A COMMUNITY OF WORD AND SACRAMENT
WE ARE ACTIVE PARTICIPANTS IN THE LITURGY.
Worship is the center of our life at Mount Olive. As Lutherans, we are people of Word and Sacrament. We gather each week to absorb the guidance of the Bible and to gain strength from God through the Eucharist. These profound gifts—word and sacrament—propel us into the world to continue the work Jesus left for us.
As worshipers, we are not a passive audience but active participants in liturgy, a term that means “the work of the people.” We employ all of our human senses in worship: We see colors and movements all around us; we hear voices raised in song; we feel each others’ touch in the sharing of peace; we taste the bread and wine of holy communion, and we smell the clouds of incense on feast days. We move our bodies to the rhythm of our traditions—standing, sitting, kneeling, bowing our heads, lifting our voices, tracing the sign of the cross on our bodies.
Many Christians have lost or discarded these rituals, but we hold fast to them. As with Martin Luther, we do not reject the Mass but celebrate it with deep joy and thanksgiving because, in a sense, we can do no other.
This central liturgy, commonly called the Holy Eucharist, is ancient yet stunningly relevant to contemporary life. It has four parts:
GATHERING, WORD, MEAL, SENDING
In Gathering, we enter the church with reverence. Some kneel to pray, some sit in quiet reflection. As the opening hymn begins, we stand and turn to face the cross as it is carried in procession through our midst. After the opening greeting and prayers we sit to hear readings from the Bible. Thus begins the second part of our liturgy, called Word. A sermon or homily responds to the readings by offering a commentary to inspire our daily living. A sharing of Christ’s peace with one another begins the third part of our liturgy, called meal. In this meal, which is the central and transcendent act of Christian worship, we remember Christ’s sacrifice by doing as he commanded: eating and drinking the consecrated bread and wine that, for us, become his body and blood. Refreshed, forgiven and inspired we reach the fourth part, Sending. We are sent out into the world to accomplish works of peace, justice and service to others in our daily lives.
This is the same order of worship practiced by early Christians and still celebrated today by the catholic churches around the world—most commonly by Roman Catholics, Anglicans and Lutherans. Because the Pietist movement and other “low church” reforms exerted great influence at the time of European immigration to the Midwest and remain strong today, Mount Olive’s practices may be unfamiliar, even to many lifelong Lutherans. Thus, some further explanation may be helpful.*
By consuming bread and wine (Eucharist is Greek for thanksgiving), we remember with gratitude the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Lutherans are returning to weekly communion as a deep source of spiritual nourishment. At Mount Olive, communion is celebrated at every Sunday liturgy and on other holy days, as well as at weddings and funerals. All baptized Christians—including children of all ages—are welcome to receive communion, and all others are invited to come forward for a blessing. Bread is received in the palm of the hand; wine is offered from a large common cup or by intinction—dipping bread into a smaller cup. Those who, for health reasons, cannot receive bread or wine may commune in one form.
Processions bring the gift of human movement and festivity to worship. The cross, moving through our midst, represents our baptismal journey from death to life. Some worshipers bow as the cross passes to honor this gift of salvation.
Ours is an empty cross, emphasizing Christ’s resurrection, although Lutherans also use other crosses, most typically the crucifix, which depicts Jesus’ suffering and sacrificial death for us.
Lighted torches flank the cross to heighten its prominence. A lectionary containing Bible readings is also carried to honor Holy Scripture. Indeed, on feast days, this book is carried into the midst of the assembly and the Gospel is read or chanted among the people to stress the intimacy of Jesus’ words in our lives. As the Gospel is announced, some worshipers trace a small cross on their forehead, lips and heart as a prayer that the Word will dwell within us.
Later in the liturgy, gifts of money and of ordinary bread and wine are carried forward in an offertory procession to honor our financial support for God’s work, and to offer a prayer that, through these elements of human labor, we may become Christ’s body in the world.
