Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Narrative Commentary on the Divine Service

This took the place of the sermon last Sunday. It's been about 6 years since we did something like this at Messiah. It involved a series of brief commentaries on each portion of the liturgy. I borrowed some material from various sources, and for the life of me, I can't remember where I found them. I don't want to plagiarize here nor claim that all of this is original, so if any of you reading this happen to recognize some quotations or allusions, please let me know. One source I can say for sure I used was John Pless' "Narrative Commentary on the Divine Service" found in his catechetical book entitled Didache.

Narrative Commentary on the Divine Service (October 11, 2009)


I. COMMENTARY: “The Preparation”

Though it is fitting that the people of God greet one another, especially visitors, and engage in joyful conversation before the service begins, it is important that worshipers take time to prepare themselves for the service once they enter the sanctuary. As you sit in the pew, take time to get acquainted with the order of service for the morning, the theme, and the various Scripture readings. Take a moment to ask God’s blessing for the pastor and musicians and for yourself as you prepare to enter into His presence. Listen to the organ or piano prelude, which is not intended as mere background music, but invites all to give attention to the Word of God and prayer. Then, join in singing the first hymn—which is usually a hymn of praise, a morning hymn, or a hymn of invocation to the Trinity or the Holy Spirit—setting the tone for what is to come.


II. COMMENTARY: “Invocation”

[DIRECT CONGREGATION TO TURN TO P. 151] The word “invocation” comes from the word “invoke” which means to “call upon.” As we begin our worship, we “call upon” the Triune God. These instructions are given with the Invocation: “The sign of the cross may be made by all in remembrance of their Baptism.” At our Baptism, the sign of the cross was made on our head and our heart as a mark or seal to signify that we belong to the Triune God. Many Christians continue to retrace that cross on themselves as a reminder of the new identity that they received in Holy Baptism.

The sign of the cross may also be made during the Absolution, at the end of the Creed, before and after the reception of the Body and Blood of Christ, after the dismissal from the Communion table, and at the Benediction. You will usually see a red cross printed at some of these suggested times. This is not something that makes you more pious or holy than anyone else, but if it helps you in your devotion and remembering who you are as God's baptized child, then by all means feel free to do it.


III. COMMENTARY: “Confession and Absolution; Introit”

Have you ever wondered why the confession of sins doesn’t list specific sins? There’s a reason for that. Since each of us is unique, it wouldn’t be possible to construct a confession that would apply to each of us. What might be true for one person wouldn’t necessarily be true for another. That’s why the confession of sins gets to the heart of the matter—our heart—confessing the truth that we are all sinners. Prior to the confession, time is allowed for silence to reflect on God’s Word. Here is the time for each worshiper to examine his or her own life and bring personal significance to the words to be confessed by all. However, the main emphasis here is always on the Absolution. Here the pastor speaks not his own opinions or pious thoughts, but God’s clear word of pardon. Furthermore, he speaks not by his own authority, but in the stead of Christ and according to His command.

Forgiven and free, we joyfully sing the “Introit” which means “to enter.” In ancient days, the congregation would gather outside the church building and the people would sing psalms together until the clergy arrived. This was in the days when a general confession was not part of the service, such as we have. When the priest or pastor would arrive, a processional cross would be raised high, and all would follow while chanting a psalm. The people would “enter” the building, ready to receive God's gifts in the Divine Service. In the same way, we anticipate receiving God's gifts each time we “enter” here. You may have noticed, too, how the pastor steps up into the chancel, symbolizing the way in which we may freely approach God in worship because our sins have been forgiven through Christ Jesus.



The prayer “Lord, have mercy” differs from the repentant prayer spoken in the confession of sins. Freed and absolved, we now enter the Lord’s presence in confident prayer. In ancient times, as the king entered a city, the people greeted him with the Greek words, “Kyrie eleison” … “Lord, have mercy.” Their cry for mercy expressed their trust in the ruler to provide for their every need. As our Lord comes to us through His Word and Sacraments, we call on Him to show mercy to us and, indeed, to the whole world.


