Tonight is a most holy night. Now begin our Lord’s Sufferings, His Passion and Death for our salvation. Now The Lamb of God feels the sins of the world bearing down on Him so He will suffer hell for us. Now Death will kill itself and the serpent’s head will get crushed. Now salvation is won for us and forgiveness earned for us. Now the Divine Service, God’s Service, is instituted.
This is His Service. But who’s serving who? We come before Him with our prayers and praises, but this is not our service. This is His Service. That does mean He owns it, He’s in control. The fear and love of God is to be seen here. We do well to remember when we come before Him that He is the great King over all the earth. He is God Who gave all for us, and all frivolity melts away.
But when we say this is God’s Service, we mean He’s serving us! This is the strangest message in all religion. Human religion is based on the idea of man serving God. Sacrifices are supposed to appease the anger of the gods and good works are supposed to earn a deity’s favor. But our God serves us. That’s what the Gospel is all about. God serves us. He serves us by freeing us from our sins and giving us everlasting life.
Tonight let’s walk through the Liturgy to learn what we’re saying, singing, and doing. The sermon and the Sacrament are the 2 peaks of the Service. We sing a hymn to start. The hymns are all chosen to mesh well with the theme of the day and the readings, especially the Epistle and Gospel. So the opening hymn introduces the day’s theme. The processional cross and candles remind us our Lord is coming to save us and His light of life shines forth from His Cross.
The Invocation reminds us: “I am baptized into Christ!” The only reason we can stand before God is because He dwells in us and we in Him. We just say a prepositional phrase because we are reentering The Service that began on Maundy Thursday and never ends, for Christ continues to serve us every day with His Word and Sacrament. The signs of the cross we make proclaim our bodies are saved by Jesus’ Death on His Cross.
We are baptized into Him, yet we still sin. Therefore when we come before Him, it is fitting for us to confess our sins. We come with a true heart, a heart that believes God will forgive us, not because of any good we’ve done, but for the sake of His Son. He is our Help, for by His Death He rescues us from sin. He forgives us all the wicked we’ve done, our transgressions, and even forgives our sin-debt, our iniquity. We confess our sins and the minister forgives us, just as Christ ordered His Apostles to do in John 20. In this way Jesus prepares us for His coming to us.
The Liturgy takes us through the Church Year. It begins with 3 hymns: Introit, Kyrie Eleison, and Gloria in excelsis. In the Introit, David takes his rightful place as the sweet singer of Israel by singing the theme of the day. Tonight, he sang to us that God will be merciful to us and bless us through Jesus’ Cross. On Sunday, he sang about Jesus’ Crucifixion not only because that’s the focus of Holy Week, but also because St. Matthew’s Passion was historically read on Palm Sunday. It’s called Introit because the minister goes up to the Altar then.
The Introit and Kyrie are the Liturgy’s Advent. The King is coming to us! Therefore we pray to Him. This hymn, once sung in Greek, “Lord, have mercy upon us. Christ, have mercy upon us. Lord, have mercy upon us” is a confession of The Trinity – that’s intensified in its old 9-fold form. We pray God to have mercy on us. We want Him to forgive our sins; after all, it’s entirely possible any of us might sin in thought during the Introit! But the ancients said words like this whenever their king came to visit them. They were asking him to give them gifts. So when we sing Kyrie eleison, we are praying the Trinity to bless us with all His good gifts, both physical and spiritual.
Then we sing Gloria in excelsis. This is Christmas. We sing the words of the angels: God is glorified because God is man, man to deliver. Therefore we have peace with Him and His good-will, for He was born to rescue us from sin. The hymn is historically constructed to praise God for the 5 wounds of Christ and to beautifully confess the Trinity; it mentions the 3 Persons and triply appeals to Christ Who takes away the sin of the world and sits at God’s right hand to have mercy on us and receive our prayer. He’s the one Who forgives sins because He is the holy Lord God Who is most high in the glory of God the Father because He died and rose again. That, in fact, is God’s glory. You may see me bow at times during this hymn and at other times in the service; it’s good for the body to be involved in our worship of our Kingly Lord.
