Sunday, March 17, 2013
The Divine Liturgy: Part 2 (Scripture Lessons through the General Prayer)
This is the second installment in a four part series explaining the various parts of the Eucharistic Liturgy of the Common Service. To view the first installment of the series, click here.
Scripture Lessons: Prophecy and Epistle
After the Collect has honed our attention on the theme first set by the Introit, we are ready to hear the reading of the Holy Scriptures. No one may teach or preach the Scriptures in the Church unless he is the servant of God called and ordained for the task. The proclamation of the Scriptures is one of the highest points of the Divine Service and should not be taken lightly. In ancient practice, the first reading was known as the “Prophecy” and was taken from the Old Testament. However, by the time of the Reformation, there were only two readings - Epistle and Gospel. This two-reading model mimicked the Jewish synagogue service, which also had set readings from the Law and the Prophets.
Lest one thinks that the Reformation-era model led to a neglect of the Old Testament, however, it should be noted that the Proper chants of the congregation are almost always from the Old Testament. In addition, while the prescribed Epistle lessons on Sundays were almost exclusively from the New Testament, the “Epistle” prescribed for weekdays was usually from the Old Testament. So the Old Testament was kept in regular use. Still, due to shifting social paradigms, the Sunday Service has become one of the only worship opportunities in most regions. In this light, the Common Service allows for a reading from the Old Testament.
Since the days of the Jewish synagogue, believers have chanted Psalms between the various Scripture lessons. In the earliest days of the Church, two whole Psalms were chanted between the three separate readings. Over the ages, the Psalms were shortened (likely to accommodate the extended chants to which they were set); by the time of the Reformation, the remnant of the first Psalm became known as the Gradual. Its name is drawn from the Latin word gradus, meaning “step,” because it was sung from the steps of the lectern from which the Gospel was read. The Gradual is usually comprised of two or three verses that specifically highlight the theme of the day.
The remnant of the second responsorial Psalm became known as the Alleluia, because it was preceded and followed by the ancient word “Alleluia,” a Latinization of a Hebrew word meaning “praise the Lord.” In medieval practice, the Alleluia verse became little more than an extension of the Gradual; in fact, in many missals it is listed with the Gradual. However, as previously mentioned, it was initially an entirely separate Psalm and should be viewed as a unique chant in its own right. In the Common Service tradition, where a Prophecy reading is often retained, the Alleluia verse is chanted after the Epistle and completely separated from the Gradual (which is chanted after the Prophecy), thus mimicking the ancient practice.
In the seasons of Septuagesima and Lent, the Alleluia Verse is replaced by the Tract, a chant which is comprised of selections from the Psalms (or other Scriptures) that usually take on a more somber tone. This “alleluia fast” is a symbol of our repentance in preparation for Passiontide. In contrast, the season of Easter sees the reinstatement of a second Alleluia verse, which displaces the Gradual; together, the two Alleluia verses of Easter are known as the “Greater Alleluia.”
Holy Gospel and its Acclamations
The Alleluia verse also serves as a segue into the acclamation of the Holy Gospel. The reading from the Holy Gospel is the pinnacle of the Service of the Word, because it represents the direct words and actions of our Lord during His time on earth. Before the reading of the Gospel, the people rise in due deference to Christ; following the ancient practice, they may also use their thumbs to make the sign of the cross three times - once over the forehead, once over the lips, and once over the heart - silently praying: “the Holy Gospel be in my mind, on my lips, and in my heart.” After the pastor introduces the book from which the Gospel shall be read, the people are unable to contain themselves and exclaim: Gloria tibi Domine, “Glory be to Thee, O Lord!” So too, after the reading, in unbridled joy they proclaim Laus tibi Christe, “Praise be to Thee, O Christ!”
Sequence and Hymn of the Day
In the Middle Ages, elaborate Latin hymns were often used to recapitulate the theme of the day on chief festivals of the Church year. These hymns were called Sequences (Sequentia), named after the Latin for “following.” They were called “what follows” because the texts of the earliest sequences were created to fit into the elaborate chants sung on the last syllable of the word “alleluia.” Hence, the Sequence is “what follows” the Alleluia verse and is liturgically an extension of the same. While only the Sequences for Easter and Pentecost (which were inspirations for Luther’s famous hymns “Christ Jesus Lay in Death’s Strong Bands” and “Come, Holy Ghost, God and Lord”) officially made it into the Roman Missal, there were numerous Sequences composed before and after the Reformation. The Lutheran Church took many of these Sequences and used them as inspiration for creating hymns in the vernacular, which are now known as the “Hymn of the Day.” Like its ancestor the Sequence, the Hymn of the Day is a Proper in its own right that is based on the theme of the day, recapitulating the Scripture lessons and chants. Unlike the Sequence, however, the Hymn of the Day is sung after the Credo in the Common Service tradition.
