V1N2A3 Lutheran Ceremonia

Lutheran Ceremonia

ramblings by John W. Berg

As I stood in the midst of angels and archangels and all the company of heaven with whom I had joined in singing their Trisagion waiting for the Communion to begin, I watched an elderly and frail man from India, a Lutheran visitor to our service that day, stop at the privacy rail at the front of the nave and, with difficulty, remove his sandals before he entered the sanctuary to receive the Blessed Sacrament. His humble action spoke loudly and clearly to all present that day.


At a WELS pastor-teacher conference service in Southeastern Michigan held at an area Lutheran high school, after the dismissal the communicants were greeted by a large plastic garbage can (for the little plastic cups) which was conveniently located in a corner of the room, thus providing a two-walled backboard for bank shots for the ostensible “garbage,” the remnants of which, in another day were called the reliquiae, dripped down the wall.  One’s head spins to consider the mental gymnastics involved if any of that day’s shooters, with a conveniently developed amnesia, would be indignant hearing of a WELS church - which sits in the shadow of its Seminary - where the baptismal font is used as the stand-in garbage can. Likewise, those actions spoke loudly and clearly that day.


All churches have ceremonies. All ceremonies teach. The question that remains is, what?   


High Church? Low Church?


Unfortunately, in rabidly conservative Lutheran circles the issue of ceremonies is often tainted with terms borrowed from Anglicanism - “high church” and “low church” - as if it were the Cavaliers and Puritans going at it again. Among such conservatives any ceremony that smacks of formality or “Catholicism” is automatically forced into the predetermined category, “high church,” (said with a dismissive sneer, of course) and is dispatched as formalistic, ritualistic, Papistic and vacuous traditionalism.  A friend who was considering a call was warned by his Wisconsin Synod district president, who had been warned of this lad’s “high church” tendencies, that this calling church was one that just wanted the “meat and potatoes.” Spare the high church garnish, please. 


Such comments evince an unfortunate ignorance not simply about those terms, but, more tragically about the ceremonies of the evangelical Catholic church, that is, the Lutheran Church. Serious liturgiologists know that these iconoclastic views are not concordant with our history or our Confessions. Indeed, those who eschew such “high church” ceremonies have more in common with the radical Reformation of Carlstadt than the evangelical Reformation of the Lutherans.


Perhaps reviewing the definitions of some of the terms commonly used in the Lutheran Church would first be in order, lest we talk past one another and more statuary is profaned. A “rite” is that text which is followed or written, often erroneously called the “liturgy.” We have an official Lutheran Rite of Holy Baptism, the 1526 rite revised by Dr. Martin Luther.  Yes, even the regular chummy Sunday morning crowd warm up


V:  Good Morning!

R:  Mumble, mumble. 

V: Oh, you can do better than that, GOOD MORNING! 



- is a rite (with the unwritten rubric “now all may act goofy.”)


The liturgy is the speaking of and the actions accompanying the rite. The “liturgy” is “something that is done. [It] is an action” Frank Senn rightly reminds us and then cautions


Since every Christian church has an act of gathering in which its corporate life and mission are expressed, there are no Christian churches without liturgy. The distinction commonly made between “liturgical” churches and “non-liturgical” churches is not helpful. 1


The rubrics are the directions for the liturgists (lay and clergy) to guide them, and are red so as not to be read (the reading of which clutters the service like a game of “mother, may I” in which the preacher sounds like some sort of a liturgical Snagglepus “exit, stage left!” )


“Ceremony” is the sum of it all and refers to


bodily expressions, such as speaking, singing, kneeling, bowing, making the sign of the cross, and the outward observance of the church year, but also to the ornaments, symbols, and material objects employed in the church’s worship, for example, the church building, the altar, crucifixes, candles and vestments. 2  


(Note, though, that the terms, rites, ceremonies, ordinances, worship [cultus], services, and customs [mos] can be used somewhat interchangeably in the Lutheran Confessions.)


