LUTHERAN WORSHIP – THEOLOGY AND PRACTICE
The Scriptural Basis of Worship
“Our Lord speaks and we listen. His Word bestows what it says. Faith that is born from what is heard acknowledges the gifts received with eager thankfulness and praise. Music is drawn into this thankfulness and praise, enlarging and elevating the adoration of our gracious giver God.” (From the Introduction to the hymnal Lutheran Worship, p. 6.)
Private devotion is the duty and privilege of the individual. It may well be artless, that is, spontaneous and free. Public worship, on the other hand, is the privilege and responsibility of the church. It must be ordered and administered. It is not an abstraction; it is a solemn transaction; it is faith in action. Time, places, forms, and musical settings must be provided. Reverence, dignity, beauty, and efficiency can best be attained by appropriate formality.
(The Lutheran Liturgy, Luther D. Reed, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1947, p. 1.)
In order to point to spiritual values as the focal point of worship, the Lutheran Church takes nearly all the words of the service from the Bible. Most of the greetings, chants, and other portions of the service are taken directly from God’s Word.
The outline of the worship service is based on the historic liturgy of the Christian Church, going back to the early centuries. This form has stood the test of time. Martin Luther did not throw out the historic service of the church (the Mass) during the Reformation, but rather, he corrected and cut away the abuses and false doctrine which had crept into the Mass. By and large, Lutheran worship resembles the worship of other denominations which follow the historic liturgy of the church.
Lutheran worship may be divided into three major sections. The main service of the Church is the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Communion, but this is preceded by “Preparation” and the “Service of the Word”:
The Divine Service
1. The Preparation
“In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit,” acknowledges that we are God’s people through the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. In Holy Baptism we were first signed with the cross in the name of the Holy Trinity; thus, we encourage our worshipers to remember that baptismal covenant which God has made with them by taking a dip of the fingers in the Baptismal font’s water and making the sign of the holy cross as they go by; also, at this Invocation make the sign of the holy cross to remember one’s baptism.
Because we have been baptized, we are bold to come into God’s presence and make confession of our sins, certain that, for Jesus’ sake, God will again announce his forgiveness for us.
2. The Service of the Word
The service properly begins with the Introit, the “entrance” song of the church. This is usually taken from one of the Psalms and sets the tone or theme for the day. It originally came about in the early church as Psalms being sung back and forth in the congregation while the clergy entered from the back of the sanctuary to parade up to the front to conduct the service. Over time, each week came to have its own Introit that went with each week’s Gospel lesson.
Other parts of the service which reflect the theme of day are called the Propers for the Day. These change from Sunday to Sunday, matching the theme set by the reading from the Holy Gospel. Other Propers include the Collect, the Old Testament Lesson, the Epistle, the Gradual, the Holy Gospel, the Hymn of the Day.
The Kyrie is from “Kyrie eleison,” a Greek phrase meaning “Lord, have mercy.” In the Kyrie we come before the King of Mercy, with the prayer of blind Bartimaeus (Mk. 10:46-52) and the Caananite woman (Mt. 15:21-28) – that healing from Christ comes. People in the ancient world greeted their king who came to them in this way. This supplication is an unceasing cry for mercy on a world suffering from the curse of sin, knowing that Christ is coming in Word and Sacrament to answer this prayer.
In response to the cry for mercy, the congregation joyfully continues with the Gloria in Excelsis, which begins with the song of the angels in praise of Christ’s birth sung to the shepherds at Luke 2. Here, the congregation praises the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for being present with and in the Church to forgive and have mercy upon His people. The same Lord who shows mercy is the Savior who came to us in the flesh, and now reigns over us from the right hand of His Father. In Easter season, at this point we sing the alternate hymn, “Worthy is Christ – This is the Feast” – based on hymns in the Book of Revelation from John’s vision of the heavenly worship.
In Lutheran worship the pastor and people worship together. The pastor stands in the congregation as Christ’s servant. The vestments he wears indicate he is not speaking on his own, but as one sent and authorized to represent Jesus Christ.
