• Prayer of the Day/Chat GPT

    Have you heard all the buzz around an artificial intelligence “chatbot” called Chat GPT in the internet world?  It was launched as a prototype on November 30, 2022, and its capabilities really spread around the world very quickly.  If you type in a question or a phrase, it generates detailed responses and articulate answers across many domains of knowledge.  Its newest model was released just last week on March 14. 

    Now, artificial intelligence isn’t perfect, and Wikipedia mentions that it is not altogether factually accurate. But I am amazed at how good it really is! 

    I covered the Prayer of the Day recently in a series of weekly Zoom meetings through my church, so I had already done the research.  I wanted to see what Chat GPT would generate on the subject, and so I typed in “What is the Prayer of the Day in the Lutheran Worship Service?”  Here’s what Chat GPT generated:

    As an AI language model, I do not have access to live updates and cannot provide information about the specific Prayer of the Day in the current Lutheran worship service. However, I can provide you with some general information about the structure of Lutheran worship services.

    Lutheran worship services typically follow a liturgical structure that includes various prayers, readings, hymns, and other elements. One key component of the service is the “Prayer of the Day,” which is also known as the “Collect.” This prayer is typically recited by the pastor or another leader, and it is meant to collect or gather the themes of the day’s readings and focus the congregation’s prayers on those themes.

    The Prayer of the Day usually consists of four parts: an address to God, a petition or request, a purpose or goal, and a closing doxology or praise. The specific content of the prayer varies depending on the liturgical season, the theme of the day, and other factors.

    If you would like more information about the specific Prayer of the Day for a particular Lutheran worship service, you may want to consult with a local Lutheran church or clergy member.

    Wow!  That is pretty well written!  However, I am glad this human can still be of some use, if you would like more information about the Prayer of the Day! 

    The Prayer of the Day is read in our church by the assisting minister, after the Hymn of the Praise.  All of the Prayers of the Day are listed at the front of the book of worship (any book of worship, past and present, in the Lutheran church), according to the 3-year lectionary and follow the themes of that particular worship day. 

    One correction to Chat GPT’s information about the structure of the Prayer of the Day; it usually consists of five parts, not four, although to be fair to the AI engine, some of the Prayers of the Day omit the second, fourth, or sometimes both from the five parts.  The specific structure (with an example) is:

    Address:  O God,

    Basis for prayer:  You gave Your only Son to suffer death on the cross for our redemption, and by his glorious resurrection you delivered us from the power of death.

    Petition:  Make us to die every day to sin,

    Benefit desired:  so that we may live with him forever in the joy of the resurrection;

    Conclusion:  through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

    I asked Chat GPT “Can you write a Prayer of the Day for the Lutheran worship service?”  Chat GPT returned the following prayer:

    Almighty and gracious God, as we gather in your holy name, we ask that you would open our hearts and minds to your word and your will for our lives.

    Grant us the grace to hear your voice, the courage to follow your commands, and the wisdom to discern your ways.

    Strengthen us in our faith, comfort us in our trials, and guide us in all our ways, that we may live as your faithful people and bear witness to your love and truth in the world.

    Through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

    What do you think?  Not bad, although I believe that the Prayers of the Day are like beautiful jewels – very focused on a single theme with each word carrying the message clearly and concisely.  Looking at the Chat GPT prayer, we have already “gathered in your holy name” at this point in the service.  There are a LOT of petitions in this prayer, and usually the third “petition part” is a single petition. 

    Then I refined my request to Chat GPT, “Can you write a Prayer of the Day about repentance for the Lutheran worship service?” Here it is:

    O merciful God, we come before you with repentant hearts, confessing our sins and seeking your forgiveness.

    We have strayed from your ways, and we have fallen short of your glory. We ask for your grace and mercy, that we may be reconciled to you and to one another.

    Grant us the courage to confess our sins, the humility to seek your forgiveness, and the strength to turn away from sin and to walk in your ways.

    By the power of your Holy Spirit, guide us into all truth, and renew in us the joy of your salvation.

    Through Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

    Again, a bit “wordy”, but I was impressed that the theme of repentance was woven into Chat GPT’s prayer. 

