Why We Do What We Do
When We Worship
“Go in peace! Serve the Lord!
Thanks be to God.”
We speak these words boldly and confidently at the end of our worship each Sunday! Have you ever thought about why?
They represent what we have received as we have gathered here to worship God. Each Sunday we surround ourselves with the divine Word, hearing it, singing it, speaking it, even eating it so that, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we may be refreshed and renewed in our faith: the faith that is made possible through the grace of God in Jesus Christ…the faith that saves us! As we read in Paul’s letter to the Romans, “Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God!”
Peace with God is our goal in worship: to enter into God’s peace. This is not a peace that simply provides a pleasant sensation of calm or a lack of tension or conflict. It is a peace that comes from being reconciled with God through Jesus Christ. This reconciliation exists because, thanks to Christ, our sin is no longer an obstacle in our relationship with God and with it we have full access to God’s steadfast love and abundant gifts for us. When we finish our time of worship we have experienced a peace with God that refreshes, renews and invigorates. We go in peace, empowered to serve the Lord! What we do in worship works God’s peace in us.
Over the next few months we are going to take time each Sunday to talk about the What’s, the Why’s, and the Wherefore’s of the way in which we worship. This series entitled “Why We Do What We Do When We Worship!” will include temple talks designed to enrich our understanding of our worship and help those who are relatively new to our tradition of worship develop an appreciation for it. These talks will be accompanied by an insert in the bulletin so that information can be shared or kept for future reference. Each insert will include both the day’s topic and the topic of the previous Sunday so that those who may have missed a Sunday can catch up.
Confession and Forgiveness
One of the ways we Lutherans prepare ourselves for worship is to join together in confessing (or “repenting”) our sins. We do this because the Bible tells us that sin is the great threat to our relationship with God and with one another. In confession we recognize that reality, acknowledge our sin, and seek the assurance of forgiveness that Jesus won for us on the cross.
In 1 John 1:8-9 we read, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, [God] who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
In John’s gospel (20:22-23) we hear Jesus granting the authority to forgive sin to his disciples through the power of the Holy Spirit. “[Jesus] breathed on [the disciples] and said to them, ‘receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’ ”
Some other passages that speak of the importance of answering God’s call to repentance are: Psalm 103:2-3; Psalm 136:1; Psalm 25:4; John 8:34; Matt. 22:27-39.
Confessing our sin returns us to our baptism, when we first received God’s promise of forgiveness and were named and claimed as children of the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As we make our confession together before God, we are reminded of who we are and whose we are. We are turned back toward God and away from the influence of the world. We recall that our lives are joined to Jesus and we are opened up to the work of the Spirit who refreshes and renews us in our faith.
Preparing for worship with Confession and Forgiveness is not a requirement or a law. We do this because these are spiritual gifts that ground us in the overflowing grace and mercy of God. The only reason we can confidently stand before God, singing his praises and receiving his gifts, is the forgiveness and new life that is ours in Jesus Christ. So, what better way to prepare for worship?
The Word of God is central to our worship. We speak the Word. We sing the Word. We listen to the Word. We proclaim the Word. We consume the Word.
Each part of our worship is either taken word for word from the Holy Bible or is based upon the Bible.
A good example of this is the hymns or songs we sing. We usually prepare for worship with confession and forgiveness, but we always begin our worship with song. Music is a special gift from God that speaks to our spirits. When we put music together with the Word of God, we quickly discover why it is that the song of the church is one of our most treasured possessions.
Our hymn book contains an amazing collection of songs gathered from a wide variety of Christian traditions and cultures. All were written by Christians out of their faith experience and are their witness to us and our faith. There are some hymns that are ancient and some that are very contemporary. There are hymns that suit the different seasons and festivals of the church year. Some hymns describe the experience of faith. Some hymns are prayers sung to God. There are hymns for the morning and hymns for the evening. There are hymns to be sung at the beginning of worship, hymns for baptism, hymns for communion and hymns for singing at the end of our worship. There are hymns of praise, hymns of joy, hymns of hope, hymns of and peace. Some hymns tell a sacred story or speak of the church’s mission. Some are joyful, some are somber. Some challenge and some comfort. Some are long and some are short. Some we know and some we don’t. All inspire!
We encourage everyone to join in singing the hymns of the church. If you don’t know a hymn, use the time to read the words. There is always a message to be found there: a word that will feed, refresh and renew your spirit.
