27 May 2009

Gesture in Worship

There's a rather disappointing discussion going on on a liturgy list I'm part of about the sign of the cross. But the discussion did get me thinking about gesture in worship. The most neglected part of thinking about gesture is recognizing that everything we DO confesses SOMETHING about what we BELIEVE. I know I may be a bit of kook on these matters, so take it for what it's worth...

Whenever I approach the altar or cross the midst of it, I will stop and bow to reverence the altar. Why? Because this is the table from which my Savior feeds me His own body and blood for my salvation. I never want to take that gift for granted.

At the invocation, benediction, and at several others spots in the Divine Service I cross myself. Why? Because I belong to the Crucified and need to remind myself of it constantly: every good in the world is wrapped up in the Crucified and Risen Lord and He has marked as His own with the cross.

At the reading of the Gospel - we almost always read this in the midst of the congregation confessing that Christ Himself is among us and speaking to us through these words. Before reading His holy words, I sign myself with the cross upon forehead, mouth and heart asking Christ to be in my mind, on my mouth, and in heart as I read to His people His holy words. When the Gospel reading is over, I lift the book above my head and announce "This is the Gospel of the Lord" - so that all can see it, and then I kiss the Gospel reading and close the book and it is returned to the lectern. Why kiss it? Because I love the Lord's words and am grateful for them - by them we live in hope and through them we can die in confidence. There are no words on earth so precious! I kiss what I love. It just seems natural.

At the intercessions, I raise empty hands to heaven, for we come before God always as beggars, as those seeking from Him His mercy for our needs and for the needs of the whole Church and indeed the whole world.

During the consecration, I elevate the host so that the people can see it. It is a visual proclamation as Dr. Luther described in German Mass. Then I genuflect before the One who has sacramentally united His crucified and risen body to that host, for "every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord." Similarly with the chalice.

These gestures - every one of them - fall within the category of adiaphora. I am not suggesting that everyone should do as I do. I am suggesting that everything we DO do in the Divine Service confesses SOMETHING. And most of it isn't rocket science. If you just stop and ask yourself: what does kneeling down before the Sacrament confess, it becomes pretty clear, doesn't it? Lutherans should never get their knickers in knots over such things; they are free. Free to be used. Free not to be used. But Lutherans should always press deeper and ask themselves: what do my gestures confess, for they surely confess something.

[Pics showing some of the ceremonies we observe here provided by Jen - many thanks!]


X said...

Aw crud. No wonder you asked about the photos. I'll try to edit them up really quick.

Scott Diekmann said...

You may be a bit of a kook on some matters Pastor Weedon, lawnmowers maybe, but not on churchly things. It is as you say. What we do confesses what we believe.

William Weedon said...


You are very kind....but wrong about lawn-mowers. Actually, I can't get my reel mower to work like it did last year. Not sure what the problem is.

Dan @ Necessary Roughness said...

Good post.

I'm afraid even the LCMS brand loyalists have lost enough tradition that they need to be taught things like the sign of the cross, elevation of the body, etc.

It's really important that we present such traditions as a "get to" that offers opportunities to teach, rather than as a "need to" or "have to" because...because that sounds like a law quid pro quo.

Was that understandable? :)

William Weedon said...

Yup, Dan. And vital. An adiaphora that is made a must (and so of the law) is poisoned at its root and begins to be a FALSE confession.

Phil said...

Pr. McCain posed the question elsewhere: What ceremonies are of the essence of the Gospel?

While Pr. Stuckwisch answered that the Sacraments are such ceremonies, I wonder whether it would also be worthwhile to ask: What ceremonies have the Gospel as their essence?

William Weedon said...

The elevation is a good example of a ceremony that can be variously interpreted. In Lutheran use, wherever it survived among us, it was always seeking to confess the Gospel words: "FOR YOU!" That's why it is lifted high. "This is what He gave for you! For the forgiveness of your sins!"

