The Lutheran commitment as Church is to receive and keep what the Apostles handed down to us. If everything else was lost, that which the Apostles handed down must be kept for us to be Church. That which they handed down is the reading of Scripture, the preaching of Christ (and its accompanying confession of faith--the Creed), and the Lord’s Supper. These are the core around which the liturgy is built.
Around the twin poles of Word and Sacrament are what we call “the Ordinaries”:
1. Kyrie: “Lord, Have Mercy”
2. Gloria: “Glory be to God on High”
4. Sanctus: “Holy, Holy, Holy”
5. Agnus Dei: “Lamb of God”
The ordinaries are not only biblical, but they bring to us the central teaching of the Gospel.
- In the Kyrie we come before God confessing that He is merciful. In Scripture, we see that this is the cry of faith repeated over and again by broken sinners. If the same sin condition afflicts us, and it does, then such a cry for mercy seems only natural to the Christian.
- In the Gloria, the incarnation and its meaning becomes the cause of our praise. Do you notice that we don’t praise God because of His abstract sovereignty or overall awesomeness? We praise God precisely because He was made flesh for us and born of a virgin, to redeem us. When we sing, “Glory be to God on high, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men,” we are making the angelic hymn our own. In the Gloria, the heavenly worship becomes ours, as we confess that the God who became flesh for us is about to feed us with that flesh once placed in the manger.
- In the Creed, we confess the faith in the same words that Christians have throughout the centuries--and this was precisely what was “traditioned” to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 15. Remember the creeds predate the New Testament canon and was universally used in the Church as a ‘Readers Digest’ statement of the faith.
- In the Sanctus, we sing the song of angels, from Isaiah’s vision and St. John’s vision of heaven, with the Psalm 118:26, which the people sang as Jesus rode into Jerusalem to die for us. We sing, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” As in the Gloria, we confess Christ’s incarnation--but now in a fuller way, where we connect His incarnation to the presence of angels, heaven being opened to us, and the atoning death of Jesus.
- The Agnus Dei all brings this to a head, when John the Baptizer points out to us that Christ, the Lamb of God, takes away the world’s sin. The liturgy leads us to see that that Christ is some distant God, but on the altar. That is why we say what we say “have mercy on us” and “grant us peace.”
Lutherans keep the liturgy (or at least are supposed to)--not because of a loyalty to the past, or a love of ceremony--because it leads us to the heart and soul of our faith. If you take the ordinaries away (although there might be “Jesus-talk” aplenty), the content of who Jesus is and what He has done often begins to be obscured.
The ordinaries are called ordinary because they are meant to be part of our language of faith. They need to be so “ordinary” to us, so automatic to our ways of speaking and forming doctrine, that we can see, through repetition, the true extra-ordinary nature of who Christ is and what He has done.
Again, keeping Christ central, our other traditional ceremonies, such as Introits and Graduals, guide the people to the heart of the Word (the lessons and preaching) and the Word-made-flesh (the Sacrament) through the Word.
Now within that framework, there is room for variety--each congregation will have unique musical gifts, slight changes, and pastors gifted with different abilities. At the same time, for the sake of love, a pastor should act in concert with the whole church, and not seek to allow his own tastes and leanings, or those of his parishioners, to rule.
Being “traditional” doesn’t mean that nothing changes. A once-for-all-time liturgy does not exist, and should not exist. The Divine Service has and will change, reflecting such things as language and available musicians and instruments. But those changes always need to come in a catholic way, without offense. Change must be deliberate, ensuring that it is faithful to the non-negotiable Apostolic Tradition. Change must be for proclaiming that Apostolic Tradition to a culture that needs to be conformed to it, but not in such a way that it allows that culture to change the Apostolic Tradition.
Ownership of the Liturgy
Whose liturgy is it? It is not mine, or my congregation’s, or yours or your congregation’s. As it is not given to me to change the words of the Creed, so it is not given to me to change the words of the faith. The liturgy binds us to a larger community--the Church that is in Denver, and Washington, and cities spanning the globe, and the Church of our grandfathers--the church of Walther, and Luther, of Aquinas and Augustine, of angels and archangels. (Bo Giertz, Liturgy and Spiritual Awakening, “All liturgy demands the submerging of self,” pg. 31)
Rich Futrell, Pastor
Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church, Kimberling City, MO
Where we receive and confess the faith of the Church (in and with the Augsburg Confession): The faith once delivered to the saints, the faith of Christ Jesus, His Word of the Gospel, His full forgiveness of sins, His flesh and blood given and poured out for us, and His gracious gift of life for body, soul, and spirit.