V. COMMENTARY: “Gloria in excelsis”

The Lord to whom we cry for mercy is the Savior who has come to us in the flesh. On the night of Jesus’ birth, the angels sang this joyous refrain recorded in Luke 2:14, “Gloria in excelsis,” which means “Glory in the highest!” Through this ancient hymn, the Church continues to give praise to the triune God for sending our Lord Jesus to “take away the sin of the world.”

At other times, especially during the Easter season, we sing “This is the Feast,” a recent canticle, or scriptural song. Its words are based on the song the host of heaven sings in the Book of Revelation. It proclaims the victory of the Lamb who was crucified for us. During Advent and Lent, we omit these two Hymns of Praise. During Advent the Church waits in joyful anticipation of the news of Christ’s birth at Christmas when the angels sang their “Glorias.” And in the penitential season of Lent, we wait until the victorious feast of Easter before we sing “This is the Feast” once again.


VI. COMMENTARY: “Collect of the Day”

The Collect of the Day is the first prayer of the Divine Service. Unlike other prayers that will be prayed later in the service, this prayer is unique in that it focuses our attention on what God has promised in His word and asks for grace and strength to live accordingly. The word collect comes from the Latin collecta and carries with it the meaning of gathering up the central message of the Word of God. The historic collects have been used in the Church for centuries. While these prayers may appear complicated at first, their beauty lies in the simplicity of the message.

The pastor, as the authorized representative of the Lord says, “The Lord be with you.” The congregation responds, “And also with you.” With these words, pastor and congregation are bound together in this salutation, as the pastor prays the Collect of the Day on behalf of the congregation.


VII. COMMENTARY: Scripture Readings and Sermon

“In the Service so far, there has been a gradual approach to the altar of God. Our spirits have been purified and elevated as we ascended the four steps of contrition, longing, praise, and petition. In all of this we have spoken. We now pause in reverent silence as God speaks. The thought that nothing we can say or do can compare in importance with His Word invests the readings of the liturgical lessons with special solemnity and dignity.” (Reed, The Lutheran Liturgy) The lessons used in the Service each Sunday are part of a three-year cycle of texts—called a “lectionary”—chosen by the Church to present the basic themes of the Christian faith consistently throughout the year. The use of a lectionary helps to insure that our worship is not subject to the whims or interests of an individual pastor or the local concerns of a congregation.

Between the Old Testament and Epistle lessons, we sing the “Gradual.” This is a selection of portions of the Psalms sung in response to the First Lesson and serving as a bridge to the Epistle which follows. The title “Gradual” is derived from the fact that these Psalm verses were originally sung from a step—in Latin “gradus”—of the Altar.

In joyful anticipation of hearing the Holy Gospel, we stand and sing “Alleluia,” which means “Praise the Lord.” In between, we sing words from John chapter 6. These words express our anticipation of the Lord who comes to us in His words, words which are spirit and life.

Following the Gospel, we sing a hymn related to the theme of the day. Then we listen to the sermon, in which the pastor proclaims Law and Gospel to the congregation, expounding on a portion of one of the readings for the day.



VIII. COMMENTARY: “Nicene Creed”

In 325 AD, a council of pastors gathered in the city of Nicea (modern Isnik, in Turkey) to put an end to a serious false teaching in the Church, which held that Jesus was not true God. The council issued a confession of faith that clearly professed Jesus Christ as “very God of very God, begotten, not made.” Additions were made in 381 AD to the third article, emphasizing that the Holy Spirit is also true God.

For more than 1,600 years the Nicene Creed has been confessed by the Church. Its clear, bold statements concerning the triune God are still relevant in our day as the Church struggles against those who reject the truth concerning our God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. At other times, we confess the Apostles' Creed. On Trinity Sunday, our custom is to confess the much longer Athanasian Creed.