Sadly, where it is interpreted to mean, "this we offer" it misses the boat. The offering He made once and for all upon Calvary but the benefit of that offering is exactly what He now reaches us to seal that offering as ours.

Hence, I'd argue, that the elevation - properly taught - has the Gospel as its essence; improperly taught it contravenes the Gospel.

Phil said...

So, on the one hand, gesture-ceremonies or visible-ceremonies are by nature vague. They are powerful and suggestive yet imprecise, and can be understood differently by different people, as your example of the Elevation shows.

On the other hand, there is some sort of objective content to a gesture-ceremony or a visible-ceremony. If you observe the Elevation, it says something. If you do not observe the Elevation, it says something different (Stuckwisch).

Needless to say, there is a tension here between objective or essential content on the one hand and contextual or teaching-driven content on the other hand.

Any insight into this tension, Pastor?

Unknown said...

These kinds of gestures help all of us, but especially those who do not have a mastery of the vernacular. I have a speech-challenged, adult nephew, and when we are at a church with lots of gestures, he really pays attention to what is going on! Another nephew (just three years old) asks great questions (quietly) when there is silence while the Lord's table is being set. He knows something special is going on by what is going on around him and not by what is being said.

Past Elder said...

Apparently my comment did not survive something -- the gist was, gestures are works, and Lutherans seem so afraid that works will become works-righteousness that they would rather not even talk about them let alone be seen doing them.

William Weedon said...


I think it is the case that certain gestures confess more clearly than others; but when explanation is added, ambiguity of confession is overcome. For example, to avoid ambiguity about the confession, in 17th century Brandenburg they added words to the gesture, something along the lines of: Behold, dear Christian, the body that was upon the cross for you. I personally think that just teaching now and again about what a given gesture is confessing accomplishes more in the long run than always adding explaining words. And most gesture tends to be rather self-evident.

Doug Minton said...

Pastor Weedon,

I too am rather disappointed and distraught over the liturgy discussion. I thank you for bringing more clarity to how our practice illustrates our doctrinal beliefs.

Chris Jones said...

I don't think that I agree with this statement:

These gestures - every one of them - fall within the category of adiaphora.... and I know that St Basil the Great doesn't agree with it. According to him, the neglect of liturgical practices given to us by tradition will "injure the Gospel in its vitals."

Truth be told, I am uncomfortable with the whole concept of adiaphora -- certainly with the way that it has worked out in the actual life of the Church. I understand the distinction between what is commanded or forbidden and what is left free; but in practice the notion of adiaphora has led to the rejection of much that is valuable and the overall impoverishment of the life of the Church. It has led, in fact, to "every man doing what is right in his own eyes."

Also, I am convinced that the scope of what is truly adiaphora in the life of the Church is quite a bit smaller than we usually suppose. I have been told that an adiaphoron is something which is neither commanded nor forbidden by Scripture. But is not stand fast and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle (2 Th 2.15) a command of Scripture? And if it is a command of Scripture, then the traditions which it commands us to hold to are not adiaphora. And is not obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves (Hb 13.17) a command of Scripture? And if it is a command of Scripture, then the decisions of those who are legitimately in authority, within the legitimate scope of that authority, are not adiaphora.

I fear that we have moved everything possible into the category of adiaphora, not out of a genuine respect for Christian freedom, but simply out of a desire to do everything our own way.

Chris said...

Careful, Fr. Weedon. With all these gestures and ceremonies, you may be labeled and hunted down as a "Romanizer". Beware! :)

William Weedon said...

Chris J.,

I certainly concur with your discomfort over how the category has come to be used - mostly to discard solid and beautiful aspects of Tradition. But the distinction is still important. I teach and encourage the use of signing one's self with the cross - I always have as a Lutheran pastor - but I never would wish to suggest to one of my members who still is uncomfortable with the practice that not doing so is sinful. It is nothing of the kind. It's in a different league, if you will, from a person who says: "I don't wish to be baptized; I'll just believe" or who says: "I don't need the Sacrament of the Eucharist; I have Jesus already in my heart."