In the Salutation, there is a mutual exchange – the Pastor proclaims that the Lord Jesus is with them (“The Lord be with you…”), where two or three are gathered, there Jesus promises to be. The congregations responds with a confession and a fervent wish rolled into one phrase – “And with your Spirit” – acknowledging that the Holy Spirit has been sent by Christ, through His Church, to set aside this man (in his ordination and installation), this pastor, to proclaim to them the Gospel and to pray on their behalf, and so, praying that God would bless their pastor in these tasks.
The Collect of the Day is usually a one sentence prayer which “collects” the main thought of the service of the day, it is an excellent indicator of what the focus of the Holy Gospel reading is to be.
Up to this point we have been speaking to God. Now it is time for God to speak to us. We listen as God speaks to us first in the Old Testament reading, the record of God’s dealings with his ancient people, Israel, as well as the prophetic record of the promises about the coming Savior, Jesus Christ.
Between the Old Testament reading and the Epistle is the Gradual, another of the propers for the day, usually from the Psalms. It is seasonal in nature and gives us time to think about the work of Jesus. It is from a Latin word, gradus, meaning step. The Gradual and Alleluia and Verse were at different times and places in church history combined and then split apart, depending upon the need to move clergy between readings, as well as giving time for the congregation to meditate upon the readings. The practice of singing Psalm verses between readings from Scripture also occurred in Jewish synagogue and Temple worship services from before and to the time of Christ.
The Epistle is taken from the New Testament and contains either doctrinal or ethical content from the apostles. It is instruction. Therefore, in accord with ancient custom, we sit for instruction.
Between the Epistle and the Holy Gospel is the Alleuia and Verse. The Alleluia and Verse serves to honor our Lord Jesus Christ, about whom, and whose own words, we will hear in the Holy Gospel.
We stand out of respect for our Lord at the announcement of the Holy Gospel. We sing two short verses of praise, called Gospel Acclamations, one before, and one after the reading.
The congregation responds to the hearing of the Word of God, and anticipates the Sermon, by speaking or chanting the words of the Nicene Creed. This creed encompasses our faith in all that the Holy Trinity has done for us and for our salvation. It is customary to bow one’s head, kneel, or even genuflect at the words, “And was made man…” in honor of our Lord’s incarnation, the Gospel news that God’s Son took on human flesh, humiliating Himself for our sake, that He would be our Savior. It is also customary to make the sign of the cross at the words, “And the life T of the world to come…” at the end of the Creed.
The Hymn of the Day is designed to give us an opportunity to reflect on the readings and to prepare us to hear the Sermon. The hymn sums up the Gospel reading, tying together the theme of the day found in Introit, Collect, Gradual, Verse, and the three Readings.
The Sermon is the application from the Word of God which has just been read. The pastor usually chooses his text from one of the lessons appointed for the day. Here is the living witness of God to us in our own time and condition.
The Prayer of the Church is designed to include the whole church at large, the nations, those in need, the parish, and special concerns. Here also special intercessions are offered for the sick, the bereaved, the troubled, as well as special thanks for blessings received.
An Offering is received. This Offering is our opportunity to respond with the gifts God has given us in appreciation for his great love in Christ. Our offerings are given so that each person and each person’s neighbor would be able to hear the Gospel in this place, and around the world. These offerings are presented at the altar so that they may be consecrated for use in the outreach of Christ’s kingdom.
3. The Service of the Sacrament
The Offertory begins the second major part of the worship service. There are two choices for this song from the Psalmody, David’s song of repentance (Ps. 51, “Create in me..”), or the Passover liturgy psalm sung by Jesus at His last supper (Ps. 116).
The Service is about to reach a second climax, that of the reception of our Lord’s body and blood. The salutation is again a reminder of the fact that the Pastor is present to serve the people the Gospel, now in the Lord’s Body and Blood for the forgiveness of sins. Therefore, the Preface continues with two other ancient responses: “Lift up your hearts” (Col. 3:1) and “Let us give thanks to the Lord, our God” (Psalm 136). Together, by faith in Christ, we lift our hearts to the Lord and give him thanks. The Proper Preface, which is a long-used text for the particular day or season of the church year, is chanted or said by the pastor. The Proper Preface nicely summarizes the themes of the season.