The greeting between the minister who is leading or presiding over the service and the congregation was first used by the apostle Paul to greet the churches. That is why it is often referred to as “The Apostolic Greeting”. It comes from the Second Letter to the Corinthians (13:13). With these words Paul was conveying the greetings of all the other churches to the Christians at Corinth. He also encouraged the Corinthians to greet each other with peace and love. For this reason, we use it to mark the beginning of the service.
The minister greets the people gathered for worship and the people return the greeting. Remembering that the word of God is a living word full of grace and truth, we know that in speaking these words to one another, the very grace, love, and communion of God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) is granted to all.
As we begin our worship we are united in the very triune life of God. The Holy Spirit gathers us into communion around the grace of Jesus Christ and the love of God which we receive through word and sacrament.
The time of gathering, otherwise known as the Entrance Rite, continues with an ancient prayer called a litany. A litany is a prayer form where a request or petition is made by a worship leader and the congregation responds. This particular litany is called simply “The Kyrie”. Kyrie is a Greek word that means “Lord” and when joined with the Greek word “eleison” (have mercy) provides the response in this litany, “Kyrie eleison” or “Lord, have mercy”.
The Kyrie is actually an early Greek Christian hymn sung to Christ. It is a plea and a prayer for the gathered assembly and for the whole world. Several forms exist. The one we are currently using includes a cry for mercy, peace, and salvation.
The Kyrie is not included in our worship every Sunday. Because of its subject matter it is especially fitting to use the Kyrie during the church seasons of Advent and Lent. Also, the Kyrie is often used with the Hymn of Praise on festival Sundays.
The Bible passages on which this ancient hymn/litany is based are: Matthew 9:27; 15:22; 20:30-31, and Luke 17:13.
The Canticle of Praise
The portion of our worship service which we call the Gathering or Entrance Rite can include an opening hymn, the Greeting, the Kyrie, and a Canticle of Praise.
Otherwise known as the “Hymn of Praise”, the Canticle of Praise expresses the joyful and celebrative nature of our gathering. There are two canticles of praise in our worship service: “Glory to God” and “This is the Feast”.
“Glory to God” is based on Luke’s account of the angels’ response to the birth of Christ (2:14). It is appropriate for use most of the year, and especially during the Christmas season, on the Baptism of our Lord, the Transfiguration of our Lord and Holy Trinity Sunday.
“This is the Feast” is the newer of the two canticles of praise. It was introduced in the 1970’s with the publication of our last service book and hymnal, the Lutheran Book of Worship. This hymn of praise is drawn from Isaiah 25 and the Book of Revelation (5:12f). It is a summation of Jesus’ victory over sin and death. We use it especially during the Easter season, on some lesser festival days, and on All Saints Sunday.
The Canticle of Praise is not used during the preparatory seasons of Advent (for Christmas) and Lent (for Easter).
The Prayer of the Day
This prayer is the seam between the Gathering or Entrance portion of our worship and the service of the Word. It summaries what has gone before and leads us into the scripture readings for the day. This prayer used to be called “the Collect” because it “collects” us together in prayer before God and prepares us to hear God’s message for us from the Bible.
The Prayer of the Day is a classic prayer in that it follows a simple pattern of prayer used by the church throughout the centuries. God is addressed, either simply or with an image such as, “O God, our shepherd”. Then there is a sentence that acknowledges and thanks God for what God has done, especially what God has done in Christ: specifically those acts of God to which the scriptures of the day will bear witness. Then the prayer makes a direct request or petition, often drawing on the theme and promises found in the day’s readings. The prayer ends either in the name of Jesus (with the words, “through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord”) or in the name of the Holy Trinity (using the words, “through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever”). In other words, this prayer that sets forth the biblical theme of the day is prayed according to the instruction of Jesus. We pray to our heavenly Father, in the name of the Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Prayer of the Day is prayed by the presiding minister and it is always used whether the other parts of the “Gathering” or “Entrance Rite” are used or not. As we gather for worship this prayer places us before our God and, in prayer, leads us into God’s word for us that day.
The First Lesson
Now that we have gathered together we begin to hear the word, the first reason for our gathering.
The public reading of the Holy Scriptures is an indispensible part of our worship. It is the basis for our proclamation of the Good News of God’s plan of salvation through Jesus Christ for all people.
The first reading is from the Old Testament, otherwise known as the Hebrew Scriptures. The first reading always comes from the Old Testament except during the Easter season when the first lessons are taken from the New Testament book of Acts. The first lesson usually relates to the Gospel reading for the day.
