Liturgical Titbits: A Tale of Two Days

As we learned in the previous post, the church retained two different calendars side by side: the lunar and the solar. Thus there was a clash between two ways of dividing up the year.

But there is also another clash in the church’s time-keeping. We think of the new day as beginning at midnight. So did the ancient Romans. However, in Palestine, each day ended at sunset. As a result, from Old Testament times, Jews have marked the beginning of a new day at sunset. By Roman reckoning, the Sabbath began on Friday evening and ended on Saturday evening—but for the Jews, that was just one day, the Sabbath.
Christianity emerged out of Judaism, but soon spread into the Roman world. As a result, both ways of time-keeping exist side-by-side. On the whole, the church operates the Roman way, from midnight to midnight. At the same time, the Jewish way hasn’t gone away altogether.

For centuries, Christians in the West have begun the Lord’s Day (Sunday) with Saturday night vespers. Many churches also have the first Communion service on Saturday evening. At Christmas, we have Midnight Mass, which often finishes rather than starts at midnight.

The modern observance of the Easter Vigil is a mixture of the two systems. Originally an all-night service (hence the name ‘vigil’). In the Eastern Orthodox church, midnight is marked with particular festivity, with the lighting of fresh candles and the proclamation of Christ’s resurrection. In the West, it is common to have the service already on Saturday evening as the ‘first Mass of Easter’—since by biblical reckoning, the day of Christ’s resurrection began at sundown on Saturday.

This clash of times will no doubt persist until the end of the world—until the revelation of a new heaven and a new earth, where there will no longer be night but one endless day (Rev. 21:23), and no seasons, but a perpetual season of fruitfulness (Rev 22:2).

Liturgical Titbits: A Tale of Two Calendars

The Christian Church was borne out of the mixed soil of the Old Testament Scriptures, first-century Judaism and the Græco-Roman world. This mixture of influences is still with us today when it comes to measuring and marking time in the Church’s life.

The worship of the Old Testament, and much of the Judaism of Palestine in the first century, operated with a lunar calendar, where the change of months was determined by the cycle of the moon. Months, and therefore festivals, would not always occur at the same time of the natural year.

This is why the chief festival of the Church, Easter, which is based on the Jewish festival of Passover, can occur on any time between 22 March and 25 April, depending on when the first full moon of the spring occurs.

On the other hand, the Romans (like us) used the solar calendar, so that months always occur at exactly the same time of the natural year. Festivals that have no Old Testament precedent but were introduced by Christians, such as Christmas, therefore have a fixed date.

Some of the seasons of the Church Year relate to fixed dates (e.g. Advent for the 4 Sundays before Christmas), some to movable dates (e.g. Lent for 40 days before Easter), and others vary depending on how the two relate (Epiphany and Pentecost).
The Church Year has kept both calendars side by side, giving us a number of fixed festivals, with Easter moving to and fro. As a result, in any given year, we might have a short Epiphany season and a long Pentecost (Trinity season), or vice versa.

Liturgical Titbits: The Idle Congregation

“Why don’t we get to do more in the service? Why does the pastor get to do (almost) everything? All that the congregation seems to do is to sing hymns and say ‘Amen’ a lot. Why? It makes it feel like the pastor is more special and important, and makes us feel devalued.”

This way of thinking is based on a misunderstanding of what happens in Christian worship. It assumes that in church, like in much of modern life, doing makes you important, so doing less means you are less important. It also assumes that what happens in worship is that we come to do things. The more we do, the more involved and important we are.

But that is not what worship is about. Lutherans often use the term ‘Divine Service’, a translation of the German term Gottesdienst. What happens at church is Divine Service: in worship, God serves us. He is the host, we are the guests.

And like at any great banquet, the host does his serving by means of servants. They do the laying of the table, the cooking, the cleaning, the distribution of food and drink, the clearing up. At a banquet, the more you do, the less important you are, and the more important you are, the less you have to do. The guest of honour only has to sit back and wait for food and drink to appear and for dirty dishes to disappear again.

And so it is in church. The congregation are the guests of honour at the heavenly banquet. God is the host, Jesus the food; the invitation comes from the Holy Spirit. And then there are servants (the pastor(s) and any lay members who assist him/them) who distribute the goodies from the host to the guests. The more you do, the less important you are. The more important you are, the less you do. All you have to do is sit and wait for God’s gifts to appear, and your dirty dishes to be taken away. The only thing left to do is to receive and to say ‘Thank you’.

Immediately after instituting the Lord’s Supper, Jesus taught this to His disciples:

For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves. (Luke 22:27)

The Apology of the Augsburg Confession expresses the same truth thus:

The difference between this faith and the righteousness of the Law can be easily discerned. Faith is the divine service (latreia) that receives the benefits offered by God. The righteousness of the Law is the divine service (latreia) that offers to God our merits. God wants to be worshipped through faith so that we receive from Him those things He promises and offers. (Apology of the Augsburg Confession, IV:29)

So, when in church, don’t do something: just sit there!

