Rubrics are Red, Not Read

a look at Lutheran liturgical practice by Peter M. Berg 

Many years ago I learned an unexpected lesson about presiding at the Holy Liturgy while attending the funeral and committal service of a fellow pastor. Following the funeral a large entourage went from the church to the cemetery for the committal service. As this large group massed inside the mausoleum, the two big bronze doors at the entrance were closed with an audible sound. No more had the echo of the closing doors dissipated when the presiding minister intoned in a loud, clear voice, "I believe in God the Father Almighty..." All gathered there that moment joined in as if on cue and as if one. I chill went down my spine. The thought came to mind that this is what life is all about, this is the true faith: Death in the midst of life, and Life in the midst of death. The presiding minister said the most appropriate thing that could have been said. He could not have said anything less, and he did not say anything more. At that moment I was confronted with my own mortality and the verities of the Christian faith. However, a lesser lesson was also taught, a lesson about the Holy Liturgy. The lesson which I learned was that presiding, in part, is about subtlety. Here, in the Holy of holies, less is more.




Alas, today, much more is being said by those who preside in the Holy of holies. Had the scene been time-warped to the present it might have gone something like this: "Let's begin in the name of the God who created us, redeemed us, and sanctifies us. Now let's turn to our service folder and join in confessing the Christian faith according to the words of the Apostles' Creed, which is printed for you on page one." Lest I be charged with speaking down to my fellow presiders, let me also plead guilty when it comes to failing to understand that the rubrics are red, not read. 1 


This simple fact was again brought home to me several years ago when I substituted at two Detroit area churches. The one was an all black inner city church, the other an established suburban congregation. At that time both churches used The Lutheran Hymnal, even though most Wisconsin Synod churches had adopted Christian Worship. As I led the people of these two parishes I was struck by how easy and pleasant it was to preside before a group of people who knew what they were doing and who didn't have a rite littered with rubrics. I also realized how rubric-ridden my church's liturgy had become. I was not alone. Over the years, as I have visited other churches and attended many conferences, I have noticed that the reading of the rubrics has become epidemic, and that all sorts of unneeded bric-a-brac has accrued to services throughout the synod. This is in addition to other bad liturgical practices, which one expects from the self-consciously low-church Wisconsin Synod. 


Can You Hear Me Now?   


Examples of this abound. Permit me to cobble together a mess of a Mass from liturgical gaffs which I have witnessed (or have been a party to): 


- We come to God's house to "turn aside from an unquiet world", but instead of reverent quiet before the invocation hymn, we have cacophony in the narthex and nave. I guess this is what one ought to expect; after all, church is about us, right? Wrong! 2 Going on: In order to get the show on the road homey greetings catch the attention of the gathered crowd. One such greeting once heard went like this: Minister: GOOD MORNING!  People: Good Morning. Minister: I DIDN'T HEAR YOU!  People: GOOD MORNING!  Minister: NOW, THAT'S BETTER! (Obligatory chuckles) The minister went on: "We extend a warm welcome to all our visitors! Today, we follow the Service of the Word on page 38 in the forepart of Christian Worship." I doubt if the average visitor is deeply moved by such attempts at warmness, and must wonder if the minister believes that his people can't read.


- It doesn't stop there. Annoying and unauthorized additions to the rite appear all too frequently. For example: "We begin in the name of the Father..." We're not beginning anything, but rather exercising our baptismal right to invoke the blessing of the Holy Trinity (the reason the minister should face the altar at this point). 3


- In some congregations the traditional confession sins is being replaced by the confession de jour, "skillfully" crafted for the occasion.


- The Gloria in Excelsis all too often becomes a victim of the creative pastor's scissors, necessitating a spoken rubric as he announces the hymn which he has put in its august place.


- Where pew Bibles are used, people wait for the page number of the reading "in the blue NIV pew Bible", and while fussing with their Bibles, miss the first portion of the reading. Why must we read along? What has happened to the art of good public reading and attentive hearing?4 Explanations precede each reading, as if one sermon were not enough. I once heard an explanation that was actually longer than the reading itself. (These explanations, along with the readings, can be put in the bulletin.) On some Sundays, in some locales, it appears that the reading of the pericope is the first time the presider has seen the text. Some who have practiced the readings give dramatic interpretive renderings of the lection and the liturgy, featuring their oratorical skills. An interpretive reading is the reader's opinion as to what ought to be emphasized, something not necessarily intended by the sacred writer.5 Just do it straight. Let the text itself do the work. Luther's dictum - in regard to the Verba - apply to the pericope as well: read it slowly, clearly, and loudly. Unfortunately, all too many pastors are heeding the advice about "eye contact" when it comes to the readings, with their heads bobbing up and down. A Steve Yzerman bobble head doll is cool, but bobble head lectors are not. (Go Wings!) Then there is the new approach to the readings: Let the people do it! Lay readers and unison reading by the entire congregation are growing treads. As a WELS pastor once offered as his effort to "equip the saints", "I'm working my way out of a job." To that we say, "Do what you were called to do, friend. The readings are God's gift to his people, not their gift to themselves. Let God's man gift them."


