Thursday, May 18, 2006

Eggs, bread, coffee, and liturgical conversation

I had an interesting discussion with Mrs. Hollywood at the breakfast table today. We were discussing liturgical ceremony. Don't all married couples talk about such things over Gevalia coffee and homemade bread? [Mrs. Hollywood really outdid herself today, making a pineapple coconut bread that is just this side of divine...]

We've been to a lot of Lutheran worship services over the years. And many of our churches have abandoned the historic liturgy in favor of more culturally "relevant" methods of "doing church" - such as having rock music, big screens, dancing girls, etc. Worship is done in front of wheeled altars in gymnasia or multi-purpose rooms. It has become a culture of "anything goes" - all justified by the number of butts in the pews. The LCMS has increasingly become a synod of beancounters.

But even in traditional and liturgical Missouri Synod churches, ceremony is, as a rule, kept to a bare minimum. Very few of our churches use incense, for example. Few make use of processions before and after the service. Pastors who genuflect are a rarity (and laypeople who do, even more on the endandered species list). Pastors who do not chant are the rule rather than the exception.

In short, most LCMS worship (even at its best) is rather bland and "unplugged." And we justify this Spartan atmosphere by appealing to evangelical liberty. Regarding our liturgical practice, we Lutherans often ask the question: "Is this mandated by Scripture, or not." If the answer is "not," we categorize the practice as "adiaphora" - a Greek word that means "indifferent." In other words, Jesus doesn't establish genuflecting and incense at the celebration of the Mass, so it's a matter of personal choice and taste. It is thus seen as unimportant, as some kind of add-on that is not worth fussing over. If it will cost money and make the service longer - fuhgetaboutit!

And God forbid that we look Catholic!

This way of thinking has led us to a kind of liturgical minimalism - "what is the very least I can get away with doing, and still get the benefit of God's promise?" becomes the resulting question. Our lazy, sinful flesh loves this question, because as every good Lutheran knows, salvation is by grace alone. There is nothing I have to do, so I will do nothing.

Hence as long as the bare-minimum bread and wine are used, with the bare-minimum Words of Institution, and as long as a bare-minimum eating and drinking happen, that's all we need. So, that's all we do. Hopefully, using disposable cups for convenience's sake, and running through it as quickly as possible so people can get home in time for the game.

What is missing in this matter is what is confessed. For the way we celebrate the Lord's Supper, and the way we distribute it, and the way we eat it all say something about what we believe. We can teach with our mouths all we want about what the catechism says, we can even memorize it word for word - but our theoretical beliefs are negated by our actions when we casually run through the consecration of the bread and wine with the same gestures and indifference as we click through all the channels on the remote. And all the high and pious words about the Real Presence aren't truly confessed if we approach the altar in the same way that we walk toward the garden shed to get the weedwacker.

So, although ceremonies are not mandated by scripture, they do reveal what we believe. While Scripture is silent as to whether or not I can do the chicken dance at the communion rail, I would not put that into the category of "evangelical freedom." We do great harm in calling liturgy an adiaphoron. Our Lutheran confessions never say such a thing.

The reformers were careful to point out that ceremonies need not be uniform everywhere. Some versions of the Western liturgy call for the Creed to be said before the sermon, some after. Some churches may retain the offertory procession, while others may not. Local custom can dictate such things. But it is an entirely different matter to omit the Creed, or worse yet, change it. It is something entirely different to omit the entire liturgy and just gather on Sunday morning and sing "praise choruses" for an hour. This is the flaw with the question: "What does the Bible explicitly say we have to do?"

The purpose of ceremony is to tell us what is happening in a non-verbal way. It is teaching without a lecture. It is also a way for us to confess to ourselves, to others, and to the Lord what we believe. It is a form of non-verbal prayer and confession of faith. While we certainly don't know what is in a person's heart, just what is suggested when a person crosses himself after receiving communion? What is suggested when someone doesn't? This is not to compel anyone, but let's look at what is being confessed.

If an unbeliever walks into a church and has no explanation other than what he sees and hears, what would he conclude if:

1) the pastor and laity bow and kneel often during the service, make the sign of the cross, and are all paying rapt attention, are not chattering, are not giggling, are dressed in conservative, non-casual clothing (with the pastor fully vested), incense is used, and music is a stately choral expression of a deep theological nature.


2) The pastor and laity never bow, kneel, or cross themselves, are looking around and chatting, laughing, dressed as if they are going to a barbecue (with the pastor not, or only minimally vested), no distinct aroma, and pop music with jingle-like choruses.

