The First Reading during the service is usually drawn from the Hebrew Scriptures.
When I started re-reading them as an adult, I was a little surprised that anyone writing the narrative of their nation would include stories of cowardly forefathers and family infighting. (Of course, in the Gospels Jesus's disciples don't come across as the brightest lights in the room.)
But after some reflection, I realized that those unvarnished snippets gave the stories authenticity — the Scriptures simply seemed more plausible than a collection of exclusively heroic encounters ever could.
I was always uncomfortable with — and still am uncomfortable with — the notion of biblical literalism. Yet I appreciate accounts in the Bible for how they're able to enlighten us about human nature and, among other things, encourage us to overcome our darker inclinations.
Studying Scripture — not liturgical worship — may have been the synagogue’s main purpose during the first century of the Common Era.[i]
In early Christian worship, “the readings were followed by a translation into the vernacular and could be concluded with a discourse or homily.”[ii] The Eastern church started dropping Hebrew Scripture from the liturgy during the fourth century;[iii] the Roman rite stopped the practice by the eighth century; and it was eliminated by Charlemagne’s liturgy advisor Alcuin.[iv]
Martin Luther didn’t include a reading from the Hebrew Scriptures in his 1523 reformed liturgy.[v] So the Lutheran practice of reading from them during the liturgy returned only — after more than a millennium — in the 20th century.[vi]
In synagogues during the time of Jesus, Torah scrolls were read from beginning to end. Early Christians also read in a continuous sequence, adding various snippets for specific feast days or seasons such as Advent or Easter.[vii]
No complete lectionary system — list of prescribed readings for specific Sundays — existed before the seventh century. The earliest lectionaries only appear as notes in the margins of Bibles.[viii] But separate, self-contained lectionaries eventually started appearing in the 11th and 12th centuries. Missals in medieval times varied until they were standardized in 1570.[ix] Martin Luther — with some exceptions, such the “straw epistle” in James — approved the selection that existed at the time.[x]
Today, many congregations follow the The Revised Common Lectionary (1992). Written by a committee of people from many denominations, the lectionary prescribes specific readings each week on a three-year cycle.
So each Sunday, as we listen to the Word of God, there’s a good chance Lutherans are reflecting on the same Scriptures as Roman Catholics, Anglicans and other fellow Christians worshipping in churches across North America.
The replica of a synagogue in Jesus’s lifetime at Nazareth Village, a historical period village in Nazareth, Israel. On Shabbats during the time of Jesus, a scroll of the Hebrew Scriptures would be read aloud as people sat on the steps and listened. Jesus is described as teaching in the synagogue at Nazareth (Mark 6:1-6, Matt. 13:54-58, Luke 4:16-30).
Remnants of the Galilean town of Capernaum where Jesus conducted much of his ministry.
Capernaum synagogue foundation
The ruins of a synagogue in Capernaum from about the third or fourth century (still the subject of scholarly debate) sit on top of foundations from the first century. Is too much of a stretch to suggest that Jesus might have taught in a synagogue at this location?
Remnants of Capernaum synagogue
Remnants of a synagogue in Capernaum situated on the edge of the Sea of Galilee.
Whether we’re riding emotional highs or scraping our spiritual depths, many of us turn to the psalms to express our states of heart and mind.
Psalms fall into three general categories:
- laments (complaints or pleas for help)
- praise (the most common type)
The Hebrew name for the Book of Psalms is “Tehilim” meaning “songs of praise.” The title Psalms comes from the Greek “psalmos” which is a translation of the Hebrew word “mizmor” meaning “a song with the accompaniment of a stringed instrument.”[i]
The Book of Psalms is a collection of 150 poetic prayers. Traditionally, people thought King David wrote most of them. But many of the notations claiming David wrote them aren’t original.[ii]
The current trend in biblical scholarship is that they were written during, or after, the exile to Babylon of the sixth century BCE. “None can be dated on linguistic grounds to the tenth century BCE, the period of David.”[iii]
Early Christians read psalms during worship, but they began singing them during times of persecution.[iv]
And by the time of Augustine (354-430 CE), congregations generally sang a psalm during worship — in the familiar call-and-response form — often after reading Hebrew Scriptures.[v] When Christianity became a public religion during the fourth century, psalm-singing became a practice during many parts of the liturgy.[vi]
Psalms became standard fare because they were thought to be safer: At a time the church feared the introduction of heresy, they were more canonical than earlier Christian hymns.[vii]
Martin Luther included psalms (sung) at various parts of his reformed liturgy, but they didn’t form large portions of the service.