    The Prayer of the Day serves as a transition point from the time of praise in the worship service to the time for Scripture readings.  And I will use this transition point to wrap up today’s blog!  I challenge you to write your own Prayer of the Day as well – it’s a wonderful exercise/discipline to incorporate in your daily prayer life!  May grace, mercy, and peace will be with us, from God the Father and from Jesus Christ the Father’s Son, in truth and love!  Amen.

  • Hymn of Praise

    The most common song of praise used in worship following the Kyrie is the Gloria in Excelsis, or “Glory be to God on high.”  The text for this song of praise comes from the Gospel of Luke, where angels sing at the birth of Jesus.  Luke 2:14 – “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”  Additionally we sing praise to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit each in the same manner—all praise is Trinitarian in nature.  By singing this hymn of the angels, the church recognizes that during our worship service, heaven and earth are united, and together we sing of the glory of our Triune God. 

    In my church, we use one of several musical settings for the Hymn of Praise.  The leader intones “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to God’s people on earth”, and the congregation sings the following text:

    Lord God, heavenly King, almighty God and Father,

    We worship you, we give you thanks, we praise you for your glory.

    Lord Jesus Christ, only Son of the Father,

    Lord God, Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world:

    Have mercy on us;

    You are seated at the right hand of the Father:  receive our prayer.

    For you alone are the Holy One, you alone are the Lord,

    You alone are the Most High, Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit,

    In the glory of God, the Father.  Amen.

    Other songs may be used in place of the traditional Gloria.  A beloved alternate song of praise written by Richard Hillert, “This is the Feast of Victory” was first included in Setting one of the Holy Communion service in the Lutheran Book of Worship (1978).  It is now widely published in more than 20 recent worship books of several denominations.  There are other musical settings of this text:

    Refrain:  This is the feast of victory for our God  Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

    1. Worthy is Christ, the Lamb who was slain, whose blood set us free to be people of God.  Refrain
    2. Power, riches, wisdom, and strength, and honor, blessing, and glory are his.  Refrain
    3. Sing with all the people of God, and join in the hymn of all creation:  Blessing, honor, glory, and might be to God and the Lamb forever.  Amen.  Refrain
    4. For the Lamb who was slain has begun his reign.  Alleluia.  Refrain

    Of course, during this time of Lent, we would not sing this song of praise because we are refraining from singing “Alleluia” until Easter!

    The phrase “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain” echoes the words of Revelation 5:13 – Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying:  “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power,
    for ever and ever!”

    And what a beautiful way to end this blog, with this scripture reading from Revelation!  May grace, mercy, and peace will be with us, from God the Father and from Jesus Christ the Father’s Son, in truth and love!  Amen.

  • Kyrie

    During Lent, my church (and many others) sing the Kyrie after the Confession and Forgiveness in our Holy Communion service.   In the Kyrie, we ask for God’s grace again, recognizing that it is only by God’s mercy that any of our requests can be granted.  

    The phrase “Kyrie eleison” is Greek for “Lord, have mercy”.  This basic prayer comes from the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18:9-14:

    The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector

    9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

    13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

    14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”  (NIV translation)

    The Pharisee thanks God that he has been created better than others, even the tax collector in the parable.  In contrast, the tax collector cries “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  The tax collector’s prayer resulted in his justification, unlike the Pharisee’s prayer.  When we Christians pray, we know that we, like the tax collector in the parable, have no righteousness to offer God.  We are beggars in need of God’s mercy. 

    As part of my personal daily prayer, I remind myself that, as a sinner, I am always in need of God’s mercy.  I often recall Martin Luther’s dying words, “We are beggars.  This is true.”  And God is so gracious, and loving, He extends a never-ending supply of mercy to His children. 

    In its earliest forms, the Kyrie includes a variety of petitions with “Lord, have mercy” as a response.  Since the Reformation, it has been common to use a shorter form of the Kyrie, which is a threefold “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy”.  Many churches, including mine, have restored the earlier version:

    Assisting Minister (AM):  In peace, let us pray to the Lord.

    Congregation (C):  Lord, have mercy.

    AM:  For the peace from above, and for our salvation, let us pray to the Lord.

    C:  Lord, have mercy.

