Why Use a Different Liturgy?

What’s wrong with the “traditional” Lutheran liturgy? You may be asking yourself that question, since our congregation has turned quite a bit lately to liturgies from other resources than the ones featured in our hymnals.

Well, to answer the question directly: nothing. There’s not a thing wrong with our liturgies. And there’s not a thing wrong with those other resources, either. It comes down to preferences and to the reasons for employing one setting over another.

But that’s kind of a funny thing. The hymnal most ELCA churches is using right now is called Evangelical Lutheran Worship. This came out somewhere around 2003. (Best I can do without looking it up. Hey, I’m lazy. Sue me.) Some people called this “the red hymnal,” but those who did were often sternly corrected by people who had grown up using the ACTUAL red hymnal, known as the Service Book and Hymnal. No, the ELW is actually “the cranberry hymnal.” OK, bruh. Have it your way.

Anyhow, the CRANBERRY hymnal replaced the Lutheran Book of Worship, aka LBW, aka “the green book.” LBW came out in the 70s and was probably the last thing that the ELCA’s predecessor bodies and the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod worked on together or almost agreed about. Before the green book was the red book, and there was also “the black book,” and whether your congregation used the red book or the black book was a matter of which predecessor body of the ELCA your congregation came from. Were you “Swedish Lutherans?” Or were you Norwegians? Maybe you were Germans or Finnish or Danish or ….

And in between the green book and the cranberry book was a blue book called With One Voice, which our congregation has used on and off since I got here in 2012. Plus there were other hymnals used for praise bands, still others that sprang out of the “Renewing Worship” effort that eventually led to the ELW/Cranberry/Decidedly-NOT-Red book. And we haven’t even touched on This Far by Faith or Lead Me, Guide Me, which are both used in some Black Lutheran congregations!

The point here is: Lutheran worship is dynamic. Always has been. Luther himself recognized the diversity in approaches to worship and he had no issues with this.

Side note here, but it’s interesting to note: Many Lutheran churches in Germany used to use white wine for communion. Why? Because Germany is primarily a white-wine producing region. It made sense to use what was on hand. Luther also disliked the idea of using red wine, because he thought it too closely resembled blood, and could therefore be used as a “symbol” of the blood of Christ. It was important to Luther that there be no symbolism: this IS the body of Christ; this IS the blood of Christ. These are NOT symbols! Plus, I imagine altar guilds were happier with the use of white wine, which doesn’t stain as much. 🙂

Oh, and I should also mention that there is a NEW hymnal out just this past November. It’s purple. But technically, it’s really just a supplement to the ELW/cranberry hymnal. There are two new Communion settings in it. (ELW has 10. LBW has 8, I think. Not sure about the red and black hymnals) Plus there are more licensed songs & hymns, additional prayers for various occasions, etc. We have a couple copies sitting around, if you’re interested in looking. Just ask! It’s called All Creation Sings!

But here’s what it all boils down to: With all the variation in liturgical practices, the structure of worship follows a basic 4-part structure. There is a Gathering. There is a Sending. In between the Gathering and the Sending, there is the Word (reading of scripture), and there is (usually) the Meal. Communion. Gathering, Word, Meal, Sending.

Yes there are worship elements that generally fall in here, as well, though they aren’t 100% necessary to include – or at least they aren’t rigidly structured. Usually there’s a sung or spoken Kyrie (Lord, Have Mercy), a Gloria (Glory to God in the Highest), an Agnus Dei (Lamb of God), a Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy) and several other pieces of liturgical music. There’s pretty much ALWAYS prayer in numerous forms, including “collect” prayers, the Lord’s prayer, intercessory prayers, prayers of thanksgiving, and so on. There’s often a creed, though not always. And which creed we use will depend on the season and other factors. But beyond the basic structure of Gather, Word, Meal, and Send, there is incredible freedom.

With the Worship Design Studios materials, there is usually a Prelude played to begin to set the mood. Then there comes a “Threshold Moment” which introduces the assembly to the journey or the theme for the day, maybe for the season. There’s a collect prayer, the reading of Scripture, time for reflection or a sermon or testimonies, there are intercessory prayers/prayers of the people. There’s an optional Communion liturgy. Then there’s a benediction or blessing, and finally a postlude. Gathering, Word, Meal, Sending. It’s all in there. The style may differ from so-called “traditional” worship, and the order of the elements may vary from what we’re used to. The feel may also be a bit different. But it fits. And it works.

Anyway, I didn’t write all of this because anybody complained or even asked. But at the same time, it felt important to let folks know that we’re not a bunch of liturgical deviants in this congregation. 🙂 You can rest assured of that one thing at least.

By the way, if you have questions about how we worship or why we do things this way or that, please let me know. I’m glad to write little blurbs about this stuff. It’s good to be reminded myself from time to time, and it’s also good for people who are new to our congregation or even our particular way of following Jesus in worship. No dumb questions. For real!