Chris P.,

Too late... ;)

Rev. Paul T. McCain said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Past Elder said...

It has been my experience, coming from preconciliar Roman Catholicism into postconciliar RC then after 20 years of non-Chistian belief into Lutheran Christian belief first in WELS and now in LCMS that:

A difference in rite between us and the historic church of which we are a part is when some aspect of these man-made rites contradicts the Gospel. Otherwise, it is our intent to retain the ceremonies previously in use, with the clarity that these ceremonies are in no way acts of merit on our part.

Where the former is not the issue, the latter is a case not so much of what we do but why we do it. There are many good reasons for doing something, the command of God being one of them and the most important.

Yet some of us seem so afraid, as we are of works in general, that doing something for a good reason other than the command of God will lead to doing something as if it were the command of God that we effectively deny any reason but the command of God for doing something.

The command of God is not the only reason for doing something; it is the only reason for doing something that is divine. Luther and company seemed quite clear on that and Lutheranism has been struggling with it ever since.

Rev. Paul T. McCain said...

Excellent post, unlike some I've read recently elsewhere.

Pr. Weedon takes an approach to all these issues that is refreshingly Gospel-centered, positive and encouraging.

He has been serving this congregation, faithfully, for many years and so has been able to bring these practices into his parish through his ministry.

There is, of course, a key difference between the question: "What ceremonies are of the essence of the Gospel?" and "What ceremonies have the Gospel as their essence?"

Those rites and ceremonies instituted by men, and this would include, any physical gesturing, or rubric, or particularly liturgical practice, that do NOT have the Gospel as their essence, are dumped, pitched, scrapped.

This is the nature of Luther's conservative Reformation of the Church.

Matthias Flacius said...

Well, I read through the discussions to which you referred. Actually I thought it was a good discussion overall. At my congregation we follow the historic liturgies in the LSB. The pastors don't always chant (there's always someone who complains when they do and I complain when they don't). We still have plastic cups and the chalice (Some people simply cannot handle the common cup yet including my wife). The pastors never genuflect during the consecration (some people would completely freak out if that was done...I would rejoice.) Our sanctuary still looks too generically Protestant, in that there are no crucifixes or pious images. I would love that to change.

However, considering that 4 of the 8 LC-MS congregations in my area don't use the hymnal and have rock-n-roll bands I can live with that.

Most importantly, my pastors rightly divide the Word of truth through preaching a proper distinction of Law and Gospel.

Matt P.

Phil said...

Pr. McCain,

I thought it was that the things which warred against the Gospel that were scrapped, while the Reformed were the ones who omitted everything unless it was explicitly mandated.

I read Dr. Veith's book State of the Arts earlier this year. I don't know if you have, but he talks in it about the significance of the artistic design of the Temple, including the twin columns Jakin and Boaz, which were made for the sake of beauty.

If they were abstract items, in what way do they proclaim the Gospel? Would the criterion you gave above require us to tear down every Jakin and Boaz?

On my bad days, I worry that Lutherans are liturgical minimalists.

Rev. Paul T. McCain said...

Phil, any ceremony that did not have the Gospel as its essence/point/purpose was scrapped.

The Reformed scrapped anything that was not explicitly "commanded" [as they defined that].

Key distinction.

Phil said...

What about beauty for its own sake? Can "ceremonies"--I'm talking about gestures, posture, physical arrangement of liturgical ministers and assistants, vestments and their decorations, the church building and its appointments, and so on--be retained simply for the reason that they are beautiful?

Why did God have Bezalel build Jakin and Boaz, items of abstract beauty that were part of the liturgical surroundings or "ceremonies"?

William Weedon said...

Not beauty for its own sake; rather, beauty because of love. Because you love the people you're inviting over to dinner you do the unnecessary bit of making the table beautiful with flowers and candles and a special tablecloth and maybe special flatware and dishes. Because you love the people, you present the food in a beautiful manner as well. Beauty, yes, by all means. But not for itself. Beauty is a by-product of seeking to love. Let us focus on love - on loving Him who comes to serve us, on loving those He comes to serve - and beauty will follow in love's train.

