As part of our 50th year celebration, Messiah’s worship team wished to reconnect members with the traditions of the church. A series of bulletin inserts called “Worship Matters” was created to help members and visitors better understand some of our worship practices. If visiting or as a refresher, you might like to read them here.
Liturgical Worship? According to the Introduction in Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW), “The Lutheran confessions describe the church in terms of the worshiping assembly…The Holy Spirit gathers the people of God around Jesus Christ present in the word of God and the sacraments, so that the Spirit may in turn send them into the world to continue the ingathering mission of God’s reign.”
The style of Lutheran worship connects us with the synagogue worship participated in by Jesus and his first disciples. People shared scripture, listened to preaching, prayed and sang hymns. You will find this basic, meditative format still used by Jewish people today. In Christian circles as they were no longer welcome in the synagogue, the format was expanded to include the ministry and teachings of Jesus. Even among Lutherans, it is sometimes internationally still called “the mass,” but we do not understand it to be a sacrifice on our part.
In the Christian “liturgical” traditions, we share similar patterns and structures of worship. Liturgy means “a form or formulary according to which public religious worship.” In other words, the liturgy is the shape of our worship which often includes: public, corporate confession or thanksgiving for baptism; a gathering song and prayers; scripture reading(s); a hymn of the day echoing the reading(s); sharing our faith through the words of a creed; prayers of intercession; sharing the Lord’s Peace (in the Bible called the Kiss of Peace by Paul); the Lord’s Supper; sending song(s) and prayer(s); and dismissal or charge.
Today, liturgical faith traditions include: The Roman Catholic Church, Presbyterian and Reformed denominations; Lutheran churches; the Anglican Communion (including Episcopalians); and the United Methodists. Although early anabaptist and separatist traditions (like the Baptists and modern evangelicals) see no need for set liturgies, many retain them in some form. This means the majority of modern Christians remain liturgical.
Unlike some Christian traditions, Lutherans allow for great latitude in worship. Whatever is not explicitly prohibited in scripture may be incorporated. Local communities are welcome to prayerfully discern minor changes appropriate for their special observances or contexts. The assembly may gather anywhere, and it is considered valid where “the gospel is purely preached and the holy sacraments are administered according to the gospel” (Augsburg Confession, 7).
Like the earliest Christian church communities, we gather to bless God, each other and the world. We worship God and share in God’s grace. Lutherans believe that every community gathered by the Holy Spirit remains connected to the whole church. We are united within the “communion of saints,” in the holy catholic (universal) church, of every time and place.
The Confession & Peace: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves” (1 John 1:8). Although it is true that people can pray to the Lord to seek forgiveness, both psychologically and spiritually, it proves helpful to confess to others. Both the Church and science affirms this. A lingering sense of guilt can affect your body, mind and spirit. To have others affirm Christ’s forgiveness for you and perhaps help one discern how to make amends over any sin can be helpful.
In response to this need, the Church offers private confession with the pastor. Traditionally, whatever is shared is to be kept secret. Even the courts (with some limitations) respect this. The power of what Martin Luther called a “healing medicine” should not be underestimated. In fact, his first edition of the Lutheran Catechism included it along with Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as a Sacrament. (It was eventually removed as there is no physical sign associated with this ritual of the Church. Still, the ritual remains a practice of Lutheranism and many other denominations.)
As Church, we may also publicly confess our sins through prayer together in the assembly. The pastor, representing the authority of Christ Jesus and relying on his promises, speaks what some Christians call an assurance of pardon. The pastor forgives you in the name of Jesus Christ and his church. According to modern practice, this need not be every week, but tradition holds it is appropriate to do so at any worship – especially when the Lord’s Supper is celebrated. In ancient days, the Church would often offer private confession with the leader of the local faith community each time they gathered.
Closely associated with confession is the exchange of Christ’s peace. This was a practice referred to several times in scripture (see Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:26; and 1 Peter 5:14). Reflecting the Mediterranean practice of offering a kiss to the cheek in greeting, this originally was known as the “kiss of peace” or “holy kiss.” Right before the Lord’s Supper, those assembled who had been previously baptized would be invited to greet one another in the name of Jesus Christ; offering a blessing such as “Christ’s peace be with you.” As brothers and sisters in Christ, it was deemed important to put all enmity aside prior to gathering at the Lord’s Table. Back then, it was considered so sacred and serious a moment that the unbaptized catechumens would be dismissed for instruction prior to the kiss and Lord’s Supper being shared. In some traditions, this practice is lost or has devolved into a simple greeting of your neighbor. Yet in the majority of Christendom, it remains part of the worship service in some form; most often before the Lord’s Supper.