Thus, all churches, even the lowest of the “low,” in the barest of the bare surroundings, employ rites and ceremonies; its services ritualistic and ceremonial. Even the silent waiting for a sudden rush of the Spirit in a bare walled Quaker meeting hall is ceremony. Yes, the bank shot off the wall of an empty plastic cup into a plastic garbage can is a ceremony rich in meaning.


All churches have ceremonies, all ceremonies teach. But what? The service hour is a vacuum and, as our Lord has observed, vacuums do not remain so. So, as the sycophantic church of today rushes to exorcise the spirits of the past, other spirits will rush in to fill that vacuum. But will the last state be worse than the first? The view of this journal is that when Lutherans worship as something other than Lutherans they will become something else. So, what do Lutherans do? For that we go to our Lutheran Confessions.


The Divine Service – Christocentric


The guiding principle, it often seems, for many Lutherans today when they gather is adiaphoron, of course, under the first amendment protection of “Christian freedom.” That matters of adiaphora enter in is true, but what we do in the Divine Service is hardly indifferent. We cannot do whatever we desire. Christian freedom is not the right to do whatever we want, it is the freedom of the Gospel. The guiding principle, if you will, for Lutherans is the evangelical principle, the Gospel, which is freedom from the law and not freedom to act frivolously and capriciously. At the heart of the Divine Service thus ought to be Christ. Lutheran worship, if it is, begins from above and will be Christological from beginning to end. Ceremonies, consequently, will be Christocentric, not anthropocentric. Indeed, the word “worship” is an unfortunate term to describe what our forefathers called Gottesdienst, and probably has contributed far more than we realize as to what people believe that hour is primarily about (see AP XXIV 80f). “Worship” turns the Lord into the Holy Passive Recipient, before whom we offer our sacrifices of ebullient “praise” and guitar riffs, as in this reworking of the Baptismal invocation into a Dedication rite! “Therefore, we dedicate this service of worship and praise to our glorious God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” 3 This view forgets that our worship, first and most of all, is a passive thing, faith.


The woman came with the opinion of Christ that with Him the remission of sins should be sought. This worship is the highest worship of Christ. (Hic cultus est summus cultus Christi) Nothing greater could she ascribe to Christ. To seek from Him the remission of sins was to truly acknowledge the Messiah (AP III, 333, see also AC XXIV 9; and Luke 10:38-42).


Indeed, we worship in prayer and song, but the highest worship and praise is “faith toward God” and that is evidenced in “fervent love toward mankind” in one’s vocation. As has been said, Dr. Luther “secularized” good works.


From Christ we receive, to Christ we respond. It is Christ who preaches, baptizes, absolves and communes. It is axiomatic that the Christological Service/Ministry will be an orthodox (“healthy praise”) one. Nothing trite, self-aggrandizing, or that merely “can be understood correctly” must enter in. Thus Lutheran ceremonia are antithetical to those of revivalistic evangelicalism, which invariably center on man, and where the conduit to Christ is one’s heart, feelings, and prayers - an unmediated means of grace. As I heard sung at a WELS grade school graduation service,


Tell me I’m a fool

Tell me that You love me for the fool I am

And Comfort me like only You can and

Tell me there’s a place where I can feel Your breath

Like sweet caresses on my face again. 4


The place where this romance happens is the “bed of faith.”


If our service is Christological, then it is incarnational. The Hypostatic Word is the one who comes to us, not one encased in heaven to whom we reach up “in the  spirit” to find (“Ipse mihi venit. Ego non ad eum ascendi.” Luther 5). So, our ceremonies will be governed by the real presence of the Holy One of Israel, before whom angels bow in deepest reverence and some pious souls remove their sandals. The service is not to be the egalitarian work of collective ministries, but the Ministry of Christ as the pastor stands in the name and in the stead of Christ, not speaking about, but lending mouth and hand to the present Lord. Dr. David Scaer says it well,


The sermon is not only a report of what God has done or is doing now in heaven, but is what Christ is personally doing now in his congregation. 6


