The Law of Worship

Back in the 4th and 5th centuries, early church theologian Prosper of Aquitaine declared, “Legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi.”  This statement is often shorted to “Lex orandi, lex credendi,” which roughly means, “what is prayed is what is believed.”  He was looking at worship, the primary place of prayer, and how it isn’t just a matter of who we pray to or what we worship, but how we worship.  How we worship says a great deal about what we believe and can have a big impact on those beliefs.

We have to be careful in over-applying this idea, since it can lead to concepts like church traditions holding the same authority as Scripture.  This is what happened in the Catholic Church and Luther came along to push things in the other direction.  Much of his correction was essentially arguing that what we believe affects how we worship.  Still, we acknowledge that Prosper is correct as well.  How we worship can have a profound effect on what we believe.

It may not be immediately apparent, but everything you do in the worship service says something about what you believe. For instance, we pray in worship because we believe God hears and answers prayer. Not only do we pray for ourselves, but we pray for others because we know that is part of our priestly duty before God. We prioritize the reading of Scripture and the use of the sacraments because we believe God continues to be active in the life of the church and continues to grant us His grace. Every time we participate in worship we are making these statements and many more about what we believe. The service is trying to teach you about all of these different aspects of God and gives you the opportunity to publicly declare the grace and mercy of God before the world.

When you start tinkering with the liturgy you’re also changing what the church says about itself and God. If you start dropping sections of the service or swapping parts for others that aren’t usually there, really any change you might make affects the overall message the liturgy is trying to convey. If a pastor understands the function of the liturgy and what it is helping the church to do, those changes can be informed and beneficial. If not, then we remember that sometimes the influence needs to go the other direction, as it did under Luther’s reforms of the Catholic mass. Sometimes we need to bring out Scripture to correct where the liturgy has been allowed to go off track.

This back and forth between our following the liturgy and our study of Scripture is what constitutes the worship life of the church. Each side helps us understand the other. As you spend time in worship, make a point of examining every rite, every hymn, everything the pastor does, and everything the congregation does. What is the church saying by doing this particular thing? What would someone who heard or saw this say about what the congregation believes? Also, pay attention to when changes are made and consider how the church’s statement of faith also changes.

Standing in the Middle

If your pastor is liturgically minded, watch what he does during the Sunday morning service. Where he goes and what he does, even what direction he is facing, are all communicating something about our relationship to God. That’s one of the main points of the liturgy and a great deal of thought was put into the how’s and why’s of what happens during the divine service.

One of those ideas that the liturgy is trying to communicate is what it means to be a priest. The book of Hebrews tells us Jesus is our Great High Priest, the culmination of what the Old Testament priests were trying to be. Everything they did was pointing forward to what Jesus would later do. St. Peter reminds us that we, as the church, are part of the royal priesthood. We are baptized into Christ and through our baptism we take on a priestly role as well.

That’s nice and all, but what does that actually mean? Well, that’s part of what your pastor is trying to show you. The whole nation of Israel was meant to act as priests. The sons of Aaron were thus the “priests to the priests.” Looking at what they did and what Hebrews tells us about Jesus gives us an idea of what the role of the priest is. In this case, they were meant to be the go-betweens, the mediators. They stood between both parties and argued on behalf of either side. The Old Testament sons of Aaron could never do this job perfectly. Not only were they sinners and needing to deal with the fallout of their own sin, but they also couldn’t perfectly represent God’s side of things. Jesus fixes that problem. Not only is He sinless, but he also has a foot in both camps. He has a vested interest in finding an amicable resolution to any dispute that arises between God and man because He is both.

That’s why our prayers are typically offered in Jesus’ name. He’s the one that will bring our cares and concerns before His Heavenly Father. Still, even though we can’t do the job perfectly, we are still called to do the job. We are all part of the royal priesthood. We are all mediators between God and man, even all of creation. When people are suffering from some ailment, when people want to give thanks, when there is any message to be offered to God, you have the ability and authority to pass it along to Him. On the flip side, you also have the ability and responsibility to share what God has to say about those things to the people. That’s what it means to be a priest.

