Rubrics and Notes for Celebrating Lent and Holy Week in the Lutheran Congregation


valasquez_christ-on-the-cross

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

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

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

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.


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.

A Prayer for Holy Saturday 2011


Descent from the Cross

Heavenly Father, I am silenced at the grave of Your Son. In justice You called for Him, who knew no sin, to be made sin for us. Yet You permitted Your Son to die in innocence. In love He came to us but He was rejected by hate. He taught us obedience but men rebelled against Him.

I confess that a great mystery confronts me at this tomb of sin and death. He was buried behind the great seal of my sin and my death. By faith I know also that He who died is the One who unlocked the great secret of Your love. His tomb is my tomb. He carried with Him to the grave my sin and my death that He might break their hold on me.

Trusting in the Lord’s promise that He would rise again on the third day, I come not to mourn Him but to confess the sin that He would leave buried. Have mercy on me O God! Have mercy on me. Amen.

For me, kind Jesus, was thy incarnation,
thy mortal sorrow, and thy life’s oblation;
thy death of anguish and thy bitter passion,
for my salvation.
–Ah, Holy Jesus, Johann Heermann (1585-1647)

Holy Week


holy-week

Holy Week

The week before Easter is called Holy Week and culminates the preparation time of Lent. During these days, we focus on the events of Jesus’ life from His entrance into Jerusalem until His glorious resurrection from the dead. Palm Sunday, the first day of Holy Week, commemorates the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:9). Because the complete account of the Lord’s Passion from Matthew, Mark, or Luke is often read, this Sunday is also called the Sunday of the Passion.

This week begins on Palm Sunday and ends on Holy Saturday.

On Maundy Thursday, the Church gives thanks to Jesus for the institution of the Lord’s Supper. The Maundy Thursday service closes with the stripping of the altar while Psalm 22-a prophecy of the crucifixion-is read or sung. This reminds us of how our Lord stripped to the waist to wash His disciples’ feet-and how He was stripped and beaten before His crucifixion.

Good Friday is the most solemn of all days in the Christian Church, yet a note of joy remains, as the title of the day indicates. On Good Friday, as we remember that on account of our sin the Lord was crucified and died, we give joyful thanks to God that all sin and God’s wrath over sin falls on Jesus and not on us, and that by His grace we receive the benefit of this most sacrificial act.

Brief Devotion on St. John’s Passion


John 18:1-11
The devil had come to Adam in the garden full of deceit to bring upon him the curse of death. Now Judas, into whom the devil had entered, comes full of deceit to Jesus in the garden, betraying Him to death. But Jesus is not like the old Adam, who hid among the trees in fear. He is the new Adam who has come to undo the curse by His cross. Jesus goes forth boldly to meet His captors, fully prepared to drink the cup of judgment given Him by His Father.

Jesus is the great I AM, the eternal God revealed in the burning bush to Moses. His name causes His enemies to draw back and fall to the ground. For all who do not call on His name in faith will fall to their own destruction. Yet He who took up our humanity submits to their capture, saying “Let these go their way,” so that none of the disciples given Him would be lost. For Jesus came that they and all of us who bear His saving name might be released from the powers of darkness. This victory is won not by the sword but by sacrifice.

John 18:12-27
Jesus is led away in chains as if He were a dangerous criminal. For His teaching threatens those who are self-righteous. He is questioned by the religious leaders and then slapped in the face for the answers He gives. They are not really looking for answers but excuses to execute Him and to justify their deeds. We also slap Jesus in the face whenever we try to justify ourselves and don’t humbly pay attention to preaching and His Word.

Peter has three chances to confess that he knows Christ. Three times Peter fails. He would have to live for a while with the awful emptiness of his disloyalty and failure. We know that weakness of the flesh, too, when we deny Jesus with our words or behavior, seeking to avoid negative consequences to our reputation or our income or our life. Apart from Christ, Peter can do nothing, in spite of his good intentions. Continue reading

How to Meditate on the Passion of Christ


April 5, 1519, Martin Luther sent a copy of his essay titled A Sermon Concerning Meditation on the Holy Sufferings of Christ to his friend George Spalatin. Within five years, it had been published in twenty-four editions. It was enormously popular. It was translated into Latin in 1521. Later, when Luther put together helps and sermons for preachers, it was included as the sermon for Good Friday in the Church Postil of 1525.

