Geography of Worship, Parts 1-3
Part 1: The Altar
“The altar is the one absolutely essential piece of furniture in the church building. If there is to be a meal, there must necessarily be a table on which to prepare it. The altar should indicate by its size and dignity and position its role as the table for the eucharistic meal and the symbol of the presence of the exalted Christ among his people.” – Charles McClean
“We may regard the altar as: 1. the Lord’s table, 2. an emblem of sacrifice, and 3. a symbol of God’s presence.” – Paul Lang
Christian worship is founded on the institutions of Christ, his commands that order how God’s grace is given to us by preaching and the sacraments. Worship isn’t a matter of human choice, taste, and decision. It belongs to God. He uses it to accomplish his will. His will is that we are hear the preached forgiveness of sins for Christs sake (Mark 16:15), that we are baptized (Matthew 28:19), and that we are fed by his Son’s body and blood (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).
The opinion of our flesh, according to the logic of the law, is that worship ought to be our works, offerings, and self-sacrifice given to God to gain his favor. The idea is that worship is something resembling an exchange of goods, I sacrifice my best and in return God gives me blessings. Christian worship knows nothing about this. There is nothing good in us to make us worthy to stand in God’s presence (Ps. 130:3). He alone gives from grace, not in response or reciprocity for our works (Ephesians 2:8).
In Christian worship, the worship God desires and accomplishes among us by the power of his Word, our Lord gives, and we receive.
The Lutherans make a key distinction to help us understand the difference between legalistic worship and God’s gospel worship; sacramental and sacrificial. The gracious actions from God to men are “sacramental.” The thanksgiving and praise that come as result of having been blessed are “sacrifice.” We give these praises to God. That is to say, the only sacrifices we make in the divine service are in response to God’s works and blessings. We never sacrifice to earn anything. That is called “propitiatory sacrifice.” There is only one such sacrifice that has been made that God found wholly pleasing and acceptable payment for grace, his Son’s blood. God offers up his Son to obtain his kindness for sinful men. Whatever we say about the altar, we never say it is the place of our sacrifices rendered to gain God’s favor. Rather, it is the place where God gives the benefits of his Son’s sacrifice to save us from our sins. Whatever adornments we place on or around the altar, the true jewel and treasure that makes it holy is God’s Word by which the blessings of the cross come to us. Without that Word, there is nothing to distinguish our house of worship from any pagan’s.
Back to Lang’s threefold distinction, the Altar is a table. From it, bread and wine are consecrated and blessed by Jesus’ promise that it is his body and blood for us to eat and drink for our forgiveness, life and salvation. Second, it is an emblem of sacrifice, but not our own. It reminds us of Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice of the cross that purchased our eternal redemption. For that reason, it is good to place a crucifix upon the altar to remind us of the one propitiatory sacrifice accomplished by Christ himself. Finally, Lang mentions that the altar symbolizes God’s presence. It reminds us that in worship, God is present to bless and save by means of his Word and Sacrament. For that reason, the altar sits at the center of the chancel, the area at the front of the sanctuary where God’s Word is read, and the Sacrament is consecrated and distributed. It sits at the center so we might learn that God is pleased to be in our presence through the body and blood of his Son, given to us to eat and drink for our salvation.
You’ll notice that the altar changes paraments, the cloths that colored to match the season. This ornamentation, when done tastefully and with reverence, draws our eye to attend the central place of worship. During Advent, it is violet or blue symbolizing our fast and preparation before Christ’s coming. Christmas, being a high feast, is white which symbolizes Christ and his work to purify us from sin and unrighteousness through his redemptive works, like is birth. Lent is violet, again representing our time of meditation on the wounds of Christ which he suffered for our many and serious sins. Easter is white or gold which symbolizes the eternal resurrected life of our Lord and his saints that follow him by faith. Red, which is used during the festivals for the martyrs, Pentecost, and reformation symbolize the Holy Spirit’s presence and work through the Word that emboldens our confession of the truth despite persecution, devil, and martyrdom. Green, the color of growth and life, is used during Trinitytide to symbolize Christ’s work to prosper and continue the church from one generation to the next until he reappears in glory. As the themes and sermons of the year change, see how the altar reflects these changes through its paraments.
