While still under (perpetual) construction, the Ecclesiastical Glossary [Project] has received some significant new material.
Traditionally Advent encompasses a spiritual preparation for the coming of Jesus Christ at Christmas. The Western Church sets the season of Advent as beginning on the fourth Sunday prior to Christmas Day, or the Sunday which falls closest to November 30, and lasts through the daytime services of December 24. Christmas begins with the evening services (Vigil) on December 24th and extends through the twelve days of Christmas. The Christmas octave (eight days) includes the Nativity on December 25th; Feast of St. Stephen, the first Martyr on December 26th, the day after Christmas; the Feast of St. John, Apostle and Evangelist on December 27th; and on December 28th, the Feast of the Holy Innocents; and the Festival of the Circumcision and Name of Jesus on January 1st.
“Behold, your king is coming to you.” Matthew 21:9
Like the Lent, Advent affords the penitent a time of preparation for receiving the fulfillment of the Father’s plan of salvation in the incarnation of His Son, Jesus. Though not as ‘deep’ as the preparatory season of Lent, the Church does exercise some restraint in the Divine Service during Advent.
- In keeping with the tone of repentance, the Hymn of Praise/Gloria in Excelsis (the angel’s proclamation at the birth of Christ) is omitted from the Divine Service, even on the Sundays in Advent.
- Depending on local custom, the organ playing may be restrained before and after the service.
- In many places flowers are not used at the altar.
- Christmas hymns and carols are not sung until Christmas Eve.
Paraments. The traditional color of Advent, and that which still best fits the historic pericopes of Advent, is purple/violet, which is both the color of repentance and the royal color of the coming King—the two main themes of the One-Year series. When possible, the paraments used in Advent should be different than those used in Lent as the character of the seasons is quite different, for the only symbol common to both is the Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God (Pfatteicher). Since the adoption of Vatican II reforms of the liturgy by much of the Western Church, the use of blue as the color of Advent has been adopted by many Lutheran congregations. In the Lutheran church, Advent blue is a tradition color for Advent among the Swedish Lutheran churches. Blue suggests the color of anticipation and hope, a theme that is seen in the revised readings of the Three-Year series. A congregation should be attentive to use the paraments that carry the theme of the lectionary being used.
The Advent wreath or Advent log is an arrangement of four candles, originally used in home devotions to count the weeks of Advent and symbolize the approach of the Coming One. The traditional Advent wreath featured white candles, but recently the custom of using seasonally colored candles has become common. If the church’s Advent paraments are blue, four blue candles should be used. If the paraments are purple/violet, then three purple/violet candles are used with a rose candle being lit on Gaudete (“Rejoice”), the Third Sunday in Advent in the historic lectionary. When using purple/violet candles, the rose candle is set in the Advent wreath at three o’clock and the candles are then lit from week-to-week starting with the purple candle in the nine o’clock position. With it’s colored candles the Advent wreath is better displayed in the nave than in the chancel.
The use of the Christ Candle in association with the Advent wreath is a liturgical novelty and should be discouraged in the Lutheran congregation. First, the Christ candle is an importation of the idea of the paschal candle and will only likely confuse the Christmas and Easter seasons—let the paschal candle remain associated with Easter and baptisms and funerals. Second, because the Advent wreath belongs to the season of preparation for Christmas, the wreath should no longer be on display, but removed, for services of Christmas allowing the two seasons to be well-defined and distinct.
The decoration of the church during Advent should not be to elaborate. A problem has arisen among many congregations when the cultural celebration of Christmas in the season between Thanksgiving and Christmas is followed. Advent is a season of preparation for something greater. While not as austere as Lent, Advent does call for some restraint in deference to the “tidings of great joy” that will be proclaimed on the Nativity and during the season of Christmas (Maxwell). Candles as decoration should be kept to a minimum. Greenery may be hung but should remain undecorated. Banners may be hung but should be simple in style and decoration in keeping with the mood of the season. If the press of obligations makes it absolutely necessary to erect the tree before the Fourth Sunday in Advent, the lights should not be turned on until after service on the Fourth Sunday to help guide and highlight the transition from Advent to Christmas.
“The Son of God became the Son of Man so that the sons of man might become the sons of God.” Leo the Great
The Christmas season follows as the fulfillment of the Advent expectation. The long-expected first coming (the Nativity) and birth in Bethlehem is the promise and guarantee of the second and final coming on the Last Day (see propers for the First Sunday in Advent).
Christmas is the celebration of the victory of the True Light born into the world dark in sin. God Himself visit us in our darkness. Heaven and earth are to be renewed by God’s coming (Gerhke).
The Gloria in Excelsis is the preferred Hymn of Praise. The restraint that characterized Advent is lifted. Second only to Easter, Christmas is observed in great joy and with high celebration.
Seasonal flowers and greens may decorate the area around the altar.
The color of Christmas and it’s season is white.
The Advent wreath has been removed. A crib or crèche may be set up in the nave and remains in the church through Epiphany when the Magi join in the adoration of the Christ Child.
Because of the association of light with Christmas, one of the most effective decorations of the church building is the candle. If candelabra were removed during Advent, these are returned. If extra candelabra or candle stands are available these can be placed around the altar. Candles on the window sills or candle stands lining the center aisle of the nave would be fitting.
Much could be said about decorations appropriate for use in the church, and the need to exclude anything that is gaudy or cheap. Also, it should be kept in mind when decoration the church, the altar always remains as the center of attention and focus, and anything that fights for that attention or distracts the focus should not be used.
Someone asked, “Why do we use the pericopes that we do; who chooses them?” An interesting question that gave me the opportunity to dig up some old notes and dig into some documents. This doesn’t go too deep, but gives a brief overview of how the Church’s lectionary developed and the choices that were made that has led to the lectionary being used by the majority of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod today.
A lectionary gives the Church a framework for the most important task she has been given by her Lord: proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ.
A lectionary is a set of appointed readings from Holy Scripture used in congregational worship. There are lectionaries appointed for use on Sundays, as well as appointed readings to be read on the major feast and festival days of the Church Year. A lectionary permits the preacher to preach through the counsel of God in an orderly manner, in a way that is both instructive and thematic. The Church Year, with its thematic structure of seasons, is central to the lectionary. Liturgical churches that use a lectionary take it totally for granted, but it comes as quite a revelation for those who know nothing about it and learn of it for the first time.
Generally, the lectionaries used today include a reading from the Holy Gospels, a reading from some other book in the New Testament, generally the Epistles, a reading from the Old Testament, and a Psalm. The Gospel reading is considered the main reading and sets the theme for the worship service. In the majority of Lutheran lectionaries, the other readings (especially the Old Testament) are intended to support the preaching on, and explanation of, the content of the Gospel reading.
