An Explanation of the Lutheran Liturgy
(Note: This study follows the order of service for Holy Communion as it is found in “The Lutheran Hymnal”.)
The word “liturgy” means “service.” Our whole life as Christians is to be our service (liturgy) to God. It is in the Worship Service, however, that the liturgy of our whole Christian life comes into a joyful focus. We gather together for an intimate communion with our Lord. He comes to us, speaks to us and blesses us through His Word and Sacrament. We come to Him and speak to Him in prayer and praise and thanksgiving. The Worship Service is the recurring moment of high splendor in our earthly lives, a God-given foretaste of the heavenly life to come.
Part 1 – We Prepare to Meet our Lord
Come early to the Worship Service! This is your time of preparation, a time to get your mind off the distractions of life, job and the world, and on to God. Prepare yourself for the worship of your God and the hearing and learning of His Word by reading a psalm or pre-service devotion. Or look up and read the Scripture readings, sermon text, and hymns for the day.
Opening Hymn: We begin the worship service by singing to the Lord a hymn of praise.
The Trinitarian Invocation (p.15): By this we give testimony that we worship the Triune God: Father, Son and Holy Ghost. We ask the Triune God to be with us and to bless us as we carry on our worship.
Confession of Sins and Absolution (p.15): Before we can draw near to worship our holy God we must first of all cast away our sins. So we come to Him in penitence and faith and confess our sins, whereupon we hear the Pastor, as God’s representative, speak to us the words of comfort and forgiveness through our Savior, Jesus Christ.
Part 2 – We Welcome our Lord
The Introit: The Introit is usually taken from the Psalms, specially selected to lift our hearts to worship.
Gloria Patri (p.16): We praise again the name of our Triune God: God the Father, our Creator; God the Son, our Redeemer; and God the Holy Ghost, our Sanctifier.
The Kyrie (p.17): The Kyrie is an expression of our emptiness without God and of our need to have Him come and fill us with His grace.
The Gloria in Excelsis (p.17): We life our voices to God in thanksgiving for sending His Son to be our Savior. (This is the song the angels sang to the shepherds in the fields of Bethlehem the night Jesus was born.)
The Salutation (p.19): The Pastor prays that the Holy Spirit may bless the congregation as they offer their petitions to God and give attention to His Word: “The Lord be with you.” The congregation answers by invoking upon the Pastor the same Holy Spirit, that he might give voice to the heartfelt petitions of the people and preach God’s Word with power: “And with thy spirit.” (“And also with you, Pastor.”)
The Collect for the Day: The Collect is a short prayer which gathers or “collects” the thoughts and prayers of the entire Church as they apply to the theme of the day.
Part 3 – Our Lord Speaks To Us
Now we reach the high point in our service. So far we have opened our lips in prayer and praise to God. Now we fall silent, for our Lord Himself will now speak to us. He will reveal Himself and His will in a special way: in the reading and preaching of His Word. God has made Himself known to us in the Bible. This is how He speaks to us. This is the source of all that we believe and teach. Without the Word of God our worship, as well as our faith, would wither and die.
The Epistle: A selection usually from one of the New Testament letters. Here we receive instruction in living the Christian life.
The Gradual: The Gradual serves as a transition from the Epistle to the thought of the Gospel. Like the Introit, it is usually taken from the Psalms.
The Hallelujah (p.20): The “Hallelujah,” which means “Praise the Lord!” is part of the Gradual. It is a cry of rejoicing that we are allowed to be so near to our Lord.
The Gospel: The Gospel reading centers about the life and words of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is often the key to the theme for the day, the main event or lesson which we are commemorating.
The Nicene Creed (p.22): We have heard God’s Word to us. Now we respond by confessing what we believe. By this we show that the seed of the Word has fallen on good soil and that we have rightly heard and understood, not only today’s readings but all of them through the year, which can be summed up in this statement of faith.
Hymn: We sing another hymn to prepare our hearts for the seed of the Word which will now be sown in the sermon.
The Sermon: God speaks to us through His called servant. The Pastor’s sermon is not just a number of offhand remarks, but a prayerfully prepared proclamation of God’s message of repentance, salvation, and growth in faith. Upon entering the pulpit the Pastor greets us with the Salutation which the Apostle Paul used so often in his letters. At the conclusion of th sermon the Pastor speaks the Votum. With these words from Philippians 4:7 he invokes the blessings of God’s peace upon all who have here received God’s Word.