If Christ is incarnationally present, then our service will be sacramental. The Incarnate God comes to us in concrete preaching and concrete, sacramental water, bread and wine. In the Sacrament of Baptism, we are sacramentally brought into the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. In the Sacrament of Absolution we hear the very voice of Christ. In the Sacrament of the Altar, the incarnation and the atonement, the two great scandals of Christianity, come together as nowhere else.  As Dr. Luther said, “He gave Himself to the utmost depth, into flesh and blood, in our mouth, heart, bosom, and for this reason for our sakes He suffers and is contemptuously handled both on cross and altar.” 7


As the believer is incorporated into Christ in Holy Baptism and is brought the body of Christ in the Holy Communion by which he participates in the mystical body of Christ, the believer’s relationship to Christ will be corporate, and thus liturgical.  Liturgical, in that Christ’s gifts are to be mediated to him and the faithful in preaching and in the Sacraments by the ritely ordained. This requires ceremony befitting this Lord and his gifts so these gifts may be given to us orderly by the ordained in beauty and grace. So, then, his service to us will be ceremonially rich, liturgically ordered, sacramentally given, incarnationally graced and Christologically centered.


Good Ceremonies and Good Ceremonies Gone Bad


There are two kinds of ceremonies; those instituted by Christ and those by men.  Those instituted by Christ cannot be neglected, those instituted by men, good, useful and necessary, do not have to be uniform for the unity of the church (AC VII).


Of prime importance are the ceremonies instituted by Christ. In Apology XIII we confess, “that in matters and ceremonies instituted in the Scriptures, (ceremoniae in Scripturis institutae) whatever the number, be not neglected.” It is “easy” to determine which have the promise “of grace added:” “Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Absolution, which is the Sacrament of Repentance, are truly Sacraments” (3,4). These ceremonies we dare not neglect and the manner (ceremony) in which we do these things will speak loudly as to what we believe.


Our Lutheran confession is that


those [Ecclesiastical Usages, ritibus] ought to be observed which may be observed without sin, and which are profitable unto tranquility and good order in the church, as particular holy-days, festivals and the like. Nevertheless, concerning such things, men are admonished, that consciences are not to be burdened, as though such observance was necessary to salvation(AP XV 1).


Ceremonies instituted by men are necessary, not for salvation, but for the orderly and proper administration of the means of grace and, thus, do not lie on the periphery of the faith, but are inseparably connected to it for they grow out of it.  We believe, teach and confess


that the community of God in every time and place has the right, power, and authority to change, reduce, or expand such practices according to circumstances in an orderly and appropriate manner, without frivolity and offense, as seems most useful, beneficial, and best for good order, Christian discipline (euvtaxiva), evangelical decorum, and the building up of the church (FC TD X 9 p. 1055 K-W).  


This passage however, is too often taken from its ecumenical context and twisted to say a church or innovative pastor can willy-nilly do what it wants.   Earlier we read


In the same way, useless, foolish spectacles, which are not beneficial for good order, Christian discipline, or evangelical decorum in the church, are not true adiaphora or indifferent things (7).


Included in this indictment, then, are ceremonies that do not promote dignity, devotion, piety and reverence.  Ceremonies that are frivolous (Leichtfertigkeit/ levitatem fugiendam) are forbidden (FC EP X 3). Silliness on the part of the preacher falls outside of the bounds set by our Confessions. Dr. Luther speaks to our time and to “our churches” when he writes,


[the Pope] teaches of ceremonies concerning churches, garments, food, persons and [similar] puerile (Kinderspiels), theatrical and comical things without measure, but in all these things nothing at all of Christ, faith, and the commandment of God (SA Part II Art IV.  What is often billed today as “contemporary” is anything but, e-mail me for my collection of recent Wisconsin Synod sermons illustrating this).


The Augustana concludes,


But it can readily be judged that nothing would serve better to maintain the dignity of ceremonies, and to nourish reverence and pious devotion among the people than if the ceremonies were observed rightly (rite) in the churches.8


And nothing does this better than the celebration of the Sacrament, which “increases reverence and respect for public ceremonies” (AC XXIV 5 K-W).


