The One Part of the Liturgy that Keeps My Attention, by Pr. Rossow

One of the four pillars of the Brothers of John the Steadfast is upholding the traditional liturgy. To that end I offer these personal thoughts on the old sinful self’s tendency to sleep walk through the Divine Service. The one part that really grabs me and keeps my attention is the Sanctus.

I suppose Confession and Absolution is right up there as far as an attention keeper. There is no greater hypocrisy than to say the words “I a poor miserable sinner…” without giving them undivided attention. So I will consider that a given, even though Satan has certainly distracted me even from these inherently heartfelt words. But it is the Sanctus that for the last several years has really grabbed my attention.

It may be for personal reasons that my usually drifting attention span is more focussed on the Sanctus but I think it is even more than that. 

Speaking of my often drifting attention span, my favorite Simpson’s moment is when Marge is talking to Homer about his lack of attention as they are driving down the street and he says something to the effect of  “I have a good attention span” and before he can finish his sentence his head darts off and he says “look a blue car!” Sadly that seems to be me too often when I am in the middle of the Divine Service.

Critics of the traditional liturgy use this drifting attention as a reason to move the church to “contemporary worship” because it supposedly engages the worshiper to a greater extent and is more emotionally attractive. If you have ever spent any time around Pentecostals, the experts in emotionally engaging worship, you know that they complain just as much as the liturgical folks about lack of attention or simple repetition of the religious words without heartfelt attention. (By the way, I recently heard a story of a LCMS pastor in Southern California who routinely criticizes his parishoners as fuddy-duddy Lutherans if they do not sway and wave their hands during the service.)

One of the most revealing things I ever read was a couple of books by Pentecostals who admitted that they faked speaking in tongues. They spoke in tongues as young boys only because there was so much peer pressure to do so. They also confessed that they knew of several others who did the same thing and they copped to simply going through the Pentecostal motions in church to be accepted.

The problem is not with the traditional liturgy. The problem is not with the lack of ability for the liturgy to emotionally engage us. There are few words more engaging than the Sanctus. The problem is not with the liturgy. The problem is with us sinners. There is no such thing as a purely emotionally engaging moment, that can be repeated and become useful in a rightly ordered service. Putting together an order of Divine Service that brings God’s objective word to his people and gives them a chance to be lifted up by His word into a joyful response means that there will need to be consistent order and form. The contemporary desire to recast each Divine Service into some unique emotional experience both denies the objective nature of the word of God and is unattainable or at the very least impractical.

Sorry for those “blue car” moments. Back to the Sanctus. Here is the text from the Lutheran Service Book (Setting Three).

Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth,

Heaven and earth are full of thy glory.

Hosanna in the highest.

Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord

Hosanna in the highest.

Like Confession and Absolution, even if you are only paying partial attention, these words grab you. How could they not. The Lord is about to be present with us in His Supper. He, uniquely among men, comes in the name of the Lord. He is holy. He has a whole host of ministering servants around him. The universe is full of his glory. His glory kills but in this holy meal he comes humbly to serve us and his glory gives life.

It may have been a line from Professor Art Just from the Fort Wayne Seminary a few years ago that better focussed my attention on the Sanctus. He raised the age-old dogmatician’s question “At what point in the liturgy do the body and blood of Christ appear?” Being an exegete himself, I gathered that it was in semi-derision towards such a vexing questions raised by dogmaticians with too much time on their hands. That led Just to offer this intriguing answer to the unanswerable question: “The body and blood appear during the Sanctus of course, since we sing blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.”

That was the first time I really understood and appreciated the Sanctus. I believe Just was half-joking but since hearing his assertion, I have had a much deeper appreciation for the liturgy of the Lord’s Supper. Since becoming a confessional Lutheran devoted to the traditional liturgy, I have also come to realize that many Lutherans do not believe what they believe. Once we understand that the Blessed One comes to us in the Divine Service the need to informalize and pop-culturize worship seems silly. Why would we welcome the Blessed One who comes in the name of the Lord with jingle-type music that is similar to the same light music used to sell McDonald’s hamburgers (my mind is drifting to the scene from the Pink Panther with Steve Martin as Inspector Clouseau trying to pronounce the word “hammm-beargerrrr”)? Why would we not use the rich music from our heritage and similarly rich liturgical music being written in our own generation to welcome God into our midst?

I thank Dr. Just for clue-ing me into the richness of the Sanctus and I look forward to this weekend when once again the liturgy will give me the words and the music to welcome the One who comes in the name of the Lord to join himself to me and forgive my sins. With a modicum of attention on my part, the Lord will once again grab hold of my pitiful life and renew it in His body and blood. I look forward to reading your comments about what parts of the liturgy grab you and why.

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