    AM:  For the peace of the whole world, for the well-being of the church of God, and for the unity of all, let us pray to the Lord.

    C:  Lord, have mercy.

    AM:  For this holy house, and for all who offer here their worship and praise, let us pray to the Lord.

    C:  Lord, have mercy.

    AM:  Help, save, comfort, and defend us, gracious Lord.

    C:  Amen, amen.

    The Kyrie reflects this contemplative time of Lent, and is a beautiful addition to our Sunday worship.  May grace, mercy, and peace will be with us, from God the Father and from Jesus Christ the Father’s Son, in truth and love!  Amen.

  • The Season of Lent

    The season of Lent was established on the pattern of fasting and praying for forty days by Jesus’ time in wilderness before He started His earthly ministry (cf Matt 4:1-11), as well as 40-day fasts of Moses (cf. Exodus 34:28) and Elijah (cf. 1 Kings 19:8-9) in the Old Testament.  These fasts prepared each of them for their work. 

    For Lutherans, repentance is an important part of being a child of God, and during the season of Lent we put greater focus on our repentance as we remember and observe the passion and suffering of our Lord Jesus Christ.  More recently, there is a resurgence of incorporating the ancient understanding of Lent as a time for baptismal preparation and renewal.  Baptisms on Easter were and are celebrated even today in many Christian denominations, using the 40 days (not including Sundays) of the Lenten season to prepare for or to remember our own baptisms. 

    And so, to reflect these themes during the Lenten season, our worship patterns change accordingly:

    • We refrain from singing the word “Alleluia” (which means “Praise the Lord”) in our worship services.  I have always considered a type of “word fast”, where we welcome this beautifully expressive word of praise back into our worship on Easter!
    • We sing the “Kyrie” (Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy) after the Confession and Forgiveness in the service.
    • The Gospel Acclamation is changed from “Alleluia!  Lord to whom shall we go”  to “Return to the Lord your God”, whose text is taken from Joel 2:13.
    • We place purple paraments on the altar and the lectern.  Purple has long been associated with royalty, and our Prince of Peace reigns, even from the cross.
    • The processional cross we use at Bethlehem for Lent is a simple, wooden cross – again, reflecting the penitential nature of the season.
    • We are thankful to be able to gather again for our Midweek Lenten services at Bethlehem Lutheran, after an absence because of COVID.  We share a simple meal of soup and bread, then gather for an Evening Prayer service.

    We are trying an old tradition this Lenten season at Bethlehem – it’s called Burying the Alleluia.  Sounds funny, doesn’t it?  At Bethlehem we said farewell to the Alleluia on Transfiguration Sunday, February 12th.  A couple of our congregation members created an Alleluia banner, which was placed in a special wooden box by the youth of the congregation, and it was placed behind the altar (some congregations actually bury it in the ground!), to be opened again and used for the processional on Easter.  Each member of the congregation also received a small wooden chest, and placed a slip of paper with the word “Alleluia” written on it to take home, as a remembrance of this Lenten season. 

    Lutherans are not required to fast, but are certainly encouraged and supported if they wish to observe Lent by fasting, or giving up something they feel is a meaningful sacrifice.  Others incorporate special devotionals and prayers for the season. 

    What changes might you observe in your own church worship services during the Lenten season?  May grace, mercy, and peace will be with us, from God the Father and from Jesus Christ the Father’s Son, in truth and love!  Amen.

  • Shrove Tuesday/Ash Wednesday

    I am writing this blog on Tuesday evening, 2/21/2023 after returning from my church’s “Pancake Tuesday” celebration.  Today, the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, is celebrated under a host of different names:  Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras (which means “Fat Tuesday”), Pancake Tuesday and so on.  There are any number of traditions about what is traditionally eaten the day before Ash Wednesday.  I can’t speak to all of them, but I can tell you what we do to mark the last day in the season of Epiphany – we have a pancake feast in the evening with our church community! 