Origins of the Lectionary
It is generally accepted that what we know today as the historic lectionary was first established by Jerome (lived c. A.D. 342–420). Having the name of Jerome attached to the lectionary made it influential on its own, but when it was later included in the Leonine Sacramentary, it became a standard text for the Western Church. At this time, the lectionary only provided assigned readings for Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter, with the rest of the year covered by optional Propers or by the choice of the local
bishop or pastor. Three hundred years later, when Charlemagne decided to standardize liturgical practices in his do
main, his religious advisor, Alcuin (c. 735–804), did a revision of Jerome’s work. This standardized worship in the Western Church and put everyone on the same page, at least for the festival part of the year.
The next major change to the lectionary would not come until the thirteenth century with the establishment of Holy Trinity as a major festival in the Church. Holy Trinity soon came to dominate the second half of the Church Year, and with that came the establishment of assigned Propers for the entire year. By the end of the thirteenth century, the liturgical practice of the Western Church, year round, was governed by the historic lectionary, though it wouldn’t be until the Council of Trent (1545–1563) that the Roman Church actually enforced and stabilized its use.
During the Reformation the question wasn’t, “Should the lectionary be changed?” only whether it should be used at all. While Zwingli and others abolished the use of lectionaries along with the observation of the Church Year, Calvin substituted a lectio continua for the lectionary, since he saw homiletical value in having some sort of assigned reading. The Lutherans judged that the lectionary did not promote false doctrine, and they retained the historic lectionary with only slight revisions—the most notable being the added Propers for Trinity 25 and 26. Additionally, they moved Transfiguration from August 6 to the last Sunday after Epiphany.
Luther prescribed the use of the historic lectionary in both the Formula Missae and Deutsche Messe (LW vol. 53 p. 23ff), and all Lutheran altar books continued in their use of it. Even the Augsburg Confession and the Apology testify to its official use in Lutheran congregations (Article XXVI and Apology XXIV.1). For the next four hundred years, Lutheran retained this common historic lectionary, along with Roman Catholics and Anglicans. It served as the basis for preaching and devotional books, hymnody and church music, and even until the mid-twentieth century was the index for every Lutheran hymnal.
There certainly is a history of other lectionaries being prepared. Even in Luther’s day, it is recorded that among the Lutherans there were different lectionaries beginning to be used. It is important and useful to note that these were not individual undertakings, but that all the churches in a district or area would be using the same “variation.” In 1896 the Eisenach Conference churches of the Prussian Union produced a lectionary, popularized in the United States by Lenski and his notes on the series. The Synodical Conference produced a series that was adopted in 1912 and included by the framers of The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) as a “Second Series” available for use on Sundays (TLH p. 159ff). In 1868 the Scandinavian Lutheran Church produced a Three-Year Lectionary for their use. Most often these alternate lectionaries were produced, not to supplant the historic lectionary, but to supplement it, often adding Old Testament Readings or offering alternate texts for preaching. For the most part, the patterns and themes of the historic lectionary were maintained.
Already fifteen years after the production of The Lutheran Hymnal, American Lutheran church bodies were seeking a revision. In 1965 the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod resolved to appoint a commission that would work with other Lutheran church bodies to produce a new common hymnal. In February 1966 representatives of the LCMS, the American Lutheran Church, and the Lutheran Church in America met in Chicago and formed what would become the Inter-Lutheran Commission on Worship (ILCW). Later, representatives of the Slovak Synod and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Canada (ELCIC) joined the Commission. Among other issues, the ILCW dealt with the Church Year calendar and proposed a multi-year lectionary, citing a “widespread restiveness with the appointed readings, a great deal of experimentation, and a desire for either reform of the pericopes or a completely new lectionary,” resulting from “a variety of influences in current theology, social-ethical involvements, developments in worship practice, and especially the influential biblical theology movement of recent decades” (Contemporary Worship 6: The Church Year Calendar and Lectionary. Prepared by the Inter-Lutheran Commission on Worship. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House; Philadelphia: Board of Publications of the Lutheran Church in America; St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1973. p. 13).
One of the outcomes of Vatican II was the publication of the Ordo Lectionum Missae in 1969, the new Three-Year Series that supplanted the historic (One-Year) lectionary in the Roman Catholic Church. The next year the Protestant Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church, and United Church of Christ adopted the Ordo as a basis for new lectionaries in their churches. Having already set aside concern for loyalty to the received heritage and reverence for Western tradition, the ILCW simply followed suit when, in 1973, the ILCW published its version of the Three-Year Roman Ordo. The ILCW Three-Year Series established a lectio continua of synoptic Gospel assigned to each year: “Year A” focuses on Matthew, “Year B” on Mark, and “Year C” on Luke. John is featured in all three Series during the Sundays after Easter, and appears extensively along with Mark in Year B, especially in Advent, Christmas, and Lent. The Three-Year Series assigned a First Lesson, usually the Old Testament, to coordinate with the Gospel Reading. A lectio continua Reading of the Epistles was assigned to each year with no special effort to coordinate the Epistle with the Gospel selection.
Contemporary Lectionaries, Especially Lutheran
With the inclusion of the ILCW Three-Year Series in the LCMS’s Lutheran Worship, the ELCA’s Lutheran Book of Worship, WELS’s Christian Worship, and the ELS’s Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary, this Series quickly became popular in Lutheran circles. Even though the ILCW had offered a revision of the historic (One-Year) lectionary to be included with the Three-Year Series, within fifteen years its use had sharply fallen.
However common and widely used it was among Lutherans, the ILCW Three-Year Series become one of the most short-lived lectionary series. Two years after the formation of the ILCW, representatives of the ELCA, ELCIC, and LCMS had joined an ecumenical group called the Consultation on Common Texts (CCT). Composed of biblical, linguistic, and liturgical scholars from various Christian denominations, their purpose was to prepare worship texts and materials for use in North America, including lectionaries. In 1978 they sponsored a meeting in Washington DC whose purpose was to form a committee that would reconcile the differences between the various denominational uses of the Three-Year Series. Ultimately the LCMS withdrew from this group. In 1983 the remaining members published the Common Lectionary.
The biggest change in the Common Lectionary over its ILCW predecessor was the revision of Old Testament Lessons. The framers of the ILCW lectionaries had selected texts with reference to their New Testament fulfillment (typological approach). The CCT questioned the validity of imposed typology on the Old Testament Scriptures. Instead, the Common Lectionary used a pattern of semi-continuous readings, which were essentially independent from the Gospel. The CCT also included an appointed Psalm in the Sunday Readings. Another notable change was the adoption of the Episcopal Church’s practice of replacing the “Sundays after Pentecost” with “Propers” keyed to the civil calendar.