- Am I alone on this or are Lutheran sermons getting longer? Eleven or twelve minutes are all you need. Furthermore, since each Sunday is keyed by the Gospel for the day, true pericopal preaching means that the preacher will preach on the Gospel of the day. To do otherwise is to miss the point of the church year. Speaking of preaching the Gospel, must we reprise the question which certain Greeks asked of Philip, "Sir, we would see Jesus!"? (Kyrie elieson for the times this author failed in this regard.) A word on technology:  PowerPoint presentations and visual aids are the pathology of the demise of good preaching. Boys, save the toys for Bible class (but only if you must).


- As the Liturgy of the Word gives way to the Supper, awkward announcements attempting to fence the Lord's Table ruin the flow of the Preface (the announcement in the bulletin is sufficient). Luther's salutary advice in regard to speaking the Verba is ignored as some celebrants race through this beautiful statement of the Gospel. The old dismissal formula is abandoned in favor of added Law exhortations or Gospel-ly additions for each communion table.


- Finally, by the end of the service one has lost track of the number of times his intelligence has been insulted by the "triple-rubric": The hymnal says sit, the pastor tells the people to sit, and then he makes a hand motion to sit. We get the point, Maestro. If it's absolutely necessary, a simple, subtle hand motion is all that is needed. Again, presiding at the Mass is about subtlety. Here less is more.


If the liturgical litter - noted above - isn't egregious enough, we are now witnessing the singing of "Happy Birthday" at some point during the service. This lamentable practice is not mere tackiness, but rather demonstrates just how anthropocentric we have become. Should we be surprised? Christ-ology has always had to vie with Me-ology. For goodness sake, fellows, save it for the coffee hour.


Also problematic are after service announcements. We have heard the angelic words spoken to the shepherds and are pondering them in our hearts. He who made the birds and feeds them still has extolled for us their careless hearts. We have witnessed the breaking of bread in the upper room and have partaken of the Holy. We have just walked away from the Holy Cross, with hearts heavy with shame. We have left the empty tomb, having heard the stirring announcement of the Resurrection and our justification. Now is the time to walk away in reflective silence. Now is certainly not the time to see how cleverly the preacher can announce that the youth group float trip has been rescheduled. Can you imagine Moses, before reading the Commandments to the Israelites, announcing, "Remember the potluck immediately following the reading of the Torah. Bring manna and quail to pass!" There are other ways to announce the doings of overly busy churches. Also, fears that the visitor will somehow not feel welcome because the preacher hasn't said anything after the service are unfounded. Visitors expect preachers to say words of welcome and are unmoved by these announcements. What truly moves them is when the members take the time to personally greet them.


What Happened?


There was a time when it wasn't this way. What happened? There are a number of reasons for this unfortunate situation. The first has to do with the proliferation of homespun "liturgies" throughout Lutheranism, and the second has to do with the production of new hymnals. Homespun liturgies sacrifice the historic rite on the altar of variety. They are the attempt at something new every Sunday. (However, isn't it interesting to see how most of these attempts at novelty end up following the pattern of the western rite, but with vastly diminished quality?) Given these circumstances rubrics will have to be spoken in order to reduce the confusion which novelty brings. While the recent spate of new hymnals brought some order out of the liturgical chaos of the 1980s and 90s, their liturgies were just different enough from the older orders that nervous pastors began to speak the rubrics. Once trained to wait for a word or a hand motion the people are hesitant to move without first being told to do so. 6


There is another reason for the current state of affairs. It's the notion that we must make the church service "user-friendly" for visitors. (May computer analogies be forever banned from Holy Mother Church!) This notion is built on the faulty idea that the visitor wants to be a full first-time participant in the Mass, and that he is even qualified to do so. (Indeed, how can a visitor, who is an unbeliever, heed the injunction, "Let us join in the confession of the faith."?) We also need to remember that we are saved by the "foolishness of preaching" and hearing, not the foolishness of "following along." It is best for first-time visitors to listen to the service and observe it, allowing it to flow into them through ears and eyes, without noses buried in a bulletin or hymnal or waiting for pedantic verbal directions. All visitors know how to read and how to follow along, but it is best that they first be observers, so that the Liturgy can do its converting work.