Which would come across as really believing what they claim to believe - particularly in the Lutheran tradition and confession, where we claim to believe Jesus is miraculously and physically present in Word and Sacrament in order to commune intimately with us - not merely symbolically present to impart some data to us?

God established high liturgical worship practices in the Old Testament, in the Tabernacle and Temple. The priests wore specific vestments that had symbolic meaning (which served to teach the people and remind the priest of what he is really doing in the exercise of his office). There was a time and a place for specific prayers and actions. It was formal and ritualistic. It was also a sensual experience: rooted in sights, sounds, tastes, and smells. Incense and flame were used to symbolize the divine presence. Beautiful artwork and craftsmanship confessed the holiness of the place.

God gave us the gift of high liturgy even when people were already able to see what was happening: the gathering of the animals at the altar, the slitting of the animals' throats and draining of their blood, the butchering of the animal, and its cooking. Even with this overwhelming sensual experience, God still gave specific instructions regarding other sensual input.

In fact, worship was (and perhaps still should be) almost a sensory overload. The Temple attendee was blasted with visual, aural, and olfactory reminders of Yahweh's justice and mercy, of sin and death, and also of holiness and salvation. There was nothing cerebral or theoretical about it. And the liturgy taught and confessed the faith.

New Testament worship is different, insofar as the one all-availing sacrifice has been done. We no longer slaughter animals. Instead, we offer God our meager gifts of our bodies, our time, our offerings of money and of praise, while God gives us something of infinite value - Jesus Himself, in Word and in physical element. But Jesus is veiled under the forms of bread and wine, and of words. Aside from the odor of the wine, we don't really smell anything. We don't hear the wailing of the sacrificial victim. We don't see blood being drained from the Lamb's veins. There is nothing "in your face" about eating bread and drinking wine, in hearing a pastor read out of a book or offer prayer.

So we need the sensual reminders the Lord gave us in the Old Testament all the more!

We need our pastors to wear their priestly garb, so as to teach us about the holy office and to confess what they are doing at the altar. We need incense to remind us of the sweet aroma of the sacrifice of our Lord that rises to heaven to plead for us, along with the ascendant prayers of the saints. We need to look around and see beautiful and ornate artistry, to remind us that we are in the very presence of Heaven! We need to see people genuflecting and bowing, so as to remind us of being in the real presence of the King! We need to see people make the sign of the cross, so as to call to mind how we have been redeemed. We need to hear chanting, and singing, and bells ringing to call our wandering minds back to the miracle of the Lord's presence among us!

We need these things. And if we need them, how can we call them "indifferent things." We suffer by their lack. We have lost something in allowing them to fall into disuse. And our worship and theology have come to resemble that of our Protestant brethren who do not believe and confess the sacramental presence of God among us.

While Scripture doesn't mandate high liturgical practices, it does operate under the assumption that this is how we worship. God has told us in very fine detail what His tastes in sactuary adornment and furniture are. God told us that He likes incense and ceremony, that He likes beauty and ritual. And this divine preference has the added advantage of teaching us as well. For once again, we learn perhaps more from observing what people do than what they say.

Instead of asking the question: "What is the least I can get away with and have a valid sacrament?" - maybe we should ask: "How can we elevate the level of dignity and glory in our worship so as to please God and teach our people the miracle of Christ among us?" Instead of asking: "What are we free to get rid of under Christian liberty?" maybe we should be asking: "What are we free do make use of under Christian liberty?" Instead of asking the question: "How can our worship be pleasing to man so we can bring in the numbers and money?" maybe we need to ask: "How can our worship be theocentric (God-centered), so that genuine worship (i.e. the reception of God's gifts) can be unimpeded by our sinful desire to please ourselves?"

Oh yes, we also had scrambled eggs. I almost forgot. A really nice breakfast!


Miss Grace said...

You didn't really get into the fact that the ceremonies also serve to compel the sinful, human rational mind to believe something that it doesn't want to. The eyes and mind see that only bread and wine are present and this is just ritual. The ceremonies show by contrast that something divine is happening. The rational mind needs to be beaten into submission so to speak.
I know that personally I have to continually remind myself during the consecration and distribution to pay complete and undivided attention as a miracle is truly happening. Don't look at my bulletin, or the noise that I just heard behind me or look around at what other people are doing, while I tell myself that Jesus is really present in the flesh. It would be easier if I had some outside help of high ceremony and other people doing the same.
That was awesome bread, wasn't it!
- Mrs. Hollywood

Michael said...

This really is a persuasive argument for the importance of liturgy, and it should be read along with Father Eckart's latest posting on Gottesblog.