This translation is based on the English translation that appeared in a 1906 collection of Luther’s writings, titled Lutherans in All Lands. An alternate translation may be found in the American Edition of Luther’s Works, Volume 42, pgs. 7ff.

The original edition of the text is found in the Weimar Ausgabe as Ein Sermon von der Betrachtung des heiligen Leidens Christi in WA 2:136-142.

By Martin Luther

Wrong Ways to Meditate on Christ’s Passion
Some people meditate on the Passion of Christ and become angry at the Jews. They sing and go on and on about Judas too. [1] They are just doing what they always do. They love to complain about other people. They spend all their time condemning their enemies. I guess this is a meditation of sorts, but not a meditation on the sufferings of Christ. It is just a meditation on the wickedness of the Jews and Judas.

Other people who like to talk about the benefit of meditating on Christ’s Passion miss the point. Something Albertus [2] said can be very misleading. He said that thinking about the Passion of Christ is better than fasting a whole year or praying through the Psalms every day. Some people blindly follow him, take his comment literally, and then act contrary to Christ’s passion. They are just looking out for their own interests, trying to get out of doing other things. They superstitiously decorate themselves with pictures and booklets, letters and crucifixes. Some of them even go so far as to imagine that by doing these things they are protecting themselves against drowning, burning, the sword, and all sorts of other dangers. [3] They try to use the sufferings of Christ to prevent any suffering from coming into their life, which is of course entirely contrary to how life really is.

Then there are the people who like to sympathize emotionally with Christ. They weep and wail over Him because He was so innocent. They are like the women who followed Christ from Jerusalem. He rebuked them! He told them that they should weep for themselves and their children. They run headlong into the Passion season thinking they are receiving great benefit by pondering deeply on things like how Jesus left Bethany, or the pains and sorrows suffered by the Virgin Mary. [4] They meditate on these things for hours and hours on end. But they never get any farther. Somehow they don’t reflect on Christ’s actual suffering and death. God only knows if they are doing this more to sleep than to watch and wait with Christ. [5]

People like this include fanatics who try to teach people that they receive a great blessing from simply attending the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, standing there and watching it being performed. They try to tell people that simply showing up and watching a Mass, automatically works blessings, by the very act of doing it. They would lead people to believe that the Lord’s Supper has nothing to do with faith in the promise of the Lord’s Supper, or being worthy to receive the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper was not instituted for its own sake, as if simply doing it was the point. It was given for the purpose of meditating on the Passion of Christ. If we don’t do this, we are turning the Lord’s Supper into a human work. We are making it a useless thing that we do, no matter how good it may be in and of itself. What use is it to you that God is God, if He is not God for you? What use is eating and drinking if they are not beneficial for you? We should be afraid of thinking that we will become better simply because we celebrate the Lord’s Supper a lot, while all the while failing to receive its true benefit.

The Right Way to Think About Christ’s Passion
When we meditate on the Passion of Christ the right way, we see Christ and are terrified at the sight. Our conscience sinks in despair. This feeling of terror needs to happen so that we fully realize how great the wrath of God is against sin and sinners. We understand this when we see how God sets sinners free only because His dearly beloved Son — His only Son — paid such a costly ransom for us, as Isaiah 53:8 says, “He was stricken for the transgressions of my people.”

What happens to us when we see the dear Child of God struck down like this? We realize how inexpressible, even unbearable, is the Son’s total commitment to saving sinners. How else can we feel when we realize that a person so great as Christ went out to meet this fate, suffering and dying for sinners? If you truly and deeply reflect on the fact that God’s Son, the eternal Wisdom of God, suffers, you will be filled with terror. The more you reflect on it the deeper you will feel this way.