IX. COMMENTARY: “Prayer of the Church”

The Prayer of the Church is a special time in the service for the Church to serve the whole world. In 1 Timothy 2:1-2, St. Paul urged that “requests, prayers, intercession, and thanksgiving be made for everyone—for kings and all those in authority.” And that is what we do—pray for the whole world.

Other prayers may include the Church, our congregation, our district and synod, as well as those called to serve at those levels, our nation and its leaders, the nations of the world, people in every kind of need (for example, homeless, addicted, lonely, despairing, wavering in the faith, etc.). We pray for peaceful times, good weather, godly society, and on and on. Through these prayers we are serving our neighbor and the whole world.


X. COMMENTARY: “Offertory”

Having received from the generosity of the Father who is the Giver of every good and perfect gift, we now give of the gifts we have been given. The offering is accompanied with an offertory from Psalm 116 which teaches us that the highest offering is simply to receive, in faith, the cup of salvation from the Lord's hand.


XI. COMMENTARY: “The Service of the Sacrament”

The liturgy of the Service of the Sacrament begins with the familiar words of the Preface: “The Lord be with you…” “Lift up your hearts…” These responses, which have been used at the beginning of the communion liturgy for at least 1,800 years, invite us to prepare to receive our Lord who comes to us through His Body and Blood.

The Preface concludes with a grand invitation for all those assembled to join their voices with the whole company of heaven, including those who have gone before us in the faith. These words remind us that the Church is truly catholic – universal – it is not limited by time or place. As we join our voices with the unending hymn of praise that swirls around God’s throne in heaven, we experience a reality unlike anything else in the world. This is truly heaven on earth.

The Sanctus, meaning “Holy,” brings together the song of heaven's angels from Isaiah's vision of the temple and the acclamations of the crowd on Palm Sunday: “Holy, holy, holy … Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.” The holy Son of God truly comes to us with his body and blood. God in Christ is present on every altar where Holy Communion is celebrated, just as present as he was in the temple in Jerusalem. And “Hosanna” is a proper cry at this time, since it means “Save us, now!”



XII. COMMENTARY: “Agnus Dei; Distribution of Holy Communion”

When John the Baptist pointed his followers to Christ, he spoke these words: “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29) “Agnus Dei” is Latin for “Lamb of God.” The Agnus Dei is a hymn sung to Christ who is truly present in His body and blood for us to eat and drink. As we feast on the Lamb of God, we receive forgiveness, assurance, and glad confidence.

The Distribution of Holy Communion follows the Agnus Dei. Upon arriving at the altar to receive the Lord’s Body and Blood, it is appropriate to bow toward the altar before kneeling at the communion rail. This action is a way of acknowledging the Lord’s presence in His Body and Blood in this sacred meal. The same may be done before leaving the altar. Far from being a meaningless ritual, this action is a powerful witness, as it reminds us of the miraculous gift we receive in this sacrament.




XIII. COMMENTARY: “Post-Communion Canticle”

Having received the Lord's body and blood for our salvation, we depart singing one of two canticles. It is appropriate, of course, to “thank the Lord and sing his praise” for his gifts in the Sacrament we have just received. Or we may sing Simeon's song, the “Nunc Dimittis,” which mean “Now dismiss” in Latin. These words, first spoken by Simeon, are especially appropriate as God’s people leave the Communion table and prepare to return to their vocations, their various stations in life. The aged Simeon held the promised Savior in his arms. How much more do we praise God for His goodness, now that we have tasted and seen the goodness of the Lord.


XIV. COMMENTARY: “Post-Communion Collect & Benediction”

After a post-communion prayer, a blessing is spoken over the people, the same words God told Aaron to speak over the people in Numbers 6. Throughout the Divine Service, God lavishes His gifts on His people. They respond in prayer and thanksgiving. And they go forth into the world as His gifted people, for through God’s gifts of Word and Sacrament, they have been remade to be His very own.


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