I have two question which I had earlier fielded to a fellow blogger within the confessional Lutheran school but to which I have not received an answer, was as follows ( and perhaps you might consider tackling this question):
what should be the position of a Christian towards the venerations of saints?
Can we ask for their intercession?

Secondly, may we venerate an icon?
Best regards,
Michaelk Borussia

Whey Lay said...

Good post again, I was reminded of the first time I attended a "full service" service and was stunned at its impact and beauty. The choir, pastor, asst. pastor and acolyte (who held the Order of Serviec for pastor) in the setting or a 100+ year old church gave me a glimpse into what "We hold the Mass in the highest respect" really means. Upon returning to my congregation with a Sparten sancuary, a pastor dressed like a sales rep, and listening to the blanded service, all I could think of was, poor. Poor in beauty, poor in song, poor in spirit. When I looked at the wood carvings and decorations of the host church I realized that even if a congregation today wanted such a thing it would be beyond their means. We in the LCMS are casting away real treasure for what the world says is important. How sad.
I have recently wondered if the lack of reverence, entailed in attitude, dress and conduct in the sanctuary is possibly due to a lack of belief in the Real Presence at the Lord's supper. Or is it a cause and effect thing, because we started acting like we weren't really in the presence of our Lord and God, we began disbelieving.
The hosting church I visited this last winter was Trinity Lutheran in Danville, Illinois. If you find yourself stranded in east central Illinois on a Sunday, this is a great place to worship.
Regarding michael's questions. My thought on saint veneration is yes as far as observation of their feast days, and recollections of their lives and faith. Intercession, no. Jesus Christ is the sole intercessor between man and God. But it's not my vocation so I deferr to Father Hollywood.

Chris Jones said...

Fr Hollywood,

Great post. What can I say but Amen?

Miss Grace,

That was awesome bread, wasn't it!

The truly awesome bread is, of course, the bread on the altar. I am sure that the pineapple coconut bread was, as Father says, "just this side of divine", but the bread on the altar is just on the other side.


what should be the position of a Christian towards the venerations of saints? Can we ask for their intercession?

We most certainly may (and should!) venerate the saints. Our Confessions tell us that the saints are worthy of honor. The difficulty for Lutherans is not whether we may venerate the saints, but in what manner we may do so. The Lutheran Confessions do not allow Lutheran Churches to express our veneration of the saints by asking for their prayers, although the Confessions admit that the saints in heaven do, in fact, pray for us. But they teach, nevertheless, that to ask for those prayers is not proper.

Speaking only for myself, and only as a layman, I think this is one that the Reformers got wrong. The invocation of saints is a part of the tradition we received, and is not condemned by Scripture. I believe that the abuse of the practice should have been reformed, but the practice itself should have been kept. It is an expression of the doctrine of the communion of saints -- a doctrine which finds little concrete expression in contemporary Lutheranism. Even the ways of honoring the saints that the Confessions explicitly endorse are little practiced in many Lutheran parishes.

Secondly, may we venerate an icon?

This one is easier: absolutely, we may. The seventh ecumenical council, which approved the veneration of icons, is part of our heritage as Lutherans, and there is nothing in Scripture or the Lutheran Confessions which contradicts the council's teachings. According to the seventh council, anyone who says that venerating icons is idolatrous is a heretic.

That's not to say that venerating icons should be required. But outward acts of reverence towards icons are perfectly acceptable.

Michael said...

Dear Chris, dear 'Whey',
Thank you for your insights. I'm sympathetic to appealing to the saints with the hope that they provide assistance in appealing to our Lord on our behalf. Would anyone know of authoritative texts within the Lutheran tradition that take up this theme?

Rosko said...

I like this post, Father Hollywood. See you in Mass on Sunday, and I apologize now for mine and my girlfriend's wearing of jeans. we're both in town doing manual labor, and all slacks were dirty before leaving Minnesota, and then Chicago (they got left in MN). But we will be there, and act reverently. Pax!

Favorite Apron said...

I really don't want my Divine Service to look like "the world."
Bring on the ceremony. Something special is happening here.

Zaphod Beeblebrox said...

It was once explained to me that the Divine Service is like a rubber band. You can twist it, you can pull it, and you can rearrange it. You can even omit or add certain things. What's important is that you have Word and you have Sacrament. You have your scripture readings and every so often you have the Lord's Supper.

Maria said...

Amen, Father Hollywood. If only your view was more common than the Spartan one.

Mother said...

Where is the GOLDEN AARDIE??

Father Hollywood said...


I think Chris and Whey (where's the tuffit?) have pretty much covered the Lutheran approach to veneration and intercession.

