An Introductory Essay on the Lutheran Liturgy

The Community Gathered At Word and Meal

When you worship using the Lutheran liturgy, you will worship using forms, gestures and words that are rooted in centuries of tradition. Beyond that, you will use rites and rituals that are really common to many religions and that respond to basic human needs and questions. The most basic of rituals are these:

You may recognize many of these elements in family traditions such as a birthday party. The Meal always involves at least the cake. The notion or story at a birthday party is less pronounced, but we certainly do all know the song. If children are present at a birthday parties, many of the games that they will play will be both Song and Dance.

Now let's look at the communion service as celebrated in the Church. The Meal we recognize in the table and the communion. Story and Song are really the same item, for many of our stories were remembered and transmitted to us through song. Dance, may surprise you, but in the movement of processions or the hand gestures we make (the sign of the cross, the hands of the presiding minister at prayer) we retain the rudiments of dance.

All of these means have been used by peoples of every language, culture and religion to embody their beliefs and values. The Lutheran tradition is no different.

There is one last element that needs to be commented on, and that is the element of play. Any ritual, whether religious or secular, in a church or in the home, is not only playful, in essence, but needs to be playful in spirit. By being playful I do not mean to suggest that the ritual is teasing, less than serious, or mockery. Remember what play was really all about when you were a child and played "house" or "cops and robbers". Play then and now is really all about growing up. It is about getting ready to do something. It is preparation. It is pretending. Children prepare to be adults by playing at adult roles and tasks. Christians prepare to go out into the world by pretending their roles as peacemakers, consolers, missionaries, etc. If we have that understanding of liturgy in our minds, then the rites and rituals will not be as threatening, or seen as useless.

The primary service of the Church is the Eucharist. There are other names for this service. It can be called the Lord's Supper, the Holy Communion, the Mass, the Divine Liturgy, or simply the Service. This liturgy really is two services, each focusing on a source of spiritual growth. I will briefly outline these two services and then discuss them in detail:

The Holy Eucharist

The Liturgy of the Word of God

The Eucharistic Meal

The first of these liturgies, The Liturgy of the Word of God, comes to us from the ancient synagogue service of the Jews. With the fall of Jerusalem in 584 BC and the deportation of people and eventual destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians, a new institution began to assert itself in the Jewish dispersion. This institution did not aim to replace the temple as a ritual center, but it did aim to replace the temple as a cultural center. The synagogue then and now serves as community center, school, place of prayer. It was in the synagogue that Jesus had his primary religious experiences, and it was in the synagogue that he preached and revealed the Gospel. It was also in the synagogue that St. Paul first addressed Jews and Christians living outside of Palestine. The service that nourished these people, and nourishes Christians and Jews today is comprised of readings, psalter and commentary.

Early Christians went to the synagogue first, and then gathered in homes for the second of our two services, The Eucharistic Meal. Here more than just bread and wine were gathered in and enjoyed, but many food offerings that were shared with the whole congregation. St. Paul has a great deal to say about this in I Corinthians. In the midst of this meal, just as in the upper room, thanks is said over bread, which is then shared; and thanks is said over wine, which is then shared.

If you are a "born Lutheran" you may remember another part of the service that doesn't appear above -- The Confession of Sins. This confessional service is the remains of private and individual confession that was made prior to each communion. However, as private confession in the Lutheran Church waned, this mass service of Confession and Absolution took its place. It is really not a part of the communion liturgy.

The Lutheran Liturgy make provision for the confession of sins in either this opening office of confession, or at other times as individuals (the Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday liturgies are examples of this, as well as the offices for Individual Confession and Forgiveness, and Corporate Confession and Forgiveness).

The Liturgy of the Word of God In Detail

The Entrance Rite

In order for the service to begin, we have to enter the building. Most of us do it by actually ascending a set of stairs and entering through the front doors. It is there that the symbols begin. You are met at the door by the Baptismal Font. Were you to do nothing else at this point, you would at least recognize that you entered the Church through your baptism. Some people remember their baptisms in a more physical manner by actually touching the water and then touching themselves with the water.