You should deeply believe, and never doubt, that in fact you are the one who killed Christ. Your sins did this to Him. St. Peter struck terror in the hearts of the Jews when he said in Acts 2:36-27: “You crucified Him!” Three thousand people were filled with terror. Trembling in fear they cried out to the Apostles, “Dear brothers, what should we do?” Therefore, when you look at the nails being driven through His hands, firmly believe that it is your work. Do you see His crown of thorns? Those thorns are your wicked thoughts.

Look! When one thorn pierces Christ, you need to know that more than a thousand should pierce you. They should pierce you for all eternity even more painfully than they ever pierced Christ. When you see nails driven through the hands and feet of Christ, know that you should be suffering this for all eternity, with even more painful nails. Everyone who looks on Christ’s sufferings and forgets about them, thinking they are of no worth, will suffer such a fate for all eternity. The Passion of Christ is a mirror of what is to come. This mirror is no lie and no joke. Whatever Jesus says will happen, completely.

Bernard [6] was so terrified by the sufferings of Christ that he said, “At one time I thought I was secure. I didn’t know a thing about the judgment that had been passed on me in heaven, until I saw that the eternal Son of God had mercy on me. I saw that He stepped forward and offered Himself on my behalf, receiving my judgment and taking my place. I can no longer feel so carelessly when I realize how serious the sufferings of Christ are.” This is why Jesus commanded the women, “Do not cry for me. Cry for yourselves and your children” (Luke 23:28).

It is as if Jesus is saying, “Learn from my death what you have earned and what you deserve to receive.” It is like a little dog is being killed in order to frighten a large dog. This is why the Prophet said, “All generations will lament and wail more than Him.” He doesn’t say they lament Him. They are lamenting for their own fate. This explains why the people were filled with terror in Acts 2:27, as I’ve already mentioned, and said to the Apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” The church sings, “I will ponder this diligently and then my soul will languish.” [7]

A person should carefully consider this point. The benefit of Christ’s sufferings depends entirely on a person coming to know himself well and being filled with terror to the point of death. If a person does not reach this point, the sufferings of Christ will really not benefit him. Christ’s sufferings naturally make all people alike. As Christ died horribly in his body and soul for our sins, so we must, like him, die in our own consciences because of our sin. This does not take place through a lot of words, but by means of deep thought and a profound realization of our sins. Let me illustrate my point. Let’s say an evil person kills the child of a prince or king without bothering you, and you continue singing and playing as if you were entirely innocent. Then you are arrested and convinced that you were the reason the child was killed. You would be horrified! Your conscience would strike you deeply. So, you should be even more upset when you consider the sufferings of Christ. The Jews who killed Christ, and have now been judged and banished by God, were merely the servants of your sins. You are truly the one who strangled and crucified the Son of God through your sins.

If anyone is so cold and unfeeling that he is not terrified when he views the sufferings of Christ, he should tremble with fear. You must become like the pictures of Christ’s sufferings. It can’t be otherwise. Either here in time or in hell for all eternity. At the moment of your death, if not sooner, you need to fall into terror, tremble and shake with fear, and experience all that Christ suffered on the cross. It is terrible to wait until you die to do this. Pray to God and ask Him to soften your heart now and so you can meditate fruitfully on Christ’s passion. It is impossible for us to meditate on the sufferings of Christ by our own ability or power. God must plant these sufferings into our heart. This meditation on Christ’s suffering, as with all doctrine from God, is not given to you so that you can go off and do your own thing with it. No, you should always first search for God’s grace and long for it. On your own, you can’t do anything. Everything depends on God’s grace. People who never view the sufferings of Christ correctly are the people who never call upon God and ask him to help them. Instead, they try to consider Christ’s suffering on their own and end up regarding Christ’s sufferings in a purely human and unfruitful way.