The selection of readings used in our worship is based upon a schedule of lessons called a “lectionary”. The lectionary we use is one commonly used by many Christian communities and is called the Revised Common Lectionary. Its three-year cycle of readings makes it possible for us to hear read at worship a large portion of the Old Testament, a great deal of the New Testament letters, and large amounts of all four Gospels.
We Lutherans have always centered our worship on the word of God as it comes to us in the Holy Scriptures. We consider ourselves “People of the Book”. Therefore, when we hear announced, “The first reading is from…..” our attention is directed toward hearing the word that God has for us, as a community of believers, that day. When the lesson is ended with the concluding announcement, “The Word of the Lord.” we respond with thanksgiving and awe using the words, “Thanks be to God.”
The biblical book of Psalms is the hymnal of ancient Israel. Many of the psalms were sung as a part of worship in the temple. Others were sung by pilgrims as they journeyed to Jerusalem. Still others were sung as a part of special occasions involving Israel’s royalty. The psalms range from songs of thanksgiving to wisdom songs to songs that are very personal expressions of faith. The beauty and spiritual depth of the psalms make them a valuable addition to our worship life. When we sing or speak the psalm each Sunday we are joining our praises with the praises of God’s people from ancient Israel, continued through Jesus and his disciples, and handed down to us today.
It is appropriate to respond to the reading of the first lesson from the Old Testament with words from the Old Testament’s song book. The psalms contain the highest joys and the deepest laments of the human soul, laid out before the God of all. As we sing or speak them together these ancient words nourish our faith in and our praise of our God who is the source of our help, our hope, and our salvation.
The singing or speaking of the psalm can be done in different ways. The psalm can be sung or spoken responsively, either by half verse or full verse. This responsive singing or reading can be done between the choir and the congregation or between a cantor/lector and the congregation. Also, the psalm can be sung or spoken in unison. Another alternative practice is to sing a hymn that is based upon the psalm of the day, as there are a number of hymns that are based on the psalms. While speaking the psalm is acceptable, it is preferable that we sing it. After all, these passages come from the Bible’s song book and were originally meant to be sung.
The Second Lesson
The second lesson follows the psalm and contains readings from the letters of the New Testament. Another word for the “letters” is “epistles”. There are twenty-one letters included in the New Testament. These epistles connect us with the life of the earliest believers by bringing to us letters that were circulated among the young churches and were meant to be read aloud when they met for worship.
Thirteen of the 21 letters of the New Testament contain the witness of the apostle Paul as he ministered to the early Christians throughout the Mediterranean area from Jerusalem to Rome. These epistles are especially important to us as they contain the early church’s understanding of such basic faith teachings as salvation by grace through faith and the cross of Christ as the power of God over sin death and the devil.
Over the three year cycle of readings included in our lectionary we hear God’s word as it comes to us from most of the letters (Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Philippians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, Ephesians, James, Hebrews, Galatians, Colossians, Philemon, 1 & 2 Timothy). During the season of Easter we read from those letters that contain ancient celebrations of the resurrection: 1 John, 1 Peter, and the book of Revelation (the last book of the New Testament which is not considered one of the epistles).
As we end the second reading we hear once again the acclamation, “The word of the Lord!” and we respond, “Thanks be to God.” This exchange between the reader and the congregation is in praise of God who is the giver of the word, alive in the churches.
The Holy Gospel
The gospel passage read in our worship stands for Jesus Christ in our midst. It is a high point of our celebration, therefore we stand because it is the story of Jesus Christ, the living word of God. As we get to our feet we sing a word of praise called an acclamation. The most basic word of praise, “alleluia”, begins the acclamation followed by a Bible verse and ends with more alleluias. The only exception to this is the acclamation used during the season of Lent when a more somber tone is set and the alleluias are eliminated from our worship until we sing them again at the great celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. Once the gospel is announced we say or even shout, “Glory to you, O Lord.” Again, after the reading has ended we say or shout, “Praise to you, O Christ.” We speak these words with great joy for we are literally greeting Christ as he comes to us here in words.
The minister who is preaching reads the gospel for the day. While the minister can and does preach from more of the lessons than just the gospel, we hold that the heart of all scripture is Jesus Christ, his cross, his resurrection and the faith that is through him. The preacher is expected to hold this gospel message before the people whether the sermon is based on some or all of the readings.