The congregation responds with the Sanctus: “Holy, holy, holy” – the three-fold song of the angels and archangels and all the saints in heaven, the song of the heavenly throne (Is. 6:3) to the Trinity, the song of the people as they praised our Lord riding into Jerusalem to be their savior on Palm Sunday (Mt. 21:9). This hymn is typically given the most “gusto” by the organist and other musicians. Here, we confess that heaven is meeting earth for our benefit – “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!”
As the congregation stood for the reading of the Gospel in the Service of the Word, out of reverence and respect for hearing our Lord’s words, now the congregation kneels in humble reverence for prayer, and for the Words of our Lord and the wondrous mystery that is the Sacramental Union of our Lord’s Body and Blood in and with the bread and wine.
The congregation and pastor pray together the Our Father. The Our Father is a prayer of close Christian fellowship. It serves also as our table prayer. In the Lord’s Supper, we find the clearest and heavenly answer to the petitions Jesus taught us in the Our Father.
The pastor continues by speaking or chanting the Verba Domini – The Words of our Lord, necessary for the earthly elements to take on the Sacramental Union. The Scriptures teach us that this is the Gospel for us – the Body of Christ, the Blood of Christ, in and with the bread and wine – are given for our forgiveness and salvation.
As the congregation has kneeled out of reverence and respect for the Lord’s presence in His Supper to forgive sins, so also the Pastor takes time to kneel (genuflect) along with the congregation at the consecration of each element.
The pastor speaks the Pax Domini – The Peace of the Lord – from behind the altar, from behind the consecrated elements, to indicate that the peace of God is indeed present in the celebration of this Sacrament – a peace that is beyond our understanding, reconciliation with our Father in heaven.
The congregation responds with a hymn of praise to our Lord Jesus Christ, the true Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). This is called the Agnus Dei, Latin for “Lamb of God.”
It is now time for the communicants to receive the true body and blood of Christ for the forgiveness of their sins and to testify to the oneness of faith which they share with other communicants. During the Distribution the congregation sings hymns appropriate to the celebration of the Sacrament, and to reinforce the theme of the particular Sunday Gospel and Sermon.
It is Lutheran custom to kneel to receive the Sacrament, if possible. Also, it is Lutheran custom to say the “Amen” of faith when the Pastor, Vicar, or Assisting Deacon delivers to you each element:
“P: The true Body of Christ… R: Amen.”
Finally, a good and salutary custom is to make the sign of the holy cross upon receiving each element – confessing once again Christ was present in your Baptism to save you, and is present now in this supper to forgive and strengthen you. We never make a “law” of these practices, rather, they are good ways to confess your faith in Christ and His promises within the Divine Service.
When all communicants have communed, the pastor speaks a Dismissal Blessing on those who have received the true body and blood of their Lord. “The true Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ strengthen and preserve (protect, keep) you in body and soul in the true faith to life everlasting. Depart + in peace.” The sign of the cross may be made by all here in remembering that both Baptism and Supper are the two wondrous ways God has made peace with each person by delivering to each person the peace His Son won for us on Good Friday and Easter.
The communion having ended, the congregation sings the Nunc Dimittis, the Song of Simeon, now Thy servant departs in peace, having seen and tasted by faith our Lord’s saving presence in the Holy Supper. Sometimes, we may sing “Thank the Lord and sing His praise”, a song of praise and thanks for the Sacrament provided in Divine Services I and II.
The pastor or assisting deacon then speaks a Prayer of Thanksgiving to God for all the benefits and blessings received in the Sacrament, and prays also that it will empower those who have received it to fuller discipleship and joy, looking forward to the glory of heaven.
The service then concludes with the Benediction. The Name of the LORD is the beginning and end of the Divine Service. We are now once more marked with this Name with this ancient blessing from the Old Testament, the Aaronic Benediction of Numbers 6:24-26. In this blessing, God favors us with His grace and peace. With the Lord’s Name given us in Holy Baptism we were drawn together at the Invocation. Now with the blessing of His Divine Name, He sends us back into the world, to the places of our various callings to live by the mercy we have received as living sacrifices, to the praise of His glory and the good of our neighbor.
This is Lutheran Worship. It centers in the cross of Jesus Christ. In this service God speaks and gives to us and we speak and give to God. In the Divine Service, Christians participate in the fellowship of the communion of saints, with those who have gone before us and with those yet to come.