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December 2016 - Reforming the Liturgy and Hymns

Reforming the Liturgy and Hymns

With December upon us, we enter the festival half of the Church Year, and with it we experience rich hymnody and liturgical practices.  These are important elements that also had significant changes and improvements due to the Reformation.

In Luther’s Day, a church service would be quite different from what you are accustomed to.  The liturgy would be spoken or sung in Latin.  Hymns and liturgical songs would mainly be performed by choirs and/or a Kantor, again in Latin.  Portions of the Lord’s Supper liturgy would again be whispered in Latin for the priests alone behind screens.   How’s your Latin?  Do you think you would have gained much from such a service?  If you feel that your grasp of Latin is a bit rusty and you might be missing out on some important aspects of the service, you would have fit in quite well with the members of those congregations. 

The people had been taught for centuries that simply being near holy things and holy words would help them in their salvation, even if they didn’t understand what was being said or done.  Merely being there was enough.   And of course, there were always the relics to be near as well, that would also perhaps help in your salvation.  But how much comfort is there really in just being near holy things, or hearing words you cannot understand?

Luther recognized this difficulty and one of his most important contributions to the Reformation was in producing a Divine Service in the German language.  For the first time in their lives, the members would be able to understand the Word of God being proclaimed to them – could hear of God’s gracious and loving work for them in His Son --  that is, hear the Gospel!  They would be able to respond to those life giving words with hymns of praise such as the Gloria in Excelsis and actually mean what they were saying.

And Luther felt quite strongly about translating and writing hymns in the language of the people.  Instead of just listening to a choir singing in an unfamiliar language, the members go to sing hymns they could actually understand, and thus sing with more meaning and have them work deep into their hearts.  For hymns are actually small sermons written with concise words set to music that helps to communicate the message into their very souls. 

Appropriately, one of Luther’s original hymns was the Christmas hymn From Heaven Above to Earth I Come.  Luther actually wrote this hymn for his children’s Christmas Eve celebration in their home.   It was basically a miniature Christmas pageant with stanzas 1-5 sung by someone dressed as an angel, stanzas 7-14 were sung by the individual children as a response to the angel, and stanzas 6 and 15 were done by the entire family group.   Sounds like a great tradition to start in your own home! 

I have written on many occasions about the incredible gift and treasure Lutherans have with their liturgy and hymnody – an incredible heritage that should be certainly emphasized during this 500th anniversary year of the Reformation.    To this, I would once again quote from the introduction to Lutheran Worship which is found on our web –site:

Our Lord speaks and we listen.  His word bestows what it says.  Faith that is born from what is heard acknowledges the gifts received with eager thankfulness and praise.  Music is drawn into this thankfulness and praise, enlarging and elevating the adoration of our gracious giver God.

Saying back to Him what he has said to us, we repeat what is most true and sure.  Most true and sure is his name, which he put upon us with the water of our Baptism.  We are his.  This we acknowledge at the beginning of the Divine Service.  Where his name is, there is he.  Before him we acknowledge that we are sinners, and we plead for forgiveness.  His forgiveness is given to us, and we, freed and forgiven, acclaim him as our great and gracious God as we apply to ourselves the words he has used to make himself known to us.

The rhythm of our worship is from him to us, and then from us back to him.  He gives his gifts, and together we receive and extol them.  We build one another up as we speak to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.  Our Lord gives us his body to eat and his blood to drink.  Finally his blessing moves us out into our calling, where his gifts have their fruition.  How best to do this we may learn from his Word and from the ways his Word has prompted his worship through the centuries.  We are heirs of an astonishingly rich tradition. (LW, p. 6)


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