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.

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?

Disciples of Christ

Periodically as I’m preparing the service for Sunday I recall a conversation with one of my professors back at seminary regarding the liturgy. He was addressing some concerns about the complexity of the liturgy. Those of us who have grown up in the church lose sight of just how complicated the liturgy can be. Even just the basic rubrics can be a lot to handle. Knowing when to stand up or sit down (or kneel), knowing when the pastor is supposed to talk and when I’m supposed to talk, knowing the musical settings for the various sung portions, potentially knowing how chanting works, and all of the other miscellaneous rubrics is a lot to manage and all of that says nothing about understanding why you do any of it.

As pastors and congregations start to seriously examine the complexity of the liturgy, the question that often comes up is “How do we bring the church and the liturgy together?” Sadly, all too often the answer to this question is to jettison much of what makes the liturgy more complicated. If the liturgy isn’t complicated, then people will be able to follow it much more easily, at least that’s how the reasoning goes. Music with easy melodies, services with a minimum of movement, a streamlining of the liturgy to remove parts that might need explanation, all of this and more takes place in order to give the congregation something it can easily grab hold of.

This perspective comes from the idea that the liturgy is something we do and gives little thought to what the liturgy is doing to us. As Lutherans, we acknowledge that service that is given within the liturgy is first and foremost God’s. He is not the primary recipient. He is the primary actor. He is where all of the activity begins. Our place is to receive and respond.

Of course, everything that we apply to adults we apply even more to children. If adults have a hard time following what’s going on, children must be entirely lost. Our desire to have children in church can usually be translated as a desire to have children grow up in church and has little to do with their participation in worship at their young age. Children don’t understand, they can’t understand. Children are busy and active and aren’t able to sit still. Children are noisy and disruptive. All of these arguments allow us to simply throw up our hands and abdicate any responsibility to integrate our children in the service. Obviously, Jesus wants the little children to come to Him and to not let anything hinder them. However, He never said He wanted them to actually do anything.

As time goes on and children grow up, we then scratch our heads and wonder why we never see those kids again after they’re confirmed. It shouldn’t surprise us at all that children leave the church. We never treated them as members to begin with. We acknowledge that we should baptize all people, regardless of age. All require the grace God gives through the sacrament and all fall under the command of Christ to baptize “all nations.” Jesus doesn’t differentiate and so neither do we. But baptism goes hand in hand with teaching, for both are necessary components of discipleship.

This leads us back around to the beginning and that conversation with my professor. His argument was not that we should “dumb down” the liturgy to make it more accessible. Rather, that we should lift up the people to the level of the liturgy. God is active in the service. God speaks and His word makes alive. His Word teaches and transforms. That means the liturgy teaches and the liturgy is the most essential place where God is making us into the people He intends us to be. This is where teaching and baptism come together.

Discipleship is never something one completes. Your identity and vocation as disciple has a beginning but it has no end. You will always be following where your Teacher and Lord leads you. This status also is not based on age. Whether you are baptized at a month old or when you come to faith at 85, you are a disciple and you are learning. In either case, you are learning what God has done for you and how to put that faith into practice. Digging into the liturgy, the hows and whys of how it works and what it does, can only help you better put your faith into practice. Don’t be satisfied with just knowing the basic rubrics.

And again, what is true for adults is even more true for children. Children are not second-class citizens of the church. They are not something to be tolerated or ignored. They are disciples of Christ. They may not understand what the liturgy is all about, but no one does when they are first exposed to it. Parents have an amazing opportunity to bring their children deeper into the faith by teaching them what the liturgy is about. When we treat children as full participants, they see the value in what they do. Their prayers are just as significant as everyone else’s. Their confession of the Creeds is just as valid and true. Their voices raised in song are just as cherished. But they, like all of us, must be taught. The liturgy is there for them too.