Harsh words in our Confessions are reserved for the view that ceremonies instituted by men merit grace. We confess that


it is lawful for bishops or pastors to make ordinances that things be done orderly in the Church, not that thereby we should merit grace or make satisfaction for sins, or that consciences be bound to judge them necessary services, and to think that it is a sin to break them without offense to others (AC XXVIII).


Even ceremonies instituted by Christ can fall under this indictment if these ceremonies transubstantiate into works of men that merit grace ex opere operato sine bono motu utentis (AP XIII, 18), a malady that also afflicts those “conservative” Lutherans who are Sacramentally impoverished in catechesis and practice and who wish to consubstantiate their real Lutheran substance with symbolic Evangelical style. Thus any ceremony, whether instituted by Christ or by men, may be abused, but remember St. Augustine’s maxim, “Abusus non tollit usum.” (Thus the standard Wisconsin Synod argument against the very Sunday – let alone every day - celebration of the Sacrament, “too often, taken for granted.”)


Lutheran Ceremonies, Evangelical and Catholic


Positively stated, ceremonies are needed to teach. “For after all, all ceremonies should serve the purpose of teaching the people what they need to know about Christ”  (AC XXIV 3 K-W). Good Lutheran ceremonies will be evangelical. They shall point to Christ, exalt Christ, and in no way should they detract from the solemnity of the Divine Service and our decorous joy as we gather around the Lamb in the Spirit in the presence of the Father.


We do not apologize for the truth that our dear Lutheran church is the true Catholic church for “in doctrine and ceremonies nothing has been received on our part against Scripture or the Church Catholic” (Conclusion of the AC). The rejection of Catholic ceremony, then, is a tacit concession to Rome, that indeed we broke from Rome, rather than Rome breaking from evangelical truth. So, when a Lutheran claims that a certain practice of the church Catholic, such as crossing oneself or celebrating the Sacrament every Sunday, is Roman Catholic, he owes the Pope an apology. Such a teacher will look quite foolish if his catechumen finds a non-truncated (i.e. non-WELS) copy of the Small Catechism and reads “in the morning when you wake up, make the sign (segnen dich) of the holy Cross and say in the Name…” or, reads his own Confession


For among us masses are celebrated every Lord’s Day and on the other festivals, in which the Sacrament is offered to those who wish to use it, after they have been examined and absolved (AP XXIV 1,2, see also AC XXIV 40, AC XXI 4,5, AC XXIV 1,2).


Lutheran ceremony is Catholic ceremony. Therefore it is wrong, indeed perjurious, to taint Catholic ceremonies as Papistic.


We believe, teach, and confess also that no Church should condemn another because one has less or more external ceremonies not commanded by God than the other, if otherwise there is agreement among them in doctrine and all its articles, as also in the right use of the holy Sacraments (FC Epitome 5). 


Labeling a minister or a church “high church” simply because he or she uses a Catholic ceremony is a serious charge, and if made by one who has put his name to the Concordia, raises questions of perjury at worst, ignorance at best. 


We are not advocating a careless reintroduction of such ceremonies in our churches, so thoroughly influenced by American Protestantism. That requires a long and slow catechetical process, but one that should be undertaken.  That in our church today, the use of words such as “mass” and the use of Catholic ceremony causes alarm among the laity is expected, but that it does, it speaks poorly of their teachers. That people are not instructed that the use of Catholic ceremonies is allowed, is even preferable, leaves them not only ignorant, but often judgmental of those who employ such ceremonies and they are set for a fall when they learn our Confessions enjoin their use. This is not a call to repristinate some golden liturgical age, but to recognize that the ceremonia of the Lutheran church have grown out of her Christology and her particular understanding of the Sacraments, far more than by an accumulation of völkisch traditions and cultural accretions.


