How would you identify yourself—your confession, your belief “system,” your religion—to someone who is not a Christian? If asked, of course you would identify yourself as a Christian. Christian—even with all the assumed baggage that Christianity carries in the United States—means that you belong to Christ. You do not belong to Buddha, or Mohammed, or Krishna, or to Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, or to any of their books. You belong to Christ and so you live by the Words (the Scriptures) that testify to Him. You do not belong to Luther any more than you belong to any other Christian teacher. No matter who the person is, ancient or modern, the Scriptures are the ruler by which you measure any human being’s teaching.
It is good to recognize in a world that barely knows Christianity—let alone its various stripes and differences—that our identity is always and only in Christ and not in any man, certainly not in Luther. But this can sometimes mislead us. Perhaps we will say, “I am a Lutheran-Christian,” where “Lutheran” modifies “Christian” to tell us what kind of Christian we are. Or perhaps we will say it another way: “I am a Christian first and a Lutheran second.” On the one hand, this is a good impulse: we want to be identified by what belongs to Christ, and not what belongs to human beings. But, on the other hand, it can mislead us. Such statements can very easily assume that Lutheran or Baptist or Presbyterian or Roman Catholic are additions to Christianity. In other words, we assume that there is a core of what we call “Christianity,” and then various people added various, other, more secondary teachings to the central Christian faith. It very well might be the case that human beings have built wood, hay, or straw onto the precious foundation of Christ. But it is not necessarily so.
What is the goal of what happens on Sunday morning? What is your goal when you come? What are you looking for? What is your expectation for what you will have when you leave?
Those are some of the questions we can ask to get at our real motivations and expectations for gathering on a Sunday morning. Our answers to those questions are probably formed by many things: our childhood experience in church, or our lack thereof; our adult experience in church(es); what our friends and family tell us they get; what we’ve observed at other congregations we’ve attended; and the (sometimes) subconscious desires and preferences and prejudices we bring with us. There is not a single person in a given congregation who is not formed and shaped by some combination of those things (and probably more).
What if someone asked you the question: “What makes Lutheran worship Lutheran?” If you were going to describe or define Lutheran worship, what would you say? What makes it unique or different from worship as you might experience it or participate in it in any given church across the country or around the world? Is it just that Lutherans do “Catholic-lite”? Is it that Lutherans have a particular order to services, or that we have prescribed readings and written prayers? Is it that we haven’t quite shaken the ghosts of our Germanic ancestors?
On the liturgy, Preparation through Gloria in Excelsis.
[meant to have video; no power cord. meant to press record; forgot.]
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I think it was Jaroslav Pelikan who said something to the effect that traditionalism is the dead faith of the living, while tradition is the living faith of the dead. Traditionalism is doing something simply because it was always done; tradition is doing what has been handed down to us, because it has become ours. Traditionalism very often leads to the opposite error: doing things simply because they aren’t what we’ve always done, always doing what is new and contemporary. But the fact that something is “contemporary” is not a reason to do anything. All it means is that it is being done now, at the same time that we are alive. What matters is not when something was produced, or when it was made, but what it is and what it does. A high school history teacher of mine once asked a class of sophomores, “What makes something a classic?” I don’t remember all the answers that were given, but I remember one answer: Something that stands the test of time. There are lots of things that are made and done and written and heard, but most are forgotten, most are forgettable, most are not able to stand the brutal test of history as it shifts, changes, and moves through place and time. One thing that has stood the test of time, even as it has developed and moved through very different languages, cultures, and places, is the liturgy of the Church. Granted, the Church has not had only one liturgy in her history, but it is astounding to consider how much the liturgies of the Church have in common across time and space. For the next few weeks, I’m going “preach through the liturgy” as we dig deeper and hear better this great gift as it has been handed down to us for hundreds, even thousands, of years.
You Are What You Read (Part 2)
Last month, we considered the goal of the Scriptures in giving us Jesus and transforming us into His Image—not so much by how we read the Scriptures, but by how they read us into the salvation story of the Father and the Son and the Spirit. They read us by the Law, then they read us into the Creed through creation, the Son becoming man, and the Spirit creating faith to trust what Jesus has done for us. We are taught how to pray, and we learn how God has chosen to give us Jesus with His saving work from cross and empty tomb through Baptism, Absolution, and Supper. Then we are sent back out into the world, having received the Love of God in Christ, to serve our neighbors in love by what God has given each of us to do (vocation).
You Are What You Read (Part 1)
“‘But you, son of man, hear what I say to you. Be not rebellious like that rebellious house; open your mouth and eat what I give you.’ And when I looked, behold, a hand was stretched out to me, and behold, a scroll of a book was in it. And he spread it before me. And it had writing on the front and on the back, and there were written on it words of lamentation and mourning and woe. And he said to me, ‘Son of man, eat whatever you find here. Eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel.’ So I opened my mouth, and he gave me this scroll to eat. And he said to me, ‘Son of man, feed your belly with this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it.’ Then I ate it, and it was in my mouth as sweet as honey” (Ezekiel 2:8-3:3).
“Then the voice that I had heard from heaven spoke to me again, saying, ‘Go, take the scroll that is open in the hand of the angel who is standing on the sea and on the land.’ So I went to the angel and told him to give me the little scroll. And he said to me, ‘Take and eat it; it will make your stomach bitter, but in your mouth it will be sweet as honey.’ And I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it. It was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it my stomach was made bitter” (Revelation 10:8-10).
“Blessed Lord, You have caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning. Grant that we may so hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them that, by patience and comfort of Your holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life; through Jesus Christ, our Lord” (Lutheran Service Book, 308).
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.”