Phil said...

I guess I'm just trying to see if there's room for actions, artistic elements, traditional ceremonies, and so forth that are somehow initiated and animated by the Gospel and its fruits but do not contain the absolute entirety of the Gospel in an explicit form.

I would think that practices like the Elevation would fall under this, as well as using silk rose vestments instead of burlap sacks (either will do the trick from a utilitarian standpoint!), harmonies and melodies, organ preludes, genuflexion and prostrations, and so on.

Rev. Paul T. McCain said...

Phil, ars gratis artis, no, not quite. The Gospel is beauty. As we read in the Treasury of Daily Prayer, the other day [50% sale on Treasury ends on Sunday!!!]:

"What the Gospels say is to be regarded in the light of promises of good things. And we must say that the good things the apostles announce in the Gospel are simply Jesus." -Origen

All we do in church must, as God's Word reveals, be done decently and in good order, and in order to let the Word of Christ dwell among us richly. That's the Gospel.

Simply put, just because something might be pretty does not necessarily mean it serves the Gospel.

For instance, there are beautiful reliquaries in Roman parishes, but they do not serve the Gospel. They were therefore set aside in the Reformation.

Whatever we do should be done, in word or deed, to the glory of God, for the sake of the Gospel, to serve it and advance it, and teach it. And in so doing, there is where true beauty is to be found.

I would say that no matter how pretty a liturgy is, if it is done in the context of false doctrine, the beauty is of no value or merit.

On the other hand, a Eucharist conducted in the most remote and primitive of conditions is beautiful beyond descriptions.

We must never allow aesthetics to be confused with right worship, or, ortho-doxy.

As for beauty and how it can, and does, serve the Gospel. I would simply point to the work of J.S. Bach or Lucas Cranach.


Rev. Paul T. McCain said...

Nuts. Make that:

ars gratia artis

Phil said...

Rev. McCain,

I appreciate your comments, but I don't think you've understood my question. If you look back, I never claimed that beauty was a sufficient justification for a church practice. I didn't even say anything about it trumping false doctrine, and I already know that we need to be on guard against false doctrine.

The question that I posed twice already about the two columns in the Temple may be a little ambiguous, so let me flesh it out:

Objects in church usage which are of abstract beauty in themselves but which are, in fact, a product and a natural outpouring of the love (Weedon) given by the Gospel (McCain) existed in the Temple (Veith); God commanded them. I would argue that these things (including beautiful vestments, architecture, music, and so forth) can exist as elements in the church's usage without themselves being a complete, explicit exposition of the Gospel. I would submit a Bach organ fugue (no words, no chorale melodies, only abstract beauty) as an example. Should we eliminate Bach organ fugues on the grounds that they inadequately confess the Gospel? You can apply the same arguments to architectural adornment, elaborate vestments, and ornate processions.

Finally, one question asked in complete sincerity and lack of knowledge, free from snark:

Were the reliquaries set aside only after years or decades of patient catechesis?

Rev. Paul T. McCain said...


I'm not tracking your questions anymore. I honestly don't see what, in my comments, you find at all troublesome or problematic. Nobody, to my knowledge, has suggested we should not use beautiful ceremonies, rites and rituals. But to do so without a clear understanding of why we are doing what we are doing, or to do them only because they are "pretty" is the problem.

And, again, the most beautiful ceremony can be simply false doctrine, and so we don't do it. The papal ceremonies, or "foolish spectacles" as they are called in our Confessions may well be quite lovely, but that no reason to keep them or use them.

Were the reliquaries set aside only after years or decades of patient catechesis?Yes, in fact, they were removed only slowly. But finally were gotten rid of. Similarly, Luther did not end the sacrifice of the Mass [the greatest abomination, as it is described, in the Lutheran Confessions].

