In the church’s calendar, Easter Sunday is the most important day of the year. It is the day that reshapes everything we know about God, the creation and humanity. Easter is also the first “feast” or “festival” day observed by the earliest Christians, becoming the focal point of how the church understood itself. One of the questions that rose out of this was, “how do we live, now that Jesus has been raised from the dead?” This remains a relevant question. Easter is so important that for the church the other 51 Sundays of the year are understood to be miniature celebrations of Easter.
You may have noticed that Easter isn’t the same Sunday every year. In fact, the date of Easter Sunday can swing wildly from year to year, being anywhere from late March [as early as March 22] to mid-to late April [as late as April 25]. Why is this? Back in the year 325 at the Council of Nicaea it was decided that the date of Easter in any given year would be the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox [for church purposes, the vernal equinox is always March 21]. Did you get that? That means that this year  the first full moon on or after March 21 happens to be on March 31. The first Sunday after March 31 is April 1. Easter! This method of dating Easter puts it in the proximity of Passover, which corresponds with the story of Holy Week. [If you happen to be Orthodox – which I’m assuming you’re not if you’re reading this – there are a number of other quirks that make this calculation a bit different.]
And now, for something you have probably never thought about… We experience Easter as a springtime holiday. As flowers pop up, trees begin to bud, and the grass gets green these things serve as visual reminders of the renewal of all of creation the resurrection of Jesus points to. If you happen to live in, say, Australia, the season they are entering into right now is fall. Yep, fall. There, things are beginning to die back. I’m sure you can imagine the challenge this presents.
Lutherans often talk of their worship as being “liturgical” worship, as in “Lutherans worship in a liturgical style.” Here’s a flash message for you: nearly everyone who goes to church worships in a “liturgical style,” even if they don’t call it that. If you follow a general outline of what happens when, you’re following a liturgy. In my experience, even the freest of free-church traditions follow a liturgy. Even if you don’t have a bulletin.
Often, though, the word “liturgical” denotes a particular style of worship. The churches described as “liturgical” tend to be Roman Catholics, Lutherans and Episcopalians. [There can be a few “liturgical” Methodists, Presbyterians – and, yes, even Baptists – but for the sake of our conversation, they tend to be fewer and far-between.] If you’ve ever popped into a Catholic or Episcopal worship service, you’ve probably noticed that they do a lot of the things Lutherans do. The order feels familiar and the words sound similar. That is because we share a similar foundation for our worship.
Traditional forms of worship in Roman Catholicism formed the foundation for Lutheran and Episcopal [or, Church of England] worship. Both Martin Luther and Thomas Cranmer [the bishop who wrote most of the first Book of Common Prayer – the worship book for the Church of England as it broke away from Roman Catholicism] were very conservative when it came to things that took place at Sunday morning worship. They changed, at least outwardly, very little of the traditional Roman worship service. [They did change the meaning and explanation – most notably in what happens to the bread and wine in Holy Communion – of a number of things, even when they didn’t change the words.] The most visible change was Luther rewrote the service, or Mass, into German and Cranmer into English.
For Lutherans, weekly worship has been the central act of a congregation’s life together. Worship prepares us to live as God’s people in the week that unrolls itself before us. Living in the world for the past week draws us back into worship. Worship is intended to be the central act in our Christian lives. It is to orient us both toward God and toward the world and the people around us. Please note that being “liturgical” does not necessarily describe a particular style of music or a particular formality in worship.
Fun Fact: The word “liturgy” is derived from a Greek word which means, literally, “work of the people.” It was a word to describe the public service of wealthy Greeks toward their community.
WHY DO WE DO THAT?
When talking about our worship life, I’ve been asked that question a lot. Even among those who grew up in the Lutheran tradition I’ve been asked, “why do we do that?” Occasionally, I’ve had people tell me, “That’s what Lutherans do!” or “That’s what we’ve always done!” but even in those instances, we may not know why we do what we do in worship. Yet, nearly every word and every action in our worship has a meaning behind it. And those meanings are not hidden, or at least they’re not supposed to be hidden.
What follows is a series of conversations and descriptions of what and why we do what we do in our Sunday worship. As we move forward, there are a couple of things I would like you to keep in mind. First, in many ways worship is a bit mysterious [and, I think it is supposed to be]. One of the things we say is that in our worship, we are entering into the presence of God. Yes, God is everywhere. But in our worship, we are to enter more fully into God’s presence. There are a lot of words we use that speak of this mysterious, Godly presence. [You’ll hear about this when they pop up in the coming weeks.] Too, many Christians have gone out of their way to intentionally design their churches to emphasize this point. Orthodox churches have domes indicating the dome of the sky being split open for the worshipper can peek into heaven and see Jesus. Our own Church building circles us with stained glass windows of Jesus and some of the saints who, while in heaven are also present with us as we worship.
Second, Philip Pfatteicher [I had the opportunity to know Professor Pfatteicher personally as a young pastor in Pittsburgh] speaks of worship as “The School of the Church.” Worship is the first place we experience and learn to understand [if you can use the word, “understand”] a bit of the glory of God and the implications of God being God and us people being people. Worship is the place the church begins telling the story of salvation so we can carry that story into the world and begin actively living that story. Worship is the intersection of God, the world and our lives and it is where we learn how these three things connect to each other. If it is ever dull, boring or feels irrelevant, something is wrong and needs fixing.