Thursday, February 14, 2013

What IS Lutheran Worship Anyway?

One afternoon, I was in Manhattan for a meeting.  I had some free time before the meeting started since I lucked out on the subway.  Every train arrived right after I did.  So I stopped at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. 

I love going into Saint Patrick’s.  The hush of the sacred just steps off of Fifth Avenue is always startling and refreshing.  The contrasts remind be a lot of DC.  The poor struggling with their lives in the shadow of power. 

You go into St. Patrick’s, and the homeless are sleeping on pews under the watchful eyes of the saints, people are praying, lighting candles, or browsing the side altars like they're shopping for vegetables.    

This particular afternoon, Mass was going on at the main altar.  As the doors closed behind me, the hush descended and I heard the familiar Hymn of Praise...This is the feast of victory for our God.  Alleluia.  Alleluia. 

They were singing right out of the Lutheran Book of Worship, Setting One, in one of the largest Roman Catholic cathedrals in the world. 

That’s the perfect place to begin thinking about Lutheran worship today.  Our Lutheran worship isn’t unique.  It grows out of the Western Catholic liturgical tradition.  A tradition we share in varying degrees, with Roman Catholics, Anglicans (Episcopalians), and the Reformed Churches (i.e. United Church of Christ, Presbyterian, Methodist etc.).   

So, what was Luther’s beef with the Mass?  In truth, not much. At least in practice anyway.  In the Reformation, Luther brought basically two innovations to the Mass.   First, he translated the Mass from Latin into German.  Something he did with the Bible too.  

Second, he restored the Word (preaching) to the Mass. In Luther’s time, the Mass stressed the sacramental.  The Lutheran understanding of the Mass held Word & Sacrament in equal importance and equal esteem.

The Sacraments were tangible expressions of the Word.  Nothing more and nothing less. 

That’s about it.  Two things, but they were doozies. 

It should be noted that Roman Catholics pretty much embraced Luther’s changes to the Mass with Vatican II about 50 years ago. 

Anglicans applied Luther’s principles and innovations and developed many rich spiritual resources, like the Book of Common Prayer, that still serves all Christians today. 

The biggest and most enduring thing that Luther did in terms of shaping the Mass was to connect worship to the daily lives of people.  He made the Word accessible.

For Lutherans, the Word of God doesn’t exist to support the life of an institution.  The Word & Sacraments were to nurture and enrich the lives of the faithful and equip them to live the Good News.  To be a blessing for all. 

These innovations continue to define Lutheran worship. 

Lutherans fiercely guard the integrity of the Word and Sacraments while continually struggling to find new ways to connect them with the ever changing lives of people. 

To be sure, sometimes we’re better at guarding than innovating. 

We still know that worship practices and forms will change and evolve as people’s lives change.  That’s a given for Lutheran worship. 

The integrity of Lutheran worship is not that we keep doing things the same way, but that we find new ways to declare the same thing: God’s unconditional love for all in Christ.

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