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Religion Library: Lutheran

Rites and Ceremonies

Written by: Ted Vial

The most obvious rite in Lutheranism, as in most forms of Christianity, is the Sunday worship service.Sunday services include many rituals: praying, hymn singing, communal readings by the congregation, blessings, and benedictions.Even scripture reading and sermons are highly ritualized.Yet, of these rituals, two more are particularly important: the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper.

It is in the sacraments that some of the most important of Luther's reforms are to be found.Certainly for congregants the changes he instituted, which flowed from his theology, would have affected their lives profoundly.A sacrament is an action in which God's grace is especially present. Roman Catholics have seven: baptism, confirmation, confession, Lord's Supper, marriage, ordination, and last rites.For a number of reasons, Luther cut this list down to the two sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper.

Luther believed that, to be a sacrament, a ritual had to be explicitly instituted for the church by Jesus in the gospels.Jesus does tell his disciples to go and baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19), and at the Last Supper as he breaks bread he tells them to "do this in remembrance of me" (Luke 22:19).Other rituals, while important, do not meet these criteria.They are rites but not sacraments.Rites that are for specific occasions, such as marriage or ordination, take place during "occasional services."

Along with baptism, the Lord's Supper was one of the rituals most fought over during the Reformation, dividing not just Catholics and Protestants, but also Protestants from each other.The Catholic Church taught that it was a re-enactment of Christ's sacrifice.Furthermore, they taught that the bread and wine (the "elements") became Jesus' body and blood.Thomas Aquinas used Aristotelian language of substances and accidents to speak about this-the substance or essence of the bread and wine changed into the substance of Jesus' body, but the accidents (taste, smell, etc.) remained the same.Finally, the priests normally ate the bread and drank the wine, but offered only the bread to their congregations.(This was in part to emphasize that all of Jesus was present in each part of the elements, and in part to prevent spelling any of Christ onto the floor.)

Luther insisted that Jesus' sacrifice on our behalf had been made once and for all, and need not be repeated.God offered divine grace to us in the ceremony; the priest was not offering a sacrifice to God.He therefore no longer called it a "mass," and celebrated it on a "table" instead of an "altar."("Mass" comes from the Latin word "missa" or dismissal, which occurs in the closing phrase of the Latin mass.For Luther it connoted a priest re-performing the sacrifice of Jesus-in other words, a human offering to God.For Luther, this was the very symbol of misguided medieval theology.)He argued that the Lord's Supper was a testament, which means a promise made by someone about to die.Jesus promised us forgiveness before dying.Therefore he never allowed the Lord's Supper to be celebrated without a sermon-it did not mean anything without the spoken promise.


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