Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Problem of Epiphany

[I wrote the following post on January 5, but was not ready to post it then. I believe the time is now. Note well the title.]

In modern Lutheran usage, there are four great Festivals of our Lord: The Nativity, the Epiphany, the Resurrection, and the Ascension. Yet, in many (most) Lutheran parishes two of them go virtually, if not totally, ignored. Even in those parishes that transfer the Epiphany or Ascension to the nearest Sunday its celebration is often indistinguishable from your average Sunday, save a few hymns. Yet Epiphany has more to celebrate than the other Festivals: the Baptism, the Wedding, the first miracles, and, in the West, the appearance of the Magi.

I am no liturgical scholar. I’m an amateur, a child, really, when it comes to liturgics. And this is part of the problem. I know Epiphany ought to be celebrated with great celebration, but how? Where are the resources? Where are the Lutheran traditions? Where is the desire? In fact, the few Lutheran resources I have read intimate that Epiphany ought to be greeted with great fanfare, but what does that look like?

My friend Pastor Weedon (and others with him) has often emphasized the rich liturgical and theological contributions of Lutherans of yesteryear, for which I am quite thankful. But as I read blogs and essays and hear discussion from all over (no names here), I think of Hansel and Gretel: little Lutheran Hansel leaving home with bread aplenty, wandering through the woods, dropping little bits here and there until finally his loaf has all but disappeared. He is hungry and lost and has little left. Many fine LCMS pastors, scholars and liturgists do a commendable job in tracking down the bits dropped in this or that century. But I wonder: when we bring them back to Hansel and Gretel, cold and shivering, why do they respond, “Oh, that’s not my bread. I’ve got my bread right here!”

Not the best analogy. Here’s another:

The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned [from Crete] had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same. (from Wikipedia (

So the Lutherans had their ship and the next generation repaired a few boards, here and there, and so forth, each generation replacing a board. Some had to use temporary boards that made an approximate fit, hoping the next generation would remember to find the correct board. Still others found a shorter mast might be more expedient under certain sailing conditions and made adjustments. That generation sailed to other waters and found the holds too small and enlarged them slightly. One generation realized depending on the wind was foolish, and added some diesel engines to make it through the doldrums. Are we sailing the same ship?

I think I know the answer. You may too. Here’s a quote from Luther’s Works:

Thereupon the priest reads a collect in monotone on F-fa-ut,

Almighty God, who art the protector of all who trust in thee, without whose grace no one is able to do anything, or to stand before thee: Grant us richly thy mercy, that by thy holy inspiration we may think what is right and by thy power may perform the same; for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Thereafter the Epistle in the Eighth Tone, and let him for the reciting note remain on the same pitch as the collect. The rules for it are these:

Period is the end of a sentence.

Colon is a part of a sentence.

Comma is a subdivision within the colon.

Rules for this chant

Luther, M. 1999, c1965. Vol. 53: Luther’s works, vol. 53 : Liturgy and Hymns (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther’s Works. Fortress Press: Philadelphia

Chanting the Collect? That is bad enough. Chanting the Epistle?? How can that be Lutheran?

Obviously I am not speaking here about the wrong style of vestment, or the deplorable architectural foolishness wherein the “altar rails” stick out into the nave; nor “women’s voting,” modern VBS programs, or “singing new hymns.” This brief quote, from what is often considered Luther’s more “low-church” worship service says plenty. Nevermind the implied activity for the average parish priest according to Luther: he is to pray Matins and Vespers every day, preparing the chants, the homily (or finding one to read). He writes,

Let the chants in the Sunday masses and Vespers be retained; they are quite good and are taken from Scripture. However, one may lessen or increase their number. But to select the chants and Psalms for the daily morning and evening service shall be the duty of the pastor and preacher. For every morning he shall appoint a fitting responsory or antiphon with a collect, likewise for the evening; this is to be read and chanted publicly after the lesson and exposition.

Luther, M. 1999, c1965. Vol. 53: Luther’s works, vol. 53 : Liturgy and Hymns (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther’s Works. Fortress Press: Philadelphia

We are aboard Thesus’ Ship, and there are few schematics, and those are often misread.

But is it so bad? Or should we wander off, looking for a “more pure” or at least more original Lutheran Church? I don’t think those exist, and creating one is simply schismatic.

Should we ignore such discussion and claim that all these things were barnacles of catholicism that we have been slowly scraping off our hull and are the stronger for it?

Should we systematically re-introduce the bits of breadcrumbs and original rigging of the once-Lutheran Church? This is the call semper reformanda (”continual reformation”) that you hear, that pastors at the Seminaries hear continually. That is the cry of Confessionals all the time: “Educate your people! Teach them the truth!” (What a liberal sentiment, that if only we can educate people enough they will do the right thing and be on the straight and narrow.)

Here is where I fail you, dear friends. I have no answer to give…not here and not now. There are some voices calling for such a better Lutheran Synod. Some advocate staying and fighting, er, teaching for the true Lutheran way. Some are content with regaining the last 50 years of Lutheran practice, never mind the other 450. Some recognize the change and development of the Lutheran church since the Reformation in a positive manner.

Some who have written on this theme (all more eloquently than I…but remember, this is draft 1) have jumped ship. Others have grown tired and given up. Some just fade away, like The Rolling Stones. Others continue the fight, and fight with those alongside them.

I don’t have the answer. Perhaps I’m Chicken Little or jousting at windmills.