P.S. Yes, in many churches there is a lot more ‘lay activity’ in the service than in the Lutheran church. But that’s because frequently they have a very different view on what the nature worship is.

What’s with all the Psalm chanting

From last Sunday’s service bulletin at Our Saviour Lutheran Church

Where do we have Psalms in the service?

The Introit, the Gradual and (often) the Alleluia Verse are portions of Psalms. Sometimes, a whole Psalm takes the place of the Gradual. Also, some of the hymns we sing are paraphrases of Psalms (such as The Mighty Fortress and Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven).

Why do we have Psalms in the service?

The Psalms are the hymn book of the Bible. They are the only hymns Jesus would have sung (e.g. Matt 26:30), and they have always been the chief songs of the church (Col. 3:16). When we sing the Psalms, we are singing the same songs that the people of God have sung since the second millennium bc! And when we sing the Psalms, we are singing words that God has given for us to sing. So why wouldn’t we sing the Psalms?!

Why do we sing the Psalms?
Psalms are songs. They were written to be sung. In fact, there are still some musical instructions left in the book of Psalms in the Bible—although unfortunately we no longer know what they mean.

So singing the Psalms is like singing the hymns. They are meant to be sung. And speaking the Psalms are like speaking hymns: not wrong, but not the full experience.

But why do we chant?

The Psalms are ancient poems, written with a very different idea of what singing is from our own. Unlike in the hymns in our hymnal, there’s no regular meter. Therefore, it’s almost impossible to set them to a regular, repeated tune.

As a result, the way Psalms have been sung for at least 1,500 years (and possibly much longer) is by chanting, where most of the words are sung to a repeated note, with other notes only at the ends of phrases. This way, it’s possible for the congregation to sing together with a simple melody. The only alternatives are speaking (but see the previous question), or writing an enormously long melody that covered the whole Psalm—but that would be very hard to learn!

But since the word ‘chant’ just means ‘song’, you can just say that we ‘sing’ the Psalms if that sounds better to you, and it would be just as true.

The Structure of the Collect

The following was printed in the service bulletin at Our Saviour Lutheran Church on 25 August 2013 (Trinity 13). As far as I’m aware, the mnemonic was invented by the Rev. Bosco Peters on the site Liturgy. At any rate, that’s where I learned it.

The Collect always takes the same form. This form of prayer goes back to very early in the Church’s history, and has stood the test of time. Not every Collect has all these parts, but the structure remains the same.

Address: The prayer opens with an address to God.
Rationale: The church’s prayer isn’t based simply on our perception of what we need. Rather, we appeal to something we know about God and His promises.
Petition: This is the gift we are asking for.
Benefit: Here we name what benefit we ask to have from God’s gift.
Doxology: The conclusion, invoking the name of Jesus and giving glory to the Triune God.

A childishly simple mnemonic for remembering this structure is: You-Who-Do-To-Through.

Here is today’s Collect broken down into its constituent parts:
Address: Almighty and everlasting God,
Rationale: omitted
Petition: give us an increase of faith, hope, and charity; and … make us love what You have commanded
Benefit: that we may obtain what You have promised;
Doxology: through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Tip for the day: Try this at home. It’s a great way to give structure to our prayers, and to root them in God’s own promises.

This Way and That: Liturgical Orientation

Another liturgical titbit, from last Sunday’s service bulletin at Our Saviour Lutheran Church:

Liturgical Titbits: Liturgical Orientation

One of the noticeable things about the liturgist in a Lutheran service is the fact that he doesn’t stand still. One moment, he’s facing the congregation, another he’s got his back turned on them. What’s that all about?

The clue is in the fact that the liturgist has a dual role in the service. Sometimes he addresses God with, or on behalf of, the congregation. At other times, he addresses the congregation on behalf of God.

Whenever he speaks with or on behalf of the congregation (invocation, confession, Psalms, hymns, prayers), the liturgist faces the same way as the congregation: towards the altar (which symbolises God’s presence). And whenever he speaks on behalf of God (absolution, salutation, readings, sermon, blessing), he faces the congregation being addressed.

The one exception is the Service of the Sacrament, when the liturgist does both at once. There is an explanation for this—but it’s somewhat debatable, so we’ll leave that to another time.

The hymns in the service

From last Sunday’s service bulletin at Our Saviour Lutheran Church:

Hymn singing in church is actually a fairly recent innovation: traditionally, hymns were mainly sung at Matins and Vespers, but not in the Sunday main (Communion) service. The practice of hymn-singing in the Communion service was a Lutheran innovation at the time of the Reformation. It serves a simple purpose: to put the word of God in the mouths and ears of the congregation. (Col 3:16).

Hence, the hymns are part of the day’s liturgy in the same way that the readings and prayers are, and for the same reason. The different hymns of the service have their own role in the service.