Let me say this very clearly and openly for all to hear. Whoever meditates on Christ’s sufferings the right way for a day, an hour, even for fifteen minutes, is doing something far better than fasting for a whole year, praying all the Psalms every day, or listening to one hundred masses. The right kind of meditation on Christ’s suffering changes a person’s character. As in Baptism, a person is newly born again through such meditation. Then the sufferings of Christ are accomplishing their true, natural and noble work. They kill the Old Adam. They banish from us all lust, pleasure and security that we might think one of God’s creatures can give us, just like Christ was forsaken by all, even by God.

We need to realize that feeling born again is not something that is up to us. It may be that sometimes we will pray for it, but do not receive it just then. We should not despair, but keep on praying. At times it comes when we are not praying for it. God knows what we need. He will do what is best. It is free and unbound. It may be that when our consciences are causing us distress and we are deeply unhappy with our lives and what we have done we do not realize it, but the Passion of Christ is doing this to us. On the other hand, some people may think they are meditating on Christ’s Passion, but they become so caught up in thinking about themselves that they can’t work their way out of it. The first group are truly meditating on Christ’s Passion, others are just making a show of it and it is false.

The Comfort of Christ’s Suffering
Up to this point in our discussion, it is as if we have been in Passion Week and Good Friday. Now we come to Easter and Christ’s Resurrection. When a person, whose conscience has been filled with terror, understands his sins in this light, he needs to watch out that his sins do not remain in his conscience, for then nothing but pure doubt will result. Just as our sins flowed out of Christ and we became aware of them, so we should pour them back on Him again and set our conscience free. Make sure you do not bite and devour one another with sins in your heart, running here and there with your own good works, trying to make satisfaction for them, trying to work your way out of your sins by means of indulgences. It is impossible! Unfortunately, it is still the case that many people, far and wide, think they find a refuge in such satisfactions and pilgrimages.

Take your sins and throw them on Christ. Believe with a joyful spirit that your sins are His wounds and sufferings. He carries them and makes satisfaction for them, as Isaiah 53:6 says, “The Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” Peter says in 1 Peter 2:24, “He himself bore our sins in His body on the tree.” In 2 Corinthians 5:21 Paul says, “For our sake, He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” You must rely on these verses from the Bible with all your might, even more when your conscience tries to kill you. You’ll never find peace if you miss this opportunity to quiet your heart. You will have so much doubt that you will despair. If we dwell too much on our sins, going over and over them in our conscience, keeping them close to our hearts, soon they will become too much for us to manage and they will live forever. But when we see our sins laid on Christ and see Him triumph over them by His Resurrection, and fearlessly believe this, our sins are dead and become nothing. Our sins don’t stay on Christ, but are swallowed up by His resurrection. Now you see no wounds, no pain, no sight of sin at all in Him. That is why Paul says in Romans 4:25 that Jesus “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” In His sufferings Christ made our sins known and was crucified for them. By His resurrection He makes us righteous and frees from all sin. If you are not able to believe then pray to God for faith. This is entirely up to God. He gives faith at times very dramatically and openly, and at other times, secretly and quietly.

Therefore, here is what you need to do. First, stop looking at Christ’s sufferings any longer. They have already done their work and have terrified you. Press forward through all difficulties and see His friendly heart. Look how full of love God’s heart is for you. It was this love that moved Him to bear the heavy load of your conscience and sin. If you do this, your heart will be sweetly loving toward Him. The assurance of your faith will be stronger. Ascend higher through the heart of Christ to the heart of God and then you will see that Christ would not have been able to love you if God had not willed all this in His eternal love. Christ is obedient to this love, and so loves you. In the heart of God you will find a divine, good, fatherly heart. As Christ says, you will be drawn to the Father through Christ. Then you will understand what Christ meant when he said in John 3:16, “God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son.” This is how we know God as He wants us to know Him. We know Him not by His power and wisdom, which terrify us, but by His goodness and love. There our faith and confidence stand unmovable. This is how a person is truly born again in God.