This is what your pastor is trying to communicate. As part of his call, the pastor acts on behalf of the congregation. That makes him a priest to the priests. Your pastor communicates that role based on what direction he is facing. When your pastor is acting on behalf of the congregation, during prayers for instance, he’ll face the altar. You as the congregation are sharing your concerns and words of praise to him and he, in turn, lifts them up to God. When the pastor is acting on God’s behalf, such as during the benediction or absolution, he’ll face you. Your pastor may even hold his hands out with the palms up during prayer. This is an ancient posture from the early church that shows the pastor lifting up the prayers to God.

If you think about it though, you end up doing the same thing. What you’ve seen from your pastor and from Christ Himself, you are doing as well. When you come to church, you spend the service facing God. When you speak, you are lifting up the prayers, the praise, and thanks of the community around you as well as your own. The rest of the world has quite a lot to say to God and you gather that up and share it with Him when you come to His house. The rest of the week, you are still acting as a priest, but now you face outward. You are acting as God’s representative, sharing what He has given you to pass along. The message you give may be Law or Gospel, depending on the person you’re talking to, but in either case, you are acting as God’s representative.

That makes the priesthood an important role and one that is unique to humanity. This is part of what we were always created to do. The liturgy is there to help you see what that looks like and how it works.

Lutheran Worship is Counter-Cultural

One of the notable aspects of some of the major political issues today is how clearly their focus is on self-determination. Abortion, trans-genderism, and homosexuality are all driven by the desire for self-determination. One might even argue they are all, ultimately, just different expressions of the same problem. We all want control over our lives. We want the ability to determine our futures and chart our own courses. To some extent, this is natural. We are all unique human beings, each with unique personalities, unique skills and talents, unique dreams and aspirations, and so forth. For each of us to be try and do the same things brings out the kind of totalitarian imagery we see from Nazi Germany or Communist China. Everyone is forced into a prescribed set of standards and no deviation is allowed. This is just simply not how we are made. These God-given and God-created differences are a gift and they should be cherished.

This is all good thus far, but we take it much further. We look at those special gifts we’ve been given and what they allow us to do and then draw the conclusion that these gifts were given to benefit us. These skills and talents are how I gain a measure of control over my life and the world around me. This is how I achieve success and find happiness. This is how I reach out and take hold of my dreams. We draw the further conclusion that, as a self-determining individual, nothing can stand in the way of my quest for happiness/success/control/etc. Any rule that prevents me from having what I want is a barrier to be overcome and nothing more. This is the prevailing thought in Western society. Each individual is an authority unto himself and there is no higher authority.

When looking at how God orders and structures creation, certain things become evident. Marriage and parenthood are the two most basic and fundamental relationships in society. In both cases, God emphasizes a very important point: your relationship to your spouse or to your child isn’t about you. In fact, both relationships put a great deal of constraint on what you can do with your life. Both rob you of your power of self-determination and they are designed to precisely that. St. Paul’s description of the marriage relationship in Ephesians 5 tells us the job of the husband is to love his wife and the job of the wife is to love her husband. At no point in his discussion is either person given the power or authority to withhold that love for any reason. The husband is directed to even give up his life for his wife if need be, a command completely opposed to any notion of self-determination.

It isn’t about you. At the risk of being overly simplistic, one could sum up the Gospel message in this way. The gifts God gives you were never intended to be solely for your own benefit, but so that you would have the means to care for others. Whether that be your spouse, your kids, or anyone else, God has given you the skills, talents and resources to share His love in word and deed. God gives you the ability to determine aspects of your own life, but only to a point. You were created to serve others. The minute you walk away from that is when you turn from being a benefit to God’s creation to being a diseased and disordered element within it.

Looking at Christ, we see that the power of self-determination is not found in exercising it, but in giving it up. Christ has all the power in creation and could do anything He wished, but He gives up that power in order to serve others, to let their needs determine His life, and not His own wants and desires. Abortion, trans-genderism, homosexuality, and many other topics being debated in our society are wrong in and of themselves, but their more insidious damage is in how they turn us all into people who care only about ourselves.