The gospel reading comes from one of the four gospel books of the New Testament. The Gospel of John is read in all three years of the cycle of readings: on Christmas, during Epiphany, during much of Lent, Holy Week, Easter and during the summer months of year 2. The gospel is taken from Matthew the first year, Mark the second year, and Luke the third year of the lectionary’s three year cycle. Actually the yearly cycle is not numbered but lettered: Year A, Year B and Year C.
What is great about this structure for our gospel readings is that, as we worship together as the people of God in Christ Jesus, we hear most the four Gospels of Jesus Christ read every three years!
Preaching follows the reading of the Gospel. It is never omitted although it can take different forms: a sermon, a dialogue, a drama, etc. It is one of the most important centers of the service. In proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ the preacher speaks of our need for God’s grace. Using the readings from Scripture for the day, the preacher preaches the law – that is, the truth about our sin, failure, and death. Preaching is a time for truth-telling about our condition as human beings: the problems, pain, suffering, brokenness, and wrong headedness that afflict us on a daily basis.
But it is always the preacher’s task to give the very grace we need. Because of the presence of Jesus Christ in the word and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the preacher doesn’t simply speak the words of forgiveness, hope and new life but he/she actually forgives sins and gives the possibility of hope and life. The preacher proclaims our need for God’s grace and offers that grace, so that we may again come to trust in God with our lives – come to faith – and be equipped in faith to turn to our neighbors with service, witness and love. The word of God comforts the afflicted and challenges and disturbs the comfortable.
There are many styles of preaching and many diverse practices among congregations. Some preachers stand at the place of the readings to demonstrate that preaching is based on the word of God and that God’s mercy is the focus. Other preachers chose to stand in the aisle in the midst of the congregation to demonstrate that the good news has indeed come into the midst of the community. However, the focus should always be on God’s saving grace and not the style of the preacher.
The sermon should be followed with a period of silence for reflection. This gives hearers the opportunity to process the proclamation they’ve just received and to let the Holy Spirit move them.
The Hymn of the Day
The Hymn of the Day is usually the second hymn sung by the congregation during the worship service. It is actually the central hymn of the service for it reflects the biblical message for the day. This hymn follows the preaching of the sermon and is the congregation’s opportunity to join in the proclamation of God’s word for that Sunday while, at the same time, responding to the message that was just proclaimed. In other words, the congregation has just heard God’s word read and preached and now joins its voice in proclaiming the good news.
The Hymn of the Day is just that. It is carefully chosen to express God’s word for that particular Sunday and may reflect the Sunday’s place in the church’s cycle of seasons. If only one hymn is to be sung during the service, it would be this hymn. That’s how important this hymn is in our worship.
The use of a Hymn of the Day is very much a Lutheran tradition. The founding father of our faith tradition, Martin Luther, wanted the people in the pews to take part in singing the word of God at worship (and not just leave it to the choir!). He promoted the use of a central hymn and was a major contributor to producing hymns in the language of the people.
An example of a Hymn of the Day chosen to reflect the word of God for a particular Sunday would be Hymn # 365 Jesus Christ Is Risen Today as the central hymn on Easter Sunday.
A wonderful way to prepare for the day’s worship is to take the time before the service begins to turn to the Hymn of the Day and meditate on the hymn’s words. The message conveyed by those words will be echoed in the Bible readings, sermon and other music of the service.
The preaching of the word of God is intended to lead to faith, and we respond by singing that faith in the hymn of the day. We also respond with a confession of the faith that unites us, our belief in the Holy Trinity.
Our confession of faith is made using one of the creeds of the church. There are three creeds that we use in our worship: the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. They are called ecumenical creeds because they were agreed upon and are accepted as true statements of the faith by the Church.
The creeds summarize our understanding of the name and nature of our God. There is one God in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The Apostles’ Creed is the shortest and the oldest of the creeds. It is the creed used at baptism and confirmation. We use the Apostles’ Creed during the season of Lent because that is the traditional season for preparing candidates for baptism. It is also used on non-festival Sundays in the seasons of Epiphany and Pentecost. If green is the color used at worship, we will be using the Apostles’ Creed.
The Nicene Creed is traditionally used during the festival seasons of Advent, Christmas, Easter and on major festival days like Epiphany. We follow the tradition of using the Athanasian Creed (the longest of the three creeds) only on Holy Trinity Sunday.