    Since I’ve been at Bethlehem Lutheran Church, we take advantage of meeting together for this last feast before Lent by raising money for our youth to go to summer camp.  So the youth (and their families) set up tables and chairs in the hall, with festive Mardi Gras decorations on the tables, and spend more than one evening preparing all the homemade food.  The menu:  Breakfast potatoes with onions and peppers, mac and cheese, pancakes (of course!), eggs, bacon, and all the trimmings for the pancakes.  What a feast it was!  And it’s so good to be in the company of my fellow Christians as we share a meal together, especially during the socially lean years of COVID. 

    What is Ash Wednesday, then?  According to the Evangelical Lutheran Worship book, “Ash Wednesday is a solemn day of prayer that begins the season of Lent.  On this day we confess our sin in a litany of repentance.  During Lent’s forty days we are invited to carry out the Lenten discipline, practices of fasting, prayer, and work of love even as we accompany people around the world who are preparing for baptism at Easter.  On this day we may receive the sign of ashes.  This ancient symbol of repentance reminds us of our mortality.  Returning to God’s mercy and grace, marked with the cross of Christ, we make our way through Lent, longing for the baptismal waters of Easter, our spiritual rebirth.”

    How do we know which Wednesday to celebrate “Ash Wednesday”?  Ash Wednesday is calculated 40 days before Easter.  Therefore, we need to know how to calculate which Sunday Easter will be, because it is not on a fixed date each year, like Christmas.  Easter is celebrated on the first Sunday after the Paschal full moon, which is the first full moon on or after March 21st (a fixed approximation of the March equinox).  In 2023, the first full moon after March 21st is April 6th.  The first Sunday after April 6th (which is a Thursday), is April 9th.  That is the date for Easter in 2023.  Happily, this information is readily available on the internet, and on special liturgical calendars, so we don’t have to do the calculations ourselves! 

    Jewish Passover is also calculated by the lunar calendar, so we celebrate Holy Week at the same time our Jewish brethren celebrate Passover. 

    We calculate the rest of our Lenten calendar between the Ash Wednesday and Easter dates.  We work backwards from Easter and calculate the following Sundays and Festivals:

    April 2nd, 2023:  Passion/Palm Sunday (1 week before Easter)

    April 6th, 2023:  Maundy Thursday

    April 7th, 2023:  Good Friday

    April 9th, 2023:  Easter Day

    That leaves 5 Sundays for Lent.  (There is a maximum of 6 and a minimum of 4 Lenten Sundays.)

    February 26th, 2023:  1 Lent

    March 5th, 2023: 2 Lent

    March 12th, 2023:  3 Lent

    March 19th, 2023: 4 Lent

    March 26th, 2023: 5 Lent

    I will continue to talk more about Lent in next week’s blog. Until then, may grace, mercy, and peace will be with us, from God the Father and from Jesus Christ the Father’s Son, in truth and love!  Amen.

  • The Sign of the Cross

    During the Invocation mentioned in last week’s blog, the pastor will make the sign of the cross over herself.  There are a couple of common misconceptions about this action:

    • This is something only the pastor does;
    • This is a holdover from Roman Catholic worship, and Protestants don’t do that.

    The fact is, Christians have been making the sign of the cross since the church’s earliest days.  In the first few centuries, worshipers used their thumb on their forehead to make the sign of the cross.  This was a way for God’s people to mark themselves as believers in Christ, a way to identify followers of Jesus in the early church.  Luther and other reformers saw it as a beneficial practice for corporate worship and individual prayer, that it wasn’t meant just for Roman Catholics. 

    Eventually, Christians made the cross over their whole body as we do today, using their whole hand instead of just the thumb, two, or three fingers. 

    The sign of the cross is not a superstition, nor empty ritual, but it reminds us, as it did the early Christians, of our own identity in Christ.  We often perform this gesture when the words “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” are spoken, because of the connection between the Triune God and the cross.  The pastor uses these same words when baptizing someone, or when we receive communion.  When we make the sign of the cross, we are remembering our own baptism.  We are baptized in the name of the Triune God, and belong to Him, and we stand in community with other baptized believers in worship.

    Some congregations have a tradition of stopping at the baptismal font, dipping their hand in the water and making the sign of the cross when entering the sanctuary. 

    Making the sign of the cross is not by any means mandatory for the members of the congregation.  But we should also not feel any trepidation about making this very meaningful gesture, to identify ourselves as children of God.  I feel it is both a blessing and a gift to be able to do so, especially in the company of our fellow believers in worship! 