The Lutheran theology of worship reorients us. It puts our clay back in the mold and gently heats it so that it may once again look like what it was made to be. The word “liturgy” comes from the Greek word leitourgia, which means “service,” and is where the name “divine service” comes from. Leitourgia typically meant civil service of some form or another, someone whose job was to care for others in some public way. This word was quickly brought into the church and associated with the Sunday morning gathering. The question that has plagued the church, especially since Reformation days, is, “Who is doing the serving? If it is called a ‘divine service’ is God the one serving or is He being served?” For many churches, the emphasis is on our praise and thanks as we offer God what He due for all He has done for us. It is true that He is due those things, but that’s not what is most important. God asks us to do things. Sometimes He even commands us to do things, but He doesn’t need us to do things. He has no need of our service. We, on the other hand, would perish and be lost for eternity without Him. We need Him and, as Christ did so long ago, He joyfully sets aside His power of self-determination to serve us. He serves us as He cares for our needs of body and soul through the hope and joy found in His grace and the message of the Gospel, through the cleansing of Baptism, and through His body and blood that bring us into His kingdom.

The divine service is counter-cultural because it reorients our thinking. It isn’t about us. It is about God. It is always about God. We were created to be in a relationship with Him. To fully exercise our power of self-determination is to cut ourselves off from the very one who brings us life. We come to worship Him and we look to what He has done for us, not because He has to acquiesce to our demands or respects any rights we think we have before Him, but simply because He chooses to. We focus on Him, and not ourselves, because that’s who we are and what we were meant to do. Anything we have is not something we have of ourselves, but something we have been given. We offer Him our thanks and praise, not because it gets us anything, but because that’s what you do when you give up your power of self-determination and focus your attention entirely on the other person in your relationship.

As with the sacraments and just about everything God has given the church, the divine service is God’s teaching tool. He helps us learn how to live the way we were created to live and to love the way He loves us. He gives us a place to practice and to see the relationship in action so that we can take what we have learned out into the world and love others as we have been loved.

Waving to God

There was a recent conversation where someone asked why a pastor elevates the host during the Words of Institution. There are a number of practical reasons for doing this, which are perfectly valid. A pastor may lift it up so that the congregation can see what he’s talking about. He might do it to make sure there’s no doubt it came from the altar. Practical reasons are worth exploring and understanding. Just because something has always been done a certain way doesn’t mean it still accomplishes the goal it was created to do originally.

Those practical reasons have been a part of our worship practices for some time, but practical reasons aren’t usually what drives the church to do what it does. This case is no different.

The elevation of the host is one of those points that demonstrates much of what the church does in worship isn’t really new. The people of God have have had a formal, organized worship life since God gave them a structure for worship back in Leviticus. Even in the era of the church, much of our liturgical theology is built up on what God gave the Israelites in Leviticus. The concepts of holiness and God’s presence, sacrifices and their purpose, the role of the priesthood and more all come from Leviticus.

Here in Communion, we are still offering sacrifices. Not that we are trying to pay for our sins, for that’s already been taken care of. Instead, we offer to the Father the one thing that can pay for our sins: Christ Himself. We also offer food to God in the form of bread and wine. In Leviticus, certain sacrifices would be given to God but not wholly burned on the altar. God delineated parts of the animals be given to the priests to provide for their needs. However, every part of that animal still belonged to God. The priest had no right to take it for himself. It didn’t belong to him. The sacrifice was God’s and God decided what to do with it. To reflect this, God directed the priest to make a “wave offering” of those pieces. He would take the piece of meat and hold it up before God to acknowledge that it was His now and belonged to Him. Whatever it was before, now it was God’s and had to be handled according to His rules. Now that it had been given to God, He chose to give it to His priest

Things haven’t really changed in this regard in New Testament times. We are still offering things to God. The bread and wine on the altar are an offering given by the church to God for Him to use for His purposes. The pastor holds up the bread and wine to show they are given to Him. They are His now. They are holy now and must be used according to His purposes. In this case, He chooses to give them back to His royal priesthood, the people of the church, in order to provide for our needs as well.