The entire community enters the church by means of its representatives in the liturgy. A Procession enters the church led by the Cross (Jesus leads us through life), sometimes with Torches (light) or Incense (Prayer). The Book is carried in, held high for all to see. The first of these services will center around this book. There are people in this parade: the assisting ministers, the preacher and the presiding minister. Like a parade on the Fourth of July or Gay Pride Day, this parade symbolizes all of our entrances, all of our community. Bells ring to indicate it is time to stand and greet those who are entering the church, and we turn and face them. Standing is a sign of respect, and you'll notice that we do a great deal of it during the service.

The basic elements of the Entrance into the church are:

The Apostolic Greeting is from the writings of St. Paul. Like most of the liturgy its direct source is the Bible. St. Paul used this greeting in his letters to the churches, so it is an appropriate greeting by the Presiding Minister. The people, however, talk back. They utter the first of many "and also with you." The service is always a dialogue between the leader and the people.

At this point we need to learn two words: Proper and Ordinary. A proper is a part of the service that is particular to a given Sunday or holy day. The ordinary is that part of the service that does not change. The Apostolic Greeting is a part of the ordinary, the Prayer of the Day (or Collect) is a proper.

The Kyrie Intercession is gift from another rich tradition in the Church. Most of our liturgy is in from the Western Rite; that is from the churches of western catholic Christianity. The Eastern Rite is that rite used in Orthodox Churches. Western churches always just sang:

Kyrie eleison Lord, have mercy.

Christe eleison Christ, have mercy.

Kyrie eleison Lord, have mercy

This brief hymn may have been repeated twice or three times, or may have had additional prayers interspersed.

In the Eastern Church, however, this hymn was used as a response to the prayers bid by the Deacon. "For the peace of the whole world, for the well-being of the Church of God..." The intercession reminds us that the liturgy is prayer to God, and that we are a people in the world. The intercession moves quickly from the general to the particular: peace and salvation, the whole world, church and unity, this holy house, and all who worship here. The Kyrie Intercession is a part of the ordinary.

The Hymn of Praise is a part of the ordinary as well, and the Lutheran Liturgy authorizes two choices. One of the choices is "Glory to God in the Highest". It mirrors the hymn sung by the angels as they announced Jesus' birth to the shepherds. You can find this brief text in St. Luke 2. The remainder of the hymn comes to us from the pen of St. Ambrose, an early bishop of Milan, and student of St. Augustine. The other option is "Worthy is Christ." This text is from the book of Revelation, and is especially appropriate during Eastertide.

The Prayer of the Day is our first proper. Each Sunday and holy day has its own set of propers, including a prayer of the day. The prayer summarizes the themes of the service and its readings, and begins with a greeting (Salutation) from the presiding minister: "May God be with you." The response follows: "And also with you." This dialogue of mutual blessing will be seen again in the service. Before each of our prayers we allow a brief moment for people to pray in their hearts before the presiding minister collects their prayers in this prayer for all of us. The Prayer of the Day closes the Entrance Rite.

The Liturgy of the Word of God

Finally, we arrive at the ancient synagogue service of readings. Briefly, it looks like this:

The First Lesson is usually from the Old Testament. I say usually because during the Sundays of Easter, the reading is from the book of Acts. This lesson is usually tied thematically to the Gospel reading for the day. Themes from this reading and the Gospel are usually found in the Prayer for the Day. Some congregations have this lesson told in story form by a story-teller.

The Psalm is a proper as well, and is chosen to reflect the theme of the day. It may be spoken, or more properly sung, since these poems represent the hymnody of ancient Israel.

The Second Lesson is usually from one of the letters of Saint Paul, although other readings from the New Testament may appear as well. These readings are not as thematic as the other two. In fact, sometimes the readings proceed systematically through a section of scripture. So on Sunday 1 the reading is from Chapter 1, verses 1- 10, on Sunday 2, Chapter 1, verses 11-23, and so on.