Next time we’ll consider some of the vessels and ornaments used on and around the altar. Till next time, ask Pr. Cholak and he’ll answer all your liturgical questions.
Part 2: Ornaments for the Altar
“According to tradition, the altar is furnished with a crucifix, candlesticks, altar linens, frontal and superfrontal, and missal stand. It may have a gradine, reredos or dorsal, riddles, and a canopy. Flower vases may also be added to this list of altar ornaments.” – Paul Lang
The rich history of the church means that we have inherited various technical terms for the vessels, cloths, and other items that are necessary for the Divine Service. While no church is the same, I hope that this article might define and explain some of the most common objects that you will see commonly used by Lutheran Churches.
Though we don’t have one in our sanctuary, a crucifix is by no means a distinctive Roman Catholic decoration. The Lutherans have always retained this piece of Christian art and, if anything, magnified its theological importance. Why? Because St. Paul decided to know nothing among his hearers but “Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). To emphasize Jesus’ suffering is not to wallow in feelings of misery and defeat. It is to remember that God desires to be known through the depths of his love that gave his only begotten Son into death. When Jesus suffers, we are healed (Is. 53:5). Though the cross is foolishness and offense to the world. To us Lutherans, it is our glory and honor. If God desires his love to be known through the death of his Son, who are we to imagine more glorious and less offensive motifs for Christian worship? I know that the rejoinder often is made that Christ is risen and therefore the cross should be empty. It is true that Christ has defeated death. Christ is risen and images and depictions are good and right in Christian art. But when St. Paul or St. Peter preach Christian comfort for people who know and feel their sin, they hold up the bloody sacrifice of God’s Son (Rom. 3:25; 1 Pet. 1:19). Works, man-made righteousness, and self-wrought sanctification have no place where God’s Son suffers. At the bloody cross your works don’t compute or make sense. There’s only room for God’s justice. Also remember that to Jesus, the cross was never defeat. It was the way in which he was exulted (John 12:32). It was the way in which he drew all the peoples of the earth to himself.
Thus Paul Lang writes, “The crucifix is a reminder of Christ’s suffering and death, but also of His resurrection, ascension, and session at the right hand of the Father. His triumph, however, was not possible without His suffering and death. Perhaps this is the reason why the crucifix at the time of the Reformation represented the suffering Christ, and why it is the traditional type on Lutheran altars” (23).
McClean also writes, “It is customary to place a crucifix somewhere in the church in full view of the people” (60).
Whether or not a church has a crucifix in the sanctuary is a matter of freedom. But if you happen to visit a sister congregation of the Missouri Synod and notice that it has a crucifix, don’t be alarmed. They are not pushing Roman Catholic traditions or theology. It is a Lutheran practice and consistent with the Gospel as God’s work alone to save us from sin.
Other items you’ll notice on the altar include candlesticks that are lit at the beginning of the service and extinguished at the end. This represents Christ as the light of the world (John 9:5), the illumination of the Holy Spirit through the Word (Heb. 6:4), and God’s presence which scatters the darkness of sin and death (1 John 1:5). It is a Lutheran custom to place two candlesticks on the altar and light them during the administration of the Lord’s Supper. They remind us that the consecrated bread and wine are not an ordinary meal, but Jesus body and blood given for us sinners to eat and drink for our forgiveness.
You’ll notice that the altar is almost never bare. Traditionally there are three linens with the “fair linen” at the top extending on each narrow side of the altar to the floor as has been recommended in the old Lutheran rubrics. Various other linens are used during the service of the Sacrament including a square cloth called a corporal, upon which the communion vessels are placed, a stiff linen pall, which goes over the chalice, and a veil which remains on top of the vessels until it is time to consecrate and distribute the elements.