The Third Sacrament

Depending on what you’re reading from Luther, you will find him stating at some points that there are two sacraments and sometimes three. The Lutheran reformers wanted to move away from the Catholic definition of the term “sacrament” and bring it more in line with the things God stood behind. That led them to define the sacraments as those rites or acts that can satisfy three requirements: 1. They must be commanded by God. 2. They must confer God’s grace. 3. They must have some physical element.

Baptism and Communion both satisfy all three quite handily. They are both commanded by Christ. They both bring grace, and they both have a physical element to which God’s promise of grace is connected. Every so often though, you’ll find Luther referring to a third sacrament: Absolution. We Lutherans don’t talk about a third sacrament very often, because Luther more or less settled on Baptism and Communion. But, Absolution is also worth considering because of its importance to Christian life.

At first it might not look like Absolution fits the bill. Sure, it has God’s command. John 20 tells us how Jesus appears to the disciples and gives them the “Keys to the Kingdom,” or the authority to pronounce God’s forgiveness to the repentant and God’s condemnation to the unrepentant. Obviously, absolution conveys God’s grace. The physical element is where Luther wavers. When he calls Absolution a sacrament it is because he considers the pastor to be that physical element.

That fits with the doctrine we call the Office of the Keys, we acknowledges that the pastor is the one who administers those keys publicly on behalf of the church. Every Christian is authorized to speak God’s forgiveness on a personal level, but the pastor speaks for the whole congregation. This, it is him you will up at the front and it is his voice you will hear when you have confessed your sins.

In terms of function, Absolution is every bit as important as the two, more usual sacraments. Each has their own purpose and they all work together to build up the Christian through God’s free gift of grace. In terms of order, Absolution is the one we hear first. It is the distilled Gospel message. “On account of Christ, your sins are forgiven.” Thia is what God says to all who confess their sins to Him and Confession is the first and most basic act of faith. It is on Confession and Absolution that the whole rest of Christian life is based, and that includes both Baptism and Communion.

The next time you are in worship or meeting with your pastor privately, consider why God set up the church the way He did. In His wisdom He has ensured every member of the congregation would have someone to tell them specifically that God forgives them. When your pastor speaks those words of Absolution, He speaks with the full backing of God Himself because he has been authorized to do so. The pastor is the physical assurance that God means that message to go right to you and has sent your pastor to convey it personally.

Traditional or Contemporary?

One of the big, ongoing debates in the Lutheran church is over music.  Most everyone falls into one of these two camps and has strong opinions as to why their side is better.

The first problem with this debate is defining the terms.  Traditional music is generally considered the music from the hymnal, music that has been around for quite a while.  Traditional music is usually written to be sung in parts and typically has organ or piano accompaniment.  Contemporary music is usually from the last 20-30 years.  It is rarely written for parts and may be accompanied by any number of things, including guitars and drums.

Now, I’ll accept the distinction between two types of music that far.  But, both sides will accuse the other side things that are much more serious.  Fans of contemporary music accuse traditional music of being lifeless and dreary, of not connecting to modern listeners.  Lovers of traditional music accuse contemporary music of appealing to emotion and of having empty, repetitive lyrics.

I don’t care for either of these categories.  You can look at traditional hymns and find many examples that are slow and plodding to sing.  Many use language that is old and harder to follow.  There are some hymns I’ve sung that had lyrics I couldn’t understand at all.  Given my extensive seminary training, it says something when even I don’t understand it.  Contemporary music often has the very issues that it is accused of.  Many contemporary songs have one or two lines that are repeated over and over.  They tend to be peppy and upbeat.  Rarely do you find slow or contemplative. 

Before you can judge any of these arguments, you must first decide what the purpose of the music of the service is.  There are various views on this as well.  However, as a part of the liturgy, music in the service must be seen in the same context.  The service reinforces the Word and sacraments within it.  The liturgy helps understand God’s message given through Word and sacrament and helps put His will into practice.