The Credo (meaning “I believe” in Latin), also known as the Nicene Creed, is the great Confession of the Christian faith professed by every sect claiming the Christian moniker, including the Papal church, the Eastern churches, and the Protestant denominations. In the Lutheran Church, as part of the Church Catholic, we hold the Nicene Creed as the second Confession or Symbol of our faith in the Book of Concord. The Creed originated at the First Council of Nicea (c. A.D. 325) and was finalized at the First Council of Constantinople (c. A.D. 381), which are respectively known as the First and Second Ecumenical Councils of the Church (because, like the Creed, they are universally accepted by all Christian sects). The Creed itself was crafted in opposition to the Arian heresy, which denied that Christ and the Holy Spirit are God. As such, it specifically focuses on the person of Christ and His “being of one substance with the Father;” that is, “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God.” It likewise emphasizes the Holy Spirit and His being the true “Lord and Giver of life,” Who “in unity with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified,” as only God should be. The Creed follows the reading of the Gospel in the Divine Service as the people’s profession of the fundamental truths revealed in Holy Scripture. While the Nicene Creed is universally used on Sundays and high feasts, in some regions the Apostles‘ Creed may be used instead, especially at non-Eucharistic Services. In the Lutheran tradition, the Athanasian Creed may also be used on the Feast of the Holy Trinity, because it specifically focuses on the nature and doctrine of the Most Blessed Trinity.
Sermon and Pax Votum
After reciting the basic truths of the Christian faith in the Nicene Creed and focusing on the specific theme of the day in the Hymn of the Day, the pastor ascends the steps of the pulpit for the preaching of the Sermon. The Sermon should be the highest point of the Service of the Word, because in it the Pastor brings together all of the day’s various Scripture lessons and chants and exposits them through the Gospel in the context of the primary teachings expressed by the Creed. The Sermon also serves to tie the Service of the Word into the Service of the Sacrament, causing the people to hunger for Christ’s gifts in the Holy Supper. While the Divine Liturgy can still present Word and Sacrament without the Sermon, the lack of a good Sermon can result in an out-of-context and misunderstood Liturgy and a people who fail to understand the full ramifications of the day’s theme. As such, the public preaching of the Gospel represented by the Sermon is one of the most important functions of the Pastoral Office. Likewise, it is one of the oldest biblical traditions in the Christian Church, with its first Sermon being preached by St. Peter on Pentecost - the day of the Church’s birth (albeit that Sermons were preached before the Church’s birth, especially by Moses, the Prophets, and the Lord Jesus Himself). The Sermon concludes with the Pax Votum, the “Word of Peace,” which is a verbatim quote from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians (4:7).
Immediately following the Sermon is the Offertory (Latin: Offertorium), which goes hand in hand with the “offering.” In modern practice, the “offering” is often understood as monetary; historically speaking, however, the primary elements that the people “offered” were the bread and wine for use in the Blessed Sacrament. As such, at this point in the Service the Pastor prepares the elements for use in the Holy Supper. While this is being done, the people sing the Proper chant of the Offertory. The Common Service of 1888 allowed for the singing of the proper Offertory; however, it also provided two options as a sort of “ordinary” offertory: Psalm 51:10-12 and Psalm 51:17-19. However, making use of the Proper Offertory offers the congregation a broader exposure to the Scriptures - ones that specifically bring out an aspect of the day’s theme.
After the Offertory, the people rise for the General Prayer. Standing for prayer on Sundays is an ancient practice with a variety of symbolic meanings. During the week, the people traditionally knelt for prayer. On Sundays, however, we rise, just as our Lord, Whose resurrection is commemorated every Sunday, rose from the dead. Likewise, it is a reminder that we are to always look forward to the life to come, the “eighth” and endless Day of eternity, which Sunday also represents. On that Day we shall rise from the dead and die no more. Although we kneel during the week in recognition of our sinful unworthiness as mortal creatures of this world, we rise on the “eighth day” to remind ourselves that we are bound for the immortality of heaven.
The General Prayer is a Lutheran restoration of the ancient practice of having general intercessions prior to the Service of the Sacrament. In the Papal church, the abomination known as the “Canon of the Mass” was used in place of the General Prayer; the Papists imagined that their Canon actually helped to effect the consecration of the Blessed Sacrament. Lutherans abolished Eucharistic Prayers on this account (though orthodox Eucharistic Prayers have been retained in some regions) and replaced them with the General Prayer, which retains the best elements of the Eucharistic Prayer and omits its unsavory papal elements. The General Prayer used by the Common Service predates the Reformation and is based on a form of prayer that has been used by Christians since the earliest days of the Church.