Catholic ceremony expresses the one Lord, one faith, one baptism that conjoins Christians torn apart by heresy and schism. Catholic ceremony, tried and tested, serves as a prophylactic to untested, untried, homemade innovations, the bane of the church today. Anyone who has suffered through an enthusiastic rambling ex corde prayer can appreciate the action taken by the Synod of Hippo, (A.D. 393) which forbid anyone to use the written prayers of other churches until he had shown a copy to “the more learned brethren.” It has been said we can borrow from American Protestantism under the naïve and dangerous rubric of them being “Lutheranized,” (or as a Wisconsin Synod seminary president put it “spoiling the Egyptians”) as if we can emasculate a Protestant practice and slap on a pair of Lutheran clichés “law and Gospel” and “Word and Sacrament” and think all is well. Do we not see the deep structures which lie under “style,” modes of speaking and doing that may not consciously be seen, but subliminally influence our beliefs? How many times can someone sing “How Great Thou Art” and hear “Sovereign Lord” before one begins to lose their grasp on the homo factus est?


Finally, it is not “Lutheran” ceremony, when any ceremony is forced on people without proper catechesis. I should think that there would be little sympathy, even among us in the smells and bells crowd, for a pastor who suddenly, one Sunday, introduced the meet, right and salutary practice of using incense and received persecution for his trouble. Likewise, should we have more tolerance for pastors who spring homemade liturgical ceremonies and rites that have never been used, nowhere, by no one on unsuspecting parishioners? Yes, any ceremony is “high church” when such a ceremony is not understood or done for the sake of itself. So, the release of a balloon during the sermon (an ironically ubiquitous Ascension Day prop) can be as “high church” as a deep genuflection.


A Plea


Before we abandon or reject the ceremonia of “our churches,” perhaps we should first of all learn and understand them. When one does, he sees how they are a most precious setting for the Christological gems of preaching and the Sacraments. A regular use of evangelical and Catholic, rites, liturgies and ceremonies (in the narrow sense) will prevent already Protestantized parishioners from being sucked into the Charybdis of Arminian subjectivism, and will prevent them from crashing on the Scylla of silly sectarianism and individualism and thus – saints be praised - we will all be spared lollipops, wheel barrows, tricycles, snails, frying pans, homemade creeds, absolution-less absolutions, and all the other assorted Kinderspiel that has been introduced into the sanctuary on this real list that goes on ad nauseum. And perhaps, most of all, we will be spared plastic garbage cans.  §


The Reverend John W. Berg is pastor of Hope Evangelical-Lutheran Church in FremontCalifornia.



1 Christian Liturgy, Fortress, Minneapolis 1997 p. 4

Ceremony and Celebration Paul H. D. Lang, CPH 1965. p. 8

3 Crooned passionately with a hand held mic. Apostle’s Lutheran, WELSSan JoseJune 8, 2000, worship folder. This writer  was present and curmudgeonly, as his nature is, did not join in with the rousing applause and wondered aloud to his ought-to-be-sainted wife whether the Lord’s Prayer would receive the same.

4 Ibid.

5 W.A. XXXIV No. 2 p. 492, quoted in CTM XXIV 9, Nagel,  p. 648

6 Logia Vol VIII 2 p. 9.

7 W.A. XXIII 156, quoted in CTM XXIV 9 Nagel, p. 629

8  Articles in which the abuses which have been corrected.












Here are a couple of the letters this article and the Magpie as a whole has generated and our responses. When introduced by the words “among other things” the letter has been edited to the relevant sections.


Paul “just an old retired Lt. Col.” commenting on a report he heard that the editors of the Motley Magpie have been so labeled, writes


I don’t know how you fellows can be called “high-church Missourians” considering the state of so much of the LCMS where liturgy may depend on tee off time or how everyone “feels.”


8MM  From one old bird to another, you know it is easier to call names than to deal with the issues. (JWB)




The Reverend Todd R. Jerabek among other things writes


Interestingly, I have some people who think that the CGM hasn't hit the WELS yet.  Yet, while I served a parish in (city deleted to protect someone), I had a family come visit us [LCMS] from the WELS and stayed. Why? Because we didn't do "froophy" worship and because I was more conservative than the pastor there.  Or, so I was told.


8MM  Our pledge to you: no "frooph!” (JWB)