With that in mind, neither category can be universally accepted.  If a traditional hymn is not able to communicate with the congregation anymore, then it’s purpose, however noble, has been lost.  If contemporary music has lyrics that are empty and do little to reinforce the work of God through Word and sacrament, then it is little better than music you’d hear on the radio.  There are examples I’ve found on each side that are as good or better than the usual representative of the other side. 

So what should we be doing instead?  We shouldn’t simply dismiss things out of hand without examining them for ourselves.  When preparing a church service, my overriding focus is on Word and sacrament and making sure every element of the service supports those two things above all else.  Certainly I have my musical preferences and there are places I will tend to stick to.  I enjoy traditional music and the Lutheran hymnals are generally fine for the needs of my congregation.  However, I won’t dismiss a contemporary song sight unseen.  I’ve discovered my favorite Christmas song is one that would usually be considered contemporary.  Yet, it expresses the theological implications of the Incarnation better than any other Christmas song I know.

To that end, I invite all of us to evaluate every song on its own merits.  Outside of the service, music can fill a variety of needs and those needs will be different for each of us.  Within the service, consider how well a particular song works to support God’s Word and the grace given through the sacraments. There are many details to consider when looking at how well a piece of music supports the Word and sacraments in the service. I don’t want to imply those details are unimportant. What I do want us to remember is what the music in the liturgy is for. Starting from the perspective of Word and sacrament will give us a much better set of criteria for evaluating the worth of the music we are considering.

Restoring our Alleluias

Easter Sunday is already a celebration for all Christians. At our church, we began a new liturgical tradition. Just before Lent, the kids in the congregation got to carry several banners with gold Alleluias written on them up to the chancel where they were safely stored in a box through the season of Lent. Easter morning the kids got to come up during the processional to take the banners out of the box and hang them up around the church. It’s a way of giving a visual to the widely known practice of bringing alleluia back into use at Easter.

The number of liturgical traditions is as numerous as there congregations that follow the liturgy. Processionals, incense, chanting, chasubles and the like are often considered “high church” because of the feel they have, the close association with the historic roots of the liturgy. However, they are by no means the only traditions you might have. Taking food collections during the service, choirs, imposition of ashes, candles, and all sorts of other practices are found in churches around the world.

These traditions and practices serve an important function. Liturgically savvy pastors and congregations look at what the liturgy is doing and look for new ways to drive the point home. I’ll say again, the liturgy is the best teaching tool the church has short of the Bible itself. Every Sunday, we gather together in worship and every Sunday God is giving us a new lesson in how to be His people. Many make the mistake of thinking the liturgy is just something we say when we are there for the service. Unfortunately, a liturgy that is merely said is a liturgy that is missing the mark and that usually isn’t the fault of the liturgy. The liturgy isn’t just said, it is done.

Now, don’t misunderstand. It’s not that saying the words of the liturgy is worthless, far from it. What I mean is that we need to see that the very words we speak are actually doing something. We confess the Creed and we make a public declaration of who the true God is. We need mercy, and so God gives us the words to speak to focus our attention on humbling ourselves before our Creator. We need encouragement and direction in our prayer life, so God gives us the opportunity to pray and a structure to guide us as we do it. We, as creatures, are created to praise our Creator, and so God gives us words such as alleluia that are reserved specifically for praising Him.

We learn a great deal if we think of the liturgy as a learning experience and not just as something that we need to mark off on our weekly checklist. Practices such as processionals, choirs, or alleluia banners are not meant to replace the various parts of the liturgy, because they all fill important functions right where they are. These practices are meant to give us new ways to consider what the liturgy is doing and, more importantly, that the liturgy is not just something we do for God, but that God is using the liturgy to do something to us.

There’s always the concern that some practice or other may not really work with a particular congregation. Not everyone responds to everything the same way. But, we must be careful not drop things just because they don’t make sense right away. God does many things in history that are clear and obvious. He also does many things that can only be understood with a concerted effort to delve into them. Both are beneficial, but they work in different ways. Some are for new Christians who, like toddlers, are just learning the basics of how to walk the Christian walk. Others are for those who already have the fundamentals but need something with a little more meat to help them continue to grow. The liturgy and the various practices associated with it are no different. Some will resonate with where you are at in your life of discipleship, some may not. Some will be meaningful one day, while others may connect better the next. They are all opportunities given to grow as God’s people as we learn from Him who we are and how we are to live in this world. For Lent, we put away our alleluias to help direct our attention on why our Savior came to die. Now that He has triumphed, we turn to our need to praise Him for all that He has done for us and we reflect on how it is only through His death and resurrection that we have life.