    May grace, mercy, and peace will be with us, from God the Father and from Jesus Christ the Father’s Son, in truth and love!  Amen.

  • Invocation, Confession & Forgiveness 

    We begin the Service of Holy Communion by hearing the pastor give the Invocation “Blessed be the holy Trinity, one God, the Word made Flesh, our life and our salvation”, to which the congregation responds “Amen”.   Unlike some pagan religions, who may recite a specific incantation or prayer to invoke their deity to appear, we do not need to entice God to be present with us in our worship.  In fact, there is nothing that we humans can do to bring God to us – He comes freely, in our midst, because He loves us. 

    The Invocation reminds us that it is the Triune God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – who brings us together and unites us, His children, in one body.  We are now in the presence of His holiness.

    Now that we are in His presence, let’s take a look at what Scripture has to say when Isaiah has a vision about being in the presence of God:

    Isaiah 6:1-5

    1  In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. 3 And they were calling to one another:

    “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty;
        the whole earth is full of his glory.”

    4 At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.

    5 “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.”

    Imagine seeing what Isaiah saw in his vision – the Lord seated on his throne, the splendor of his robe, and heavenly creatures praising him, shaking the doorposts, the smoke . . . and then Isaiah recognizes his sinfulness in the company of heaven.  He cannot help but cry out his confession, not only for himself, but for his people as well. 

    In our Invocation, heaven and earth are joined together, we are in God’s throne room and we too are unholy in the presence of God, individually and corporately. 

    We confess that our sins encompass all aspects of our daily lives; not just outward actions, or the words we speak.  We sin by doing things we shouldn’t have, or neglect things we should do (like loving our neighbor at every opportunity), or by the thoughts we have that do not glorify God in many and various ways.  And without the saving grace of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, our sins would condemn us to eternal death.  And we repent of our sins.  Think of repentance as turning 180 degrees away from our sin.  It is not merely regret, or remorse, or feeling bad because of our sin.  The Holy Spirit changes our hearts so that we no longer want to sin, our hearts are renewed and turned towards God. 

    In the words of Paul in Romans 8:1-2: Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, 2 because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death, as believers we are forgiven for all our sin, in the past, present and future!  Christ’s sacrifice was a once-and-for-all-forever sacrifice.  God’s response to our sins is not to punish us, but to “cleanse us from all unrighteousness” in the words of the absolution, or forgiveness. 

    When the pastor forgives our sins, she does so not because of her indelible character within herself.  The power to forgive sins is given to the entire church.  The pastor does not speak on his own authority, but through Christ and through the authority of the church. 

    What a precious gift to be forgiven, to have our hearts turned towards the Lord!  May grace, mercy, and peace will be with us, from God the Father and from Jesus Christ the Father’s Son, in truth and love!  Amen.

  • Epiphany, Holy Communion

    The season of Epiphany begins on January 6th and concludes before the Transfiguration of Our Lord Sunday, which is the Sunday immediately preceding Ash Wednesday.  Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season of Lent. 

    Because Ash Wednesday is based on the date for Easter, the season of Epiphany can be shorter or longer accordingly.  This year, 2023,  we end the Epiphany season on February 12, the sixth Sunday of Epiphany.  The maximum number of Sundays in the Epiphany season is eight. 

    During the season of Epiphany, the paraments are changed to green.  The Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW) book and the supplement “All Creation Sings” (ACS), published in 2020, offers a generous number of settings for Holy Communion (10 in the ELW, 3 in the ACS), so Lutheran churches may choose to change the setting used in the Advent/Christmas season.  It is important to note that choosing which setting to use when is not prescribed by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) – it is at the discretion of whoever is responsible for making worship decisions (usually the pastor and one of the music staff or a worship committee, as the music within each setting changes as well).  Coordinating this change with the music staff is important, as they may need to prepare the choir, the accompanist, or any other musicians involved in providing the worship service music.  Now that I’ve introduced the topic of the worship service itself, let’s explore a little about Holy Communion in our worship.