Using the creed in our worship is considered optional. However, we usually include it because it plays an important role, calling us to respond to the saving word by affirming the faith in which we were baptized. The creeds also correspond to the Trinitarian character of our worship. The Holy Spirit gathers us here into the word and presence of Jesus Christ, bringing us to stand in faith before the One who sent Jesus, the One called “the Father.”
The Prayers of Intercession
If the Bible readings and the sermon work together to bring us to a renewed trust in God, and we then express our faith by singing a hymn and confessing our belief in the words of the creed, we now exercise our renewed faith by praying for the needs of the world.
This means that we stand before God on behalf of others. We do not focus on ourselves because we trust our Lord’s promise to take care of us! Instead we pray for all those people in need and for the needs of the whole creation. As the apostle Paul writes in his first letter to Timothy, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings be made for everyone.” (2:1)
The prayers are in the form of petitions. The petitions are designed to include all people but should also be specific. For instance, we pray for leaders throughout the world and especially for those involved in the current peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians, that a just settlement may be found that will bring peace to that region of our world. Or, we pray for the church universal, our bishops, our pastors and our sister PLUM congregations that the Holy Spirit may empower their witness in their communities.
These prayers are not to be used for parish announcements, political statements or mini sermons. Through these petitions we are to prayerfully exercise our faith that God answers prayer and God calls us to pray for others. The prayers are led by the Assisting Minister and concluded by the Pastor. They begin with a general call to prayer. Each petition ends with a bid such as “Lord, in your mercy,” and a congregational response, “hear our prayer” or a similar response.
Intercessory praying by a community of believers is a remarkable and often rare thing. It is both a responsibility and a real treasure of our Christian tradition.
The Prayers of Intercession are followed by the exchange of peace. When Jesus spoke to his disciples on the night before his death he promised them, “My peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.” (John 14:27) After his resurrection, Jesus greeted his disciples with the words, “Peace be with you”. (Luke 24:36) The peace we share at worship is the gift of our risen Lord: that “peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, which will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 4:7) Therefore, when we exchange the peace we speak of this gift to one another with the words, “The peace of Christ (or ‘the Lord’) be with you always” or “Christ’s peace be with you”
This greeting is both a proclamation and a prayer. The peace of the risen Christ is the answer to our prayer, God’s gift to us all. It concludes the Prayers of Intercession acting as a kind of seal, a sign that we are serious about our praying as if we were saying, “O God, help the world with the very peace and mutual forgiveness we are trying to show here.”
The exchange of peace is a ministry of grace we give to each other. It is far greater than a friendly handshake, an embrace, a kiss or a moment of informality. It is not a time for casual conversation. We are sharing what Christ has first given us. On the cross he reconciled the world to God and opened the door for us to be reconciled with each other. It is as if each of us becomes the risen Christ to our neighbor, offering the gift of peace that comes with an end to the division and conflict brought on by sin, death and the devil.
The peace also serves as a seam in our worship service. After receiving the gift of reconciliation we are ready to approach the Lord’s Table. The sharing of Christ’s peace serves as the conclusion to the service of the Word and the transition to the service of Holy Communion.
As we finish sharing the peace the congregation is seated. Now two things happen at the same time. The gifts of the people are collected for the mission of the church and the table is prepared for the celebration of communion.
This is the time during our worship when we celebrate and share the good things that God has given us. As our response to God’s goodness, we offer our gifts and our very lives to him.
Our offering can include food collected for families in need and the bread and wine for communion along with our monetary gifts. While the offering is collected a musical “offering” takes place whether it is a choral anthem, a hymn or an instrumental piece. Also, during this time the Lord’s Table (the altar) is set for communion.
Once the collection has been gathered, we stand, presenting ourselves before God as well as what we have given. As the gifts are brought forward we join in the offertory hymn and we pray, offering “ourselves, our time and our possessions” to God in service to his holy name.
The Great Thanksgiving
With the offering presented and the altar set we begin what is called “the Great Thanksgiving”. This portion of the communion liturgy includes the Dialogue, the Preface, the Sanctus (Holy, holy, holy), the Eucharistic Prayer or Thanksgiving and the Lord’s Prayer.
The Dialogue is one of the most ancient and widespread texts in Christian use and consists of three exchanges.
The first is a salutation or greeting that is exchanged between the presiding minister and the congregation. While it’s like the apostolic greeting before the Prayer of the Day, this greeting is done using simpler words.
Pastor: "The Lord be with you."