What sort of liturgical practices does your congregation have? What do you think they are trying to do?

Eight Days a Week

We have arrived at the season of Easter. With the resurrection of our Lord from the tomb everything has changed. We live in a new world, a world where life exists that is no longer subject to death. For the first time since Genesis 1 and 2, we find someone who is free from both sin and death. The echoes of God’s original, perfect creation are heard as the stone rolls back and the angels announce, “He is risen!”

There is a thought that comes to us from very early in the church regarding creation. God creates the world in seven days. At some point after the work of creation was completed, Adam and Eve succumb to the temptations of Satan and sin and death enter the world. From that point forward, mankind has been stuck in an endless cycle. We live each week under the yoke of sin. As we come up on the end of the week, we hope and pray the next week will bring something new, that it will bring freedom. But it never does. Each week follows the last as the endless progression of sin’s domination leaves us in chains. We go to Saturday, God’s declared day of rest, and the week starts all over again and we have a new week of sin and death to look forward to.

When Jesus rises from the tomb, something is different. Jesus is like Adam was before the Fall, sinless and perfect. Yet, Jesus is better in one very important way. Where sin and death were always a possibility for Adam, they are no longer possible for Jesus. He has conquered both. He has triumphed over both. Jesus brings something into the world which creation has never seen before: a life beyond the power and reach of death.

For the first time, the world sees what God’s promise truly means, a life where death is no longer possible, an eternal life. Jesus has been talking about throughout His ministry but now it is finally here. Jesus ushers in the very beginnings of the new creation. Until now, we’ve been trapped in the endless cycle of days, days that roll into weeks, and weeks that continue on and on until we die. When Jesus rises again, He does so on what would normally be the first day of the week, the first day of creation. But, Jesus’ life is no longer trapped in that cycle. He lives not in the old creation but the new. Like a bulldozer, Jesus breaks through the barrier that stands on the seventh day, waiting to send us back around. In the language of creation, He rises not on the first day, but the eighth.

Life in Jesus is not bound to the cycle of sin and death but stretches out into an endless eternity. The Eighth Day then represents the new creation and looks to our life in Christ. This Eighth Day is foreshadowed in various places in Scripture, with circumcision being the most obvious. God required the sons of Abraham to be circumcised on their eighth day of life. This is when God’s promise to Abraham and his descendants was explicitly bound to them. This is when they became God’s people.

The theme of adoption comes to us in the New Testament age through baptism. We are made God’s people and children of the promise through water and the Word. But, we are also bound to the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus rises on the Eighth Day and so that new creation life is ours too through baptism.

The power of Christ’s resurrection in history is hard to overstate. Looking at the life of the early church, God’s Commandment says, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” Jews worshiped on Saturday. They have always worshiped on Saturday, for that was the Law. Now, in the very beginnings of the church people are worshipping instead on Sunday and they do so almost immediately and without any major debate. The power of what Christ has brought into the world cannot be denied. We are people of the new creation and we worship a God who is bringing a new heavens and a new earth. We may not know what that new earth looks like exactly, but we know what our life within that earth will look like. We see it every time we look at our risen Lord.

The First and the Last

I find the works of Christian artist, Sadao Watanabe, interesting. As a Christian born and raised in Japan, his view of Christ and the Gospel message come from a different perspective. Like the four Gospels themselves, different perspectives don’t necessarily change the message, so much as give us new ways to think about how to apply it to life. Whether he intended it or not, his depictions of Jesus with His disciples always look to me as if the disciples are pestering Jesus, much like a litter of baby kittens are always climbing on mom and demanding attention.