    Holy Communion cadence

    How often does your church celebrate Holy Communion?  Some churches offer Holy Communion multiple times a week, some weekly on Sunday, some once a month, some others quarterly . . . In Scripture, there are no strict guidelines as to how often a community of Christians should share the bread and body of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Christ shared many, many meals with his disciples, and shared the Passover meal with his disciples the night before He was crucified.  Early Christian churches met in people’s homes, and Scripture mentions them sharing meals and praying together often, more than once a week—sometimes every day!  But the cadence of when we share a meal today during worship is up to the discretion of the pastor and the congregation. 

    Interestingly, there have been cycles in the history of the Lutheran Church where Holy Communion wasn’t celebrated weekly.  Forty years ago, when I first joined an ELCA church, it was customary for my congregation to celebrate Holy Communion every second Sunday, alternating with the Service of the Word.  The Service of the Word contains most of the same liturgical elements as the Service of Holy Communion, but without the communion part.  However, there was a movement/renewal in the ELCA towards celebrating Holy Communion weekly, and more and more ELCA churches have joined that movement.  The church I attend today does choose to celebrate Holy Communion weekly, unless we do not have an ordained pastor to officiate during the blessing and distribution of the communion elements. 

    Here’s what Martin Luther said about the sacrament of Holy Communion: “…Now that we have the right interpretation and teaching concerning the sacrament, there is also great need to admonish and encourage us so that we do not let this great a treasure, which is daily administered and distributed among Christians, pass by to no purpose. What I mean is that those who want to be Christians should prepare themselves to receive this blessed sacrament frequently” (Martin Luther, Large Catechism).

    I feel very blessed that we are able to commune in community with one another every Sunday at our church, especially since the pandemic!  It was one of the things I missed most about being unable to worship in person. 

    Next week, we will start to explore the parts that make up the Service of Holy Communion.  May grace, mercy, and peace will be with us, from God the Father and from Jesus Christ the Father’s Son, in truth and love!  Amen.

  • The Church Year

    This past Sunday, 1/22/2023, was the third Sunday of Epiphany in many liturgical Protestant churches.  If you had come to worship at our church that day, were handed a bulletin with this information prominently written on the front cover, and were not familiar with what we call the “Church Year”, this phrase would have been undoubtedly confusing. 

    According to Britannica.com, the Church Year is defined as “church year, also called liturgical year, annual cycle of seasons and days observed in the Christian churches in commemoration of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and of his virtues as exhibited in the lives of the saints.”

    Like the four seasons, our Lutheran church year has its own seasons.  The church year begins with the season of Advent, which spans the four Sundays before Christmas, December 25th.  Last year, Christmas Day fell on a Sunday, but that doesn’t count as the 4th Sunday of Advent AND Christmas Day – no double-dipping – so the rules still applied.  The 1st Sunday of Advent was on 11/27/2022, 2nd Sunday on 12/4/2022, 3rd Sunday on 12/11/2022, and 4th Sunday on 12/18/2022.

    Advent is a time of spiritual preparation – we make ourselves ready for the birth of Jesus Christ.  We may prepare ourselves by activities like prayer or fasting.  In our worship liturgy, our prayers and hymns reflect the season of Advent.  Even though we may have been hearing Christmas carols in our secular lives (in our area, it starts immediately after October 31st), we refrain from proclaiming Christ’s birth in our Advent hymns.  We patiently(?) wait until Christmas Eve before we break out with hymns like “Joy to the World!”—or so it is recommended by our ELCA documentation on the subject of liturgical practices.  But ever since I joined the Lutheran Church back in 1983, I can assure you that those of us involved in planning worship services are faced with a sometimes not-very-small cadre of congregation members begging to sing Christmas hymns starting in Advent! 

    We mark the season of Advent visually in our sanctuary by placing blue runners and scarfs (called “paraments”) on the altar, the lectern (which is where lay persons read Scripture and offer general intercessions (prayers)), and the pulpit (from where Scripture is read and the sermon is preached).  We also light a series of candles, one for each Sunday of Advent, cumulatively, so all candles are lit on the fourth Sunday of Advent.  Our pastor will wear a blue stole around her neck during the Advent season during worship services.  Sometimes we hang seasonal banners along the walls of the sanctuary, lovingly hand-crafted by members of our congregation. 

