) Perhaps you’ve rarely, if ever, seen some of those things, and they seem foreign, or even wrong. Let me give a general explanation of my action around the altar, and then use some specific examples about which you may have questions.
Why ritual or ceremony at all? Why not just the words? The words are the most important, right? Yes, the words are most important, because they’re God’s words to us about who we are and who He is, especially in Christ. But it would be impossible for the pastor to move around in the chancel (the front area of the church around the altar) without doing something. The question is, what should that something be? And what does it have to do with the words that are being spoken or sung? The first thing I should say is that I don’t do things just because someone told me to do them. I want to know why, just as you do. So I start at the beginning and ask myself, “What is it that I believe is happening during the Divine Service?” What is happening is that our Lord Himself is meeting us to speak to us and to deliver the forgiveness of sins by the means which He has chosen: usually the Absolution and the Sacrament of the Altar, though occasionally also Baptism. He gathers His people together around Himself, and then sends them out again to be salt and light in the places He has put them, according to their unique vocations. This weekly rhythm has been the rhythm of the Catholic (universal) Church since the Book of Acts (Acts 2:1, 42-45; 20:7; also, 1 Corinthians 16:2; Revelation 1:10).
With that in mind, how should our actions go along with what we say is happening? Because there are really only two options: our actions will reflect our words and our confession, or our words and confession will change to reflect our actions. Can these words or actions simply become unthinking repetition? Sure; but that’s true with anything we do continually. Should we think about what we’re doing when we drive the same route back and forth to work or school every day? Yes! But that doesn’t mean we always do. Positively, knowing by heart the words and actions of the liturgy allows us to reflect more deeply on what these things mean for us. The words are the main thing—only the Word gives life—but our actions are like the scaffolding that support the words.
Some specific examples: Genuflecting (kneeling on one knee and bowing): You may see me do this during the Nicene Creed when we confess the words: “and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary and was made man” (Lutheran Service Book, 191). This mystery of God becoming a man is beyond our understanding; to help me reflect on the words, the motion of kneeling reminds me of the astounding fact that this has actually happened. I also genuflect while I receive the Body and Blood of Christ, since we all come as beggars before the altar of the Lord, and He graciously gives Himself to us for our salvation. Which leads to something else you may have wondered about, Communing myself and consuming the hosts (bread) and wine that is left after the congregation has communed: I do not commune myself because I think that I am the only one worthy to do it, or anything like that. But distributing the Sacrament is part of my vocation, so I, the pastor, distribute it also to myself, the sinner in need of mercy. This is not a new thing in Lutheran churches. Luther wrote in 1523: “Then, while the Agnus Dei is sung, let him [the celebrant] communicate, first himself and then the people” (American Edition of Luther’s Works, 53:29). And because we really believe that, as He says, Christ’s Body and Blood are actually and truly present along with the bread and the wine, we want to reverently dispose of the elements that are left over after everyone has communed. So that we don’t need to worry about questions to which the Lord has not given us the answers (e.g., how long are the Body and Blood present?), I consume the hosts and often the wine. If there is too much wine, the Altar Guild pours it into the piscina (a special drain that goes directly into the earth, rather than into the sewer). They also rinse the individual glasses before they throw them away, because it is not reverent toward wine that has been used to convey the Blood of Christ to simply throw it into the garbage. Chanting: I know that people have opinions (some strong) on this one way or the other. My usual practice is this (keeping in mind that nothing I do will please everyone all the time): I chant most things on the festivals of the Church (Christmas, Easter, Transfiguration, Ascension, etc.). When there is no communion, I tend to chant only the things that have chanted congregational responses (e.g., around the Gospel reading), and on non-festival Sundays, I often do not chant the Proper Preface and the Words of Institution. Here is my rationale for chanting: first, a melody helps me to remember the part! I have forgotten words occasionally when I’m not chanting. So it is, in part, a practical help to me. Also, it helps others remember the words more readily, as we all know from having the words of particular songs stuck in our ears. This is especially helpful for the confirmation students. Also, even if you don’t prefer chanting, a sung liturgy is more festive than a spoken liturgy. If we (The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod) had heard the pastor’s parts chanted from 1941 (when The Lutheran Hymnal was produced), it would seem normal to us. Unfortunately, the pastor’s chant parts were not printed in that hymnal, and they were not published until 1944, three years after the hymnal came out! So if congregations started using the liturgy without the pastor’s chanted parts in 1941, it is unlikely they would have started using them three years later. That’s one historical reason why chanting seems foreign to many of our congregations. Chasubles: This is the vestment (the proper name for liturgical clothing, rather than robe or gown) that pastors have long worn at the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. “Chasuble” comes from a Latin word that means “little house” because of the way it is worn. Perhaps it seems that pastors would wear such decorative vestments to bring attention to themselves. I suggest that it is exactly the opposite. If I were wearing my own clothes (suit and tie, jeans and t-shirt, slacks and polo shirt), they would do exactly that: bring attention to me, because they’re my clothes. I would choose what to wear, and I might choose something different each day or week. I would have to think each Sunday about what I am wearing. Vestments certainly can be ostentatious and flamboyant (though I have two chasubles from eBay and one as a gift, so I don’t think that applies to mine), but their whole point is to cover up the man and direct attention, instead, to the Office which he occupies. The man is interchangeable; any pastor can wear the same chasuble, and he is covered up. (This is also, incidentally, the same reason I wear a clerical collar every day: because that’s the usual uniform for the pastor, and even if they confuse me for a Roman priest, they know the sort of things I’m about.) What matters is what the pastor is there to do, which is deliver the forgiveness of sins which Jesus accomplished by His death and resurrection. The vestments point to that, which is why they are the same color as the liturgical season.
Finally, the objection to many of these things is that they are “Catholic,” that is “Roman Catholic.” They are indeed catholic, which is a Greek word meaning “according to the whole” or “universal.” What is called the Lutheran Church (actually, the Church of the Augsburg Confession) is not a sect or a new church, but the reformed Western Catholic Church. Otherwise, we would allow that the Roman Church is the true universal church. We do not. But beyond that, if we refused to do anything that looked Roman, we would have to get rid of the liturgy, readings, hymns, candles, altars, pulpits, Lord’s Supper, baptism, and nearly everything else with which we are comfortable. Though outwardly, our ritual and ceremony may look similar to much of the Roman Church, the theology that runs beneath it is very different. (And, as a Roman priest friend of mine told me, he could not remember the liturgy being chanted in his lifetime; it was only two Advents ago that the Roman liturgy was revised and chant was encouraged. Not to mention that the Roman Church has never chanted the Words of Institution. This was a Lutheran innovation to make sure that the congregation could hear these priceless Gospel words.)
Hopefully that gives you a better idea about some of the things I do and the reasons for them. Feel free to stop by and ask any other questions you might have. I hope that the actions you may choose to do during the liturgy cause you to think more deeply about what Christ is doing in our midst week by week.
*St. Augustine (354-430 AD), Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, said, “For you I am a bishop [overseer]; with you I am a Christian.”