Though Watanabe was a prolific artist, it’s somewhat telling how many different depictions he did of the Last Supper. Though I haven’t found a complete listing of all of his works, a quick search turns up at least seven or eight different instances of the Last Supper. There are many similarities between them. They often depict fish on the table, alongside bottles of sake. Judas is also usually shown holding the money bag behind his back, while the disciple on Jesus’ left hand is usually prodding Him and looking distressed.

Reflecting on the various depictions Watanabe has done made me consider the very nature of what we call, “The Last Supper.” One of the things I was chewing on was the fact that nowhere does the Bible actually call this scene the “Last Supper.” We see from the perspective of the Gospel writers that it is the last supper Jesus celebrates with His disciples before His crucifixion. We also have Jesus’ words that He will not share the fruit of the vine again with them until He drinks new with them in His Father’s kingdom. So, there are reasons why “last” is an appropriate adjective, but it is still something we’ve come to associate with the events of Maundy Thursday. That means calling it the “Last Supper” may not be wrong, but it does mean we should be careful about how we think about it. Calling it the last certainly implies there won’t be any more.

As a pastor, I’m neck deep in the work of Holy Week. From a liturgical perspective, the services of Holy Week are quite unique in the calendar. Every congregation has its own traditions and liturgical elements it is used to, but all of that makes the services at the end of Holy Week distinct. A Good Friday service, regardless of whether you have Communion or whether you have some variety of tenebrae service or something else entirely, probably doesn’t look like any normal Sunday service. If it does, you’re probably doing it wrong. An Easter Vigil service is very different from other services, with its emphasis on quiet reflection and meditation on the work of our Lord. Maundy Thursday probably follows more or less a standard divine service format, but the feel of the service is still different from what you would be doing on Sunday. Lent has been building up to this moment, but now the moment has arrived and the mix of urgency and somberness we see in Jesus as He celebrates the Passover with His disciples flows over us as well. Easter morning is, of course, what this is all about. The highest of the high feast days. This is the moment we’ve all been waiting for and the voices of Christians everywhere shake the rafters as they join together joyfully singing, “Jesus Christ is Risen Today!”

Still, for all of that unusualness, there is another liturgical layer that is often overlooked and, in many cases, omitted entirely. The church has long considered the services from Maundy Thursday through Easter to be not 4 separate services, but one extended service. The ancient form of this is called the Triduum or “three days.” In this case the days are not thought of as calendar days but as 24 hour periods from the end of Maundy Thursday service to Easter evening. If your church follows this pattern, you’ll notice there is no benediction at the end of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, or Easter Vigil. The benediction is given when God is sending you out to carry out your work in the world and declaring that He will be with you. Here we only find the benediction at the end of Easter services. It’s as if all of these services are meant to be one continuous story and it is only when you have heard the conclusion of the story that God sends you out.

The culmination of all of Christ’s work is in His death and resurrection. Not just His death, but His death and resurrection. Going back into the world without hearing Christ has been raised puts in the same position as the disciples huddling in the upper room. We end up being the very people St. Paul preaches about in 1 Corinthians, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” But if everything is about Christ’s death and resurrection, then it seems odd that the Last Supper is included in this story. Jesus doesn’t die on Thursday, nor does He rise from the dead. Why is this service made a part of the whole?

The answer comes in what Jesus is doing here. Jesus is already telling the disciples that this is the last time this will happen…”until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” This may be the last time for the moment, but it will happen again. That means it isn’t really the last at all. It’s at this point I recall Jesus’ words, “So the last will be first and the first last.” Granted, Jesus is addressing a different issue there, however, the idea that God upends our notions of what is first and what is last is very much valid. Of course, we have Jesus’ words in Revelation to go with it, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.  Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this.” Jesus encompasses the first and the last and everything in between and commands that those things that have been seen be written. Words just as appropriate for John and the other Gospel writers as they were for John at that moment.

If we think about the story told by the Triduum about Jesus’ death and resurrection, the main events are certainly His death and resurrection. But, at the Last Supper, Jesus is already alluding to the future, to a “Next Supper.” The Last Supper becomes the introduction that helps us to understand what the rest of the story is all about. Jesus will die, but He won’t stay dead. He’ll rise again, but He won’t just rise for His own gain. In His life, we find our own life. Jesus will share this supper with us again.