1. The opening hymn is usually either a hymn of invocation, asking for God to bless the congregation that has gathered to receive His gifts, or a hymn of confession, preparing them for the confession of sins.

2. The sermon hymn, or hymn of the day, is linked specifically to the day’s readings, and its main role is to teach the word to the congregation.

3. The communion hymn should really be a distribution hymn, sung during the Communion to assist the congregation to appreciate and rightly to receive the Sacrament.

4. The closing hymn is frequently a hymn of praise, thanking God for the gifts received, or a commissioning hymn, sending the congregation back into the world with the word of God on their lips as they prepare to serve God and neighbour in their daily lives.

Stand to pray, sit to sing

The latest Liturgical Titbit:

Lutherans, unlike everyone else it seems, stand to pray and sit to sing. Why?

The reason for sitting for hymns is almost certainly entirely prosaic. Lutheran hymns were traditionally long, and often sung very slowly. If hymns last 20 minutes or more, sitting down is quite sensible. Since that’s rarely an issue these days, perhaps this is a tradition we would do well to reconsider.

As for prayer, the Bible knows three postures for prayer: standing, kneeling and prostration. All of these are ways of recognising the fact that when we pray we are in God’s presence.

Just as we stand in the presence of a judge or a monarch, we stand in the presence of God—unless of course we kneel or prostrate ourselves. These latter postures are expressions of humility and penitence, of our dependence on God and our unworthiness. This is why kneeling for prayers of penitence (such as the Confession) is particularly appropriate. Again, perhaps this is something for us to reconsider.

Whole body worship

From time to time, I add a little section called ‘Liturgical Titbits’ to the service bulletin at Our Saviour Lutheran Church. The idea is that, over time, the congregation’s knowledge and understanding of various aspects of the liturgy will grow—and bring about a growing appreciation thereof.

These pieces are, as the name suggests, very brief, so that people will bother to read them, and have little trouble learning, marking and inwardly digesting them.

Inspired by this post by John Halton, here’s last Sunday’s entry (the longest one yet). I will post others as and when.

P.S. These little snippets are never scholarly and rarely very complete. I hope they are accurate, though. So liturgiologists, don’t nit-pick!

Liturgical Titbits: Whole-Body Worship

Some people have a deep suspicion of any kind of ‘bowing and scraping’. Worship is a matter of the soul and the mind, to be done in words, not gestures.
Though this is well-meaning, it is not how the Bible speaks. The biblical words for “worship”, in both Hebrew and Greek, mean physical postures: bowing, kneeling, prostration.

Just as we were created body, mind and soul, God saves us body, mind and soul (“I believe in the resurrection of the body!”). And so it is appropriate to worship Him with body, mind and soul. At the same time, physical gestures can be helpful ways to remind and teach our minds the meaning of what we speak and sing.

Therefore, you may:

Bow:
* at the altar on entering and leaving the church, to acknowledge its role as a symbol of God’s presence, and the presence of Christ in the Sacrament
* during the doxology at the end of the Psalm (‘Glory be to the Father, etc.’), as a sign of reverence for the Triune God
* during the words ‘and was incarnate … and was made man’ in the Creed, as a sign of reverence for the mystery of the incarnation (but not originally: see next page)
* during the first half of the Sanctus (‘Holy, holy, holy…’), as a sign of reverence for the presence of God.
In Isaiah 6, where this song comes from, Isaiah didn’t just bow, but prostrated himself at God’s presence.
* whenever we sing of worshipping God (e.g. in the Gloria in excelsis and the Venite in Matins), since that’s what the word ‘worship’ usually means.
Christians throughout the centuries have also bowed their head at the mention of the name of Jesus, on the basis of Philippians 2:9–11. This includes the conclusion of the Collect (… ‘through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord…’).

Kneel (or genuflect) :
* during the words “and was incarnate … and was made man” in the Creed. Bowing (see previous page) was introduced as a less arduous alternative in the 1960s.
* all the way from the Proper Preface (‘It is truly good, right and salutary…) to the end of the Agnus Dei (‘Lamb of God’), as a sign of reverence for the great mystery of Christ’s presence in the sacrament. Or, at least:
* during the Words of Institution. Or, at least:
* following the consecration of each element, to acknowledge and reverence the presence of Christ’s body and blood in our midst.
* whenever we sing of kneeling before God (e.g. in the Venite in Matins)

Raise your hands: This is the customary stance for prayer. Jewish people have prayed with uplifted arms for as long as we know, and it was also assumed to be the posture of prayer by St. Paul (1 Timothy 2:8).

Make the sign of the cross:
* whenever the name of the Triune God is pronounced over, or by, the Christian. This is in remembrance of our Baptism.
* during the announcing of the Gospel and the words of Christ in the Words of Institution. This is to acknowledge that Christ comes to us in grace, as at our Baptism.