The Common Lectionary was first used on a trial basis by a number of Lutheran and Episcopal congregations. The first to officially adopt it for use in their congregations was the Anglican Church of Canada in 1985. Early on, the Common Lectionary received a number of criticisms. These criticisms were directed especially from Lutheran, Episcopal, and Roman Catholic sources. Ultimately, and in response to those criticisms, the CCT published the Revised Common Lectionary (RLC) in 1992. In addition, three versions of the RLC were framed in response to the criticism of the Old Testament selections. There is a Roman Catholic version, which at times used readings from the Apocrypha for the Old Testament Lesson. And then there are two Protestant versions, one in which the typological approach to assigning the Old Testament Lesson matched to the Gospel is used, and the other where the semi-continuous Old Testament Readings of the Common Lectionary are mostly retained. The increasing influence of social issues on the selection of texts is seen in the revisions of the RCL, as more stories of women of faith are added and texts deemed to appear anti-Semitic when taken out of their cultural and religious context of the Ancient Near East are eliminated.
The RCL has become the lectionary of the Episcopal Church, the ELCA, and ELCIC. It is the official lectionary of the United Methodist Church, Presbyterians, United Church of Christ, and Disciples of Christ.
The Lectionary for Lutheran Service Book
The LCMS did not adopt the RCL. Beginning in 1999, seventeen years after the introduction of Lutheran Worship, the LCMS Commission on Worship began work toward a new hymnal. In the 2006 Guide to Introducing Lutheran Service Book (p. 49, 50), the Commission’s Lectionary Committee summarizes the approach taken toward the lectionaries to be included in the new hymnal, Lutheran Service Book (LSB):
From the beginning of the development of LSB, the Lectionary Committee determined that both the three and one-year lectionaries would be included in LSB. Since the introduction of the three-year lectionary in the Lutheran Church in the early 1970s, the great majority of congregations have made use of it. Though the number of congregations currently using the one-year lectionary is relatively small, the committee believed it essential to retain this historic lectionary, though with some modifications.
Three-Year Lectionary (LSB pp. xiv–xix)
The committee’s work concerning the three-year lectionary centered on the extent to which it would make use of the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), which was published in 1992. The committee studied the issue carefully and, at the direction of the Commission on Worship, endeavored to bring considerable commonality with the RCL, especially during the Sundays after Pentecost. During festivals such as Christmas, Holy Week, and Easter, however, the lectionary reflects greater commonality with the one-year lectionary.
Among some of the features of the revised three-year lectionary are the following:
- Some Old Testament readings have been changed so that they are more closely connected to the Gospel for the day.
- Most of Acts 1–2 is read consecutively every year according to the following schedule:
Ascension Day Acts 1:1–11 (First Reading)
Easter 7 Acts 1:12–26 (First Reading)
Day of Pentecost Acts 2:1–21 (Second Reading)
Holy Trinity Acts 2:14a, 22–36 (Second Reading)
- Following the original intentions of the three-year lectionary, the Psalm of the Day is not understood to be a separate reading but rather a response to the Old Testament/First Reading. With the inclusion of 107 psalms in the Pew Edition, the selections for Psalm of the Day have been completely revised. Every effort has been made to use whole psalms. When a portion of a longer psalm is appointed, the committee endeavored to make the selection of verses as straightforward as possible to avoid causing confusion for the worshiper.
As explained above, the Sundays after Pentecost follow the system that is used in the RCL. In this system, specific propers are assigned to a period of seven consecutive days, each being given the designation “Proper” with a number following. Unlike the current system in Lutheran Worship, where Sundays are skipped at the end of the church year, the new calendar places the “skip” at the beginning, right after the Sunday of the Holy Trinity. The designation “__________ Sunday after Pentecost” is retained as a more churchly way of identifying the Sunday, rather than by the “Proper” number. Though a bit different than our current practice, this new calendar is quite easy to use, partly because it is so logically conceived.
One-Year Lectionary (LSB pp. xx–xxi)
The committee quickly determined that the historic one-year lectionary, together with its calendar, would be retained. Benefits of using this lectionary include an annual repetition of key biblical texts and the ability to consult historic resources, such as Martin Luther’s various series of sermons on the Gospels and Epistles. Among the features of the LSB one-year lectionary are the following:
- The traditional Gospels and Epistles are retained. In a few cases an alternate Gospel is provided. More frequently, an alternate Epistle is also included.
- The Old Testament readings were completely revised with the goal of providing readings that are closely related to the Holy Gospel for each day.
- The pre-Lent season, also known as the “gesima” Sundays, is retained.
- A minor adjustment from the historic calendar occurs in the weeks following Easter. Whereas the earlier calendar referred to these as the Sundays “after” Easter, the revised calendar mirrors the three-year lectionary in designating them as the Sundays “of Easter. The traditional Latin names for the Sundays have been retained, as have the appointed readings.
At the time Lutheran Service Book was being planned, the Lectionary Committee acknowledge a small but loyal following for the historic liturgy. In reality there is increasing interest in the older historic (one-year) lectionary. For the first time since The Lutheran Hymnal, there is again support for the historic lectionary, with a separate LSB One-Year Lectionary book being published.
Now, I apologize in advance if what follows sounds preachy. You will never find the perfect lectionary, yet even the worst of them is probably better than no lectionary at all. What is hugely obvious is that just as there is no such thing as a theologically neutral translation of the Scriptures, so, too, there is no such thing as a theologically neutral lectionary. The RCL lectionary(s) often display an agenda that at many points finds itself at cross-purposes with confessional Lutheranism. (So stick with the LSB lectionaries—end of plug.) While the question of which lectionary we use (or whether we use a lectionary at all, for that matter) is certainly an adiaphoran, this does not make it an unimportant matter. In choosing a lectionary for use in the Divine Service, we should remember that we are choosing a catechetical tool. A lectionary is to be more than a means to dole out little parcels of Scripture, it gives a framework for the most important task the Church has been given by her Lord: proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ. It sets the hearer on the path toward understanding the purpose and meaning of Holy Scripture, and serves as a guide for both pastor and congregation through the whole counsel of God. Understanding the history behind the lectionaries is important, especially for pastors called to these tasks of preaching and teaching God’s people.
It should be noted. Much of this article was first put together several years ago when several of us pastors in the circuit were keenly interested in the historic lectionary, and there was not talk yet of a new hymnal (probably 1997—1998). Back then I was involved in several listservs and while I can’t say for certain, I am fairly sure that some of this was picked up from posts and/or papers that we would circulate to start or lubricate discussion. Living in the world that I do now, I am more conscious of acknowledging sources and giving credit for seminal thoughts that have been incorporated into subsequent work. Sixteen or so years ago, when this was put together for my own use, my tracking and acknowledgement of sources was virtually none existent. This also leaves facts somewhat unverifiable. Had I meant to publish it, hopefully I would have done better at the time. Now, I have no idea how to reconstruct those sources.