The hallmark of the conservative Reformation is a genuine evangelical approach. Teaching, not iconoclasm. And, of course, that works both ways. No matter how well intentioned the desire of a pastor to institute changes in his parish, he does well to lead the sheep through patient, loving teaching and instruction.

Rev. Paul T. McCain said...

Note: left out....

Luther did not remove the Latin Mass until plenty of instruction and pastoral care. He did not rush in and institute change without a great deal of instruction and teaching.

This approach is contrary to that being advocated on some blogs that deal with Gottesdienst issues.

William Weedon said...

Note: Luther never removed the Latin Mass.

Rev. Thomas C. Messer, SSP said...


I'm curious as to how you would respond to the very real issue we parish pastors face today, namely that a great many people do not make themselves available to be patiently and lovingly catechized.

Your advice is the same advice I was given by just about every seminary professor: "Catechesis is the key! Teach your people! Teach your people!" That's great advice, except for the fact that you can't teach people who refuse to be taught.

And, I say this as a pastor who is blessed to have a larger percentage in adult Bible Study than what seems to be the average. I regularly have about 50% of the adults who attend Service stay for Study. Those people want to learn. They're easy to teach. But, what of the rest? Some can't stay for various reasons and that's understandable, but some just flat out refuse to learn anything.

So, what's your sage advice in this arena? Must we parish pastors wait until everyone in the parish is catechized (which would be NEVER) before we make ceremonial changes?

I guess what I'm saying is that you speak as though we parish pastors live in some ideal situation where everyone in the parish is eager to learn and we just don't feel like teaching them. We just go ahead and make changes and never say a word about what we're doing. That's just not the reality, Paul. The reality is that we live in a day and age when few Christians take their faith seriously and actually desire to be catechized. It doesn't seem to me that, in the various discussions you've been involved in regarding this issue, you're taking that little nugget of truth into consideration.

Just an observation you might want to actually consider before offering up advice that is only useful in a perfect world, which doesn't exist this side of heaven.

Phil said...

Rev. McCain,

Not sure if you've already left.

I didn't really find your comments troublesome or problematic. I was just asking questions to try to gain a deeper understanding of the liturgy, in the absence of peers to discuss these things with.

I hope that you don't think that everyone who posts comments online is trying to start an argument with you. Some are just trying to think about things.


Rev. Paul T. McCain said...

Phil, I think if you review the conversation, I've responded to your queries and questions. If you would like to ask me more, feel free to drop me a line at paul.mccain@cph.org I don't check comment threads much past a day or two, so that might be a better way to pursue this, if you wish.

Tom, I'm not aware that pastors were ever supposed to stop teaching. If you take the advice of those advising you to "just do it" is bad advice. I hope you don't take it.

Again, I find Luther's actions instructive. He did not simply dump things in the Wittenberg congregations. He patiently worked for change. That can be hard. That is frustrating. It is not easy. I'm not aware of however of a better way.

"Go therefore and teach ..." and " ... apt to teach."

Pastor Weedon is a very good model of pastoral care and teaching. He did not simply institute all these things overnight. He garnered trust. He worked patiently. He has taught lovingly.

That's the ticket.

Rev. Thomas C. Messer, SSP said...


You totally missed the point of my post.

I didn't say that there was a time for a pastor to stop teaching. That would be quite absurd.

Nor did I mention anything about taking anyone's advice to "just do it." No one is advising *me* to just do anything.

Maybe you ought to re-read my post, and respond to what I actually said. Or, not. Whatever.

In any event, you'll get no argument from me about Pr. Weedon being a very good model of pastoral care and teaching. I could not agree with that more!

Rev. Paul T. McCain said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rev. Paul T. McCain said...

Tom, the point of your post was made quite clear in the last couple of sentences, which I chose to ignore the first time. When, or if, you are sincerely interested in asking my opinion about something,I'll be happy to hear from you. You have my e-mail address.

Anonymous said...

Pastor Weedon,
I noticed your elevation was toward the altar. Didn't Luther teach an elevation toward the congregation? I think it was to show the body and blood were God's gifts to his people. Or do you do both?
Ron Jung

Pedro said...