Reflection on All Saints Day

Paul F. Bradshaw and Maxwell Johnson devote a chapter of their book The Origins of Feasts, Fasts, and Seasons in Early Christianity to the sanctoral cycle — a kind of liturgical calendar of its own (199ff) — which celebrates feast days of individual saints. The authors point out that the sanctoral cycle developed out of popular pietestic veneration of early Christian martyrs, generally on the anniversaries of their martyrdoms. Martyrdom was, for early Christians, “in all likelihood … understood as both a repetition of baptism or a substitute for it, and a sacrifice parallel and similar to Christ’s passion and the Eucharist, that is to say, as a redemptive sacrifice” (179). This manner of dying for the cause (as it were) sanctified the sacrifice and martyrdom became essentially synonymous with sainthood.

Bradshaw and Johnson state that, by the fourth century, several other categories of “saints” began to appear on lists of the Church’s annual celebrations: ascetics and monks, people who were confessors (and therefore “witnesses”), but who were not killed on account of their witness, per se, were nevertheless included as “martyrs by extension” (189). Bishops also began to make the list in the fourth century and, as the authors quote Pierre Jounel, “the difference between these two types of anniversaries must have been rather vague in practice” (190). Throughout that century, the categories continued to expand, and feasts for figures like Mary Theotokos, Emperor Constantine, and Theodosius I were added to the cycle, and so the sanctorum continued to grow, with localized variations, over time.

Laurence Hull Stookey (Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church), along with much of contemporary Protestantism (in spite of continued anti-Catholic grumbling), embraces a much more expansive definition of a saint, citing the New Testament’s synonymous use of “saint” with “Christian” and “believer” (142). He points out that being a saint actually has nothing to do with being one of the “greats of History,” or indeed with any merit or effort on the part of humans, but rather, sanctity is necessarily intimately connected with and dependent upon identification with the holiness of Christ. We are ALL saints “because God’s [that is, Christ’s] sanctity is at work in us” (143).

Contemporary practice of commemorating a particular saint’s feast day still generally corresponds with that person’s death date (as it had been for the martyrs of the early church), unless some other festival or celebration (e.g. the Lord’s Day) takes precedence, or if the death date is not known, as is the case for biblical saints. Instead, those feast days are placed into the cycle largely according to convenience or in order to make a special comment on that saint’s “specialness” (e.g. Stephen, the protomartyr, who is considered noteworthy enough for his feast day to fall on the day after Christmas) (145).

In any case, the large number of saints whose lives are commemorated in the sanctoral cycle gives rise to a predicament: each day of the calendar year memorializes one or more saint’s lives. Stookey states: “Eventually a crisis developed, and a solution arose: Designate one day each year as a kind of omnibus occasion, a day on which to commemorate all the saints who cannot be accorded their own specific dates, and whose names have been forgotten” (148). The date of this commemoration, which we call All Saints Day, varies in the West (where it is often celebrated on November 1) and the East (where some rites celebrate it on May 13 and some on the Sunday following Pentecost) (148). And even in the West, there remains a disparity between Roman Catholics on the one hand, who celebrate only canonized saints on November 1, leaving “all other faithful departed” to be remembered the following day (the Feast of All Souls), and Protestants on the other, who celebrate All Saints Day, collapsing RC practices into one day: either November 1 or the first Sunday in November (148).

Protestant practice also makes no distinction between “recognized” saints (i.e. great historical figures) and the biblical “great cloud of witnesses,” including people who died in the previous year, many of whom belonged to our parishes and whose names we read aloud as part of our ritual celebration of the saints (148).

In our expansive definition of sanctity and in our ritual observance, we emphasize the catholicity of the church in all times and all places. We give thanks for the departed ones and for their faithful witness to the promise of God in Jesus Christ. Stookey writes: “[T]hese persons [, though departed, continue to] bear testimony to us concerning the One of whom it is written, ‘Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows’ (Isaiah 53:4 RSV). Their stories point us to his story. And it is his story that enables us to bear all sorrow …. [It is] the sole source and focus of the entire liturgical calendar” (150).

The rites particular to All Saints Day manifest in the church’s use of time in the proclamation that all the saints across all times and places are sanctified in the holiness of Christ, which he shares with us as part of what Luther called “the happy exchange,” or what Orthodox Christians might refer to as theosis or deification. In other words, Christ takes on OUR sins which die with him on the cross. With us he shares, by his grace, the righteousness which belongs to HIM as the Son of God.

This Good News interacts with the faithful in our time in spite of the larger cultural orientation toward despair and the fear of death. As believers, we still grieve death — our own and that of those we love — but because God’s promise proves trustworthy, we can rest in the assurance that death does not have the final word. Instead, the final word belongs to God, whose promise IS life in Christ.

I think that All Saints Day aims, as a ritual event, to put us in mind, not only of all the saints who have gone before us, but also to remember that WE are the saints. Here and Now. We are examples in the world in real time. Our faith will also have impact on the generations that follow. Our understanding and way of being run counter to Culture (the “powers and principalities” of the kosmos, “the prince of this world”, “the patterns of this world,” etc.), and this gives us hope in the face of death and decay, in the face of every kind of darkness. It falls to US SAINTS to share this Good News, which we ourselves have already received — to share it with a world that desperately needs to hear it, aches to hear it.