Home > That's Too Catholic > That’s Too Catholic, Part 2–Church Services During the Week (and genuflecting)

That’s Too Catholic, Part 2–Church Services During the Week (and genuflecting)

The Wise Men may have been wise, but they obviously weren't Lutheran.  Note (1)the overly ceremonial kneeling before the incarnate Lord, (2) the popish gifts (incense!), 3. travelling all the way to Bethlehem when they could have just found Jesus in their bibles at home, and (4) coming to worship Jesus on a weekday.

Some Lutherans really think it’s not Lutheran to come to church more than once a week–except for Lent.  I’m not sure why this is exactly.  What I know is that when as a young round-collar-wearing puppy I came hurtling out of obedience school and wanted to teach the older dogs some new tricks like prayer offices during the week and midweek festival services like Epiphany and Ascension–some of the older dogs weren’t thrilled.

Not a very new story–in fact, completely un-unique.  Which is why the professors tell you to teach, teach, teach, and why one older pastor told me, “Well, you’ll just have to learn the same way all the rest of us did.”  They were right. Nonetheless, if I could do it over again, I would still try to introduce prayer offices and midweek festival services.  I think the main difference would be that I would explain why they’re important and instead of getting frustrated and demoralized after telling people why about 10 or 100 times I would just keep on explaining it. Why does it matter whether we have services during the week?  Prayer offices like matins, vespers, etc. are a topic for another day.  But as for festivals that don’t fall on a Sunday: Epiphany, Ascension…and even some of the more obscure ones (at least for many Lutherans they are obscure) like St. Michael and All Angels, or the Annunciation (March 25), or Candlemas (the Purification of Mary, this year falling on a Sunday)?  Why is it worth the effort?  Isn’t it roman catholic to observe man-made holy days like this, especially ones commemorating the Virgin Mary? Well, it can be, if we observe them just because the ancient church did.  Or if we act as though we get more points with God if we go to church more frequently.  But the reasons I would still struggle to introduce them are entirely Lutheran.  That means they are worth bringing back not because they have to be, or because you’re a lousy Christian if you don’t, but because they can be very, very helpful to teach “people what they need to know about Christ”, as the Augsburg Confession puts it.

Of Usages in the Church [our churches] teach that those ought to be observed which may be observed without sin, and which are profitable unto tranquility and good order in the Church, as particular holy-days, festivals and the like.  Nevertheless, concerning such things men are admonished that consciences are not to be burdened, as though such observance was necessary to salvation.Augsburg Confession Article XV

What holy-days are “profitable unto tranquility and good order in the Church”? We’d have to answer that question differently today than in 1530.  The Lutheran Reformers didn’t want to abolish holidays that were already observed in such a way that they would offend the Church at large, and it was common practice to observe festival days during the week quite frequently.  Today in Lutheran churches the situation is quite different; you’re likely to disturb “tranquility” in the Church as much by starting to observe a midweek Epiphany service as you are by having a guitar and drums in worship–maybe even more. Yet there are at least two good reasons why it’s worth having a service on Epiphany and trying to get people to go, for Lutherans. 1.  It’s a good thing to hear God’s Word preached, receive the sacrament, hear the Scriptures read and sing hymns more than once a week, even though it doesn’t merit you anything or contribute to your salvation.  Everyone would agree, I think, that church attendance among Lutherans is not where we would like it to be.  I think everyone would agree that the average Lutheran’s knowledge of Scripture is not where we would like it to be.  In addition, the families in our churches are not strong.  Morality is weak.  Giving is weak.  Commitment is weak.  You know why?  Because faith in Christ is weak–or not there.  Why do kids wait years now before they get their kids baptized, and then fail to bring them to Sunday School or Divine Service on a regular basis before they are confirmed? Because faith in Christ is weak or non-existent.  Fruits of faith follow faith itself.  And where does faith in Christ come from?  As the Small Catechism says: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts…”  And where does the Holy Spirit call me by the Gospel and enlighten me with His gifts?  Again the Augsburg Confession:

That we may obtain this faith, the Ministry of Teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments was instituted.  For through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Ghost is given, who works faith, where and when it pleases God, in them that hear the Gospel, to wit, that God, not for our own merits, but for Christ’s sake, justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ’s sake.  Augsburg Confession 5 Of the use of the Sacraments they teach that the Sacraments were ordained, not only to be marks of profession among men, but rather to be signs and testimonies of the will of God toward us, instituted to awaken and confirm faith in those who use them.Augsburg Confession 13

The Holy Spirit works faith through the office of preaching the Gospel and administering the sacraments.  So if the fruits of faith are missing or weak, we want first of all to pray that God strengthen faith in the faithful, but we also know that the instruments through which He has promised to do this is the Gospel and sacraments.  Now you can get the first one of those at home if you read the Bible there.  But most Lutherans who do read the Bible tell me that it’s not so easy always to understand the Scripture on their own.  And most people I know in spiritual difficulty always find it easier to hear the Gospel proclaimed to them from someone else. Anyway, the point is: If we have weak faith in our churches, what we want to do is not tell people, “Yeah, you don’t really need to go to church on Sunday AND during the week.  That’s too much.  You risk being a holy roller.”  We know very well that most people don’t want to go to church more than once a week.  We know very well that most members of our churches don’t even want to go once a week.  But if you do go more than once a week, is that a bad thing?  Are you sucking up?  Are you wasting time?  Not at all.  It’s never a waste of time to hear the Word preached–unless it’s false preaching!  What we have instead is the promise that through the Gospel and Sacraments the Holy Spirit works faith, when and where it pleases God. There’s another reason why the midweek festivals are worth reclaiming: 2.  Besides the benefit of hearing the Gospel preached in general, the festivals each have gifts of Christ to give us that are unique.  The catechism says that the Holy Spirit “enlightens us with His gifts.”  How?  He shows us the treasures of the mystery of Christ, as Paul puts it in Colossians 1 and Ephesians 3.  The Holy Spirit is always showing us what is ours in Christ.  And He shows us different things in the different events of the life of Christ, which are commemorated on different festivals.  For instance–Ascension.  What’s so great about the fact that Christ ascended into heaven?  Because in the Ascension He exalted our flesh and blood to reign at the right hand of God; now our flesh and blood rules the universe on behalf of us, the members of His body, so that we come where He is.  And our Lord intercedes for us even now at the Father’s right hand.  That’s something different from “Jesus died for our sins.”  It’s a different gift that the Holy Spirit unfolds for us in the preaching of the ascension. So why can’t you just preach that on the following Sunday?  Well, we can, of course.  But then something else gets bumped.  You could ask the same thing about Christmas.  Why can’t we just bump the Sunday before or after Christmas?  Well, for all practical purposes we do.  A lot of people show up Christmas Eve who don’t show up the Sunday before or the Sunday after. Of course, that doesn’t make them any less saved, so long as they remain in faith in Christ.  What it does make them is self-impoverished.  The gifts the Holy Spirit would have enlightened them with the Sunday before and the Sunday after–well, they missed them. And Epiphany?  Epiphany is one of the most “Lutheran” of non-Sunday festivals.  Even though the wise men knelt and gave Jesus incense, which seems way too Catholic, they have a lot to teach Lutherans about “faith alone” that most Lutherans don’t know.  At least according to Luther.  For that, see the following post.

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