Hymn singing is probably the defining characteristic of Lutheran worship. Mount Olive loves to sing. There are moments in our worship life—many moments—when the congregation becomes an accomplished choir, singing in harmony or in canon or a cappella. We sing music of many styles, using ELW (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 2006) as our main source.
SIGN OF THE CROSS
Christians have made this gesture since earliest times. Luther, in his large and small catechisms, urged that the practice be continued in remembrance of our baptisms into the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The gesture, thus, becomes a powerful bodily reminder of our most basic human identity—that we are children of God.
Some worshipers bow—deeply or slightly—as they pass in front of the altar. Again, this is a bodily reminder that we are not in an ordinary room but a sacred place in which a cosmic God, a force that we can scarcely comprehend, comes to us in human form and sustains us through life. How can we not feel humility and gratitude?
Kneeling is a similar response. Our practice is to kneel for confession and for the corporate prayers of the people. (Except during the Easter season, when we follow the tradition of standing during the intercessory prayers.) Some worshipers also kneel for personal prayer and meditation. Getting down on your knees can be a powerful act of humility. Those unable to kneel should feel comfortable to sit.
Incense has a long history in Jewish and Christian worship. Mount Olive uses incense on festival days and during festival seasons, and at Evening Prayer services during Advent and Lent, as another way to employ our bodily senses in worship. As the psalmist wrote, “Let my prayer rise before you as incense.” In the ancient Hebrew tradition, the incense itself is our prayer. The rising clouds also symbolize a cleansing from our human failings. Incense is also used to honor holy things and holy people—the congregation, the altar, the servers at the altar, the Gospel book and the paschal candle, for example. And, incense recalls St. Paul’s description of a “great cloud of witnesses”—those saints from around the world and through the ages with whom we join mystically through our communion.
Although worshipers no longer “dress up” as they once did, worship leaders and choir members wear simple white robes called albs. These garments symbolize the biblical command to live our baptism by “putting on Christ.” In addition, ordained ministers wear stoles, which are colored shawls taken as the clergy’s yoke of Christ’s service. The celebrant presiding at the Eucharist also wears a chasuble, a colored poncho that is sometimes elaborately decorated. The presider may at times wear a cope, a longer cape-like vestment meant especially for processions during high festivals. The colors of these vestments—green, violet, blue, red and white—change with the liturgical seasons.
A water-filled font often stands at a church’s entry to remind worshipers of their day-to-day Christian identity. At Mount Olive, the font is set at the entrance to the main aisle that we might dip our hands into the water and place it on ourselves as a reminder of our baptism into Christ every time we enter worship. Martin Luther spoke of facing our baptisms daily. That’s also why our practice has been to increase the frequency of aspereges, or sprinkling: The presider dips a small evergreen bough into the font and sprinkles the congregation in remembrance of our baptism. This is another of the sensual acts of worship that adds meaning to the celebration of Easter and other liturgies that emphasize Christ’s resurrection.
Another baptismal symbol is the paschal candle, a large light carried in procession at the Easter Vigil. The candle stands next to the font and is lighted during the Easter season as well as at baptisms and funerals to honor Jesus’ victory—and thus our victory—over death.
The Reformation moved Mary out of the foreground in Protestant theology despite Luther’s high regard for her. Now her prominence is returning. For some she represents a feminine aspect in Christian faith, the one who opened her life to the mystery of God’s will. She is also regarded as a voice against oppression. In the Magnificat she sang of God’s justice in “raising the lowly and filling the hungry with good things,” a vivid message for these times. At Mount Olive, she is often recalled as the first among the saints, and we mark her holy day (August 15) with a Eucharist.
Icons are integral to Orthodox Christianity and their use has expanded to other Christian traditions. Icons are not just art, because the act of producing images of Jesus and other holy figures is intended to proclaim the mystery of God, much as with other acts of worship and devotion. Mount Olive’s icon depicts Jesus’ ascension from the Mount of Olives and is part of the Columbarium set into the north transept.