When your heart is set on Christ, you are an enemy of sin, because of love, and not because you are afraid of being punished. Christ’s sufferings should be an example for your whole life. You should meditate on them in a different way. To this point we have considered Christ’s Passion as a sacrament that works in us. Now we want to consider the sufferings of Christ in a different way, in a way that is something that works in us when we suffer. When the day comes that sickness and sorrow weigh you down, think how little it matters compared to the thorns and nails of Christ. If you have to do something you don’t want, or can’t do something you want to do, think about how Christ was led about by others, tied up as a prisoner. Does pride attack you? Look at how your Lord was mocked and disgraced along with murderers. Do sexually impure thoughts and lust come your way, thrusting themselves on you? Think how bitter it was for Christ to have his tender flesh torn, pierced and beaten, again and again. Are hatred and envy at war within you, or are you seeking vengeance? Remember how Christ prayed for you, and all of his enemies, with many tears and cries. He had more reason than you to seek revenge! If any trouble or adversity trouble your body or soul, take heart! Say, “Why shouldn’t I also not suffer a little since my Lord sweat blood in the Garden because of his anxiety and grief? I would be a lazy, disgraceful servant if all I want to do is lie in bed while my Lord is forced to do battle with a painful death.”

This is how you find strength in Christ and are comforted when you struggle with all kinds vice and bad habits. This is the right way to meditate on the Passion of Christ. This is the fruit of His suffering. That is why somebody who meditates on Christ’s passion, in this way, really is doing something better than hearing the whole Passion story read, or reading all sorts of Masses. People who make the life and name of Christ part of their own life are truly called Christians, as Paul says in Gal. 5:24: “Those who are in Christ have crucified the flesh with all its passions and lusts.” We need to meditate on Christ’s passion, not with lots of words or with a showy display, but put it to true use in our lives. Paul admonishes us in Hebrews 12:3, “Consider Him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.” Peter says in 1 Peter 4:1: “Since Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking.” But this kind of meditation on Christ’s passion is not used much. It is very rare, although the Epistles of Paul and Peter are filled with it. We have changed the essence of meditation on Christ’s Passion into a show, and simply painted meditation on Christ’s passion in letters and on walls.
To God Alone Be the Glory!

Revised translation by:
Paul T. McCain
The First Sunday in Lent
February 29, 2004

Notes
Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright @2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

1. Luther is alluding to a medieval German hymn, Wretched Judas, What Have You Done?
2. Albert Magnus (1193-1280) was a Scholastic theologian, a teacher of the most famous of all such theologians, Thomas Aquinas.
3. Luther is referring to the practice in his day of carrying around all kinds of Christian “trinkets” in a superstitious way as good luck charms, intended to ward off all sorts of dangers.
4. Much was made in Luther’s Germany about Christ leaving the home of his friends and supporters, Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Veneration of Martha was widespread throughout Germany at this time.
5. Contemplations on all the events surrounding the actual crucifixion, such as meditating on Christ leaving Bethany, or on the suffering of the Virgin Mary to last up to five hours. Many times they would last even longer and people would fall asleep.
6. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), was a Cistercian monk, mystic and the founder of the Abbey of Clairvaux. He was held in high esteem by Luther, who often quotes him.
7. This could very well be from Bernard of Clairvaux hymn Salve Caput Cruentatem, later loosely paraphrased by the most famous of all Lutheran hymn writers, Paul Gerhardt in his hymn, O Sacred Head Now Wounded.

A Note About this Text
April 5, 1519, Martin Luther sent a copy of his essay titled A Sermon Concerning Meditation on the Holy Sufferings of Christ to his friend George Spalatin. Within five years, it had been published in twenty-four editions. It was enormously popular. It was translated into Latin in 1521. Later, when Luther put together helps and sermons for preachers, it was included as the sermon for Good Friday in the Church Postil of 1525.
This translation is based on the English translation that appeared in a 1906 collection of Luther’s writings, titled Lutherans in All Lands. An alternate translation may be found in the American Edition of Luther’s Works, Volume 42, pgs. 7ff.
The original edition of the text is found in the Weimar Ausgabe as Ein Sermon von der Betrachtung des heiligen Leidens Christi in WA 2:136-142.