Congregation: "And also with you."
By proclaiming the presence of Christ to each other the very grounds upon which we can continue with the Lord’s Supper is established and the minister is literally invited by the congregation to be their presider at this holy meal.
The minister then invites the people to “lift up” their hearts. In other words, the people are to place their hearts where God is. The response of the congregation is actually a gentle correction: “our hearts are there where the risen Christ is” – the “Lord” of these first two exchanges being the risen Lord. Because of Christ, present here, we can be with God and that is “up” enough for us!
Only then are we all invited to give thanks to God and we boldly answer that it is right to do so. We have nothing but thanks to bring as we stand with Christ enlivened by the Holy Spirit.
“It is indeed right, our duty and our joy, that we should at all times and in all places give thanks and praise to you almighty and merciful God, through our Savior, Jesus Christ…”
The dialogue leads us directly into an extended praise of the Father. Known as the preface this proclamation is intoned or spoken by the presiding minister. The Lutheran Book of Worship includes fourteen prefaces each reflecting the theme of a different season or festival of the church year.
The term “preface” as it is used here does not mean a short essay describing what is to come, like the preface of a book. It is the beginning of the thanksgiving at the Lord’s Table. In the preface we begin to publicly proclaim
the merciful and saving acts of God. The preface voices our thanksgiving to God through Jesus Christ, with an initial recounting of the reasons for doing so.
The preface is followed by the Sanctus or “Holy, holy, holy.” It is phrased at the end to introduce the Sanctus. In the preface our worship is joined with that of the universal church and the whole company of heaven!
“And so with all the choirs of angels, with the church on earth and the hosts of heaven, we praise your name
and join their unending hymn:”
The great thanksgiving continues with the “Sanctus” otherwise known as the “Holy, holy, holy”. This hymn joins our thanksgiving to the praises of the angels, the cosmos, and the whole church of every time and every place.
The words of this hymn are biblical. The most obvious reference is to the Old Testament prophet Isaiah’s vision of God in Isaiah, chapter 6. “Holy, holy, holy” is the cry of the seraphim before the throne of God, clearly naming God as the Thrice Holy One or the Triune God. There is also reference here to the four living creatures of Revelation, chapter 4. This table around which we are about to gather literally has a cosmic location, before the face of God.
To the cries of the seraphim we add the words of Psalm 118 used to greet Jesus when he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday (Mark 11:9-10). “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” The awesome God remains awesome and mighty but Jesus Christ comes in God’s name with mercy and self-giving and, with these words, we proclaim his coming. This is why we can call upon him to save us as we sing “Hosanna in the highest!” which means “Save now, O high God, save us, save all things!”
Singing this hymn of thanksgiving together, with one voice, unifies us as the body of Christ with the saints of every time and every place and with the whole heavenly host. This song surrounds the preparation of the Lord’s table and expresses in sacred words the promise that in this meal, we are in the presence of the living God as we meet our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ in the bread and wine.
The great thanksgiving continues after the singing of the “Holy, Holy, Holy” (“Sanctus”) with what’s referred to as the “thanksgiving at the table”. This element contains one of two options: the Eucharistic prayer or the words of institution.
To properly understand the development of these options, it is important to remember that our Lutheran worship developed from the Latin mass of the Roman Catholic tradition. Changes to the liturgy in keeping with the principles of the Reformation were made by Martin Luther himself. While his suggested changes formed the basis for the liturgical practices of succeeding generations, Luther insisted that his work should be set aside if anyone could propose something better.
That history set the stage for the development of a variety of Lutheran practices concerning that portion of the great thanksgiving known as the “thanksgiving at table”.
Originally, Luther eliminated the Eucharistic prayer from the “thanksgiving at table” because of its emphasis on the consecration of the bread and the wine as a sacrificial act, as if the Lord’s Supper was something we were giving to God rather than the other way around. As Lutheran worship practices developed, ways were found to pray this prayer without that sacrificial language. Instead the emphasis now is in placing the words of institution within the context of a biblically-based, gospel-centered prayer at the table of the Lord.
Next week’s insert will take a closer look at the first of the two options for the “thanksgiving at table”, the Eucharistic prayer.
The great thanksgiving continues after the singing of the “Holy, Holy, Holy” (“Sanctus”) with what is referred to as the “thanksgiving at the table”. The first option for the thanksgiving at the table that stands firmly within Lutheran tradition is the “Eucharistic Prayer”.