Holy Communion: Often called the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, or even the Eucharist (meaning at its root “thanksgiving”: recalling the Jewish blessings that proclaim – especially during a meal – God’s works of creation, redemption, and sanctification), Messiah seeks to include the practice in worship weekly. It is Messiah’s practice to invite all baptized, communing Christians to participate. If you have not been baptized or never communed and wish to participate in the meal at future services, please see our pastor.
For those communing, come up toward the altar rail as invited by the ushers, take a small communion cup from its stand to your right, and then kneel or stand at the altar rail. Our worship leaders will offer you bread and pour wine into your cup from our pouring chalice – saying “the body of Christ given for you” and “the blood of Christ shed for you.” An appropriate response is to say “Amen,” and then some Christians choose to bless themselves with the sign of the cross. Upon request, gluten free wafers and grape juice are also available. Alternatively, anyone who wishes may come up for a blessing, or speak to an usher and you may be communed at your seat.
Along with baptism, Lutherans understand this meal to be a sacrament, a visible, physical means by which the justifying action of God is conveyed to the believer. We believe that the Body and Blood of Christ are “truly and substantially present in, with and under the forms” of consecrated bread and wine (the elements) through faith. Most simply, this meal is a means of God’s saving grace to concretely enter into our lives. Jesus asked his disciples to “do this in remembrance of me.”
The Paschal Candle: Fire has long been a sign of God’s presence. The Old Testament is full of examples: the burning bush on Mount Sinai, the pillar of fire in the desert, the tabernacle lamps, and the sacrificial fires on the altar of the temple in Jerusalem. Early Christians rather naturally viewed the kindling of new fire as a symbol of the presence of their resurrected Lord, the new pillar of fire.
In Jerusalem, the earliest Christians blessed and lighted candles every Saturday night. By at least the fifth or sixth century, the custom had become associated with celebrations of the Resurrection, and paschal candles had found their way into the liturgy of the Western church.
In the medieval church, allegorical meaning was ascribed to every aspect of the paschal candle. Unlighted, it represented Christ’s death and burial; lighted, it represented the splendor and glory of Christ’s resurrection. The wick represented Christ’s humanity, and the halo of flame represented his divinity. Other candles lighted from the paschal candle symbolized Christ giving the Holy Spirit to the disciples.
For us, the symbolism of Christ’s triumph over the darkness of sin and death is preeminent. This symbolism is most apparent when a new paschal candle is introduced each year to the congregation during the Easter Vigil on Easter Eve. The word “paschal” means of or relating to Easter.
Therefore, the candle should be placed in a place of prominence when being lit, often near the baptismal font to remind us of our baptism. During the ritual of baptism, a candle is lit and offered the person baptized as we listen to the words of Matthew 5:16 – “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
The candle is lit for all fifty days of Easter and often on Pentecost, although some extinguish the candle on Ascension Day to symbolize Christ’s departure. The candle is also lit on days where there is a baptism or a funeral; reminding us that Jesus light is always with us. When the liturgical color is white (often relating to the highest of celebrations related to Jesus’ life and ministry), it is lit as well.
The Paschal candle is traditionally wax and offered new each year. The paschal candle should be of substantial size, even huge, if its important symbolism is to speak clearly. Even the stand in which it rests should be of great size. The Easter proclamation sings the glories of the candle, for it is “fed by the melting wax which the bees, your servants, have made for the substance of this candle.”
Why all the colors? In the Christian tradition, colors are used for vestments and paraments, but a unified system of colors developed only gradually and haphazardly until and through the Middle Ages. Today, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America provides a system of colors for use by its congregations; for the most part, the same system is also used by Roman and Anglican churches.
It is helpful to realize that colors have different associations across the globe, just as they have had different associations over the course of the church’s history. For example, white is the color North American and European Christians typically associate with Christmas and Easter; the color white signifying the purity of Christ, light or joy. In many Eastern cultures, however, white connotes mourning. Red, associated with energy, blood or fire among other things in Western culture, is the color associated with purity in India. The colors serve to adorn the worship space, and to call attention to the nature of the season or festival being celebrated. They are inspired by scripture, culture and the seasons. They are not mandated by scripture.