Part 4 – We Offer ourselves to the Lord
We have listened to God’s Word both read and preached. He has spoken to us in mercy and blessing. Now we would offer to Him our hearts and lives that He might make us eager and strong to do His will in thought, word, and deed.
The Offertory (p.22): Using David’s words of repentance from Psalm 51, we confess our humble and grateful acceptance of the Word and offer ourselves in thanksgiving to the Lord.
The Offering: We bring our offerings to God’s altar. These gifts can be meaningful only if we recognize them as tokens of our entire selves, given in worship and service to our Lord.
Prayers: We pray God to fulfill our needs, the needs of the Church, and the needs of all people. In these prayers we express our belief in the Priesthood of all believers, for here the Pastor does not pray in our behalf as we listen, but rather his words are the prayers we each in our own hearts are individually bringing to God in Jesus’ name.
Part 5 – Our Lord Gives Himself To Us
Now we approach the second high point of the Liturgy, the Sacrament (see also Eucharist and Mass), in which the Lord comes to bless us with His very body and blood. We move toward the Sacrament with prayers of thanksgiving and songs of adoration.
The Preface (p.24): Once again the Pastor and congregation pray for and assure each other of the Lord’s presence. Then comes the invitation to “lift up your hearts” and to “give thanks to the Lord, our God.” This reminds us that our entire Communion Service is a service of thanksgiving.
The Sanctus (p.26): In this exalted hymn we join our voices to the angels who sing “Holy, Holy, Holy” round about the Lord’s throne and we welcome Him with the Palm Sunday multitude who sang “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the Highest!”
The Lord’s Prayer (p.27): Now we pray the prayer which the Lord Himself taught us. The Lord’s Prayer is the distinctive property of Christians. We are here reminded that we are together in the family of God, that at this Communion table we are not many individuals, but one body, brothers and sisters in the faith, whose spiritual welfare is closely linked together.
The Words of Institution (p.27): These are the words which our Lord spoke on the night He was betrayed. They make the celebration of the Lord’s Supper not just a pious custom but a Sacrament instituted by Christ Himself. Our Savior assurees us that He is bodily present to give us forgiveness and fellowship with Him. With these words the Pastor consecrates the bread and wine, setting them apart for holy use.
The Pax Domini (p.27): The Pastor prays that God may bless the congregation with His peace.
The Agnus Dei (p.28): We petition Christ to show us His mercy.
Part 6 – We Receive the Lord’s Supper
The Distribution: Reverently we come to kneel before the altar of God, humbly to receive Christ into our lives. As He once gave Himself for us on the altar of the cross, so He now gives Himself to us on the altar of the Sacrament. In this way He assures me personally that the blessings He won for all sinners on the cross (forgiveness, life, and salvation) are most certainly also mine.
Communion Hymn: We sing a hymn which focuses our thoughts on the meaning and benefit of the Lord’s Supper.
Part 7 – We Thank our Lord
The Nunc Dimittis (p.29): This was Simeon’s song of rejoicing in the temple as he held the infant Jesus in his arms. Our eyes to have seen God’s Salvation, for we have received Christ through His Word and Sacrament. Like Simeon we are now ready to “depart in peace.”
The Thanksgiving (p.30): We offer out joyous and prayerful thanks to God.
The Salutation and Benedicamus (p.31): We again join in the familiar exchange of blessing between pastor and people.
The Benediction (p.31): With the Benediction of God, used in the Church since the days of Moses, the Pastor closes the Service. The last word we hear from his lips is “peace.” With the sign of the cross he them reminds us that all of this is ours through the cross and merits of Jesus Christ, our Lord, in whom we trust and for whom we live.
With the assurance of the Lord’s blessing resting upon us, and His strengthening presence accompanying us, we are ready to depart in peace. Yet, our liturgy (service) to God is not yet truly ended. We move out of the church into the larger liturgy of our daily life, ready to be His witnesses and to do His will. Thus may His name be hallowed and His kingdom come – also through us! For Jesus’ sake.
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This study was prepared by Pastor Tom Schuetze and presented to the Bible Class at Zion Ev. Lutheran Church by Pastor Nathanael Mayhew.