Subsequent to the posting of this article I was contacted by the Rev. Alexander Ring. Much of the article is a condensaton and gloss of his paper The Path of Understanding:The Development of Lectionaries and their use in the Lutheran Church, presented to the Evangelical Lutheran Synod General Pastoral Conference, Bloomington, MN, January 68, 1998. It was later published in Lutheran Synod Quarterly, Vol 38, #2, 90–124. This version is now posted with Rev. Ring’s knowledge and consent.
The resurrection of Jesus is our great salvation. To prepare to celebrate the feast of the Resurrection (Easter), the Church sets aside a season of preparation. In AD 325, the Council of Nicaea recorded the first reference to the specific number of days for Lent: forty. This forty-day preparation was first prescribed for baptismal candidates and became known as Lent (from the Old English word for “spring”). During this period, the candidates were examined in preparation for Baptism at the Easter (or Paschal) Vigil. Later, these forty days were associated with Jesus’ forty days in the desert prior to His temptation. The forty day period is is symbolic of other periods of 40 in Scripture: the forty years Moses and the children of Israel were detained from entering the Promised Land, Elijah’s forty days spent in the wilderness, Noah had rain for forty days and forty nights, the Israelites wondered forty years to the promised land, and Jonah gave the city of Nineveh forty days to repent.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of a 40-day season of repentance and preparation called Lent. The name is derived from the practice of placing ashes on the forehead as a sign of penitence and a reminder of human mortality. The color for Ash Wednesday is black, while the liturgical color for Lent is violet. Lent is a season of forty days and concludes on Holy Saturday–the Saturday before Easter. During Lent the Church takes to opportunity to focus on our need to repent of our sins and our need of a Savior from sin. The Sundays during this season are not counted as a part of the forty-day season; the Sundays are not “of Lent” but “in Lent.” Thus even during Lent, while the worship services that congregations typically offer are penitential and solemn, the the Gospel appointed to Sundays in Lent do not speak of Christ’s Passion, rather they prefigure the great Easter victory. The resurrection of Jesus is God’s proof that our salvation has been completed and that the promise of life forever with our God and Father has been secured. The ritual observances of Lent are concrete reminders of the greater solemnity of this season, yet in all things, Lutherans emphasize the Gospel of Christ and the hope of Easter as central even to this penitential season.
The Lent Quarantine
The observation of Lent is characterized by the liturgical omission of the joyous Alleluias in the Divine Service. After the Epistle we hear the Tract or Verse instead. The Gloria in Excelsis also is not sung. Some congregations choose to silence the organ or limit its use to accompanying congregational singing, thus there are no instrumental preludes, postludes, or anthems. Though less enforced today, it has been traditional to not schedule weddings during Lent. Some congregation honor the Lenten quarantine by choosing to not place flowers in the chancel and some will cover crucifixes and crosses with veils of violet or unbleached white linen. The quarantine sets the tone for the liturgy of Lent which is patient preparation and waiting for the climactic liturgies and services of Holy Week.
Man, yesterday was great. I went out early to that supermarket that bakes fresh 7 days-a-week and picked up Pączki for the family for breakfast. Friends introduced us to this Polish Tuesday-before-Ash Wednesday tradition and we have enjoyed Pączki Day for over 30 years. In a similar vein German Americans have traditionally celebrated with a traditional doughnut called Faschnacht. If you background leans a little more to being English, yesterday would have been Pancake Day.
Whatever the cultural variation, the day had a purpose, eating rich foods on the Tuesday-before-Ash Wednesday was a way to empty the pantry of lard, sugar, fat, and butter, which were traditionally fasted from during Lent.
And then let’s not forget those who celebrate Fat Tuesday with a party or carnival—for two weeks St. Louis French quarter, Soulard, has been host to the second largest Mardi Gras in the country—and Mardi Gras is simply French for ‘Fat Tuesday.’ Just about wherever Lent is celebrated, Fat Tuesday traditions have grown up.
Like many traditions, while the ‘fun’ and ‘traditional’ aspects endure and are celebrated far and wide, the reason for the tradition is largely forgotten or set aside as no longer relevant. Why would Christian households commit the day before Ash Wednesday to emptying the pantry of butter, fat, and sugar? The answer is not in the donuts or the pancakes, or the rich Mardi Gras foods—as much as we like them. With the pantry cleaned out, the Christian family is prepared for the traditional fasting that is associated with Lent.
A few of the liturgical traditions still remember or use the old term Shrove Tuesday. ‘Shrove’ means to have been shriven before Lent, an old English way of saying to [be prepared] to obtain absolution for one’s sins by way of Confession. Here then is the other traditional aspect of Lent: that is confession so that one may obtain absolution for sin. Lent prepares us to approach the Cross on Good Friday, approach shriven, approach having contemplated our sins, not just to have made a list of them, but to have pondered anew the great need we have for a Savior from our sin; to contemplate the gravity of our sin—sin so deep, so dark, that it required nothing less than that the Son of God would die that we could be reconciled to God.
Ash Wednesday is set aside yearly as a day of repentance, a day to contemplate your sins and to be sorry for your sins. Not matter your Christian tradition, it is not too late to be shriven—and it doesn’t require you to go to IHOP or Drive-In Donuts. Repent! Hold up your life, your thoughts, your pet sins before the mirror of God’s Ten Commandments and see how far we are from His holy will.
But to recognize sin is not enough, to make a list of all our sins, even if we could, is not enough. Repentance, true repentance, requires that you turn away from your sin. To turn away from excess during Lent just to pick it up again in spades after Easter is no true Lenten discipline. In the same way, to confess your sin, but not turn aside from it, to not change your life, your actions, your sinful behavior, but to return to them—that is not true repentance. Empty ‘sorrys’ come so easily off our lips. Like many who celebrate Fat Tuesday with no intention of being shriven, we throw ‘sorrys’ around with no understanding or intention to do anything really different. Your “I’m sorry,” no matter how heartfelt, is insufficient if it is not joined with the change needed to not commit that sin again.
God despaired of our sin. Yet, instead of acting in righteous judgment against us, He sent His Son to die for our sin, so that we might live with Him forever. The weight of your sin–my sin, the heavy yoke of it, crushed the Lord on the cross, so that we would not have to be crushed into the grave forever. He drank to the dregs the bitter cup of God’s wrath against our sin, so that in true faith we receive the sweet cup of blessing in Christ.
While we turn our attention to confessing our sin on this Ash Wednesday, all the more let us turn our lives to lives of repentance-lives where we continually hold ourselves accountable to God and to each other, lives where we sorrow over sin AND seek the God-given strength to turn from our sins. This is the work the Holy Spirit does in us, the daily drowning of the old sinful man and the bringing forth of the New Man—this is the daily remembrance of our Baptism that strengthens us.
