Lutheran worship is primarily the proclamation of the gospel in Word and sacrament. As we gather together for worship, God speaks to us in his Word. Through the preaching of his law he crushes us with the stark and painful reminder of our own sin and unworthiness; he causes us to tremble at his holiness and justice; he speaks to us his urgent call to repentance. But in that same time of worship, a gracious God speaks to us words of full and free forgiveness. He points us to Christ and to the cross where his sacrifice paid the price of our sin, removed our guilt, and opened the door to heaven itself. In that same time of worship, we poor miserable sinners kneel side by side and receive the same body and blood that were given and shed for us. We commune with our God and with each other. In that same setting of worship, we witness how the power of the Holy Spirit, working through nothing other than his Word and simple water, creates new life and faith in the hearts of children and adults as they are baptized. And even when we join our voices to praise God in our words and songs, that praise is always focused on what God has done for us in Christ, adding our voices of gospel proclamation to the voice of the shepherd God has called to serve us.
If that is what happens in Lutheran worship, if the proclamation of the gospel and the preaching of Christ crucified is the center of what happens in our churches, then our worship services are not only times when God is nourishing the faith of believers; worship services also become a time and place where true evangelism and outreach take place. It is in that kind of Christ-centered and cross-focused worship setting that people hear not what they want to hear, but what they need to hear. It is then that people receive something effective and lasting—not the passing emotional high that soon fades outside the church doors, not the hollow recipes for happiness, worldly success, or outwardly godly living.
With the recent growing interest in Evangelical circles of liturgical practices from the larger Christian church (as evidenced, for example, by the Nelson’s Ancient Practices series of which this volume is part or the publication of Tyndale’s Mosaic NLT Bible), Sister Joan Chittister’s book The Liturgical Year provides an excellent introduction to the history, practice, and significance of the Christian liturgical year. As she points out early on in this work, “The liturgical year is one of the teaching dimensions of the church. It is a lesson in life.” With this understanding in mind, she proceeds to discuss the development through history of the liturgical calendar and how its observance can be used as a teaching tool to challenge us to increasingly model our lives on the life and walk of Christ.
After exploring these preliminary items, Sr. Chittister takes the bulk of her book to look in some detail at each of the major seasons and holidays in the liturgical year–all of which, of course, center on the primary celebration of Christianity, Easter. More than just describing the historical facts surrounding each church season or feast, Sr. Chittister continually challenges us, by God’s grace, to be truly changed by our annual journey through the life of Christ–transformed through our worship that our lives might more clearly mirror our Savior’s. Two chapters at the end of the book on saints and Marian devotion will meet with resistance from those of us in Protestantism. While I certainly do not agree with Roman Catholic theology on these points, I did find the discussion helpful if only to better understand the teaching of the church in these areas.
In sum, for those unfamiliar with the liturgical calendar, The Liturgical Year will provide a welcome introduction to its riches. For those whose observance of the church calendar may have devolved into mere rote, this book can provide a re-energizing and necessary Christocentric focus to our worship.
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This Maundy Thursday we sang a new Communion hymn titled, “What Is This Bread?” (LSB 629). They copyright on the song is 1991, which is very new in our LCMS circle. To put it into perspective a bit for some of you uber-contemporary folks, this hymn is across the page from a hymn by Thomas Aquinas dated in the late 13th century. Anyway, this is a great hymn, with a beautiful tune and lyrics that teach a wonderfully rich, unashamedly Lutheran theology of the Lord’s Supper:
What Is This Bread?
What is this bread?
Christ’s body risen from the dead:
This bread we break,
This life we take,
Was crushed to pay for our release.
O taste and see–the Lord is peace.
What is this wine?
The blood of Jesus shed for mine;
The cup of grace
Brings His embrace
Of life and love until I sing!
O taste and see–the Lord is King.
So who am I,
That I should live and He should die
Under the rod?
My God, my God,
Why have You not forsaken me?
O taste and see–the Lord is free.
Yet is God here?
Oh, yes! By Word and promise clear,
In mouth and soul
He makes us whole–
Christ, truly present in this meal.
O taste and see–the Lord is real.
Is this for me?
I am forgiven and set free!
I do believe
That I receive
His very body and His blood.
O taste and see–the Lord is good.
There are many wonderfully rich truths taught in this short hymn. In fact, one could use it as a great catachetical tool to teach the basics of a Lutheran understanding of the sacrament.
As we were taking Holy Communion on Maundy Thursday evening, however, I was struck by a line in the third verse, “My God, my God, why have You not forsaken me?” It is a subtle twist on Jesus’ words from the cross and Psalm 22…and it echoes the recurring sentiment of my sinful heart.
There is no direct reply in the verses that follow, which is fine, because the sin-burdened heavy heart does not need a theological treatise on God’s presence with us. What follows is better–the promises of God, through the Word, that he is both ever-present with us and that we are forgiven and freed from our sins. Amen. Thanks be to God!
In many liturgical Christian circles, the rites of Morning Prayer or Matins often begin with these words from Psalm 51:
O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
As innocent as this invocation may sound, Luther suggests that there is quite a bit more to David’s request than may first meet the eye. He writes:
By asking the Lord to open his lips, David showed how difficult it is to offer thanks to God. This is something God demands of us (Ps 50.14). Talking about the Lord and thanking him publicly require an extreme amount of courage and strength, because the devil is constantly trying to stop us from doing this. If we could see all of Satan’s traps, we would know why David prayed for the Spirit’s strength and asked the Lord himself to open David’s lips. He wanted to tell the devil, the world, kings, princes, and everyone about the Lord.
Many things can keep our lips shut: the fear of danger, the hope of gaining something, or even the advice of friends. The devil uses these ways to stop us fromoffering thanks to God, as I have often experienced in my life. And yet, at important times, when God’s honor was threatened, God stood by me and opened my mouth in spite of the obstacles…
Whenever Scripture talks about praising God publicly, it’s talking about something extremely dangerous. This is because announcing his praise is nothing other than opposing the devil, the world, our own sinful nature, and everything evil. For how can you praise God without first declaring that the world is guilty and condemned? All who condemn the world are asking to be hated and put themselves in a very dangerous situation.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional / LW 12:393)
While many will no doubt agree that praising God publicly is sometimes risky, I confess that I have never thought about praising God in this manner…never made the link betweeen my praise of God being an explicit condemnation of the world, etc. And yet, as usual, I think Luther got it right here. For us to open our lips to speak of Christ is to ally ourselves with him and his word, which is first a condemnation of the world (Law) before it is ever a consolation to the convicted (Gospel).
It goes without saying that such an alliance, at all times and in all places, is a dangerous business indeed!
Merciful and everlasting Father, You did not spare Your own Son but delivered Him up for us all that he might bear our sins on the cross. Grant that our hearts may be so fixed with steadfast faith in our Savior that we may not fear the power of any adversaries; though Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.