Draped in front of the altar is the frontal which is an ornamental cloth in the color of the day. No doubt you’ve noticed how these chance with the seasons and fests of the church. To symbolize the sufferings of Christ, at the conclusion of the service on Maundy Thursday the altar is stripped of all linens to symbolize Jesus’ sufferings and death which require the most somber meditation and worship.
The bronze book holder is called a missal stand. It doesn’t launch projectiles I’m sad to say to the kids. Rather it holds the altar book or agenda from which the pastor can pray the order of service with appropriate readings and psalms for that day.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a “gradine,” so I’ll give Lang’s definition. “When the custom arose of pacing statuary, crucifix, candles, and flowers on the altar, a gradine, or retable, or shelf was constructed on the back of the altar on which to place these things” (30). Actually, now that I read this, I think that the small table against the wall behind our altar which serves as a stand for the flowers might be considered a “gradine.”
A “reredos” is what you might find in old Lutheran churches in the Midwest that ornament the wall behind the altar. It is usually intricately carved and looked like the towering spires of heaven. “The panels were beautifully decorated with paintings or silk damask. Canopies and niches were constructed which contained carved figures of our Lord, the apostles, and saints” (30). Sometimes you’ll hear a pastor talk about a triptych, a three paneled piece of art that could open and close, it would sit at the base of the reredos. No doubt these things can become so showy and opulent that they become distracting, but given how they are used in many old LCMS churches, that’s not necessarily so.
According to Lang, “A dorsal may provide a suitable background for the altar. The dorsal may be hung form the metal rod or from hooks six to eight feet above the footpace and extending about one foot beyond the ends of the altar” (31). In other words, it is a big banner that serves as a backdrop behind some altars. “Riddles” are similar pieces of cloth “hung parallel to the ends of the altar.” I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen these before.
Believe it or not, some churches erect a canopy over the altar hanging from four posts. According to Lang this tradition was introduced to symbolize and indicate God’s royal presence at the altar to hear the people’s petitions and to bless them.
Last, but not least, are the flowers. They symbolize the life that has come to us from our Lord who has created, redeemed, and promised resurrection to his saints. It is good for the congregation to provide flowers every week except during Advent and Lent which are penitential seasons. The lack of ornamentation helps to remind us of the necessity of confessing our sins and the true humility of being convicted by God’s Law.
That’s all for this time. If you have any questions, Pastor Cholak is a great resource. I’ve also got many helpful books and study materials to help answer questions about how and why certain traditions arose in our worship.
Part 3: The Church Building
“The principle place for administering the liturgy is the church building. In fact, it is the purpose of the church building to be the setting for the liturgy. The liturgy determines its requirements in rooms, arrangements, and furnishings. More than that, it determines the psychological and esthetic aspects of the building, which is symbolically, and through the means of grace effectually, “the house of God and the gate of heaven.” When these things are missing, it may be ever so practical and still fail as a church building.” – Paul Lang
The church can be defined in two ways. First, and properly speaking, the church is the gathering of saints who hear the Good Shepherd’s voice (John 10:3). Those saints can be further distinguished between those who are comforted in Jesus’ presence in heaven as they wait for the resurrection of the body and those saints who continue to struggle and suffer upon this earth. Though they bear the cross until it lays them in the dust of death, their Good Shepherd guards and protects his flock. He seeks them out and saves them from the wolves that are always waiting for their chance to attack from the shadows. How does Jesus do this in this world? He preaches his powerful Word. He baptizes the ungodly and makes them clean. He gives his very body and blood as a meal that forgives sins and strengthens faith.
Preaching and sacraments, the rod and staff that comfort the sheep (Ps. 23:4), require human voices that proclaim the Scriptures publicly. They require water and an appropriate font from which babies, children, and adults can be baptized. They require an altar from which Jesus’ sacrificed and risen body and blood can be distributed under the forms of bread and wine.
