The first section of our worship [remember – the Confession happens, technically speaking, outside of our worship proper] is what is known, properly speaking, as the Entrance Rite. This includes the opening hymn, the Apostolic Greeting, the Kyrie, the Hymn of Praise [Gloria or Worthy is Christ] and Prayer of the Day. All of this finds its roots in the earliest public Christian worship. In the fourth century, soon after Christianity was legalized [and even publicly encouraged] and church buildings became public spaces, worshippers would process together to church for worship and, as you might imagine, they would sing hymns on the way. Going to church for worship evolved into a large, civic event. As we sing the opening hymn its sense still is one of gathering people together for worship, with echoes that reach back 1600 years of those early Christians gathering together publicly for worship.
As the church grew in prominence and power, the church began to invest this entrance and opening of worship with symbols of dignity and power. It evolved that the ministers would enter in a formal procession with someone carrying the Book of Gospels along with candles [remember, there were no electric lights in the fifth century!] and incense. This was an echo of the entrance of civic leaders into courts and government buildings on formal occasions. As you can imagine, this displayed the newfound power and prominence of this once illegal religion. What is interesting is that it seems that the choir didn’t join this procession [as it does with us now] until sometime in the late 19th century. Previously, the choir was in place before the entrance began.
The apostolic greeting
The opening words of worship are: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion [or, fellowship] of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” What is interesting is that these opening words are actually the closing words of St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthian church [2 Corinthians 13:14]. The understanding in these words is that the grace of Christ gives us the ability to love God which allows us to participate in the work of the Holy Spirit, the very power that makes possible the fellowship [or, communion] between God and God’s people. These words summarize the gifts of the Holy Trinity. If you like knowing how something is going to turn out before you begin, these words are for you. These words summarize the purpose for which we have gathered together for worship; to know the grace that comes to us through the work of Jesus Christ, to learn to love God and to participate in God’s transforming work empowered by the Holy Spirit. This is to describe you when you leave worship!
The proper title for this is “The Brief Order for Confession and Forgiveness.” You may have noticed that this rite sits at the very beginning of our worship. In fact, as it happens before the opening hymn, it sits “outside” of our worship. This reflects an older understanding of confession as something that takes place before you come to Communion. In the medieval church [and this continues in portions of the Roman Catholic Church], one was to confess and receive absolution [forgiveness] prior to coming for Communion. While Protestants [including Lutherans] struggled with some of the abuses that arose around the acts of Confession and Absolution, Lutherans in particular were not able to completely do away with some form of confession.
Historically, this act has popped around in various places of Lutheran worship preceding Holy Communion. [It was, at one time, between the sermon and the Creed, the general place you will find something similar in Episcopal worship.] Finally, these places were deemed disruptive and the act was moved to the front of our time together, before the opening hymn, before the beginning of worship proper.
It should be noted that the emphasis of the rite are the words of forgiveness [absolution] on the part of the pastor. Admittedly, we are not able to grasp in its entirety, the breadth of our sinful selves in the brief time of the Order. Yet, in this brief moment, we are to grasp the contradictory sense of our very nature, “… we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.” It is, actually, one of the more startling things we say out loud. These words, more than anything we can admit to, are intended to help shape our self-understanding.
The second portion of the Order is intended to be as startling as the first. We are declared free by the work of Jesus Christ. We are to grasp that we are set free by Jesus to become the people God imagines us to be. It is one of the most powerful things any one human can say to another. If we really believe this, really live this, it has the power to not only transform our lives, it changes the world.
There is one additional “introductory” thing I’d like you to think about before we start talking about the actual parts of our worship. Specifically, let’s think for just a minute about language. The Jewish people spoke Hebrew. Jesus and his disciples spoke Aramaic [and probably Hebrew and a bit of Greek and Latin, given where he lived]. St. Paul spoke Greek and undoubtedly read Hebrew and probably knew Latin. The New Testament was originally written in Greek. Most of the foundation pieces of our worship liturgy was written in Latin which, in some places, reflect on things probably originally written in Hebrew and Greek. In the 1600’s, Luther translated the worship liturgy into German. Later in that century, Thomas Cranmer made the most famous translation into English.
I hope you can begin to see that the words we say on Sunday morning have a very complex history. One of the challenges is that every translation is an interpretation. Another challenge is that language is a living thing. Words can shift in their meaning and intention. How language is used can change. Finally, people who put worship together walk a fine line between creating a worship language of poetry and “otherworldliness” and familiarity and contemporary understanding. Frankly, it’s all a lot harder than it looks!
One of the things we find in worship language is that there are attempts to make the flow of the words eloquent and poetic. One reason for this is that there is something unique about what we do and say in our worship liturgy. The other is that the poetry helps make the words memorable. Poetry helps the words imprint themselves on our hearts and minds.
One final thing to think about when we think about language and worship are the words we use for God. There are a number of challenges here. Many of the traditional words used for speaking of God are masculine [although there are a few notable feminine images for God in the Bible as well]. Over the past 30 years or so, there has been some intention to try to understand that God is not male or female in the same way humans are. Too, many people have found purely masculine images of God to be exclusionary and even limiting of our understanding of God. Our worship language tries to understand and respect this challenge.
The Third Commandment says, “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.” The Sabbath, properly speaking, is Saturday, the seventh day of the week. In this sense, all of us [unless you happen to be Seventh Day Adventist] violate the commandment. So, why do we? Why do Christians, generally, worship and set aside Sunday as their holy day?
It all goes back to Jesus and the Resurrection. All four Gospels point to the first day of the week [Sunday] as the day of Jesus’s Resurrection. [See: Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:1, Luke 24:1, John 20:1] Each Sunday’s worship is to find its life in the resurrected life of Jesus. The center point of the church’s [and our own] life is the Resurrection of Our Lord. Jesus’s Resurrection changed the way understand time, both past, present and future.
The time of Sunday worship seems to be variable. While our general experience with going to Sunday worship tends to be sometime in the morning, there is good evidence that Christians have also worshipped at other times of the day. There is good speculation that in many New Testament communities, Sunday worship was in the evening and included dinner.