Today, the Psalm during the liturgy is our communal response to the First Reading — it’s not a lesson in and of itself.[viii] It also points to how Scripture is being read during the service.[ix]
Goat paths criss-cross the Judean Desert, east of Jerusalem. Perhaps the author of Psalm 23 had these trails in mind when writing that God “leads me in right paths,” (Psalm 23:3).
King David statue
Pilgrims and tourists shuffle past a statue of King David in Jerusalem. The king holds a stringed instrument, conveying his reputation for being a composer.
An Orthodox Jewish man prays at a tomb some believe to be the burial place of the biblical King David. The tomb is located in the lower room of the same Crusader-built building in Jerusalem that contains the Upper Room, which is traditionally recognized as the site on which Jesus and his disciples celebrated The Last Supper.
The Second Reading shows that, for Lutherans, St. Paul is a paragon of preaching and theology.
“This second reading will frequently contain that witness, proclaiming justification by grace through faith, the theology of the cross, or the doctrine of vocation, to name only three of the central Pauline themes important to Lutheran identity.”[i]
Paul’s writings are among the oldest surviving Christian works. Biblical scholars have long debated which letters and epistles Paul wrote. But they generally agree that Paul wrote Romans; 1 and 2 Corinthians; Galatians; Philippians; 1 Thessalonians; and Philemon.
Letters tended to be personal communications while epistles were public messages meant to be circulated or read aloud to groups — their style was less personal, and message more permanent.[ii]
But some letters were also meant to be read to congregations. They were circulated and read publicly (Col. 4:15;1 Thes. 5:27; 2 Peter 3:16).”[iii] Obviously, The Book of Revelation was meant to be read in each of the seven churches scattered through modern-day western Turkey.
The epistle was a significant part of Martin Luther’s reformed masses in 1523 and 1526 — and continues to be today.
“The second reading will connect this assembly to the life of the earliest churches by bringing to us a letter that was sent among those churches, meant to be read aloud in them when they met as we do today.”[iv]
Nevertheless, occasionally the Second Readingis omitted to shorten the liturgy.[v]
Delivering the Second Reading during a Sunday service at St. Matthews Evangelical Lutheran Church in Kitchener, Ont., Canada.
In hostile territory
During the time of Jesus the region in northern Israel, at today's border with Lebanon, was known as Caesarea Philippi. It was the site of a large Pagan temple to the Greek god Pan. Today the site is called Banyas. The vast temple complex indicates the strength of Pagan worship at the time and hints at the huge task early evangelists would have faced in spreading the Gospel.
Gods and goddesses
The cliff face in Banyas, northern Israel, is pitted with niches thought to have held statues of gods and goddesses. Matt. 16:13 relates a story of Jesus and his disciples visiting this temple complex.
After the Second Reading, many of us rise and sing alleluia (sometimes spelled hallelujah) — but not during Lent.
This part of the liturgy, known as the Gospel Acclamation, isn’t a response to the Second Reading. “Rather, it involves the assembly in standing and welcoming the reading of the gospel as if they were welcoming the very presence of the risen Jesus Christ.”[i]
The Hebrew word “hallelujah” translates to “praise Yahweh” from the root “hll” (praise) and “Yah” (a shortened form of God’s name).[ii] It appears to have been used during liturgical worship. It is used as the opening or ending of 23 of the Psalms, all between Psalms 104-150, and only once in the body of the text, Psalm 135:3.[iii]
In the Christian Scriptures, the Hebrew word “hallelujah” is usually translated into some variation of “praise the Lord.” So in many modern translations of the New Testament, the word “hallelujah” appears only four times — Rev. 19: 1, 3, 4, 6.
Singing alleluia during Christian worship is an ancient practice: It was part of almost all of the liturgies in the East in the early church.
The close proximity between the alleluia and Gospel reading stems from a fourth-century text that simply reads: “sing alleluia and read the gospel.”[iv] But it probably wasn’t introduced into the mass in western churches until the second half of the seventh century.
Today, during the Gospel Acclamation, the cantor sometimes sings a verse taken from the upcoming Gospel passage. “It is as if the assembly is singing to Christ himself as he speaks to us through the gospel reading.”[v]
But to be less festive, we don’t sing the alleluia during Lent.[vi]
[vii] Cabie, The Church at Prayer: The Eucharist, 60
A painting of Jesus’s entrance into Jerusalem (Matt. 21:1-9; Mark 11:1-10; Luke 19:28-40; John 12:12-19) above the altar in a Franciscan church in Bethpage, near Bethany, from where Jesus’s entrance into Jerusalem would have begun. During worship in the fourth century, “the entrance of the gospel signified the coming of the Son of God.”[vii]
Where the journey began
The Franciscan church in Bethpage, near Bethany, in the area where Jesus's entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday would have begun.