Confession has two parts, first, to confess our sins, and second to receive absolution. Absolution, the sweet word of God that announces that your sins are forgiven. Absolution, the sweet Gospel that on account of Christ, God sets aside the punishment of your sin.
It’s Ash Wednesday. Repent! Then hear the Word of forgiveness with the assurance that your sins are truly forgiven by God in heaven.
Almighty and everlasting God, You despise nothing You have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent. Create in us new and contrite hearts that lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness we may receive from You full pardon and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. (L22)
Previous Post on Ash Wednesday
Having received and been instructed from the Word of the Lord, we respond by confessing the Christian faith. This statement of faith is called a Creed (from the Latin word credo, “I believe”).
If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.
From the earliest times of the Church, there have been creeds. While certainly the Bible records some of the earliest creeds (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:3, Philippians 2:11), challenges to correct doctrine required the Church to form responses that stated clearly the teaching of Scripture.
And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was crucified, died and was buried.
He descended into hell.
The third day He rose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven
and sits at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty.
From thence he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy Christian church, the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.
The Apostle’s Creed is the oldest of the Christian creeds. It appears to have arisen out of the earliest worshiping communities as a concise and easily learned way to catechize converts what to believe about the person and work of God. This creed is often confessed at Baptism, personal devotions, and in corporate worship when the Lord’s Supper is not being celebrated.
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of His Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried. And the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures and ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father. And He will come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead, whose kingdom will have no end.
And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets. And I believe in one holy Christian and apostolic Church, I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins, and I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life +of the world to come. Amen.
While the earliest creeds arose out of need to teach what to believe, there were times that Church needed to take a stand and teach what not to believe. Fourth century controversies over the work and Person of Jesus Christ caused chaos in the Church and threatened to destroy the true Scriptural teaching about Jesus. The Nicene Creed was formed in response to the false teachers. The larger second article, which teaches about Jesus, is in direct response, and condemns, the false teachings of that time. The Nicene Creed became the standard by which congregations, and a Christian, were in unity with the teaching of Scripture. The Nicene Creed, with it’s teaching that Christ came into the world “for us” to pay for our sins, and that He will “come again” have won it a place as part of our celebration of the Sacrament of the Altar.
Whoever desires to be saved must, above all, hold the catholic faith. Whoever does not keep it whole and undefiled will without doubt perish eternally. And the catholic faith is this, . . .
. . . This is the catholic faith; whoever does not believe it faithfully and firmly cannot be saved.
The third of the Church’s historic creeds is also her longest. The Athanasian Creed stresses the right teaching of the faith, and the unity, which comes only from a right confession. Because of its clear teaching on the nature of God, the Athanasian Creed is often confessed on Trinity Sunday.
These statements, while never seen as being the same as the inspired Word of God, are confessed because they clearly and accurately present the teaching of Scripture. Because their contents, then, are Scriptural, the doctrines they taught are held to be true and necessary for all members of the Church to confess. By confessing one of the Church’s historic creeds, we express our unity in the faith, a unity of what we believe, teach, and confess—a unity of faith that unities us with what the entire Church has confessed throughout the world and across the ages.
Prayer of the Church
1 Timothy 2:1–4
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
Corporate prayer has always been a mark of the public worship of the One True God. It is both our duty and our privilege as God’s children to bring our concerns before Him. Within the Divine Service, the public prayer is a response to the Word and all that has been heard. The Prayer of the Church is the congregation’s prayer and all join this response to the riches that have been received, and uses the themes of the day as a focus for the petitions that are offered. In the Prayer of the Church teaches us to pray not only for our own needs but also for our neighbor. This is seen in the traditional invitation: “Let us pray for the whole people of God in Christ Jesus and for all people according to their needs.” This is the longest prayer in the Divine Service and may include petitions
- for the local congregation and the Church at large,
- for right teaching,
- for protection from the assaults of the devil,
- for the government,
- for those who suffer,
- for the welfare and safety of ourselves and others,
- for the conversion of the unbeliever,
- and for the restoration of those who have left the Church.
All those in the congregation are invited to add their voices to each petition by responding with “Hear my prayer” or with the words from the Kyrie, “Lord, have mercy.”
The traditional position of the Prayer of the Church at the conclusion of the Service of the Word and before the Service of the Sacrament also teaches us the interrelationship of these parts of the liturgy. Having heard the Word read and proclaimed in the Service of the Word, the congregational members, as the body of Christ, carry out their God-given status as the royal priesthood of believers. We glorify God and intercede before Him, thereby serving Him and our neighbor. Then in the Service of the Sacrament, we are reminded and taught anew the very means by which God richly provides for our greatest need; for surely if God did not spare His own Son, but sacrificed Him for our salvation, then He will secure for us the things for which we pray in this life.
Previous post: Response to the Word–The Creed and The Prayer of the Church
Next: THE SERVICE OF THE SACRAMENT–The Preparation
The more general liturgical practices of Lent and Holy Week are assumed and taken into account, but they are not necessarily specified in connection with each of the particular services of this Lenten series. For the sake of clarity, some of these traditional practices are as follows:
- The Gloria in Excelsis is omitted from the Divine Service, even on the Sundays in Lent (though these Sundays are festivals in their own right and are not counted in the forty days of Lent). Exceptions to this omission of the Gloria in Excelsis are the festivals of St. Joseph, the Guardian of Jesus (March 19), and the Annunciation of Our Lord (March 25), as well as Holy (Maundy) Thursday.
- Traditionally the “Alleluia” is not sung from Ash Wednesday until the Easter Vigil. It is also not then proper to display paraments or banners with the word “Alleluia.”
- The Gloria Patri (the lesser Gloria) is not used during Holy Week, including the daytime services of Holy Thursday.
- Depending on local custom, the organ is not played during Lent except to accompany the singing of the congregation. Likewise, other instruments are silenced, including the ringing of bells in the service.
- Crosses throughout the church may be veiled with unbleached linen or violet cloth throughout Lent, though there are differences of opinion as to the significance of this practice and how (or if) it ought to be done. Where crosses are veiled, it is done with penitential reverence and humility, not for the sake of hiding or forgetting the cross. The intent of veiling the cross is to increase the longing of the faithful for the cross. Local circumstance and pastoral discernment will determine how best to handle such a practice. For example, the processional cross may be unveiled for the services of Holy Week, beginning with the procession of palms on Passion Sunday. The veil of the altar cross may be changed to white for the Holy Thursday Divine Service, and then the cross may be removed altogether at the stripping of the altar.
- Another local custom is the choice not to place flowers on the altar (or anywhere in the church) from Ash Wednesday until the Easter Vigil.
- In brief, there is comprehensive restraint of celebration while waiting and hungering for the Paschal Feast.