That means, while it is perfectly reasonable to refer to the meal Jesus shares with His disciples as the Last Supper, we might very well call it the “First Supper.” For every time we come to the Lord’s table, we share it with Him as we celebrate with the bread and the wine in His presence. This is not a mere commemoration, but continuation of what Christ began as He share the Lord’s Supper with His disciples for the first time. Everything that happened over those three days carries on-going, eternal significance. We share the meal with Christ and in sharing His table we are brought into that story too. His death is ours and so is His life.

Question – Does seeing Maundy Thursday as a beginning instead of an end change how you view Good Friday and Easter?

Blessed is He Who Comes in the Name of the Lord

Palm Sunday comes soon, and with it the beginning of Holy Week. I’m not a big fan of reading big chunks of the Passion narrative on this day, even though it is a tradition that goes back quite a ways in the church. I understand why people do it, but I like giving Palm Sunday its due. It has more than enough to sink our teeth into all by itself.

Palm Sunday is an episode of Jesus’ life that is well-known to us. “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” the people shout as they wave their palm branches. Waving palm branches is often a tradition of churches these days on Palm Sunday, often going along with a procession of some sort as well. The interconnection of Jesus’ actions with the prophecies of old is rather profound. Zechariah 9:9 foretells the King riding in on a donkey (as Solomon did long ago). Psalm 118 is what Jesus cites as He tells the Jews in Matthew 23, “For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’ ” The connection to Palm Sunday is immediately apparent. Here is Jesus, riding into Jerusalem on a donkey to claim the throne of His father, David, just as His predecessor had done. The people cheer, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” just as Jesus had foretold. Everything is going according to plan.

We hear the passage so often that significance of the passage in the Gospel of Matthew eludes us. Jesus foretells the peoples’ reception of Him in Matthew 23, but His entry into Jerusalem takes place in Matthew 21. Palm Sunday has already taken place. (It is worth noting that Luke places Jesus’ statement a little prior to His arrival in Jerusalem.) In Matthew’s estimation (by the guiding of the Spirit) we aren’t really talking about Palm Sunday. Jesus is directing the people to look further ahead.

As with many things Jesus says about the Kingdom of God, the future is always in sight. Jesus gives us a glimpse of life within His Kingdom when it is fully and finally established in this world forever. We must never lose sight of that End Times connection, but we must also remember that if we are always swinging for the fences we miss the solid hits that are a bit closer to home.

Again we hear the words so often the significance eludes us. Around the world, congregations gather to celebrate the work of Christ. Around the world, churches lift up their voices and sing, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” Around the world, the Son of David, the King of Kings comes into our presence just as He foretold. Jesus was not just looking at the Last Day. The King is here with us and His Kingdom with Him. Jesus was looking at His presence in the life of His people now.

There is the perception among some that Christians, Jews, and Muslims all worship the same God. This is usually thought because we all draw on the same (more or less) history as given in the Old Testament. However, for both Jews and Muslims, one of the most central aspects of the god they worship is his ineffableness, his unreachableness, his existence beyond all true knowing or understanding. We don’t deny God has all of these characteristics. He truly is bigger than any knowledge or understanding we will ever have. Yet, at the very same time, He is very much knowable. He is a God who exists far off in the unreachable heights of heaven and yet He is right here with us where we can see Him, hear Him, touch Him, and yes, even smell and taste Him. We Christians, alone of all others in the world, when asked where God is, can point to the altar where the bread and wine sit and say, “He’s waiting for us right there.”

“Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord,” is our song just before our celebration. Deep down, the church has always understood the significance of the Sanctus and what it says about Communion. The King is here. The church acknowledges every Sunday to ultimately be a celebration of Easter and the resurrection. We can also say every Sunday, as we gather around the Lord’s Table, we are celebrating Palm Sunday. We gather together, waiting in eager expectation for our invitation to His Table. We sing, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” and we hear God’s response, “Behold, your King is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is He, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

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