The Collect is connected to the first of many Salutations. The minister blesses you, praying the Lord be with you, just as he was with Mary, as Gabriel said. We pray He would be in your hearts and minds and give you abundant faith. You respond, “And with thy spirit.” That means you want me to be united with God’s Spirit in my thoughts and intentions and that I would be totally faithful and true to our God, all by the Holy Spirit’s power.
The Collect finds in the theme of the day something specific we need God to give us. Tonight our Church had us pray a beautiful collect composed by St. Thomas Aquinas. We confess Jesus gave us this Sacrament to lead us to remember His Passion. Then we pray that we would use this Sacrament aright, the result being that the fruits of His Redemption would always be visible in us. That Doctor of the Church is reminding us that Christ does not want us to continue to live in sin. Since He has both forgiven us and freed us from sin, that should be visible in our lives. It should be obvious we’re God’s children. So we pray this would be true of us.
The Scripture readings are Epiphany – Christ preaches to us. Historically our Church has only normally had an Epistle and Gospel reading, as we did tonight. Old Testament readings are normally intended to relate to the day’s Gospel. In the Epistle, the Apostle instructs us about the Christian life. We stand in respect for the Gospel because we hear our Lord’s words and all He did for us from His Conception through His Birth and Death and Resurrection to His Ascension.
Historically the Epistle was read at the south side of the Altar, representing God speaking to believers; the Gospel was read at the north side to represent the Gospel going out to our own pagan Germanic and Slavic ancestors. In between the readings are little songs. The Gradual gets its name because it was sung from a step or as they were going up a step (the Epistle was read at a lower spot than the Gospel). The Alleluia, in Lent the Tract, is also sung; sometimes a hymn is sung with Alleluia. In all these verses, usually taken from Psalms, the Church helps us properly respond to the Epistle and prepares us for the Gospel. Tonight’s Gradual points ahead to the humility our Lord shows in the Gospel, humility fulfilled on the Cross and rewarded with His Resurrection.
After we hear God’s Word, we confess our faith with the words of the Nicene Creed. This Creed is specifically used at Communion because it was used by the orthodox Nicene Fathers to confess they were in communion with each other. In the Creed we confess the Trinity and what each person of the Trinity does for us. The Nicene Creed fully proclaims Jesus’ 2 natures. Why is this important at communion? The Formula of Concord teaches us that our confession of Who Jesus is is united to our confession of what the Sacrament is. Only because He is fully God and fully man can the consecrated bread and wine be in union with His true Body and holy, precious Blood.
During the Creed you may see me bow in worship at the words “worshiped and glorified.” You may see me go down on a knee and back up when we confess our Lord’s Incarnation. Dr. Luther relates a story somewhere about Satan telling some guy that if Christ had taken on the form of angels, they surely would bend the knee to Him; how much more should we, when we sure don’t deserve God to take on our form. This historic practice is inspired by Palm Sunday’s Epistle, where St. Paul says every knee shall bow on the last day to Christ. It’s good for us to get in some practice during this life. We’re training for the life to come. The Apostles’ Creed is our church’s creed for baptisms and daily prayer.
The Chief Hymn is usually composed by our Lutheran fathers. It’s a sermon in poetry. Lutheran hymnody is designed to teach us the Faith. It sings into our hearts the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. It brings together trust in Christ, emotions of joy and sadness, and Christian teaching, all in service of the preaching of Law and Gospel: “You are a sinner worthy of eternal death, but Christ suffered eternal death for you.” The sermon explains the readings of the day. I try to bring together the readings, Psalms, and Collect to show how they all go together to preach Christ. You should come away from a sermon having heard that you are a sinner saved only by Jesus’ Blood.