Advent: In the ELCA, blue is commonly associated with Advent, suggesting hope. This association originated in Scandinavia, probably because purple dye was too expensive for churches to use, or perhaps because blue was formally associated with purity and thus the Virgin Mary. Some assemblies use purple in Advent, a color associated with royalty and often associated with penance as the church awaits and prepares for the newborn king.
Christmas/Epiphany of Our Lord/Baptism of Our Lord/Transfiguration of Our Lord/Easter/Holy Trinity/All Saints/Christ the King: White calls to mind purity, and that Jesus is our light and joy. Some also use gold; signifying glory or kingship. Lesser festivals and commemorations are also white, unless a martyr is celebrated, in which case bright red is suggested. The Paschal candle is lit when the color is white (also on Pentecost, as well as during baptisms and funerals) reminding us of Christ’s presence.
Time after Epiphany/Time After Pentecost: Green is used for its symbolism of our growth in Christ. Green, in a sense, is a “neutral color,” used when more festive or more somber color is not appointed. Some assemblies use differing shades of green throughout the Sundays after Pentecost, a lighter green in summer and a darker green in fall.
Ash Wednesday/Lent/Holy Week: Purple is the preferred color for the days of Lent suggesting royalty, repentance, and solemnity. Historically, black has also been used on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Currently, no vestments or paraments are used on Good Friday, after the stripping of the altar on the night of Maundy Thursday. Scarlet (not red) is the preferred color of Passion/Palm Sunday and Holy Week, as it suggests the deep color of blood. If a parish does not have scarlet vestments, purple may be used. Scarlet or white is often preferred for Maundy Thursday, the day the Lord’s Supper was instituted.
Pentecost/Reformation Day: Red as the color of a bright fire is used when we remember the tongues of fire descended on the crowd in Jerusalem and among Lutherans on Reformation Day. The color may also be used on days when the Church remembers Apostles and martyrs. The Paschal candle is traditionally lit on Pentecost (as the close to the Easter season), but some communities cease lighting the candle on the Feast of the Ascension.
Our Assembly Song:* Singing is in the marrow of the church. Songs have always coursed through its veins, and Spirit-filled words and melodies have reverberated in its spaces and in the hearts of its people.
Scripture not only names singers and song leaders—consider Miriam, the Levites, Hannah, Zechariah, Mary, Simeon, angel choirs, psalmists and even the morning stars—but also describes singing by gathered assemblies: Jesus and the disciples sang a hymn at the Last Supper (Matthew 26:30; Mark 14:26), and Paul’s letters exhort the churches at Ephesus and Colossae to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16).
The Lutheran church has often been called the “singing church” for good reason: We are hardwired to sing because Martin Luther himself loved singing. Evidence of his musicianship and compositional skill is well-known, and his appreciation for music as a means of teaching, edification and community formation played a significant role in the spread of the Reformation. Luther didn’t “invent” assembly singing, but ascribed new importance to it: literally and figuratively, he gave the assembly a new voice.
And though singing assemblies may be led or assisted by cantors, choirs and instruments, the ELCA “Principles for Worship” reminds us that, ultimately, “the assembly is the primary musical ensemble, and its song is the core of all music in worship.”
Singing together forms community: individual voices are joined into a single body that breathes as one, feels rhythm as one, even sways or dances together to a beat. There is power in communal singing that transcends occasion and purpose: hymns, folk music and protest songs possess the capacity to articulate and shape identities and collective memories of communities that sing them in their time and place.
For the church, communal singing proclaims God’s word and bears us along our baptismal journeys through the Sundays and seasons of the church year. We sing at gatherings and sendings, at baptisms and funerals, around tables, and we offer praises, prayers and laments through song. Assembly song is always voiced in new ways by changing communities and changing contexts. According to “Principles for Worship,” “the gathered assembly not only sings in one voice, but its song is added to the song of the church throughout the world and throughout the ages.”
*This final section is an excerpt from Our Assembly Song, by Chad Fothergill, Living Lutheran, October 30, 2018.
Additional questions? You might like to visit our Explore Frequently Asked Questions page.