- In those congregations that use the Paschal candle, the candle remains in its place at the baptismal font and is used at Baptisms and funerals during Lent and Holy Week.
Accompanying the restraint of celebration, and serving the catechetical purpose of the Lenten season, it is well to emphasize, teach, and encourage the practice of individual confession and absolution during Lent.
It is recommended that during Lent the so-called “declaration of grace” (the right-hand column in the settings of the Divine Service, as for example on p. 167 of Lutheran Service Book) be used in the rite of preparation instead of the indicative-active “I forgive you.” Historically, the “declaration of grace” was by far the more common practice in this context among Lutherans and is less easily confused with the absolution of individual confession (from which the indicative-active form derives).
The Annunciation of Our Lord (March 25) will occasionally fall on a Sunday in Lent. While normally a feast day of Christ (sometimes called a ‘first-rank’ festival) would displace the ‘ordinary’ Sunday celebration, the traditional rule is that no feast may displace a Sunday in Lent. Should March 25 fall on a Sunday in Lent, the Annunciation is not omitted, but transferred to the next available day. The reason the Annunciation does not take precedence in this case is that the Sundays in Lent are also feast days of the first rank. In addition, if the Annunciation falls at any time during Holy Week, it is transferred to the first available day after the Easter Octave.
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent and sets the tone of the season. It is a pointed call to repentance, which is to say that it is a return to the death and resurrection of Holy Baptism by way of confession and faith in the forgiveness of sins. Thus the imposition of ashes, from which the day receives its name, recalls both the mortality of sinful man and the redemption of Christ into which His followers have been baptized. This context of contrition and repentance, fully and firmly centered in the cross and resurrection of Christ Jesus, is the framework within which the Lenten fast is undertaken. A focus on Christ’s Passion will not be chiefly an emotional or intellectual exercise, though the Word and Spirit of God engage both the intellect and the emotions. Rather, in faith the Passion is approached as the very heart of the Gospel, which the Lord our Savior has accomplished for us and now bestows on us with His Means of Grace.
There is a liturgical connection between Ash Wednesday and Holy (Maundy) Thursday. The penitential discipline begun on this day is resolved in the Lord’s cleansing of His disciples, and the fasting of repentance is ended with the Lord’s feeding of His disciples in Holy Communion. Of course, this cleansing and feeding occur also on Ash Wednesday and throughout Lent, but they come into special focus on Holy Thursday at the beginning of the Paschal Triduum. On a seasonal level, one may think of the relationship between Ash Wednesday and Holy Thursday as following the rhythmic pattern of each Divine Service: a liturgical progression from contrition and confession, through the catechesis of the Word, to the feasting of the Lord’s Supper.
Ideally, the imposition of ashes may be done in the morning of Ash Wednesday, so that the entire day is spent in penitential contemplation of our sin and mortality in view of God’s grace and forgiveness. The rite is best administered in connection with confession and absolution, lest the penitent simply be turned upon himself. If it is unreasonable to suppose that many members of the congregation will be able to avail themselves of such an opportunity in the morning, the imposition of ashes and corporate confession may be repeated in the late afternoon or early evening, prior to the Divine Service allowing for a period of reflection and confession between the two ceremonies.
The color of the day is violet (or black). The pastor(s) may prefer to wear cassock and surplice for the imposition of ashes and the Service of Corporate Confession and Absolution, but alb (and chasuble) is appropriate for the Divine Service.
- Due to the solemn character of the day, pre-service music and a hymn of invocation are omitted.
- If the imposition of ashes and the Service of Corporate Confession and Absolution take place in the morning or at a time significantly prior to the Divine Service, the pastor(s) and congregation leave in silence. If the Divine Service follows these two orders within a short period of time or immediately, a period of silence should be allowed before proceeding with the Entrance Hymn. The pastor(s) may use this time to change from cassock and surplice to alb. The celebrant of the Divine Service may also be vested in a chasuble at this point.
- The Gloria in Excelsis is omitted from the Divine Service.
- Depending on local custom and circumstances, the closing hymn may be omitted.
Holy Thursday marks a transition within Holy Week from Lent to the Holy Triduum. In this it serves as something of a bookend to Ash Wednesday at the beginning of Lent. The historic Gospel for this day (John 13) recounts the washing of the disciples’ feet by our Lord. Although this is an example of Christian love for the neighbor, the foot washing is first and foremost a demonstration of the Lord’s enduring love for His own and a depiction of our return to the significance of Holy Baptism through contrition and repentance, confession and faith in the forgiveness of sins. The penitential discipline of Lent has brought us to this point, and Christ Jesus, our Savior, loves us to the end. The dust and ashes of sin and death are washed away by Jesus’ word of Holy Absolution, and the One who humbles Himself, even to death, in order to serve us in love with His own holy body and precious blood, exalts those who have been humbled by the Law.
Although Holy Thursday is a culmination and completion of Lent, it is also the beginning of the Paschal Feast, which remembers with thanksgiving the sacrificial death and great salvation of the Lamb of God. Holy Thursday is the first of three sacred days that together constitute the Church’s celebration of both the cross and the resurrection of the Lord. Jesus Christ is the true Passover Lamb, who is sacrificed for us, whose blood covers us from death, whose body feeds us for life and salvation in the freedom of the Gospel; yet He is the same Lord God who by His mighty, outstretched arms brings us out of slavery, through the water and the wilderness, into the promised land, and He feeds us on the way.
One note on the title for the day. Lutheran Service Book calls the day Holy Thursday, and this is the common name for the day in most of world Christendom. It has, however, been called Maundy Thursday for many years in various Lutheran churches. There is no clear history behind the word, though it is most likely from the words of our Lord, “A new commandment (mandate) I give to you, that you love one another” (John 13:34). Less likely is from the words of our Lord at the Last Supper, “do this in remembrance of Me” (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24).
With its rich and varied emphases, there are different ways and means of observing Holy Thursday. It may be best to consider the day incrementally. Thus the congregation may gather in the morning for The Litany and for Corporate Confession and Absolution, both in culmination of the Lenten fast and in expectation of the evening Feast.
If it is unlikely that many members of the congregation will be able to participate in such a morning service, the same opportunity may be provided in the late afternoon or early evening, but still prior to and distinct from the Divine Service. If this option were used, the evening Divine Service would begin with the Introit.
Prior to sundown, the color of Holy Thursday is appropriately the scarlet of Passion Sunday (or the violet of Lent). This fits the penitential character of The Litany and of corporate confession.