    Next in our Church Year calendar after Advent:

    • Christmas Eve (December 24th) and Christmas Day (December 25th), during which we celebrate the birth of our Savior Jesus Christ,
    • the “Name of Jesus” (January 1st) celebrated 8 days after Christmas, because Jewish law required baby boys to be circumcised and named 8 days after their birth,
    • the “Epiphany of Our Lord” (January 6th)—Epiphany means “manifestation”—where we celebrate God’s glory revealed in the person of Jesus Christ,
    • and the “Baptism of Our Lord” (the first Sunday after January 6th), which commemorates the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist in the river Jordan.  

    All but the “Baptism of Our Lord” are fixed days on our secular calendar – that is, they are not calculated based on the vernal equinox and phases of the moon (like Easter), or calculated based on other fixed dates.  The paraments in the sanctuary are switched to white, we sing Christmas hymns with great gusto, and our Advent prayers and fasting turn to joyous celebrations and feasts! 

    It is important to note that none of these visual elements or what kind of hymns to sing and when, are commanded in Scripture.  Neither are they forbidden by Scripture.  Since there are no explicit instructions in Scripture, no “New Testament Worship Manual” for these customs and traditions, they vary according to local customs and practices in churches around the world.  According to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), Principles for Worship, Principle S-16), “When used clearly and with understanding, vestments (with other visual arts and symbols) “embody and support the proclamation of the word of God”.  This is one of the major themes about our liturgical practices – whatever we do to “support the proclamation of the word of God”, we want to make sure we understand why we do what we do—otherwise these practices are not meaningful, and that is unfortunate position to be in as a congregation.

    This is one of the major motivators for my blog.  I do find these visual aids and actions (colors of paraments, lighting candles, singing season-appropriate hymns) enhance my worship by anticipating and connecting to the Scripture that will be read during the service.  And I hope my humble explanations will provide context for other worshippers and enhance their worship experience as well!

    Next week, we will continue with the season of Epiphany.  May grace, mercy, and peace will be with us, from God the Father and from Jesus Christ the Father’s Son, in truth and love!  Amen.

  • Introduction to Lutheran Liturgy

    The first time I was introduced to the Lutheran liturgy, was when I was hired as the organist at St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church, Granada Hills, in September 1983.  My husband Jim and I had just gotten married in August in Edmonton, Alberta, our home city, and the next day we hitched a trailer full of mostly music and books about music to move to the San Fernando Valley.  Jim studied voice at CalArts, and I had been accepted into the doctoral program in organ performance at USC.

    Being poor students, we immediately sought out church positions to supplement our non-existent income stream when we arrived.  I was/am terrible at directions and faced with an over-whelming jumble of freeways, and I completely messed up my first audition at a church on Reseda Boulevard by being a full 90 minutes late for choir practice, arriving just in time to say goodbye to the choir as they left.  Needless to say, they weren’t interested in somebody who couldn’t even find the church.  I regrouped and said to Jim, “I need to find a church that I can WALK to.”  And the Lord promptly guided me to St. Stephen’s, where I met a wonderful pastor who tutored me in the Lutheran liturgy and encouraged the growth of my love for the liturgy.  That man was Pastor Natwick. 

    Forty years later, I’m still in love with liturgy.  I find the seasons of the church give me a scaffolding for my faith and my Christian journey.  I love how the 3-year Church Calendar lesson plan ensures that I am grounded in all parts of the Bible, and feeds my curiosity to explore the rest of Scripture that is not part of the 3-year lesson plan.  Most of all, I love that we are privileged to sing our faith and Scripture every Sunday.

    If you aren’t sure what I’m talking about, you may want to consider following my blog as I explore the various facets of our Lutheran liturgy.  And if you do know what I’m talking about, I hope you will also join me in my exploration so that we might grow in faith together and in further appreciation for our liturgy tradition. 

    If you haven’t heard, I will be facilitating a Zoom class on Wednesday evenings on Lutheran liturgy, starting next Wednesday, 1/25/2023 at 6:30 pm!

    Tap or click here to join the meeting!
    Meeting ID: 863 9864 6370 / Passcode: 651572