Release day is tomorrow! I know you’re all champing at the bit to order a copy. I’m rather feeling that way myself. But wait we must, so this will hopefully tide you over. In honor of my friends over at Gottesdienst, today’s section is about ceremony as teacher of the faith:
Ceremony as Teacher
Ceremony serves primarily to teach. Whatever we do will teach. As such, ceremony is not neutral. Having vestments may be a neutral thing of itself. But not having vestments sends a message. Wearing a clerical collar sends a message, as surely as not wearing one does. Whether one message is of the same value as another is certainly a matter of debate, but it can not be denied messages are sent. In this regard, there are several explanations of the Divine Service which are helpful for explaining the basic meaning of each part. Most of those are explanations of the Words of the Divine Service themselves, rather than the attendant ceremonies. The specific ordo is not, properly speaking, ceremony. So, the reading of the Holy Gospel at the Divine Service is not mere ceremony, and its deletion could be considered in no way neutral. To omit the words and deeds of our Lord at the Divine Service is an overt doctrinal act, not merely a change in custom.
The words of the Divine Liturgy are properly attended by certain ceremonies. To continue the above example, among our parishes there are varying ceremonies attendant to the Gospel reading. In many parishes, the Gospel is read from the lectern by the pastor. In some it is read from the horns of the altar, which is the more ancient practice. In other parishes, and in many parishes on festivals, the Gospel is read in the midst of the congregation. These various ceremonies all teach. The Lectern is a spot set apart for the reading of the word, although in ancient usage, it was set apart for the services of the Word (Matins, etc.), and the readings for the Divine Service were done elsewhere. The horns of the altar tie the Word to the Sacrament which is there celebrated. The reading of the Gospel in the midst of the congregation emphasizes “the poor have the Good News preached to them”—the Gospel is not the property of a special magisterium, but of all the people. God has come among us, and so His word is proclaimed in our midst. Any or all of these ceremonies may be profitably used with instruction. But the Gospel reading must be read somewhere and in some way. If the pastor believes he has fulfilled his role simply by pressing the play button for a pre-recorded audio Bible, and leaves the Nave/Chancel to get a drink of water each Sunday during the playing of the Gospel, something very disrespectful is being communicated. It is not the mere recitation of vocables which is important in the Gospel reading. The ceremonies attendant to it will teach. For centuries after the Reformation, the Roman church refused to use the vernacular for their services. Adherence to the laws and traditions of men was more important than the Gospel being proclaimed. The ceremony certainly taught more than the strange sounds made by the priest.
Similarly, making the sign of the holy cross at various points during the Divine Service teaches it is only by virtue of the righteousness given in Christ through Baptism that we are bold to come into the presence of God to receive His gifts. We make the sign to remind us of Baptism, just as the sign was made on us in Baptism to mark us as one redeemed by Christ the Crucified. And yet, the sign of the cross, or the absence thereof, is nothing, in and of itself. Its presence does not make the Baptism holier. Its absence does not make the Baptism invalid. Rather, it is a ceremony used to teach what Scripture has to say about the life of the Baptized, especially in light of Revelation 7, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.”
Luther emphasizes the importance of ceremony in his sermon on John 1:14:
The following tale is told about a coarse and brutal lout. While the words “And was made man” were being sung in church, he remained standing, neither genuflecting nor removing his hat. He showed no reverence, but just stood there like a clod. All the others dropped to their knees when the Nicene Creed was prayed and chanted devoutly. Then the devil stepped up to him and hit him so hard it made his head spin. He cursed him gruesomely and said: “May hell consume you, you boorish ass! If God had become an angel like me and the congregation sang: ‘God was made an angel,’ I would bend not only my knees but my whole body to the ground! And you vile human creature, you stand there like a stick or a stone. You hear that God did not become an angel but a man like you, and you just stand there like a stick of wood!”
Whether this story is true or not it is nevertheless in accordance with the faith. With this illustrative story the fathers wished to admonish the youth to revere the indescribably great miracle of the incarnation. They wanted us to open our eyes wide and ponder these words well.
Luther sees great value in the ceremony of kneeling during the recitation of the Creed. The man in the story was making a firm statement about his belief, even though he was not aware he was doing so. It is worth noting that few Lutherans today practice the same care and reverence during the creed. While wearing hats during the Divine Service is not an issue, physical movement like kneeling or genuflecting is no longer the norm in most places. Does our current ceremony teach youth to “revere the indescribably great miracle of the incarnation”? If we returned to this more ancient practice, what would it teach to our children regarding the significance of the Word made flesh?