A new dawn
A new dawn over Jerusalem greets pilgrims from Canada. The author of Tobit 13:17 writes “hallelujah” when describing the splendour of the new Jerusalem, a home for righteous Israelites, being built in the future. “A bright light will shine to all the ends of the earth; many nations will come to you from far away . . .” (Tobit 13:11a).
With all the standing, sitting — and, for some denominations, kneeling — the liturgy can seem like a gentle exercise regimen. A bit comical, really.
Yet the simple act of standing during the Gospel Reading is the one gesture that answers best, for me, the question of why we do what we do during worship. In short: Why liturgy?
We stand to show our respect because God is among us.
We stand, if we're able, during the the Gospel Reading to indicate the “prominence in our midst of the testimony to the living Word, Jesus Christ.”[i]
The Gospel Reading has been called the “liturgical summit” of the first half of the worship service: “The inspired records of eyewitnesses, convincing in their simplicity, sincerity, and power, reveal to us the Christ of God in the lowliness of his humanity and the majesty of his divinity.”[ii]
To acknowledge Jesus’s presence among us, we directly address him when we say “Glory to you, O Lord,” before the reading, and respond afterwards with “Praise to you, O Christ.”[iii]
Following a longstanding practice, we trace a small cross on the forehead, lips and chest, while saying “May this gospel be in my head, on my lips, and in my heart.” The tradition started with the Gospel reader in medieval times.[iv]
Martin Luther showed parishioners the importance of the Gospel reading by delivering it in German instead of Latin.[v]
Because many ELCIC congregations follow the Revised Common Lectionary, readings for any given Sunday rotate through a three-year cycle: The three synoptic (similar) Gospels Matthew, Mark and Luke are read in years A, B and C respectively. This year (2017-2018) we’re observing year B.
We read parts of the Gospel of John every year, especially during specific feast days. And for shorter weekday liturgies, the Gospel might be the only Scripture we read.
Parishioners stand as Rev. Katherine Altenburg delivers the weekly Gospel reading at St. Matthews Evangelical Lutheran Church in Kitchener, Ont., Canada.
Ministry in Galilee
Jesus spent most of his three-year ministry along the Sea of Galilee in modern-day northern Israel. It's where he called his disciples, calmed turbulent waters, healed a demoniac and, after his resurrection, met with the apostles whose witness forms the four Gospels.
Sea of Galilee
Looking east across the Sea of Galilee.
In my work as a journalist, my goal was to be as accurate and balanced as possible in my reporting.
And as I spent more time on the religion beat, I believe my opinion of religion, people of faith and faith communities became more accurate and balanced.
So, in addition to attending all types of worship services as part of my work, I started dropping into worship services for personal reasons — usually on Christmas Eve and Good Friday (yes...it was a long road back to faith).
I listened intently to the preachers' sermons. And, more often than not, I found nuggets of wisdom and appreciated their messages.
But folks who fidget long before the week's Sermon ends might consider themselves lucky to not have lived in the age of St. Paul.
“On the first day of the week, when we met to break bread, Paul was holding a discussion with them; since he intended to leave the next day, he continued speaking until midnight.” (Acts 13:16; 20:7).
The Sermon is such an important part of the liturgy that it’s omitted only under extraordinary circumstances.[i]
“More than simply personal reflection on the biblical texts, the sermon proclaims both ‘law,’ that is, the truth of our sin and death, and ‘gospel,’ the good news of the salvation of the world through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ” and is meant to “inspire the entire assembly for continued service in the world.”[ii]
Surprisingly, there was a time that priests were barred from delivering the sermon.
Because of fears of heresy in many western churches during the fourth and fifth centuries, preaching was the exclusive job of bishops. But exceptions were made, depending on the region. And in 529 CE, the Council of Vaison restored the priests' right to preach.[iii]
By the time of the Reformation, sermons were delivered only from time to time. They were preached during special services, often held in the open, or in the streets by friars who belonged to new orders that were dedicated to preaching.[iv]
But the Reformers put a new emphasis on preaching.[v] “For Luther, the word of God is not primarily a text; it is first and foremost an oral event — the act of preaching.”[vi]
[vi] Senn, Christian Liturgy: Catholic and Evangelical, 303.
Rev. Dr. Mark Harris delivers a sermon to an assembly in Waterloo Lutheran Seminary's Keffer Memorial Chapel.