I would refer you to the Augsburg Confession and the Apology to the Augsburg Confession, article 21 of both documents, for a more complete treatment.

We do believe in veneration, but not worship, of the saints. And I see nothing wrong with venerating icons (the 7th Council and St. John of Damascus speak eloquently about this).

I will go out on a limb and offer a speculation. There is a beautiful Roman Catholic litany that mentions various saints in a kind of roll call, to which the people respond "Pray for us!" To hear this litany is to be reminded of the unity of the church, those living and those who have left this life, as well as the long, continuous chain of the faith that unites us to the ancient martyrs. Had the Roman Church only been engaging in this kind of "invocation" - I don't think the reformers would have had a problem with it.

However, in the Western Church, a cult developed around the saints, as though they were demi-gods in a pantheon. They also were assigned specific "jobs" - hence a toothache meant praying to St. Apollonia, and lost car keys are a petition to St. Anthony.

This, as well as the abuse of Purgatory and the application of the merits of the saints to others, is really what resulted in the abolition of even the "pray for us" litany. The reformers really saw no way to interpret seeking intercession of the saints that wouldn't carry a lot of baggage. I do wonder if the Roman Church were more like the Eastern Church in this regard if the reformers would have made it an issue.

Having said that, there are a few examples of Lutheran "prayers" to saints. Luther retained the Hail Mary prayer in his personal prayer book - giving it an evangelical interpretion (it didn't include the final line "pray for us sinners..." at that time (this is in Luther's Works, the American edition, though I don't have the volume number offhand). Also, the hymn "Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones" (which comes from the Eastern Liturgy) directly invokes the angels, the saints, and specifically the Blessed Virgin, not to bid petitions, but to praise them. I also recall that the Apology draws a disctinction between public prayer in the church vs. private prayer of individuals in this matter.

Thanks for writing, and introducing some fascinating discussion!

Father Hollywood said...

Favorite Apron:

I think you touch on a very important concept: the sacred vs. the profane. The "profane" doesn't mean "dirty," but rather the ordinary. There is simply a different paradigm when we enter the sacred. Someone recently gave me Dr. Kleinig's commentary on Leviticus (CPH), and it really drives home the point that we've lost today - that there is a wall of separation between the holy and the secular.

Father Hollywood said...


What a shame. But there is something profound in this analogy. A rubber band is flexible, so that we can bend it and shape it to conform to our will.

However, the Christian life is the opposite, isn't it? The object of our encounter with our Lord in worship is not for Him to change, but for me to conform to His will, to submit to His holiness.

The rubber band analogy reflects a terribly anthropocentric view of worship. The Book of Leviticus sure doesn't present such a model.

Thanks for passing this along!

Pastor Beisel said...

Evangelical laziness. That is what I think is the biggest problem with pastors who don't make use of the ceremonies. They are often too lazy to study the conduct of the serivce, or they think themselves superior to those who have gone before them.

As to the veneration of the saints and icons, I think Fr. Beane did a pretty good job of covering that topic. However, I would simply add that all is not well, in my opinion, with the way Eastern Christians "venerate" the saints and ask them to intercede for them. If I am going to ask anyone to intercede for me, it will be Jesus. If we ask anyone to pray for us, let it be Christ, who we know from the SCriptures is our Intercessor before the Father. That would be the most evangelical practice, according to the Scriptures. And yet, even this is not necessary, for Christ says in the Gospel of John: "Yet I do not tell you that I will pray the Father for you, for the Father Himself loves you." Every baptized Christian is tenderly invited to ask their heavenly Father in the name of Christ even as dear children ask their dear father. Someone might use the OT for tomorrow as a Scriptural example of the church asking someone (Moses) to pray for them. But Moses was to them what Jesus is to the Church--the divinely appointed mediator between God and men. Therefore it was appropriate that they ask Moses to pray for them, even as we might say: "Christ, intecede for us to your Father,etc."

Pastor Beisel said...

By the way, great post on ceremony and the liturgy. You basically described the contents of Paul H. D. Lang's book, Ceremony and Celebration, recently reprinted by Redeemer Press (Fort Wayne).

This is by no means a completely informal, unceremonial culture, despite what some people may think. It is, however, a sinful, unbelieving culture (as is the rest of the world) that has no problem having ceremony at a High School Home Coming foot ball came half time show or a beauty queen pageant, but when it comes to Church it should be completely devoid of it. Those two pictures you had said it all.

Pastor Beisel said...

I commented to someone recently that that attitude which you described (what's the "least" I can do and get away with it?) is like a lazy husband, who doesn't love his wife, and so he tries to "get away" with the minimum amount of effort to please her. "No where does it say that I *have* to get my wife roses on Valentine's Day, so I won't."