After sundown, the color of the day at an evening Divine Service is preferably white. For this reason, also, there should be a clear separation of the penitential rites and services from the evening feast. Although Holy Thursday may be observed with a more penitential emphasis, it rightly bears a festive mood. Although the Alleluia continues to be omitted and now during Holy Week the Gloria Patri is omitted, traditionally the Gloria in Excelsis is sung on this occasion. Typically, the Holy Thursday service is marked by restrained exuberance throughout the Divine Service, until the stripping of the altar concludes this portion of the Triduum with a distinct turning toward the solemn depths of Good Friday. Holy Thursday looks ahead to both the Passion and the resurrection, and so looks to the Lord’s cross as the very tree of life from which our Savior feeds us.
- The suggested Rite of Preparation may be observed in the morning or late afternoon.
- The Litany in the Rite of Preparation is from Lutheran Service Book.
- The collect in the Rite of Preparation is the Collect of the Day for Ash Wednesday.
- If the optional Rite of Preparation is observed separately from the Divine Service, the pastor(s) and congregation leave in silence.
- If a Service of Confession and Absolution or the optional Rite of Preparation is followed immediately by the Divine Service, a pause is appropriate, and the color of the day should be changed to white before the Divine Service begins.
- During the stripping of the altar, Psalm 22 is chanted or spoken. For further details on the stripping of the altar, see pages 506–7 of Lutheran Service Book: Altar Book.
- The Benediction is not given until the conclusion of the Triduum at the Easter Vigil.
Good Friday stands at the heart and center of the Triduum even as Christ’s death on the cross, which it commemorates and celebrates, stands at the heart and center of the Christian faith and life. The service of this day is marked by the Church’s deepest humility and most solemn reverence, for she gives her attention to the cross and Passion of her dear Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Her sorrow and contrition do not give way to despair, however; nor does she mourn the death of Christ. Rather, in repentant faith the Church gives thanks for Christ’s atoning sacrifice and lays hold of His redemption in the hearing of His Gospel (and in the eating and drinking of His body and blood).
Although the Chief Service of Good Friday is appropriately held between the hours of noon and 3 p.m., nevertheless it may be held whenever the majority of the congregation will be able to attend.
The rites and ceremonies of the Good Friday service are profound and powerful and invite deliberate care, calm, and an unhurried approach that allows for a quietly eloquent proclamation of the Passion of the Christ. It is easy to overdo the drama of the day and of the service with theatrical effort, but careful study of the notes and rubrics of the service will help to maintain the appropriate focus.
The color of the day is black, though the altar remains bare (other than for the vessels of the Lord’s Supper, at that point in the service when the Sacrament of the Altar may be celebrated). For the bulk of the service, the pastor(s) may be vested in cassock and surplice; the preacher may wear a stole (preferably black) for the sermon.
- The congregation stands for the concluding portions of the Reading of the Passion, beginning with John 19:16b–24 (Jesus’ crucifixion), and continues to stand through the final stanza of the hymn.
- As the Church remembers with thanksgiving the suffering and death of her Lord and Savior for the redemption and reconciliation of the world, it is particularly fitting that she should pray and intercede for the entire world in His name. The Bidding Prayer does this most beautifully and profoundly, identifying all sorts of particular conditions and needs. Such prayer is not historically unique to Good Friday, but was typical of the Church’s prayer from its earliest days. Because the most solemn occasions also tend to be the most conservative in form and practice, the Bidding Prayer has been retained as part of the venerable character of Good Friday.
- If possible, the congregation may kneel for the Bidding Prayer, and the presiding pastor may kneel before the altar (at or near a rough-hewn cross, if this is part of local custom and practice).
- The rite associated with the adoration of the cross can be found on page 517 of Lutheran Service Book: Altar Book. There are two options associated with this rite. If the rough-hewn cross is carried in procession and placed in the chancel at this point in the service, the sentence “Behold, the life-giving cross on which was hung the salvation of the world” and its response are sung or spoken at three points in the procession. If the cross is already in position at or near the altar, the sentence and response are sung three times, pausing after each for adoration of the cross. The cross is not adored as though it were a relic or a magic talisman, but as a sacred sign of the Lord’s redemption (similar to standing for the Holy Gospel).
- There are differences of opinion as to whether the Sacrament of the Altar should be celebrated on Good Friday, and no definitive answer may be dictated. The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox faiths distribute Holy Communion on this day from elements consecrated on Holy Thursday and reserved intentionally for this purpose. Lutherans should be reluctant to follow such a practice, yet they do also recognize the appropriateness and benefits of receiving the body and blood of Christ on this day as the very fruits of His holy cross.
- A satisfying and salutary way of celebrating the Sacrament of the Altar on Good Friday is suggested on pages 512, 522–24 of Lutheran Service Book: Altar Book. The Communion linens, vessels, and elements are brought to the altar and the celebrant is vested in alb (and chasuble) during the hymn “Sing, My Tongue, the Glorious Battle.” The Service of the Sacrament is marked by a reverent simplicity, spoken rather than sung. The Sanctus and the Agnus Dei are not sung; however, hymns of the Passion may be sung during the distribution. The Communion vessels and linens are removed from the altar during the singing of the service’s concluding hymn.
- The Benediction is not given until the conclusion of the Triduum at the Easter Vigil.
The Great Vigil of Easter, kept on the Eve of the Resurrection of Our Lord, is the culmination of the Holy Triduum. It brings to a festive completion the three-day service that began on Holy Thursday and continued on Good Friday. In itself, the Easter Vigil is a transitional service. In much the same way that Holy Thursday was both the conclusion of Lent and the beginning of the Triduum, so the Easter Vigil both completes the Triduum and ushers in the Fifty Days of Eastertide. This transition is poignantly manifested in the course of the vigil, which progresses purposefully from darkness to light. It celebrates specifically the passage of Christ from death into life, and the Church’s passage through death into life with Him through Holy Baptism. The night begins with hushed anticipation, proceeds with eager expectation, and finally climaxes in the exuberant celebration of the Paschal Feast.
The Easter Vigil is very much a Christian “Passover,” that is, a celebration of the great exodus that Christ Jesus, the Lamb of God, accomplished by His sacrificial death and brought to light in His resurrection from the dead. All that the Lord God did for Israel in bringing His people out of Egypt and into the Promised Land He has perfectly fulfilled for all the baptized, who are the new Israel, in His cross and resurrection. In Holy Baptism we have come out of Egypt and have crossed the Red Sea with Him, and have entered with Him into Canaan through the Jordan. In the Paschal Feast of Holy Communion, we eat and drink the true Passover Lamb. His blood covers us and protects us from sin, death, and hell; His body feeds and sustains us on our way. (Pless)
In particular, the Easter Vigil proclaims and confesses that as we have died with Christ by our Baptism into His death, so do we also rise with Him and live with Him in newness of life. It is for us that He died and rose from the dead. The Vigil lays hold of that sure and certain hope in the Gospel, or, better, the Vigil lays hold of us and brings us with Christ out of death into His life. It does so not by any sort of magic, but by the Word and Spirit of God.