The Church has been given a great treasure in the Holy Liturgy. It is a winsome force all by itself. The visitor ought to be able to listen to it and observe it without its integrity being compromised by the presider's unneeded editorial comments. Once again, presiding is about subtlety. In the House of God, God's less is more.    §



The Reverend Peter M. Berg is on the clergy roster of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod.



1 The rubrics are the directions for the proper conduct of a liturgical service. It is thought the term relates to the word for the red ochre that was used to produce the red (ruby) ink in which these directions were printed. Whether printed in red or italics, these directions stand apart from the spoken liturgical text.

2 Our sinful flesh wants to believe that church is about us. With this mindset anthropocentricity replaces Christocentricity. Ironically, "church" is only about us if it's entirely about Christ.

3 Cf. the rubric on p. 11 of the altar book of The Lutheran Liturgy.

4 When the Divine Service is seen as educative rather than absolutory, it easily becomes a quasi Bible class, and pew Bibles seem to make sense. This links up with the much-touted idea of individualistic Bible study and interpretation (often at home), the bane of the latter half of the 20th century, and a concept not found in the biblical record. The actions of public speaking and hearing the Word, and their many cognates, vastly out-number instances of individualistic scripture study. Indeed, those who are apart from the teaching magisterium of the church are pictured in the Bible as being confused. (Jn 5:39; Lk 24:13f; Ac 8:26f) They are in need of a didaskalos who can open the scriptures for them with the hermeneutical key, which is Christ. This gifting of the Word from one to another is truly evangelical, going in the way of the Gospel (extra nos). The oft-cited case of the Bereans (Ac 17:11) is most likely not an instance of people opening their NIV Bibles at home or in the pew, but rather gathering around their rabbi in the synagogue where the sacred scrolls were kept and expounded upon. Home devotions and Bible study are fine, but the notion that everyone is a Bible interpreter is a Baptist tenet, which separates people from Patristics and preaching.

5 Even the commonly heard conclusion to Sunday morning readings, "This IS the word of the Lord" is an interpretive judgment. We might ask, "Then, which parts aren't?" The conclusion, "The word of the Lord" is quite sufficient.

6 A decent mass, in the tradition of the western rite, common to all Lutheran congregations, would serve to form a bedrock for a synod's spiritual life. Such was the case when TLH and SBH were in the racks of Lutheran churches everywhere in North America. This unchanging foundation for the service would eliminate annoying and unneeded spoken rubrics. The WELS now has five Sunday Hauptdiensts:  a) page 15, b) page 15 ("dry mass"), c) page 26, d) page 38, and e) anything goes. The new hymnal being produced by the LCMS will have four chief services. So much for a common service.



Letters to the Editors 

Virginia Witt among other things wrote,


Thank-you, thank-you, thank-you, and thank-you again!   I always look forward to the MM.  It seems that in each issue one or more of you is writing directly to me or about our church situation here. The last issue was the guitar music! 


The day before I received MM there was an announcement that a practice that was let go by the wayside last fall was being resurrected (Don and I had hoped it would stay in the ditch and get buried in the mud). The objectionable practice was singing a silly "camp type" song accompanied by the pastor's guitar in place of the opening  hymn.  Hearing from someone on the outside confirmed what we were feeling...that this was inappropriate and that there wasn't anything wrong with me for feeling like I was white knuckling my way through the ditties.


This time it is especially your article [Rubrics are Red, Not Read, Vol. II:2] that has hit home.  The homey greetings, Happy Birthday and Happy Anniversary are what Don and I refer to as "Warming up the crowd and getting ready for show time!"  You also are correct in assuming that we come to church hoping to find reverent quiet before the service and not the noise and disruptions that often meet us. 


And while I'm whining, yes, sermons do seem to be getting longer and more rambling.  However, the things just mentioned will not prevent us from attending services.  We are just extremely gratified to hear that it's not just us, our age, or generational gap.  Things have changed--and not always for the better.  Keep the good stuff coming!


By the way, I give all my copies of MM to the pastor here.  This time I couldn't resist putting some pencil check in the margins of your article!


8MM  Yes, Virginia, we’ll try to keep the good stuff coming and how delightfully naughty of you to give the MM to your pastor. Keep it up. The poor man probably suffered the fate of all Lutheran pastors (ourselves included) - he was not properly trained in the theology, history, and proper practice of the Liturgy. The system is to blame. In this issue I'm making a proposal that seminary curricula need to have the Liturgy as the center with all other disciplines in service to it.


I'm glad that you hanging in there. God bless. (PMB)  §