The Offertory from Psalm 51 is in place of what used to be Psalm verses that changed every Service. The Psalm reminds us God’s Word works in us to lead us to be like Christ and free of sin. In the Offering we respond to God’s Word with our gifts of thanksgiving that His Word not be bound and silenced but have free course throughout the world. So we pray in the General Prayer for all people, for God wants all to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.
The Communion service proper begins with a dialogue called the Preface. Here the Church calls on us to set our hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God, for our life is hidden with Christ in God. We give Him thanks for all His blessings, because it is truly meet, right, and salutary to do this. So we focus, during the Preface, on the work of our salvation that each season of the Church Year teaches us about. This leads into the Sanctus, where we confess this place is the abode of the Trinity and God the Son is coming down from heaven above to this Altar to save us by means of His Sacrament.
This leads into the Lord’s Prayer. Historically the minister sings the Our Father. St. Gregory tells us the Apostles used this alongside Jesus’ Words to consecrate the bread and wine. At communion, this prayer reminds us God’s will is that we be saved and forgiven. It reminds us God’s kingdom is coming to us here because Christ is working to rescue us from the devil. It reminds us this Sacrament is Jesus’ pledge to us that He will deliver us from all evils, past, present, and to come, and bring us unto everlasting life.
Then we hear Jesus’ Words of Institution. Jesus uses the minister’s voice and hands, but His Word is what does the work. That’s why I face the Altar with you; we’re all turning to Christ Crucified to receive His gifts from Him. Jesus tells you the consecrated bread is His Body, the Body crucified for you. He tells you the consecrated wine is His Blood, the Blood He shed for you to forgive your sins and the sins of all people. I kneel after each part; that’s just like your kneeling at the rail. We’re confessing we don’t deserve His gifts but are most thankful for them. The elevation was instituted about 1000 years ago to confess the consecrated bread and wine are exactly what Jesus says they are: His Body and Blood – the idea is you see them connected to the crucifix. The crucifix pictures for you Christ’s Sacrifice, and here He gives you that Sacrifice and everything He sacrificed Himself to win for you and give to you.
Immediately the minister turns to you to say: “The Peace of the Lord be with you alway.” This is designed to remind us of our Lord’s Easter appearances to His Apostles, when He said to them as He showed them His wounds, “Peace be with you.” By His Death Christ has made peace between sinful man and holy God. Here at His Altar He individually applies that peace to each communicant. God and sinners are reconciled through the Death of God’s Son. This Sacrament is the ultimate sign this is so, for here we eat His Body and drink His Blood. That’s God uniting Himself to us and making His home in us. That’s God forgiving us and saying our sins can no longer condemn us.
After we receive the Sacrament, God’s Service draws to a close. We sing Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis, confessing that since we have seen our Savior and taken His Body and Blood into us, we are ready to die in peace, firmly believing that for His sake our sins are forgiven and eternal life is ours. As is polite, we give God thanks for this Sacrament with Dr. Luther’s prayer and pray Him to use it to strengthen our faith in Him and our fervent love towards all people.
The final Salutation introduces last elements of us blessing and thanking God and then God The LORD blesses us with His Trinitarian Benediction, given to Moses, just like Jesus blessed His Apostles as He ascended into heaven. We leave singing a final hymn of thanksgiving and prayer and praise, for Dr. Luther instructs us with the Second Commandment to call on Him, pray, praise, and give Him thanks at all times.
On Maundy Thursday Our Lord preached to His Apostles, gave them The Sacrament, and they sang a hymn. His actions that night have inspired His Church over 2000 years to imitate what He did then. We use the Liturgy not because God told us to do it exactly this way, but because we believe it teaches us about Christ and His Gospel most faithfully; after all, it’s full of the words of Scripture and inspired by it. It points us to Christ and His Sacrament. It prepares us to receive Jesus’ Body and Blood by telling us why we need it, what He did for us, and what His Sacrament is. Therefore it delivers the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation, the very things we confess The Sacrament of The Altar delivers to us.