Set Free to Observe Church Ceremony

a look at Lutheran liturgical practice by James A. Frey


(This op-ed piece was originally published in July of 2005)


Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian. He led the flock to the back of the desert, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.  And the Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire from the midst of the bush. So he looked, and behold, the bush was burning with fire, but the bush was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I will now turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush does not burn.”  So when the Lord saw that he turned aside to look, God called to him from the midst of the bush and said, “Moses, Moses!’ And he said, “Here I am.” Then He said, “Do not draw near this place. Take your sandals off your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground.”


I can just hear Moses now:  “Lord, this is what the pagans (insert: “Roman Catholics” today) do!  So in my glorious Gospel freedom I choose not to take my sandals off.”  Indeed, if Moses were a “contemporary Christian” I’m sure he would have a whole host of reasons as to why he didn’t “have to” take his sandals off his feet.  If he were a “conservative” – not to be equated in any way with confessional - he might have just stood there in absolute silence as a way to express his disapproval over having to take his sandals off, something he never had to do before this.  But the bottom line is he did it because God commanded it. 


The question is, why? Even more significant perhaps, why did the Holy Spirit feel it necessary to have the sacred writer record this for his Church of all times and places to hear?  Some might answer, “Well, it’s descriptive, not prescriptive.”1  Away with silly sophistry!  If the Holy Spirit inspired Moses to record it in the pages of Holy Writ, then it is significant for the Church of all times, since he never wastes his breath.  Now why?


Surely God did not give this command to Moses as a means by which he could merit his blessings. If that were the case, then God would be denying himself.  In fact, just the opposite is true. God commanded Moses to take his sandals off his feet as a confession of who he is. He is Moses’ God, Moses’ Creator, Moses’ Savior. He is also our God, Creator and Savior. Therefore it is only meet, right and salutary that we worship him, reverence him and that we pay him the homage that is due him whenever we come into his presence. This is not a matter of choice. This is what we owe God, as St. Paul so clearly expressed centuries later when he wrote to the Philippians, “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11).


Finally, this is our glorious Gospel freedom, as some call it, not that we can do whatever we think is right in our own eyes (one look at the period of the Judges will show the folly in that thinking), and not that we are free from the law altogether (antinomianism was condemned as heresy), but rather that Christ has set us free from the curse of the law, “for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’” (Gal. 3:13), to live under the law without fear of punishment.  Thus it is correct to say that Christ set Moses free to take his sandals off his feet.  And Christ has set us free so that we might worship him appropriately - that is to say, in accordance with the Church’s Faith and practice. 2 To narrow it down to the topic of this article, Christ has set us free to observe Church ceremony.


You asked for it


We, the editors of the MM, have received a number of comments stating that our humble periodical should have stayed more focused on ceremonia.  What many of these people have yet to realize however is that ceremony becomes empty, senseless ritual apart from proper theology. In other words, it is not a matter of just doing these things for the sake of doing them.  That is what is properly called “high church.” Rather it is a matter of seeing Christ in all of this and of understanding how the Church is confessing Christ in these actions.  That is not high church, as far too many have mistakenly called it, but Christianity whose doctrine is Christ and whose practice reflects this.


Set free to do Church ceremony right


But before we get into the ceremonies themselves, it is essential that we get a few things straight right from the very start:  There is no church whose gatherings are totally free of ceremony.  The problem is that so much of the ceremony churches are observing these days is not appropriate for God’s Service and consequently just not right.  There is no church whose practice is totally free of its past, though many “Lutheran” churches today are getting pretty close in their absurd worship practices.  Thus the statement, “This is the way we’ve always done it,” is one the minister should not dismiss too quickly.  And every church I know of demands that what its members do be in agreement with her teachings. 


So to say that a congregation is free to worship in whatever way she chooses is just not true, despite the insistence of some church bodies that church practice is an adiaphoron. Any minister who’s walked into a pastoral conference with a clerical collar and heard, “Hi, Father!” knows this. One can only image the reaction, well actually I don’t have to imagine it, I’ve witnessed it, of these same people to a Service which includes a processional crucifix, chanting, vestments, bowing/kneeling/genuflecting, incense, a Eucharistic Prayer and the elevation of Christ’s Body and Blood.  These things are not regarded as adiaphora by any means.  Instead they are mocked and shunned and the minister who observes them is often criticized, sometimes to his face, but mostly behind his back, as if he is doing something terribly wrong.