The Valley of the Shadow of Death

The debate over music in our worship services is one that we’ve faced for quite a while now in the Lutheran Church. The debate usually focuses on whether we should be using “traditional” hymns or more “contemporary” ones. I’ll argue that those are bad categories and that they aren’t really helpful in our understanding of what music is for. So, instead of wading into that debate directly, I’ll talk a bit about why we have music in worship at all.

As I’ve said before, the liturgy is a teaching tool. It is there to draw us further into the life of Christ by helping to immerse us in what Christ has done and continues to do in our lives. It then gives us the opportunity to start putting what we’ve heard into action. If elements of the liturgy are not doing that, it is probably because either: the people don’t understand the purpose and message of a particular rite, or the rite really doesn’t connect with the people in your context. The answer to first possibility is to take the time to talk through the rite, what it does and what it’s trying to say. It may still not connect, but at least people will understand it. If a rite doesn’t connect at all, then it has gone from being a potentially useful teaching tool to a hindrance. It is now muddying things up and becomes something that is done just because it has always been done. In that instance, better to replace it with something that connects and teaches better.

Music, as a part of the liturgy, follows the same rules. Music is there primarily to teach. Some of that teaching may be in helping us to learn by doing, but nevertheless, teaching is what the liturgy and all of its constituent parts are about. Learning how to give praise and what kinds of things we should praise God for is one part of what the music in the liturgy helps us do. The music also helps learn about joy, peace, and the other gracious blessings our Lord gives us in this life.

However, if that is as far as we understand music, we are missing out on a great deal of what music is there to help us with. The season of Lent brings in aspects of peace, joy, praise and such, particularly on Palm Sunday and a bit on Maundy Thursday. However, as we see in Lent, Christian life contains much more than joy and peace. There is sorrow, strife, affliction, persecution, suffering, and death. To deny these experiences is to deny part of Christ’s own life, some of the most significant portions of it no less. Lent teaches us the meaning and purpose of suffering and the reality of death.

If our music doesn’t follow suit then it is working at odds with the purpose and structure of Lent. We lose the learning opportunity Lent presents to learn about suffering by looking to Christ to see how He deals with it and then learn how to apply His example to our own lives. Music has always been known to be a powerful way to give expression to the feelings and experiences we have and that is no less true in Lent. We might even say learning to express and carry our sorrow is even more important. Peace and joy are not promised in this life, but suffering and death are.

This Lenten season, immerse yourself in those hymns that lead you through Christ’s final days. Let yourself reflect and pray with Him in the garden. Hear again how the world turns against Him and condemns Him. Hear His tears and His final cry to heaven and know that, whatever sorrows you face in life, Christ has gone before you.

Mystery Revealed

Last time I talked about the sacraments as God’s artwork, as God’s visible revelation of grace and truth. The sacraments reveal God’s grace in ways we have difficulty grabbing ahold of strictly through the spoken word. The sacraments are God’s grace in action and we learn as observe God at work.

At the same time, the sacraments don’t appear in a vacuum. The sacraments are ensconced in the liturgy, the gilded setting that surrounds and supports the diamond. I’ve mentioned before that the sacraments are always properly found within the liturgy because the liturgy is what gives them their proper context. Thinking further in terms of artwork and the further revealing of God’s mysteries helps us see how that continues to be true.

When looking at the different aspects of Communion, much of what we know to be taking place in Communion is spelled out for us in the ritual activities that surround it. Collecting the offering and the declaration that we are lifting our hearts to God tells us how we become part of the offering that is given to God in and through Christ as He acts on our behalf as high priest. The Lord’s Prayer identifies many of the things God will grant us through our participation in the sacrament. The prayer of thanksgiving carries out the primary duty of all creation as we give thanks to God in response to what He has given us. The Nunc Dimittis expresses our joy at seeing God’s salvation and our acknowledgement that we take that experience with us as God to tell others what we have seen and heard. The Aaronic Benediction declares that we have truly been in the presence of God and that He approves of us and continues to bless us until that time when we return to see Him again.