The Verse is traveling music. It can be a proper, or can be treated as an ordinary part of the service. The verse is sung as the Book, thurifer, crucifer, deacon and subdeacon go the middle of the congregation to proclaim the Gospel. The symbolism will become obvious if you look around at the reading of the Gospel and see all the people clustered and facing the reading from the Book.

The Holy Gospel is reading from one of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). We stand for this reading, as a sign of respect. It is also enhanced with two acclamations, "Glory to you, O God" and "Praise to you, O Christ".

The Sermon follows immediately upon the Gospel. The notion is that the preacher should make some kind of commentary on the Gospel, or on any of the readings, and proclaim it again. The sermon is the first of a series of responses to the readings and the Gospel. The sermon can be preached from the Pulpit, the Lectern or from the aisle.

The Hymn of the Day is a Lutheran innovation. It functions like the other propers, with each Sunday and holy day having its own particular hymn. As the liturgy moved from latin to the vernacular, hymns were some of the first liturgical texts to be set in the language of the people. Some of the earliest hymns were actually parts of the liturgy versified and sung as a hymn (Luther's German Mass). The hymn of the day is a poetic response to the Gospel.

There are three Creeds that can be used in the Liturgy. The Apostles Creed originally stems from the baptismal service. Notice that it revolves around the first person singular pronoun, "I", "I believe." This creed reminds us of our individual response to the Gospel. The Nicene Creed uses the plural pronoun, "We", "We believe". This creed was written to respond to questions about the nature of Jesus Christ. The third creed is the Athanasian Creed, which answers even more questions about the nature of Jesus Christ. It is usually only said on Trinity Sunday.

The Intercessions form the final response to the Gospel, we remember the world around us, particular persons who have asked us for prayer, the world, the Church, those who have died, and other concerns. These prayers are led by the assisting minister.

Finally, the presiding minister blesses us with the Peace of God. We return the favor with an "also with you", and then we greet those around us, friends, enemies, visitors, family, etc. The sermon, creed and intercessions may have pulled us into our individuality. This rite of greeting and of granting peace, pulls us back into the community - a community ready to share the meal.

The Eucharistic Meal In Detail

The Offertory: Just as there is an entrance rite at the beginning of the first of the services, The Liturgy of the Word of God, so there is an entrance rite of sorts as we enter the Eucharistic Meal.

This service begins with the gathering of Offerings. The ushers pass offering plates into which the people place their offerings of money. The organist or choir offers up a piece of music. The offerings of food for the community food basket have already been placed in the basket at the rear of the church. Representatives of the people prepare to bring up the gifts of bread and wine.

All of these gifts are brought to the altar in a small procession called the Offertory Procession while the people or choir sing the Offertory Hymn. The Offertory Hymn can be a proper, or a general offertory is sung.

Finally, after all the gifts have been received at the altar, the assisting minister offers up the Offertory Prayer, which acknowledges God's gifts to us, and our responsibility as stewards of creation.

The Great Thanksgiving: This is one of the most ancient parts of the service. Its roots are in the Passover Meal of Israel and its prayers and blessings over the food, and its themes of remembrance and memorial. Briefly, these are the elements of the Great Thanksgiving:


The minister and people, coming together again as a community to remember, bless, and eat, restates the Dialogue of blessing. Each part of the dialogue conveys what we are about to do:

The Lord be with you. And also with you.

Lift up your hearts. We lift them to the Lord.

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God. It is right to give God thanks and praise.

"The Lord be with you." "And also with you." The community recognizes that what it is about to do is done within the family of God. It is a meal for the baptized. In ancient Greek churches, the deacon would say at this point, "The doors! The doors!" All of those who were not baptized would leave - for this is a meal for those who have died with Christ in baptism.

"Lift up your hearts." "We lift them to the Lord." Now we understand what is going to happen. We are literally going to pray over the gifts, and in the course of praying remember. But it is not just the presiding minister who is praying. It is the whole community that "lifts up its heart."