While Martin Luther did originally eliminate this prayer from the thanksgiving at table because of its sacramental language, the prayer was reinstated using an evangelical (biblically based) form of the historic prayer which includes the proclamation of the words of institution.
The Eucharistic prayer is first and foremost a continuation of our praise of God, the Father, that includes the history of salvation from Creation through Christ’s second coming. The prayer will often include the following elements: a specific remembrance of the sending of Christ, the narrative that surrounds the words of institution, the remembrance of our Lord’s life, death and resurrection, the anticipation of the fulfillment of Christ’s work at his promised return, and the invocation of the Holy Spirit (who will make this meal effective for us).
This prayer of thanksgiving is both a public proclamation of what God has done and a humble prayer, begging God for daily bread for all the world. It is prayed by believers who are confidently dependent on God’s promises. The Eucharistic prayer is spoken before God and to God, in thanksgiving and in confession of our need and of God’s faithfulness.
The second option for giving thanks at the Lord’s Table is the use of the Words of Institution without the Eucharistic prayer.
Martin Luther originally eliminated the Eucharistic prayer from the congregation’s thanksgiving at table because of its sacramental language. As he revised the order of worship to reflect reformation theological concerns he produced two Orders: a Latin and a German Mass. In these Orders he solved the problem of the sacramental language in the Eucharistic prayer by leaving only the bare words of scripture, a solution he did not consider absolute.
In the night in which he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus took bread, and gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to his disciples saying: Take and eat; this is my body, given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.
Again after supper, he took the cup, gave thanks, and gave it for all to drink, saying: This cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sin. Do this in remembrance of me.
These are the “Words of Institution” or the “bare Verba” and are taken from Jesus’ words at the Last Supper (as recorded in Matthew 26, Mark 14, Luke 22, and I Corinthians 11). Luther suggested that these “words of blessing” be sung. This continues to be suggested so as to emphasize the spirit of proclamation and praise. According to Lutheran understanding, these words alone are not “the moment of consecration” but rather the Holy Communion is consecrated by the Word of God and prayer (1 Timothy 4:5). The real presence of Jesus in the bread and the wine (the consecration) results from the whole action of prayer, praise, proclamation and thanksgiving included in “the Great Thanksgiving”.
We began the Great Thanksgiving by joining together in the Dialog and now we end this portion of our liturgy by praying together the Lord’s Prayer.
When asked by his disciples to teach them to pray, Jesus said, “Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven…” (Matthew 6:9-13). How fitting it is for us to finish our preparation for our Lord’s Supper by praying the prayer that Jesus taught us: the preeminent prayer of Christians with its petitions for forgiveness and daily bread. Here, this familiar and beloved prayer becomes the table-prayer of the church.
To distinguish this prayer’s use at the table of our Lord from the many other ways it is used it may be sung. This option gives the prayer a special solemnity and joyfulness as we eagerly anticipate meeting our Lord Jesus in the bread and the wine of his table.
Following the Lord’s Prayer the service proceeds with the meal. The canticle “Lamb of God” (or the “Agnus Dei”) is sung as the congregation prepares to come forward to the communion rail to receive our Lord’s Supper. This canticle echoes the biblical passages John 1:29 and Revelation 5:6ff, both of which name Jesus, the one giving himself away at this table, as the true Lamb. As we sing this song together we are acknowledging that we will be meeting our Lord in, with and under the bread and the wine of his table and in doing so we will receive the forgiveness of our sins and experience the peace of Christ that is ours as we encounter his saving grace.
Additional singing takes place during the distribution as a means of helping us focus as a community during this time of movement and activity.
Hymns sung during communion often speak of the significance of this meal for the life of believers and the life of the community of faith. They may be seasonal or old favorites of the congregation. Often a few are selected that are easy to memorize so that they can be sung even as people wait to communion, pray, or listen as they commune.
Also, at this time the pastor may invite the congregation to the table with a simple invitation either based upon the biblical texts Psalm 34:8 or Luke 14:17 or on one in the tradition of the congregation.
As we come forward to the Lord’s Table we do so reverently and joyfully for there we are promised we will meet our Lord in the bread and the wine.
As we heard in the words at table Jesus said, “This is my body…This is my blood”. He did not say, “This bread represents my body” or “This cup represents my blood.” Therefore we believe in the “real presence”: that Jesus is present in, with and under the form of the bread and wine albeit in a mysterious way.