The Water Gate, where the priest Ezra read the book of the Law to the assembled people (Neh. 8), would have been located among the homes in the background of this photograph looking southward from the Temple Mount.
The Siloam Pool
The Siloam Pool at the end of Hezekiah’s tunnel, in the Kidron Valley, at Jerusalem, in the area of the former Water Gate.
Pilgrims from the United States sit on the steps at the southern facade of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and receive a teaching.
Hymn of the Day
The Hymn of the Dayis a distinctly Lutheran practice.[i]
Following The Sermon, it’s the principal hymn of the service. “Essentially, it is a central way in which the assembly takes its part in the proclaiming God’s word for the Sunday or festival.”[ii]
The hymn reinforces the themes of the Scripture readings and The Sermon, and highlights the season of the church year. Given the importance of the Hymn of the Day, it should be substantial, grounded in Scripture, and offer “mature devotional or theological reflection.”[iii]
The Hymn of the Day used to be known as the Gradual Hymn.[iv] The term gradual stems from the place in the church from where the hymn was sung: the step (gradus) of the altar.[v]
Historically, parishioners sang the hymn before The Sermon in order to prepare themselves for it. But it’s difficult for people to know how a hymn relates to a sermon before hearing it, so the hymn was eventually placed after The Sermon.[vi]
As with the Scripture readings, various hymns became designated for specific Sundays throughout the church year.
“By singing the same hymn on the same day of each year (or every three years in some cases), the congregation reinforces the seasonal rhythm of the church year, learns a rich treasury of the best hymn tunes and texts, and provides itself with manifold opportunities for musical embellishment to intensify and highlight the meaning of the hymn.”[vii]
Choristers at St. Matthews Evangelical Lutheran Church in Kitchener, Ont., Canada, sing the Hymn of the Day.
Sheep and shepherds
Canadian pilgrims sing Christmas carols in a cave near Bethlehem. It's the type of cave in which shepherds kept their flocks. The region is now known as Shepherds’ Fields.
Shepherds' Fields today
A view of West Bank suburbs as seen from Shepherds’ Fields.
Fear was probably the biggest obstacle on my long road back to faith — the fear of looking stupid.
After all, as I weighed the arguments for belief in God, I was working in a newsroom where skepticism was second nature. Coming out as a person of faith — a Christian, no less — didn’t seem like the best career move or booster of social status in a workplace full of smart people.
As a reporter it was my natural state, too, to be skeptical. For example, take the creed: It was difficult to understand how someone could believe the incredible statements of faith in the Apostles’ Creed. (Resurrection of the body? Really?)
Thankfully, covering religion was my work and studying theology was my part-time pursuit.
I was able to eventually put into perspective faith and science; fact and metaphor; and became comfortable in the knowledge that things don’t have to be proven to still be true and worth believing.
Lutherans in Canada and the United States began reciting the Creed (Apostles')during communion services relatively recently — in the 20th century.[i]
But the practice of reciting Christian creeds dates back to the earliest days of the faith when candidates for baptism had to profess their belief in front of their congregations.
The earliest creeds among Christians were short, simple statements of belief such as “Jesus is Lord,” 1 Cor. 12.3, or “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God” which some translators include in the account of Philip baptizing the eunuch in Acts 8:37.[ii]
Only a few Christian creeds are used in the western church:
“All other affirmations of faith are denominational or local and fail to function as symbols of the faith of the universal church.”[iii]
The Apostles’ Creed evolved from a rite performed during the liturgy of adult baptism in Rome during the second century.[iv]
Scholars debate the origin of the Nicene Creed, which is a longer and more theologically developed statement of faith. But the Council of Chalcedon (451 CE) attributed its approval to the Council of Constantinople (381 CE).[v]
The Creed became part of the early church mass during struggles against a heresy called Arianism. While churches in the East incorporated the Creed into worship during the late fifth or early-sixth centuries, churches in the West affirmed its inclusion in 589 CE.
The church in Rome inserted the Creed into the mass in 1014, but it wasn’t part of every mass.[vi]
In North American Lutheran worship, the Apostles’ Creed is linked to baptism and is used during Lent, after Epiphany, and after Pentecost. The Nicene Creed is usually used on festival days, Advent, Christmas and Easter.[vii]
Traditional translations of the Creed use masculine pronouns when referring to God, but they’ve been removed in the translation for Evangelical Lutheran Worship. “God as God is not a male and therefore the words he and his in the old translations had become misleading when used of the Father and the Spirit.”[viii]
A mosaic of Jesus graces a wall in the Aya Sofya museum in Istanbul, Turkey. The city was formerly known as Constantinople.
