Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Significance of Ceremonies

Reposting from the previous site, because I still think it's significant:

At a recent gathering of the "synod in this place," the Divine Service basically followed one of the settings from LSB. It was recognizably from the book, more or less; which was a welcome and refreshing change from too many past experiences. Thank God. Yet, there was still the cutting and pasting of parts and pieces; some omitting and substituting of the ordinary; and the ignoring or contradicting of various rubrics here and there. Nevertheless, despite these deviations in the ritual and rubrics of the service (some of them striking), most of the people in attendance remarked on how nice it was to do things by the book. That's telling on several fronts.

By contrast, at Emmaus we follow the book very closely throughout the year. In fact, we actually use the book (LSB), rather than printing things out in "service folders." Admittedly, we do omit the rites of preparation on festival days, when we begin with a processional hymn and go directly to the Introit. Otherwise, the only point at which we modify the rubrics (in using LSB Setting Three) is in gathering the offering before we sing the Offertory Psalm. In short, we do things by the book, conservatively and consistently.

However, the way that people typically describe the Liturgy at Emmaus focuses on how strikingly different it seems from this, that, or the other thing. "Everything has been changed," I have sometimes been told; even though we are about as conservative as it comes in following the order, rites and rubrics of the Divine Service.

What are such people talking about? It boils down to ceremony, and it adds up to not a lot of things, actually. And even some of that is simply following the book.

We chant most of the Service (as per the book), and many of our members make the sign of the cross at appropriate points (also as indicated in the book).

On festival days, the Gospel is read in the midst of the congregation, accompanied by the cross and torches. On a few occasions (less than half a dozen in a year) we use incense, but that is rare enough at Emmaus, it hardly counts for purposes of this post. The body and blood of Christ are elevated before the people at the Pax Domini; which may or may not be indicated in the rubrics (I don't have the Altar Book at hand), but it is recommended by Dr. Luther as an invitation to receive the Sacrament.

Perhaps the most obvious ceremony is that the clergy genuflect when first approaching and again when taking final leave of the Altar; also at the confession of the Incarnation in the Creed; and at the conclusion of the Sanctus in the eucharistic rite. The members of the congregation, by and large, kneel for the confession of sins (as per the LSB rubrics) and for the consecration of the Sacrament.

None of these ceremonies change the rite or deviate from the rubrics; they do not intrude at all upon the order of service. I maintain that they bodily confess what we believe concerning the Word and Sacrament of Christ, but I do not hold them as necessary; they are appropriate and helpful, but not required for the faithful administration of the Mysteries of God. They are neither prescribed nor proscribed; they are free to our use.

My point, however, is that such ceremonies do make a powerful impact and impression. The rank and file of the Missouri Synod have become accustomed to, and comfortable with, a casual approach to the conduct of the Divine Service. When that casual decorum is maintained, the actual order, rites and rubrics can be largely modified without any notice. But where there is a reverent increase in ceremonial, people are struck by the difference, even though everything is done according to the letter of the book. Ceremonies are that powerful.

Someone may say that such a powerful significance is a dangerous distraction; and I suppose that it can be that. By the same token, though, I would argue that it offers the potential to be a powerful confession and catechesis of the faith. Ceremony makes an impression on the hearts and minds of children and adults, in a way that lots and lots of didactice explanations never can and never will.

Personally, I find it far more distracting and unnerving when there are deviations from the familiar ritual and rubrics of the common service; and when the clergy are casual and sloppy in their conduct of the service. But even apart from that concern, here I simply want to commend the potential benefit of ceremonial as a powerful means of conveying the piety of faith, the reverence of fear, love and trust in God. For while the true worship of God is the inward prostration of the heart in repentant faith, such faith and worship are confessed with mind and mouth and the prostration of the body.


  1. Spot on. As the confessions say, ceremonies are to teach the people, and they do just that.

    I also appreciate your balance when it comes to "by the book" on the one hand and "local custom" on the other. Some of our confessional, liturgical brethren have sought to heal the discord among us by advocating a strict, uniform, and almost legislatively enforced following of the rubrics "in the book."

    I can't go in for that, either. We cannot let the abuse of freedom destroy freedom. Nor can we let the existence of freedom destroy order. So I appreciate your congregation's example of operating within the norms of LSB without being afraid of having local color.


  2. Thanks for your comments, Pastor Curtis.

    I would suggest that, ironically, there has been an effort, by pressure and intimidation if not by legislation, to enforce a ceremonial sloppiness, a deliberately "casual" approach, and a calculated "spontaneity," which does not serve faith or love, the Gospel or the unity of our confession. Freedom is curtailed in the name of freedom, as you suggest, and criticism (sometimes harsh) is leveled against anyone who is not "casual enough." As though simplicity were meritorious, and as though a dignified decorum and reverence were sinful.

    On the other hand, also in the name of freedom, the common rites (and rubrics) that we have agreed upon and adopted together as a synodical fellowship are subjected to every whim that blows through the room in any given week. While I agree that there is room, also in the case of the rubrics, for local custom and color; I maintain that our common rites are valuable to both catechesis and confession of the Word of God, and to our unity in that same catechesis and confession of the Word.

    But isn't it interesting, that ceremonies, which are largely left to freedom in both our Lutheran Confessions and our service books, are dealt with legalistically; in my opinion, precisely because they are such a powerful teacher and confessor of the faith. Whereas the rites (and rubrics) are taken so lightly, despite their relatively long and broad stability across much of the Church's history, and despite our carefully considered consensus in establishing and agreeing upon those rites.

    It seems to me that there is a propensity to locate and exercise both our freedom and our unity in exactly the wrong places. So that one can omit the ordinary of the Mass, for example, or re-order the Divine Service, without raising so much as an eyebrow. But in matters of ceremony, which are not specified, neither commanded nor forbidden by God or man, a bending of the knee, a prostration of the body, or a lifting up of the Cup of Christ, can cause people to panic and protest.


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