Father Hollywood said...


Thanks for your kind words, once again.

My remarks about the Eastern use of prayers to the saints is only that of a casual observer. For example, I have heard Eastern prayers that conclude "through the intercessions of St. So and so, or the Blessed Theotokos," or some such. Such a prayer is more an acknowledgment that they are still part of the Church and still praying and interceding for us (as Christians on this side of the grave are implored to do) - even as the Book of Revelation and the Apology describe the saints' continued and ongoing prayers for us.

I believe we do well to note that the saints, including the Lord's mother, as well as our own relatives who now stand before the Lord, pray for us - just as it is comforting when we face surgery or other problems we ask our pastors and our congregations to pray for us.

In other words, I think the Eastern Church's practice is not nearly as problematic as the Western Church's - which led to the reformers abolishing the practice completely. Well, almost completely. We still sing "Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones." ;-)

You are right about ceremony. Even baptists resort to a liturgy for a wedding. But there is a trend toward greater and greater informality and a rejection of ceremony. Whether this will continue, or whether the pendulum will came back the other way, only time will tell.

BTW, an excellent analogy regarding liturgical minimalism. Our Lord is the bridegroom, and should we, His bride, think in such minimalistic terms? Well put!

Rev Jar said...

Pr. Beane, I'm not sure if I completely agree with what you have written. It almost seems as if you are saying that if we do not chant, if we do not have icons, if we do not use incense, then we are not Lutheran. What about those pastors who are tone deaf? Should we have them chant the liturgy anyways? How is that calling "our wandering minds back to the miracle of the Lord's presence among us?"

I guess if we have solid, doctrinal Lutheran teaching and preaching, that doesn't matter if we don't chant or swing the incense. Surely that's not what you're saying, is it?

Pr. Jared C. Tucher

Father Hollywood said...

Hey Jared:

Nice to hear from you.

First of all, very few people are "tone deaf." There are some, and in such cases, perhaps having a cantor assisting would be a good thing. I understand this is what Prof. Pless did at ULC.

But I think it would be a mistake to gainsay chanting because of a few tone deaf pastors. We could use the same logic to say that the Words of Institution ought not be required to be spoken, since there are mute pastors who can only use sign language. The exception is the exception, not the rule. We deal with the exceptions as they arise, but we don't redefine the norm based on them.

On the other hand, I know plenty of pastors who do not have good singing voices, but they work through it, and chant anyway. Nobody says every pastor must be Pavorotti. It's not a performance. And indeed, practice and repetition every Sunday really help. However, I find a lot of guys are just either lazy or self-conscious - both of which are things that pastors just need to get over.

Even people who can't sing like angels don't resort to speaking "Happy Birthday To You" at their childrens' birthday celebrations. No, speaking in such a situation would be inappropriate to the festive mood and the gloriousness of the occasion. How much more is the Lord's Supper!

At our three years at the sem, we had the opportunity to join chapel choir. Since I had never had voice training, and had never sung in public, I took a wise pastor's advice and signed up. It was like getting several years of lessons in chanting. It was also free. And it was an easy grade. But most guys couldn't be bothered, perhaps because it encroached a little bit on lunch time. For whatever reason, they didn't see it as a priority.

As far as incense and icons, my current congregation has neither. Maybe we will some day (we do have a beautiful statue of our Lord over the altar, though, as well as a processional crucifix). We're the poorer for not using such things. But we are making steady progress. The senior pastor and I introduced ashes this year, as well as a Gospel procession. These things do take time.

But what a shame we American Lutherans have been denied the beauty of traditional Lutheran worship in its fullness! For in it we *are* teaching correct doctrine - not merely with a lecture, or with data, but with a multimedia experience. The liturgy is doctrine lived out and confessed.

What we have instead is a kind of minimalism. "How little can I do and still be Lutheran?" I think it's a flawed approach. What kind of husband and father asks: "What's the very least I can spend on my wife on our anniversary? How little time can I get away with spending with my children and still be considered a father?"

I do think most of our American Lutheran churches confess one thing in Bible class, but something else in the sanctuary. The former in what we say, the latter in how we say it.

Anyway, blessings on your ministry, and again, it's great to hear from a classmate!

Orycteropus Afer said...

Father H, great post that generated some outstanding follow-up. I'm gonna have to find me a new goldsmith if you keep taking all my Golden Aardvarks.


Father Hollywood said...

Dear Aardvark, I'm humbled and honored. I'm also gratified to see someone posting in Latin on my blog - even if only a genus and species! ;-)