Liturgy as Teacher

By Rev. Richard Resch

There once was a farmer who loved to sing at the top of his lungs while he road his tractor through the fields. He thought the tractor covered up his hearty singing. It did not. One day his pastor came into the fields as he was plowing. The pastor witnessed (in the moments before he was seen) an unforgettable version of "Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Sabaoth" from the liturgy.

Pastors hear the liturgy in many settings other than in church on Sunday mornings. Often it is at sickbeds and deathbeds. The faithful wake from a deep sleep to confess yet again, "Our Father who art in heaven..." They only need their pastor to start them. The liturgy is heard when everyone is otherwise left speechless by a deep sadness. The words come naturally: "Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy." A pastor may hear a young child singing in the hallway after the Divine Service, "Thank the Lord and bless His Name, tell everyone what He hath done."

Praying the liturgy over the course of a lifetime teaches us more than we realize. Many of us heard our first liturgy from the womb as our mother sang it. Every significant event in our life of faith has been carried by liturgy (baptism, confirmation, first communion, every communion...). Our marriage vows were surrounded by it. Liturgy was there on Wednesday mornings in school chapel and on Wednesday evenings as the devotion before choir. And it was there in a way we will never forget at grandfather's funeral. The liturgy is present throughout our lives as a teacher of the faith.

What do we learn from speaking and singing the liturgy? The church learns promises and truths by remembering and rehearsing them again and again, but mainly she learns how to receive divine gifts. The sainted Professor Henry Hamann taught an important lesson to his seminary classes: Worship is pure reception. Frequently, his classes would rebel. Somehow this description of worship did not fit the common understanding of something we do. Dr. Hamann would then gently and patiently explain the beauty of a Lutheran theology of worship.

"It is all about reception!" Dr. Hamann repeated. What can the faithful do without their faith? Nothing! Where did the faithful get their faith? In the gift of baptism. What does the gift of faith enable the faithful to do? Confess who God is and what He has done. Where is this confession done regularly? In the Divine Service. What does Divine Service mean? God's Service by which He showers gifts of grace upon the faithful. What are the gifts? Word and Sacrament-the two parts of the liturgy. What is our part in this activity? The highest act of worship is simply to confess what by faith we believe-and then to receive the gifts.

Man by nature wants to help himself. That is one of the reasons liturgy is so important in the life of the saints. The liturgy will not allow man to help himself. The liturgy is scripture laying bare what man by nature wants, then giving him instead what he needs-forgiveness. Every word of the liturgy reflects the true needs of the faithful and how God has met those needs. The opening words of Matins and Vespers say it so simple: "O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall show forth thy praise." (Psalm 51:15) We are taught that we cannot speak until God has put the words into our mouth. Man may want to be the actor, but in the Divine Service God is the actor. The liturgy, our gentle teacher, helps to keep that message straight. Like the angels singing "Holy, Holy, Holy" in Isaiah's vision, and the farmer on his tractor, men and angels do not sing about themselves, but about the Lord who has saved them.

The church learns its lessons slowly, usually through repetition. A child is never too young to begin the rhythm, the comforting rhythm, of week after week, year after year hearing and rehearsing the liturgy. It is a rhythm that is blessed and good for saints of all ages. The very prayers that need to be on their lips are put there by liturgy: Create in me a clean heart....Help, save, comfort, and defend us, gracious Lord....Grant us your peace. At the same time, the promises of God are remembered again and again: God, who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins....This is the true body of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, given into death for your sins. This is the true blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, shed for the forgiveness of your sins....He will come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead, whose kingdom will have no end.

It should not surprise us that these words-rehearsed for a lifetime-are teachers of the faith. It should not surprise us that these words are able to rouse the saint who is very ill. And it should not surprise us that these are the most memorized words on earth! Where else is memory taught from the cradle to grave by a stable, consistent rehearsing of the same words? Nowhere. From baptism to the last moments of this life, the liturgy is there with just the right words for the child of God to say yet again. The rehearsal is painless, in fact, some continue it in the fields. And the gifts? They are EXTRAORDINARY!

The Rev. Richard C. Resch is Kantor at Concordia Theological Seminary and St., Paul's Lutheran Church, Fort Wayne, IN.

Originally published in Lutheran Worship Notes, Issue 29, 1994.