This leads us to the second definition of “church,” the building where God’s Word is preached in its truth and purity and where the sacraments are administered according to Christ’s command. Jesus’ gospel and kingdom are not of this world. Therefore, it has always been the custom of the church to distinguish between the common and secular places of mundane life from the holy and sacred places where God can be found. It’s true that church’s were first modeled after roman and byzantine basilicas, common meeting spaces. However, the churches took on a life and logic of their own. Everything from the entrance to the transepts have purpose and meaning linked how and when God’s Word is distributed. Architectural styles change. Sensibilities shift from one aesthetic to another. Nevertheless we can identify certain features that are common through the centuries and are retained at Immanuel Lutheran Church.
Properly speaking, Lang says that the sanctuary isn’t the worship space in general, but the portion of the chancel where the altar is located. The chancel, in case you weren’t sure, is the portion of the church that is raised above the congregation and surrounded by the communion rails. The further raised portion inside of that Lang calls the “sanctuary.”
In some churches the spaces to either side are called “choirs” since this is where congregants would come to pray the daily hours like matins and vespers. Though we lack this in our own church building, we do have “sedilia” which are benches to either side of the chancel where the pastors and acolytes sit.
Within the chancel you’ll also find the credence table where we keep the extra elements of bread and wine in case it is necessary to consecrate more for the communicants during the Divine Service. Mr. Steve Pack has blessed us with his talented craftsmanship of both tables on either side of the altar.
Some churches in the Midwest had special sinks called “piscina.” Rather than having pipes that fed into the local sewer or septic system, it would drain straight into the earth. As often as possible the pastors try to get an exact amount of communicants so that there won’t be much of the consecrated elements left over. Occasionally, or more than occasionally, the pastors make a mistake and an excess of the consecrated wine remains. If it’s too much to consume after the service, the “piscina” is an appropriate way to reverently pour Jesus’ blood on the church’s sacred ground. Since we don’t have a piscina we go outside the back door next to the sacristy and pour baptismal water and consecrated wine onto the earth.
Just outside our “sanctuary” within the chancel the two major features are the pulpit, from which God’s Word is expounded and taught, and the lectern, from which God’s Word is read. Thus, you can see that God’s Word and the Sacrament of the Altar have their dual focus within the chancel. Separating the chancel from the rest of the church is the rail. Here is where you reverently kneel to eat and drink Jesus’ body and blood for your salvation during the Divine Service.
The rest of the church’s building is called the nave. Liturgical scholars have noted the symbolic significance of the word and the structural space which resembles a ship, in this case the ship of salvation of which congregants are members by hearing God’s Word and receiving the sacraments with faith. The baptismal font, the access point into Christ’s church is either located at the entrance of the church or just before the chancel as we have it here. By baptism and faith, we are saved (Mark 16:16). Therefore, it is appropriate for the font to be placed in a central location to serve as a reminder of how Jesus extended the benefits of his death and resurrection to us. To make it more comfortable, we have also placed pews in the nave so that you might have the comfort to concentrate on God’s Word and be instructed by it. We also have an organ, beautifully played by Mrs. Laura Kunkle, to assist the congregation in singing hymns that confess their faith, praise God for his mercy, and lift petitions to our heavenly Father.
Finally, there are the narthex and the sacristy. We have both at Immanuel and both are used appropriately as a place for the communicants to register, for visitors to be greeted, and for the pastor to be available to speak to the congregants before the commencement of the service. The sacristy is where the elements are prepared for communion, baptism, and where the candles and other such ornaments are stored. The altar care ladies know this space intimately and we are grateful for their service to make everything ready so the pastors can administer Jesus’ means of grace to troubled souls.
That’s all for now. If you have questions, ask Pastor Cholak who knows far more about these things than I do. He’s a great resource and we are blessed that he has been called to be our pastor. Also, for more reading check out Lang’s Ceremony and Celebration or Piepkorn’s The Conduct of the Service. You can borrow my copies if you like.
-Pr. A. Brian Flamme