"Let us give thanks to the Lord our God." "It is right to give God thanks and praise." This last bit of the dialogue repeats and word and concept that we have encountered before, "thanks". This is what we have gathered to do: to give thanks. That is why this liturgy is called the Holy Eucharist - the Holy Thanksgiving. And for what will we thank God? The eucharistic prayer will outline all the things and events for which we give thanks.

After the Dialogue, the presiding minister sings or says the Proper Preface. As the name suggests, this is a proper. Each season of the church year has its own preface. It is a thematic paragraph that reiterates the themes of the season.

The preface also invites us to this service's hymn of praise, the Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy). This hymn makes us understand that the community that is gathered around this table is much larger than the sum of the people gathered in the sanctuary of any individual parish church. It is the whole Church that praises God. It is the Church past, present and future, along with "cherubim, seraphim and the whole heavenly host" who sing this hymn of praise. Incorporated in the hymn is the blessing that the people of Jerusalem sang as Jesus entered the city on Palm Sunday: "Blessed is he who comes in the name of our God. Hosanna in the highest."

The Eucharistic Prayer has been recently restored to the Lutheran Liturgy. It was thrown out like a baby with the bathwater when Luther made his reforms in the early sixteenth century. It was in the revisions of the Common Service in the 1950s and again in the 1970s that restored the prayer. Up to that time the Words of Institution were said without any accompanying prayers. We might take some time to ask "why was it returned?".

In the Words of Institution, Jesus is described as "giving thanks" over the bread in the first part of the Passover Meal, and then later over the cup at the end of the Meal. The giving thanks over the bread and cup, and the remembrance that accompanies the passover meal are the elements that the Eucharistic Prayer hopes to hold up for Christians. The Eucharistic Prayer always begins by remembering what God has done. It always includes a small "Salvation History", which is concluded with the remembrance of the life of Jesus, "who on the night in which he was betrayed..." Someone once said, that were the preaching horrible, and the lessons poorly read or not heard, the Eucharistic Prayer would speak the Gospel loudly and clearly. The people speak a kernel Gospel as they remember the "mystery of faith:" "Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again."

The prayers that follow our remembrance and thanksgiving for what God has done, especially through Jesus, now focus on the present meal and our future. The first of the prayers remembers Jesus' promise to be with us, and asks that Jesus return again, soon. The people respond. "Amen, Come, O Jesus."

The second of the prayers asks that the Holy Spirit come to bless the gifts, and those who have gathered at the meal. The people respond and pray, "Amen, Come, Holy Spirit."

Finally all of these prayers are gathered in the intercessions of our great high priest, Jesus Christ. The people respond with the Acclamation, "Through Christ, with Christ, in Christ..." What better prayer to use to sum up the peoples' prayers around the table than the prayer Jesus taught us, the Lord's Prayer. You may find that Lutheran congregation use one of two versions of the Prayer of Jesus. The first is the ICET (International Consultation on English Texts) translation. The second is the traditional translation using Elizabethan English.

After the Prayer of Jesus, the presiding minister breaks the Bread (the Fraction) and holds up the Bread and Cup and invites all to come to the Meal. "The gifts of God for the people of God!" The proof of the meal is in the eating, and all are invited to come forward. This is called the Communion. As the people come forward and the ministers of the altar receive their communion, the people sing a prayer to Jesus, the Lamb of God. "Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us". In receiving the body and blood of Jesus, we realize that Jesus has done as we have asked. The forgiveness of sins is received in the eating and the drinking.

The Closing Rites: After the Communion, the liturgy comes swiftly to a close. A Post Communion Canticle may be sung. This is a particularly Lutheran innovation. Usually it is Simeon's song "God, let your servant go in peace", although other hymns or canticles may be sung at this point.

The assisting minister offers up a Prayer of thanksgiving for the meal just shared; and after a moment of reflection, the presiding minister blesses the people in the Benediction. A final hymn at the recession is sung as the ministers of the service leave the church. The last words of the service, spoken by the deacon, are words that can serve our coming out and going in all our days: "Go in peace." "Thanks be to God!"

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MTH 10/010/05