Hey pastor Weedon. This is a very interesting topic I’ve been thinking about. I know brothers in the Eastern traditions kiss icons and the Gospel book. Of course, they also bow to these as well.
As a fairly new Lutheran who is obsessed with liturgy, I still think we need to be careful here. Where do you think the line is with things such as gestures? For instance, when it comes to genuflecting, I never see it as genuflecting to the crucifix itself, rather that the image focuses our worship, whereas we’re bowing to God alone “in Spirit.”
For some reason, I an more comfortable with the practice of kissing the Bible than kissing an icon or image, and to be honest I admit this may be an arbitrary distinction. What you think?
Also, you think “doulia” vs “latria” is a fair distinction? If so how do we define the difference based on Scripture?

William Weedon said...


The key to any of it is to remember “the honor given to the type passes to the prototype” which means, of course, we’re not honoring wood or paint or paper and ink, but rather honoring Him who is depicted on the wood, in the paint, and who speaks from the book. We reverence the cross when it passes down the aisle as a way of honoring Christ. None of us is in any danger of mistaking the cross for the Crucified. Which is to say, yes, doulia and latria offers a fine distinction. Think even of the fourth commandment: we give honor to our parents at God’s command and so we “honor a certain divine majesty hidden in them” (Luther). It’s because moms and dads are God’s idea! And this honor certainly is not just of the heart, but extends to the outward behavior we show toward them. We do not “worship” them, but we do “honor” them. I think in the same way, we “honor” the cross, the Gospels, the altar, etc. Hope that’s of help.

Pedro said...

Ah pastor, sorry to keep this topic going, but I thought of another question for you: I'm assuming that through all of this we as lutherans would still make a distinction of the kind of gesture (reverence, honor, etc) shown to different depictions? For instance, in the East they would kiss an icon of the Lord and every other saint. They do this because they believe in venerating the saint depicted in the image. But, we as Lutherans, confessing Soli Deo Gloria, would, accepting the practice of venerating icons, would only venerate icons of the Christ (the image of the incarnate God)?

William Weedon said...

If a kiss is just a gesture of love, well, we love the saints as being icons to us of God’s grace and mercy. You probably kiss your mom and your dad because you love them. The key is that we do not give divine worship (latria) to any but to the Triune God. By the way, for Lutherans that *includes* the worship of invocation. “Call upon me in the day of trouble and *I* will deliver you and you shall glorify *ME*”. But most Lutherans don’t overthink this area, and I dare say the most common practice is not give any special honor at all, either to the cross or to any image of our Lord or of another saint. What MAY be done is not the same thing at all as holding it MUST be done (or MUST NOT be done).

Pedro said...

Thank you for your continued response. I appreciate it.
If I may ask another, more broad question, I guess I'm struggling if there is a substantive difference between the Lutheran and Eastern views of Nicaea 2? If we both essentially accept the prototype theology and the doulia/latria distinction, then what does "soli Deo gloria" actually mean?

If I had to guess based on what I know, I think we lutherans would say it's a heart-issue and can't necessarily be denoted by expressed theology and practice. How do we know if someone is trusting in God and shows respect to a crucifix or image, etc., while in their heart not trusting in the material itself, as opposed to someone who genuinely believes they become sanctified or are healed by touching the image itself?
Are there any gestures of honor that would go too far for you? I mean, clearly in scripture, we have some examples right? Like St. John bowing to the Angel in Revelations or the burning of incense to anything except in the presence of God in the Temple (I'm thinking of the Bronze Snake in Kings or the Queen of Heaven in Jeremiah)

(This also reminds me of CS Lewis' Screwtape Letters where "Wormwood" instructs his nephew to persuade the "patient" that his God is indeed contained in the Crucifix on the wall and the picture on the table.)

God bless you Father Will! For taking my many questions haha. Pax Christi !

William Weedon said...

Pedro, see if you can get hold of Luther’s work Against the Heavenly Prophets and on Images. He really delves deeply into this.