With its rites, ceremonies, and propers, the vigil itself catechizes pastors and their congregations in the paschal mystery celebrated on this night. The most important preparation, therefore, is for service participants to study carefully and rehearse the notes and rubrics of the Easter Vigil. When all is well prepared and the service can proceed according to its proper rhythm, the Word of God in the readings and prayers of the Easter Vigil will do its own work among the people of God.
The Easter Vigil is presented in six parts: the Service of Light, the Service of Readings, the Service of Holy Baptism, the Service of Prayer, the Service of the Word, and the Service of the Sacrament. Each part has its own integrity and contributes to the progression of the whole. The Service of Light, in which the paschal candle is consecrated for use and lighted as a sign of the Lord’s resurrection, may take place at a bonfire outside the church building. To accentuate the continuity of this night with the Passion of our Lord, the gathering may occur where the congregation assembled for the procession with palms on Passion Sunday. After the consecration of the paschal candle, the people follow it into the church, as Israel followed the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night in the exodus from Egypt. During this procession, “The Light of Christ” (“Thanks be to God”) is chanted at three points, which may replicate the points at which the sentence “Behold, the life-giving cross” was stated during the adoration of the cross in the Good Friday service. These ceremonial associations contribute to the way in which the Easter Vigil holds together the cross and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ as the New Testament Passover.
The Service of Light crescendos in the chanting of the Exsultet (which ideally is sung rather than spoken). This beautiful proclamation of the paschal mystery sets the tone of the entire Easter Vigil, celebrating the fulfillment of the Old Testament exodus in the resurrection of the Christ. It rings out in the night, in much the same way that the candles break into the darkness with their shimmering light. There is the tension of waiting, a pregnant expectation of that which has already been accomplished but has yet to be openly announced. It is no secret that Christ has risen from the dead—no more so now than on Ash Wednesday or at any other time throughout Lent. Yet the Church on earth lives in, with, and under the cross of Christ; thus she experiences the now-and-not-yet of the resurrection in the Word of the Lord.
Although the handheld candles of the congregation should be carefully extinguished at the end of the Exsultet, the Service of Readings should proceed in semidarkness, with only as much light as necessary for the reading of the Holy Scriptures and for the prayers and canticles of the people. The Readings are the distinctive and definitive heart of the Easter Vigil. They set forth a series of Old Testament prophecies and types of the Christ, of His cross and resurrection, and of the Church’s participation in His dying and rising again. It is not expected that congregations will employ all twelve Readings, but as many of these as possible should be used. At least the first three Readings should always be used (the creation, the flood, and the exodus), and preferably the twelfth Reading (the three men in the fiery furnace). A selection of four Readings is given here, along with congregational responses in the form of two psalms and two canticles. The congregation should sit for the Readings, kneel for the collects that follow each Reading, and stand for the psalms or canticles that are interspersed with the Readings. Because the Church waits on the Lord in steadfast faith and hope by giving attention to His Word, there is no need to hurry through the Readings. Congregations comprised largely of younger members may arrange to observe the Easter Vigil through the hours of the night, culminating in the early dawn of Easter Sunday. In such a case (presumably rare), all of the Readings would be used; each followed by its collect, the appropriate psalm or canticle, and separated with periods of silence. The Readings do not require commentary because within the context of the entire week, the collects, psalms, and canticles provide appropriate and sufficient reflection of the Word by which the Lord catechizes His people and accomplishes His purposes among them.
Whether or not there are catechumens to be baptized at the Easter Vigil, the Service of Baptism follows the Readings as a return to the death and resurrection of repentance and faith that all the baptized share with Christ by the washing of water with His Word and Spirit. Here is the crossing of the Red Sea with the One who is greater than Moses, which already anticipates the crossing of the Jordan with the New Testament Joshua (Jesus, the Christ). This returning to the significance of Holy Baptism through contrition, repentance, and faith in the forgiveness of sins is to be the daily and lifelong discipline of every Christian. It is here embraced at the very heart of the Easter Vigil, in remembrance and celebration of the cross and resurrection of Christ. It is not meant to replace the daily taking up of the cross to follow Jesus as His disciples, but it is observed in service and support of that Christian faith and life. This is the fulfillment of Lent and the rebirth of an Easter life.
The Divine Service of the Easter Vigil is somewhat simpler than the usual Sunday observance, yet it is not as full and festive as the chief Divine Service on Easter Sunday will be. The same basic movement takes place: from the Word of the Gospel to the Word made flesh in Holy Communion, received in faith and with thanksgiving. In this case, the Prayer of the Church (in the Litany of the Resurrection) precedes the basic pattern of the Word preached and the Sacrament administered, which serves to further heighten the unity of the Holy Gospel and Holy Communion.
The Service of the Word at the Easter Vigil is really as much or more a part of the entire Eucharistic rite rather than a separate component. In contrast to the deliberate and steady pacing of the Readings, the Service of the Word proceeds forward swiftly. Ideally, this would occur after night fall as there is now a striking transition from darkness to light, from the sobriety of Holy Week to the sights and sounds and celebration of the Easter feast. That is signaled by the Easter acclamation: “Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!” The altar candles are now lighted from the paschal candle, the lights in the church are turned on, bells are rung, the organ opens up in jubilation, the Gloria in Excelsis is sung, and the Lord’s altar is prepared for the Sacrament (there is no offering or offertory in the usual manner).
The proclamation of the Easter Gospel (John 20:1–18) testifies that the Jesus who died and was buried is not only no longer in the tomb, but has been raised bodily from the dead. The preaching of this Gospel should be straightforward and direct, brief and to the point. All of Holy Week and the entire Easter Vigil have been an extended proclamation and catechesis of the Word, the Law and the Gospel, to repentant faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore it is neither necessary nor desirable to have a lengthy sermon at this point.
The Service of the Sacrament will follow according to one of the usual settings of the Divine Service, beginning with the Preface. Here it is suggested that Setting Four continued to be used as it has throughout this Lenten series. While other settings may surely be preferred in some congregations, Setting Five should not be chosen for use at the Easter Vigil. Note the special Post-Communion Collect appointed for the Easter Vigil.
The color of the day at the Easter Vigil is white and/or gold. However, the church should be kept in semidarkness until the Service of the Word, at which point there is a transition to all the trappings of Easter, as previously indicated. Depending on the circumstances, the altar may be dressed and adorned with the appropriate paraments, Easter flowers, and other accoutrements at this point in the service. The logistics for such a transition require planning and rehearsal to avoid awkwardness or uncertainty. Similarly, the celebrant and his assistant(s) may prefer to be vested in cassock and surplice, but at this point they would vest in alb (and chasuble for the celebrant) for the Service of the Word and Sacrament.