In receiving these elements we trust that we are receiving the gifts of grace won for us by Christ: the forgiveness of our sins, new life and salvation.
There are a variety of ways in which the distribution of communion may take place often depending on a congregation’s tradition and the physical layout of the worship space.
It is customary in most congregations to gather around the altar at the communion rail. Some may stand, some may kneel waiting for the pastor and assistant to bring the gifts. In some instances the pastor will stand at a central location and the congregation comes forward to receive. This is called communion by station.
Also, there are a variety of ways in which the elements may be given and received: the bread by loaf or wafer, on the tongue or in the hand; the wine by Communion Cup, individual cup, or dipping (intinction).
Whatever the practice in the congregation, the most important issue is not how one receives this precious gift of grace but that one receives it.
The Post-Communion Hymn and Prayer
Once the Communion has been offered and the people have returned to their seats, the presiding minister invites the congregation to stand. At this point the Table Blessing may be offered and the post-communion hymn (or ‘Canticle’) is sung. During this hymn the table is cleared. There are two canticles that are most commonly used in our service.
“Thankful Hearts and Voices Raise” speaks of both thanksgiving and the obligations of those who have communed to lead the new life. It is most appropriate for festival days and season. It should not be used during Lent because of its ‘alleluias’. Traditionally, this celebrative exclamation, which means “praise the Lord” is not used during this season when we are preparing for the events of Jesus’ suffering, and death. It is kept for use again at the great celebration of Jesus’ resurrection on Easter.
“Now, Lord, you let your servant go in peace” is Simeon’s song from Luke 2:29-32. Often referred to by its Latin name, the Nunc Dimittis, Simeon’s song is our heartfelt and joyous response to meeting the Lord at his table. Just as Simeon was blessed by God before his death with the privilege of finally seeing and holding the promised light of God in the infant Jesus, we, too, have been blessed by the living presence of our Lord. Now, we can go in peace having received the Lord, the Savior of the whole world into our lives!
The canticle is followed by a post-communion prayer in which we pray that this wonderful sacrament we have received will turn us toward a needy world in mission and service.
The Meal has ended and we move now to that part of our worship that is the time of sending and being sent; a time to thank God for the gifts of this worship-filled gathering of believers and a time to prepare to extend those gifts into the community.
The Sending is made up of two or three basic elements: the Benediction and the Dismissal, with the option for a sending hymn between the two.
The time of Benediction is led by the presiding minister. Here, God’s good words of blessing are spoken over the congregation one last time. The pastor may accompany this blessing with the sign of the cross. Worshippers may make the sign of the cross along with the minister as a final reminder of their baptism into Christ. Following the benediction all respond by either saying or singing, “Amen.”
There are two Benedictions most often used at worship although they may be substituted with other forms for there are many found in the Scriptures. The first is the simple Trinitarian blessing, “Almighty God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit bless you now and forever.”
The second Benediction is called the “Aaronic Benediction”. It is taken from the Old Testament account of a blessing given by God to Aaron, Moses’ brother, the first priest for the people of Israel (Numbers 6:22-27). Due to different biblical translations there are several versions that are used. The newest, as provided in the Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW) hymnal, is “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord’s face shine on you with grace and mercy. The Lord look upon you with favor and (+) give you peace.”
A sending song (or hymn) may follow the benediction. During the singing of this hymn the worship leaders leave the chancel, often led by a processional cross. When a processional cross is used the congregation turns toward the cross as it passes. Worshippers end up facing the entrance to the church, for the cross of Christ leads us out into the world. With our faces turned toward the world we are prepared to go out and fulfill our Lord’s calling to live out our vocation as God’s faithful people.
Finally, the words of the dismissal are pronounced by the assisting minister. This final declaration announces that the congregation is now sent out from this gathering to serve the Lord in the world. It reminds us that our service of God does not end, but takes on a different form as we go about our daily tasks.
The basic dismissal is “Go in peace. Serve the Lord.” However, following the words “Go in peace”, the final statement may vary from season to season reflecting the theme of the day or season. For example there are the dismissals: “Go in peace. Remember the poor.” “Go in peace. Christ is with you.” and “Go in peace. Share the Good News.”
Our response is the same in any case. One final time we offer our gratitude to God for his gifts of word, sacrament and community as we declare, “Thanks be to God!”
Our departure from the worship space is often accompanied by music called a postlude. In some churches it is the custom to remain and quietly receive this final offering by the musicians.