A ritual in Rome
The Apostles’ Creed evolved from a rite performed during the liturgy of baptism in Rome during the second century.
Nicea and Iznik
The ancient city of Nicaea, now a town in Turkey called Iznik, is located southeast of Istanbul. The town centre is home to a reconstructed church also called Aya Sofya.
Council of Nicaea
The site of the first ecumenical council, the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, is submerged in Lake Iznik, beside the town of Iznik, in modern-dayTurkey.
Prayers of Intercession
Extending "thoughts and prayers" to victims of mass shootings in the United States these days has drawn ire from skeptics.
I understand that response.
But sincerely offered, thoughts and prayers are more powerful than cynics might admit. After all, everything — from the silliest digital apps to the most powerful social movements — began with a thought.
As we read the news and lament so much suffering in the world, thePrayers of Intercession give us a way to respond.
Previously called the Prayer of the Faithful, General Prayer or the Prayer of the Church, the Prayers of Intercession open us to the needs of others, and is an important act of our love and our growth as Christians.[i]
“[T]he word of God calls us again to our baptismal vocation as a priestly people of God. That priesthood is now undertaken as we together pray for people besides ourselves and for the needs of all of the creation.”[ii]
Early Christian leaders urged prayers of intercession for all people (1 Tim. 2:1), and by the middle of the third century the prayer was a fixture of worship. “Its petitions included not only the needs of the church, but also prayers for catechumens, penitents, those in affliction, travelers, prisoners, etc., as well as for the emperor and magistrates.”[iii]
In the early church, deacons had the responsibilities for ministering to the sick. So they also helped prepare the prayer of intercession.[iv]
The prayers were dropped from the Roman mass during the seventh century. But during the following century, especially in France and Germany, it was common to include a brief office called Prone after the sermon. The content of Prone varied, depending on the region, but often included prayers. “The use of the Prone later aided the Reformers in their reintroduction of the General Prayer (Prayer of the Church) into the Service.”[v]
Today, the Prayers of Intercessionare often said for fellow parishioners who have recently died. But those petitions should be thanksgiving — not pleas for God’s mercy on their souls.
“Beyond commending them in trust to God at the time of their death and burial, Lutheran assemblies generally do not pray in an intercessory way for the dead, for they are already fully in the hands of God.”[vi]
[vi] Brugh and Lathrop, The Sunday Assembly, 170-171
Guns 'n Moses
“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity” (1 Tim. 2:1-2). Above photo: Israeli soldiers patrol East Jerusalem.
Prayers for all people
Strolling near Old Jerusalem's Jaffa Gate. Prayers of Intercession are often made for all residents of the Holy Land.
Schoolgirls laugh on their way through the bazaar in Jerusalem.
We've arrived at the part of the liturgy that extroverts love and germophobes dread.
The Peace consists of greeting and gesture:
- the presider’s greeting, “The peace of Christ be with you always,” is followed by the congregation’s response, “And also with you.”
- the gesture is usually a kiss, hug, handshake or bow to your neighbour.
“Because of the presence of Jesus Christ, we give to each other what we are saying: Christ’s own peace.”[i]
A “holy kiss” was among the earliest gestures the first Christians shared during worship. It’s mentioned at the end of the epistles 1 Cor. 16:20, 2 Cor. 13:12 and 1 Thes. 5:26 — which are thought to be older than the Gospels.
By the middle of the second century the kiss marked the end of a separate service that was held before the eucharistic liturgy.[ii]
And by the time of the Reformation, the Peace took place during the second (communion) part of the service. Martin Luther’s Formulae Missa (1523) continued the practice of sharing a sign of Peace during the meal.
But the current practice follows the worship of the early church when the Peace is thought to have separated the Scripture readings from the Eucharistic prayer.[iii]
[ii] Aune. “Early Christian Worship” in TheAnchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 6, 973-989
[iii] Noakes. “From the Apostolic Fathers to Irenaeus,” in The Study of Liturgy, 212
“So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (Matt. 5:23-24). Even today the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus conducted his ministry, inspires feeling of God’s peace.
A sign of peace
Members of an assembly at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary share a hug during the Peace. The sign can be a hug or a handshake, a kiss or a nod to your neighbour.
A holy kiss?
Debbie Lou Ludolph, dean of chapel at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary, kisses her granddaughter during a communion service at the seminary. A “holy kiss” was among the earliest gestures the first Christians shared during worship.
A joyful peace
Sharing signs of Peace during a communion service at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary.