Ceremonial: Real Growth Comes Only By Inches

Concerning ceremony in the service—the sign of the cross, kneeling, censing, and the like—how does one keep these things from calling attention to one’s self rather than to the gospel? When the servants of the liturgy come out into the chancel, they kneel at the prayer desk. With that they are drawing people into what they’re to be there for. If they came out and prostrated themselves in front of the altar, that would say something good and true and honoring God, but the rest of us would have forgotten what we were there for and would say “Well, why on earth is he doing that?” or “That’s a bit much, isn’t it?”

Growth comes by inches. You need to recognize that we are within “the mutual conversation of the brethren” [SA III, IV]. We live within this tradition, and with its treasures we are then equipped for helping one another to recognize what is growing and what is in the way of the gospel. So, when we go into chapel and there are some who recall their baptisms with the sign of the cross as the Small Catechism bids us to, and some don’t, and some sit and pray and some kneel and pray—that’s something to be rejoicing about!

That’s the extraordinary thing about the way the apostle deals with those who are so hip off into tongues. He doesn’t stand at the door and frisk the tongues out of them. He sort of lets them go on having tongues in the liturgy. He doesn’t knock tongues. He just feeds them more Jesus. The more Jesus goes in, the more the tongues get pushed to the fringe. And he indicates that priority by putting tongues at the bottom of the list [1 Cor 12:20]. He doesn’t slice them off, but there is a direction there.

And so, when you come to a congregation whose liturgical life—that is, the way in which they have been given the gifts of our Lord and the means of grace—has been pretty impoverished, you don’t come out and say, “Hey, we got to do something about this liturgy!” You first of all preach a few years of Jesus into them, and then they come to know what they’re there for and that he always has more to be giving them.

The legalism which I spoke of is our greatest danger. It is indicated when people “come on strong” with doing this or that as a great, big liturgical advance. But the gospel works by way of drawing people into the liturgy so that they say, “Wow, isn’t this great! More than I ever suspected!” Real growth comes only by inches.

And so when we go into chapel, and there’s a great hubbub of chatter, I have sometimes felt like arising and saying, “Shut up, you lot! Don’t you know what we’re here for?” We may serve our brethren better if we are at our prayers, and by them, invite and draw and pull others into the quietness coram Deo. That is the appropriate way of being before the Lord and his having his say.

Dr. Norman Nagel, “Whose Liturgy Is It?” Logia, April, 1993

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