All of this and more surrounds Communion to build on what Communion does and give us the opportunity to meditate and reflect on the gracious work God carries out through the sacrament in new and different ways. The sacraments are not built for the liturgy, instead the liturgy is built around the sacraments. Each liturgical rite gives us a new window to view what God is doing on our behalf in a new and deeper way. Can the sacraments be divorced from the liturgy? Yes, and sometimes, such as in the case of emergency baptism, it is necessary. However, every rite surrounding the sacraments that is stripped away is another window peering into the Sacred Mysteries that gets boarded up.

As we walk through the liturgy, and the divine service in particular, the hope is that we take the time to reflect on what we are saying and doing, for all of it is meant for our edification, to learn who we are because of what God does for us through the sacraments and then learn to put that new life into action. Even in fringe cases, such as emergency baptism, every effort is made to bring that work back into the liturgy through an affirmation of baptism, to put the diamond into its proper setting so that its brilliance is further enhanced. The liturgy does not add to what God does in the sacraments and it was never intended to do so. The liturgy simply gives us more visual, auditory, and even kinesthetic ways of learning about God. When churches start throwing away different aspects of the liturgy because they are outmodded, unexciting, or deemed unimportant, it merely robs the congregation of a means God has provided us with to understand Him better.

Meeting God on the Mountain

Back in Exodus, when the Israelites are brought to Mt. Sinai, they are warned not to ascend the mountain lest God break out against them. Meeting God is goal, but the people aren’t ready for it. Moses, Aaron, and the elders of the people got that privilege after being joined in the covenant.

Still, God did not desire this with just a few of the people, but with all. This becomes the next and greater goal of meeting God and again it takes place on the mountain. This time the mountain is Zion, as God takes up residence in the temple. Everything from the Exodus onward, truly everything since Genesis 3, has been the story of God bringing His people back, not just bringing them back to faith and trust but to Him personally.

That’s what makes the Incarnation so profound, for God now dwells on earth with His people in an approximation of what He had with His people back in Eden. With His Ascension, it might seem as though the connection is diminished, but that’s not the case. Our relationship to God is not diminished at all, only changed.

When Jesus ascends into heaven, He tell His disciples, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” We might be tempted to think He’s referring to God’s watchful providence and protection that He has always extended to His people. God’s Spirit pervades His creation and so nothing is truly out of His sight. Yet, this isn’t what Jesus refers to at all. He means precisely what He says. He is there in that generalized, nebulous sense, but He is also present in that special and unique way that He was present on Mt. Sinai or in the Holy of Holies in His temple on Mt. Zion.

You see, before Jesus ascended, He made a provision for His ongoing presence with His people. He declares within the context of a special meal of bread and wine that He is truly there in that special, unique, and gracious way He was with His people in the past. As God’s presence was always the goal of His people, it continues to be with His church now. Thus, the divine service is entirely designed to prepare us for and to help us understand the meaning of that presence.

Of course, the first part of the divine service focuses on God’s Word. God promises to be active through His Word and so this part of the service puts us into a position to receive that Word in the proper manner. God’s Word declares us righteous, but it also casts down the proud. Thus, those who would seek to be in God’s presence to hear that Word ought to do so with the necessary humility. Elements such as the Kyrie reinforce this and help us to prepare for our meeting with God. The Collect and Introit help us to be ready to receive the message God has in store in for us today. But, as important as all of that is, it pales in comparison to climbing the mountain to receive God’s Word as Moses once did when he was given the Commandments. This is where God’s grace and mercy meet us firsthand. This is where we are claimed as His people.