But I contend that Christ has set us free to do the right thing in our worship, whether the church body to which we belong is presently doing it or not.  And just as it was right for Moses to take his sandals off his feet in the presence of his Lord, so it is also right for us to worship him in the reverence of Church ceremonia.  In fact, I will now list three reasons, all legitimate reasons, as to why this is right:


1. When taught and understood correctly Church ceremony is Christological - that is to say, it confesses Christ’s real presence among his people in a beautiful and undeniable way.  This is the chief argument for its use.


2. The observance of Church ceremony is also in accordance with the historic and universal practice of the Church.  I have heard this called the “catholic principle”, and Dr. Luther, among others held to it.3 By using the Church’s rites and ceremonies in our Services we are declaring our unity with the Church of all times and places. And while it’s true, we can’t always express this unity outwardly with all Christians on this side of eternity, we are confessing by the use of the Church’s order of Service that we do walk together with them as members of the Body of Christ.  Indeed, a minister who draws up his own rites and ceremonies for his worship gatherings reeks of sectarianism, and there is no glorious Gospel freedom in that, but pure bondage to the whims of man and the fads of a particular day and age.


3. It gives the worshiper the opportunity to confess his faith with his entire body, rather than just with his mouth and so to act out what he believes as well as to say it.  In so doing, it involves his whole being in the experience that is God’s Service.


Now on occasion there can also be a practical aspect to ceremony, as I will point out in just a bit. But these three I’ve just listed are, in my opinion, the most important reasons as to why, when we observe Church ceremony, we are exercising our freedom to do it right.


Set free to observe the Church ceremony of:


Bowing, kneeling and genuflecting


We have many examples within the Scriptures of God’s people, even our Lord himself, observing this ceremony, and its purpose is two-fold: One, it is an act of reverence before our God; and two, it confesses that we are but beggars in the presence of him who has come down to us in the humble forms of preaching and the Sacraments to bless us with his gifts of salvation. During the Mass it is appropriate to genuflect when reverencing the Altar and at the words of the Creed, “was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man,” to bow the head at the name of Jesus and during any reference to worship of God, and to kneel during the Confession of sins and the Consecration of the bread and wine for use in the Holy Sacrament. It is also laudable to kneel at the Altar to receive Christ’s Body and Blood. (For a more in depth study of this ceremony see “What Would Jesus Do”, Vol. I, 2.)




As with kneeling, so the practice of chanting was well-established in the Church during the period of the Old Testament, and it was one of those ceremonies that served a practical purpose, as chanted words were projected and so heard better than words simply spoken.  We can call it the ancient PA system.  What is more, in accordance with the nature of music it served, and still does by the way, both to beautify the Mass and also as a mnemonic device.4 But its chief purpose is Christological. Dr. Luther referred to chanting as an “elevated form of speech.” For in the Mass a conversation is taking place, not between buddies out on the street or even between minister and congregation, but between Christ and his Church. Therefore the Church confesses this by having both minister and congregation chant the words of the Liturgy.


Using Incense


As with the first two, so with the burning of incense, its use began, was even commanded by God, in the Old Testament, and it too had a practical purpose. The burning of incense was to cover the foul smell of burning flesh rising from the Altar in front of the temple. Likewise, its use in certain cathedrals of Europe was to cover the foul smell of dampness and death as many of these cathedrals were used as mausoleums.  Nevertheless, the chief reason as to why the Church in New Testament times continued the use of this ceremony is again Christological. For our Lord, who at his burial was embalmed with myrrh - the incense used during the Mass - arose on the third day and appeared to his disciples smelling of it. Thus myrrh became to Christians the smell of our resurrected Lord, and because of this it is the custom of the Church to incense all the places where Christ is present in the Service: the minister, the Altar, the Gospel Book, the elements of the Holy Sacrament, even the people themselves.