Yet, for all of the wonder we have at receiving His Word, it pales in comparison to actually being in His presence. As we stand on the mountain to receive His Word, we look ahead to the greater and more prominent mountain, just as Sinai looks forward to Zion. This is where my previous discussions on offerings comes into play. Offering becomes the lead in and preparation for meeting God in the flesh. I’ve spoken also about the Lord’s Prayer and how it requests precisely what God gives us in Communion and the Nunc Dimittis is a declaration of what we have seen and heard. However, it is Communion that is meeting with God. Communion is where we ascend the mountain to see God face to face. This is the mountain where God resides and is as important to us today as the high priest’s journey into the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement. It was that day that defined the relationship between God and His people and so the same is true for us now.

This is why the entire goal of the divine service is to make us ready for this meeting, so that we are also ready to receive everything God wishes to give us in and through this meeting.

Every Sunday an Advent

I find the transition point from the end of the church year and the beginning of the next to be one of the most interesting in the liturgical cycle. The readings for the end of the year and for Advent are very similar, and for good reason. All of creation waited for the fulfillment of God’s promise of a Savior. That fulfillment finally arrives as we walk through the events of Advent and hear the good news of God made flesh on Christmas.

As we hear the Advent and Christmas stories again, we learn something about our own place in God’s plan of salvation. We are also waiting for the arrival of the Savior. He who came to earth once will come again, bringing his work of salvation to its conclusion. Here we learn what it means to be a people who are looking forward, eagerly expecting the arrival of the One who will save us. Our sins are forgiven, but sin and death are still a part of the world. God’s work is not done and we await the day when these things will be no more.

I write this as I’ve been looking ahead to the readings for the First Sunday after Christmas, in particular Luke 2:22-40. Here is where we find Simeon. Simeon had been told by God he would see the Savior, and finally that promise has come to pass. Mary and Joseph bring the infant Jesus to the temple to consecrate Him according to the law. God fulfills His promise to Simeon. Simeon holds Jesus in his arms and knows He is the one who will bring salvation to the world. Simeon declares that he has seen God’s salvation with his own eyes.

Simeon’s words are remarkable on a number of levels. For now I want to consider why the early church thought it appropriate to include them in the divine service. We find the Nunc Dimittis, the Song of Simeon, immediately following Communion. I find most Christians don’t give the placement much thought, but it truly is profound. If we confess Christ’s own promise to be present among us in the bread and wine of the sacrament, not just in a spiritual sense, but in a physical, fleshly sense, the Simeon’s words are truly ours as well. We have seen God’s salvation with our own eyes. We, too, have held God in the flesh in our own hands. We have seen that promise of salvation fulfilled in our midst and now we sing our thanks to God for doing what He promised.

This gives a new character to the divine service. Christ did come to earth once. Christ will come again. Yet, at the same time, Christ comes to us every Sunday. He is there every time the church heeds His invitation to His table to share that joyous meal with Him. Normally when we think of the sacraments, we think about them in connection to Good Friday and Easter, to Jesus’ death and resurrection. Both sacraments are discussed in connection to those events repeatedly. But again, at the same time, they are also here in connection with His incarnation. God was not incarnate in broken, sinful flesh, but perfect and sinless flesh. His baptism was not for His righteousness, but for yours. In baptism, He takes on your sinful life and gives you His perfect one. Communion is God in the flesh in the midst of His people. The same God who declared, “I am with you always,” didn’t say this in a trite, Hallmark card sense, but to convey the reality that He truly is here. He ascended and yet He never left.

The readings for the beginning of Advent often draw on the Palm Sunday texts and the ideas related to it. The King is coming. Just prior to Communion, we have the Lord’s Prayer. As I said previously, we pray for the kingdom and God responds to our prayer by sending the kingdom. He does this by sending the King. So in truth, everything before Communion in the divine service is a tiny Advent. We prepare for Christ’s arrival. We look ahead in eager expectation of that time when we will gather around and see our salvation in the face of our present and incarnate Savior. When that time is passed, we sing God’s praises, for we have seen that salvation with our own eyes. Communion becomes Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter all rolled into one and we have the privilege of celebrating it every Sunday.

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