Using a Processional Crucifix


The Church adopted this practice from the army of Rome, whose standard-bearers carried poles with an eagle on top (symbol of Rome) and the colors of their regiment to help identify their own in the chaos of the battlefield.  Now the Church replaced the eagle with the icon of Christianity, a crucifix (not an empty cross), and so created the Processional Crucifix.  Again, it had a practical purpose at first: to indicate to the congregation where the Bishop was when he arrived for Mass, and also when he was proceeding to the Altar to begin the Mass (a practice that was needed in the jam-packed cathedrals of 4th and 5th centuries.) Today with the congregation gathered in the pews, this is no longer necessary of course. Yet the processional crucifix re-mains an important ceremony of the Church, for it proclaims to all who see it that the mouth through which Christ will now speak to his Church in the Mass and the hands by which he will feed them is entering in the person of the minister.  Conversely, when it is carried out, the message is that the Christ, who was planted into you through preaching and the Sacrament, is now going out with you.


Using Vestments


“Now take Aaron your brother, and his sons with him, from among the children of Israel that he may minister to Me as priest.”  (Note: It is God who chooses certain men from his Church to occupy the Office by which he speaks to and acts for his Church). Then he told Moses, “And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty” (Exodus 28:1-2). Later this ceremony was embraced by Christians in the New Testament as a confession of their Lord, who has said to all his ordained ministers, “He who hears you hears Me,” (Luke 10:18), and, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:23). It is proper therefore for the minister to cover his sinful self, since the ministry is not about him any way, with the garments that show forth the beauty and glory of Christ, who speaks and acts through those sinful men that occupy this Holy Office. And when God’s people see that man in these holy vestments, let them know that this is the one who has received authority from Christ himself, by way of Holy Ordination, to celebrate the Mass.


Celebrating the Sacrament every Sunday Service


Tell me, what is Christianity? Is it a lifestyle or is it Life itself?  Jesus answers, “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” (John 10:10); also, “I AM the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). To Nicodemus our Lord declared, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:14-16).


While I in no way agree with them, I can understand why those who view Christianity as a lifestyle see little need to celebrate the Sacrament in every Service, for to them the chief purpose of the Service is to instruct and motivate Christians to walk the walk and to talk the talk.  But Jesus sees Christianity as Life itself, and those who take his words to heart have a much different theology when it comes to the Mass. Rather than to instruct and motivate better living, they see it as the way the Life, who is Jesus Christ, is given to them and the Sacrament, for which they hunger, to be the most intimate and personal way the Life is planted into their body. 


This explains in a very simple way why it has been the practice of the Church from the time of the Apostles to celebrate the Sacrament whenever she gathers together for Service. When that was every day, she celebrated the Sacrament every day.  Now that the custom is to celebrate Mass every Sunday and holy day, she celebrates the Sacrament that often. 5


Employing a Eucharistic Prayer


Though our Confessions speak favorably of the Greek Canon (Apology XXIV 88 ff.), nevertheless many Luther-an ministers, perhaps overly zealous against Rome and the false teachings she incorporated into her Eucharistic Prayer, speak out against the use of such a prayer, saying that it is not right to surround Christ’s words (The Verba) with man’s words. Yet is this not what we do in our sermons, our hymns, our order of Service? How absurd it would be to think that we Christians are permitted to quote only the words of the Bible and nothing more!


Christian prayer is a confession of what we believe our God has promised to do for us. It is repeating God’s promises back to him, and this we do not to manipulate God and get him to do what we want done, but rather to more firmly anchor our faith in his promises.


This is also what is done in a good Eucharistic Prayer.   In

the one we use at St. Paul’s of Belleville, which is taken from the Prayer Book of 1549, we begin with this confession of Christ: “who by the one oblation of Himself, once offered… made… a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.  And in His Holy Gospel, He instituted and commanded us to celebrate a perpetual remembrance of His precious death until he comes again.”


Now our Lord Jesus on the night he was betrayed promised that in the Holy Sacrament he gives us his Body to eat and his Blood to drink.  And so in the Eucharistic Prayer we pray: “…send down your Holy Spirit upon us and upon Your gifts of bread and wine, and bless them and hallow them; and show that this bread is the precious Body of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ; and this Cup is the precious Blood of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, which was shed for the life of the world.”


Our Lord also promised that he gives us his Body to eat and his Blood to drink for the forgiveness of sins.  Thus we pray, “We most humbly beseech You to grant that, by the merits and death of Your Son Jesus and through faith in His Blood, we and Your whole Church may obtain remission of our sins and all other benefits of His Passion.”


And our Lord in his invitation to come to his Supper promised that when we did, he would not treat us as our sins deserve but welcome us and bless us with his gifts.  And so we pray, “We humbly beseech You that all who partake of this Holy Communion may worthily receive the most precious Body and Blood of Your Son Jesus Christ, and be filled with Your grace and heavenly benediction, and being made one body with Him, may dwell in Him, even as He dwells in them.”


Such a beautiful and most comforting confession of faith does not detract from the Verba at all but in fact exalts them; as does also the ceremony that is commonly observed when these holy words are chanted by Christ’s ordained, who after blessing the Host, genuflects, then elevates it to allow God’s people to adore Christ’s Body (not bread) and genuflects again. After the blessing of the Cup, he follows the same procedure with the Blood of Christ. Again, I contend that such ceremony combined with the Eucharistic Prayer does not take anything away from the Verba but actually emphasizes their importance in the celebration of the Sacrament, as well they should since these are, in the words of the Blessed Reformer, the very Gospel itself.




Christ has set us free to observe Church ceremony, that is, to walk together not just with a particular denomination, but with the whole Church in heaven and on earth as we reverence our God and confess his Christ both in what we say and also by what we do.  Of course, this is not popular with the world.  Indeed, Church ceremonia is despised by the world, because the world despises the Christ it confesses, which is why “church growthers” today have joined together with those who have historically denied the real presence of Christ in treating ceremonia like the plague. It also explains why those congregations, which exercise their freedom to observe Church ceremony, are often persecuted.  So what?  Jesus says, “Whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father in heaven” (Matthew 10:32). So let us ministers not simply meet our people where they are in this matter of ceremonia, content to let them stay there so as not to “rock the boat.”  Rather in faithfulness to our Lord and in love for his own, let us take them through patient catechesis to where they need to go.


The Reverend James A. Frey is pastor of St. Paul Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Belleville, Michigan.



This is the distinction some are making with the Scriptures these days. Descriptive passages they say simply explain how the church did things in one place, at one time; prescriptive passages, how it is to be done in the church of all times and places.  But I wonder, what is the difference between saying, “This passage doesn’t apply to the Church today because it’s descriptive,” and, “This passage doesn’t apply to the Church today because it was conditioned by the culture of the times (higher criticism)?  Try as I might, I find little distinction in the end.  Do not both finally place the authority of the Scriptures into the subjective hands of the interpreter?

As ones united to Christ in Holy Baptism (Romans. 6:3,4) and in whom Christ lives (Galatians 2:18) and also his Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19), we not only have communion with God but also with all the members of Christ’s Body, the Church (1 Corinthians 12:12,13).  In a body no member acts separately of the others but together with them and for the good of the body.  So it is with the members of the Body of Christ.  All individualism and sectarianism is forbidden, which means no congregation, Synod, or denomination has the right to go off and do its own thing, not any more than my right arm can separate itself from and act independently of the rest of my body.  Rather we embrace the Faith of the Body and so observe the practice by which it confesses this Faith. 

3 This is not to say that he refused to make any changes in the Mass.  He removed all the heretical additions which Rome had made. He also made some practical changes such as the adding of hymns, and while the Formula Missae continued to be celebrated in Latin for years to come, Luther encouraged the use of the vernacular. Nevertheless, aside from these changes the great reformer retained the Church’s order of Service with all its rites and ceremonies. Don’t be deceived by the Deutsche Missae, which was intended only to be a temporary Service-form for the uneducated out in the countryside, until such time as they could be properly instructed in the formal Mass.   

4 I recall a student in one of my Catechism Classes, who without any study at all chanted the Verba to me in front of the entire class, though she could not recite them without the music.

5 Contrary to what we often hear, it is not the minister who celebrates the Sacrament this often that is burdening the conscience of those who see no need to do so, but rather the other way around.  When the Sacrament is celebrated in every Service, no one is forcing those who do not hunger for it to come.  They can choose to refrain from it if they so desire.  However when the Sacrament is not celebrated, those who hunger for it have no such freedom but instead are forced to comply with those who see no need to celebrate it so often.